In the 1880s, railroad magnate William Vanderbilt, when asked about possible negative public reaction to his company’s policy regarding express trains, purportedly said: “the public be damned.” If a recent survey of more than 2,700 respondents by a Massachusetts-based think tank (Populace) accurately reflects current public opinion, that is how the American people think colleges and universities regard the general public—people to fleece for resources but otherwise ignore.

More specifically, with findings similar to some other polling, more than half (52%) of those surveyed think higher education “is headed in the wrong direction.” Only a small minority (20%) think it “is headed in the right direction” (the remainder had no definite opinion.) More telling, when asked, “Whose interests do you think American colleges and universities are putting first today?” some two-thirds (67%) responded “their own institutional interests,” while a paltry 9% thought colleges put student interests first and even fewer, 4%, thought colleges attempted to serve “the greater good.” Is this why college enrollments have been falling for nine years?

If the survey is accurate, most people believe colleges are in the business of maximizing their personal welfare rather than the public good, thereby moving “in the wrong direction.” More troubling to me is that I think the public perception is pretty accurate. An old adage attributable to Abraham Lincoln comes to mind: “You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”

Universities might nominally be owned by some governmental or privately appointed governing board, but they are in fact controlled increasingly by bureaucracies with little accountability to anyone. University president and senior administrative pay has soared in the last generation, and the senior faculty have job security and light teaching loads so they can often write articles of trivial importance and near zero readership for the Journal of Last Resort. To be a successful president with a long tenure and high pay, previously you merely needed to give the alumni good athletic teams, the faculty job security and good parking, and the students low study obligations with lots of drinking and sex. Now, however, to keep the peace and demonstrate that they are sufficiently attuned to the dominant progressive ideas of the academy, presidents feel they must appease militant campus protesters, spending fortunes to meet their demands and turning a blind eye to such transgressions as harassing those with differing views, or damaging university property.

In short, university leaders have been obsessed with keeping their major internal constituencies reasonably happy at all costs, even though the interests of these constituencies are often radically at odds with the views of the people financing higher education: taxpayers, major donors, even to some extent the parents of students. Presidents have engaged in increasingly unbelievable obfuscatory rhetoric trying to placate four P’s: politicians, parents, philanthropists and the public. It is no longer working. Many persons would probably hesitate before buying a used car from a university president.

Now universities are in trouble. To win renewed public favor (and hence financial support), they need to pay far more attention to the external constituencies that provide their daily bread, and accept the fact that, borrowing from John Donne, they are not “an island entire of itself.” Changing one word in something Donne wrote nearly 400 years ago: “every university is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”

Specifically, what should universities start to do? They need to drastically cut costs and fees. Key to this is firing many expensive bureaucrats and consultants who neither teach nor do research: colleges should aim to nearly restore the ratio of teachers to “support staff” we had in 1975. They need to show strong support for intellectual diversity and free expression (instead of relentlessly promoting progressive thoughts that many writing checks to colleges do not like). They need to meet national economic needs instead of excessively promoting ideologically oriented dogma. They need to return to the basics: instructing students rigorously and seriously, preparing them for both a vocational future and responsible citizenship, while continuing to expand the frontiers of knowledge through high quality research.