As troubles multiply in the American academy, its denizens blame everyone but themselves. Birthrates are falling, leading (after an 18-year lag) to lower enrollments; state legislators are putting parochial self-interests ahead of investments in the future; restrictive national visa and immigration policies are hurting our international enrollments; federal research support is not growing rapidly as in such farsighted countries as China, etc. Rarely, perhaps never, however, do you hear a university president say, We have at least partly brought our problems on ourselves, and the declining public support for higher education correctly reflects that the public feels higher education has lost its way.
Here is another perspective, benefiting from the great work of Johns Hopkins political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg (The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of The All-Administrative University). For decades, the non-faculty staff of universities has grown dramatically faster than the faculty whose teaching and research are the core of what universities supposedly do. For at least 15 years (see my 2004 book Going Broke By Degree) I have noted the growing administrative bloat, but viewed it as an economic issueincreasing university costsnot recognizing another big problem, namely that bureaucratization has diluted the impact that the faculty has had in determining the direction that colleges and universities are moving. At many universities today, there are more non-instructional professional and administrative staffers than there are faculty, whereas 50 years ago, the ratio of faculty to administrators often approached two to one.
As Ginsberg and others note, the faculty are partly to blame. They dont want to spend time talking to students about which courses to take or what majors offer the best vocational prospects after graduation, so they happily leave that to student affairs or some other university bureaucracy. They dont want to teach a lot, and when they do teach they want to emphasize their personal scholarly interest. So implicitly a deal has been reached. We will give up power to run much of the university and let you hire armies of deanlets (Ginsbergs word) if you give us low teaching loads, decent salaries, good parking, and let us write obscure articles on obscure topics for even more obscure journals. We will finance all of this by raising tuition fees aggressively since the federal student loan program allows us to do so.
The newly empowered administrators care little about academic valuesfinding truth and beauty, discovering new things. They are interested in amassing power and promoting values that resonate with the largely progressive university community, trendy things like diversity and sustainability, thereby crowding out a focus on knowledge and learning.
All of this came home to me a few days ago when I received a little card from my universitys fundraising arm asking me to give to it on Giving Day, April 18. I was offered six choices. I could give because I care about sustainability, give because I care about community, give because I care about student support, give because I care about bobcat (school mascot) spirit, give because I care about diversity + inclusion. Lastly, and clearly least, I could give because I care about academic excellence.
The academic mission of the university is almost an afterthought in this appeal. Lowering the temperature on our planet by one-millionth of a degree by the year 2040 (the probable outcome of a successful campus sustainability effort) or the achievement of a politically more correct race and gender mix in our student body is, by the listing of priorities, more important than academic excellence. And promoting expanding the frontiers of knowledge through research does not even deserve a mention.
I expect such a fundraising effort, if done 40-50 years ago would, in addition to academic excellence, appeal for supporting athletics, student scholarship aid, and would have also called for supporting endowed professorships, more faculty research funds, greater library acquisitions, etc. The appeal would mostly be to support the academic mission of the university. My university is far from unique in this changing emphasis.
In my book Restoring the Promise (out May 1 from the Independent Institute), I detail how academic neglect has been accompanied by declining student learning and, perhaps more frightening, falling vocational advantages of a degree. Losing our way has cost universities and society dearly.