Whatever Happened to Higher Education?

Posted on August 16, 2013 by

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When I began my college education in 1974, my perception was that things were pretty simple.  You (the student) went to class, listened to your professor and took notes, did the assigned reading, studied for quizzes and exams and, Lord willing and you behaving properly, you graduated not only with a degree but with some useful knowledge.  College administrations also understood the role of the college.  Their job was to impart knowledge that would improve human flourishing at various levels. This task of course required a certain responsiveness to changing conditions and a willingness to innovate in programs and delivery.  Moreover colleges were more or less free to pursue these goals to meet student needs as well as the college’s vision of a truly educated person.

Over the course of the last forty years, actually beginning with the GI Bill earlier, things have changed significantly.  The causes are complex, partly cultural, partly political, partly legal.  And within those categories there is even more complexity. Whatever the causes, the results have been evident and measurable.

 Educational quality has measurably declined.  “Fluff” courses have proliferated.  No one agrees on what constitutes an educated person or a core curriculum to achieve that level of education.  Costs and tuition have risen dramatically and show no signs of even slowing down.  Bureaucratic ossification has stifled innovation.  Finally political correctness and a heavy dose of far or not-so-far left ideology have stunted or eliminated genuine seeking after truth.  And I haven’t even mentioned the strident marginalization of religious discourse on most campi. Even at most so-called Christian universities this is a problem of gargantuan significance.  Since this blog post can’t be too long, I will focus on just a few issues, namely the lack of innovation due to bureaucratic “hardening of the arteries.”

It is a poorly kept, though desired, secret that the number of new administrators at colleges and universities has far outstripped new faculty in recent years.  In some systems (e. g. the University of California system) the number of administrators actually outnumbers faculty.  My own small university has witnessed a large relative increase itself.  But the numbers, apart from the significant added costs, tell only part of the story.  Why have the numbers increased and what has been the result for academics–ostensibly the central goal of a university?

In large part the number of new administrators has been caused by both fear and competition, both of which have been driven largely by government.  What do universities fear?  Simple answer:  loss of accreditation and/or government intervention in direct ways such as threats to withhold approval of student loans, lawsuits or edicts from the Federal government, and bad public relations from any “scandals,” real or imagined.  As a result of these fears, presidents and boards of trustees will go to almost any length to minimize any perceived problem.  But in their minds, this means “management” or oversight.  And that requires more and more new administrators to oversee more offices established to minimize their fears.  These new bureaucrats are always on the lookout for anything that might possibly lead to trouble.  In some cases it means going along with whatever the government orders.  For example, the Federal government mandates that all employers, including universities, offer and pay partially for insurance coverage that includes abortifacients.  The Christian university officers say, privately, “we can’t ignore this rule and we can’t challenge it.  We will avert our eyes and go along to avoid trouble, even though such a capitulation may well violate fundamental Christian ethical principles.”  Another example, does the Office of Civil Rights mandate that the standard for proving sexual harassment be lowered from beyond a reasonable doubt to preponderance of the evidence?  Just play along, even though the standard itself means that someone may now claim and prove harassment merely for a subjectively perceived offense, even for disagreeing with another’s lifestyle.  Fear is a powerful motivator for anyone and when big money is at stake fear multiplies.

In an atmosphere of fear innovation suffers.  In an atmosphere of fear costs increase as resources are increasingly diverted from educational purposes even to the most statistically improbable possible events.  In an atmosphere of fear intellectual exchange is stifled.  It can be stifled from the Left sometimes, but more often it is those on the Right (politically and theologically) who end up being muzzled.  

Oddly, competition may actually also stifle innovation.  This is not normal competition, but competition for student dollars and specifically dollars from student loan funds.  This issue is also related to accreditation.  Accrediting agencies have great power simply because they determine whether a student desiring to attend a university will be approved for a loan based on the accreditation status of that university.  Though there is little connection between accreditation and educational quality, the system has persisted and grown over time.  It is mainly based on inputs (e. g., number of books in a library) rather than output (student competence) and it operates by approving an entire university rather than individual course output.  

The result of the accreditation system is that universities have an incentive to do nearly anything first to get and keep accreditation and then to get and keep students in as large numbers as possible.  If the accreditors say “jump” administrators respond “how high.”  Regardless of the usefulness of accrediting requirements the university will undertake huge cost and time commitments to satisfy the accrediting agency and to avoid crossing it.  So of course all is driven largely by accreditation, not by careful thought about educational outcomes for real students.  And it costs because new administrators must be hired to deal with it.  Not only that, but once accredited, the rush for dollars begins, producing large and on-going tuition increases simply because officials know they can charge more for what appears to the student to be less expensive (due to the loan) or even free (for a loan covering the complete tuition amount).  Students don’t “notice” until after they graduate and colleges have more money to pay more administrators.  

One further related occurrence.  It seems that in America we have seen a major move toward greater centralization in college administration.  I call it the bureaucratization of college governance.  This too is due partly to fear and partly to a desire for increased efficiency.  The fear factor arises when administrators become “paranoid” regarding what their underlings might do without their direct knowledge.  When so much is perceived to be at stake, control becomes the prime directive.  And of course those at the top also want to get things done with minimum friction.  So organizational charts look more hierarchical and also larger, with chain of command given greater emphasis and informal decision-making less.  This may not be inherently bad, but it can become stifling to innovation as subordinates fear taking independent, entrepreneurial actions and superiors discouraging innovation as too risky.  In addition, the entire organization may become incapable of responding to changing conditions.  Such ossification will in the long run make the university a less hospitable environment for genuinely innovative thought and practice that could improve educational quality.  The approach reduces simply to toeing the line and going along to avoid trouble.  Vision fails, routine prevails, and rather mediocre routine at that.

I did not intend this blog as a diatribe against higher education.  The United States still leads much of the world and American Christian higher education clearly seems to be the leader by a long shot.  But how long will that continue?  I see many problems even besides those addressed here.  I have only scratched the surface.  

Moreover I have no doubt overgeneralized to make my point.  My intent is not to tar every college with the same brush.  Rather my intent is to stimulate further discussion.  I believe my colleagues on this blog will continue this beginning dialogue by expounding on other related educational matters in the near future.  As I close, let me add that my belief is that for the Christian college or university, my greatest concern is secularization drift, so prevalent among Christian schools (see the work of both George Marsden and James Burtcheall).  I intend to pursue this topic further and to propose some solutions.

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