Losing Trust in Higher Education

“Universities for a very long time have been based on trust.” So said the provost of the University of North Carolina, commenting on a report that a course taken mostly by intercollegiate athletes had never actually met. Dozens of other courses may have been similarly fraudulent, and a criminal investigation has been launched. 

“One of the ramifications of this,” the provost went on to tell the New York Times, “is that now we can no longer operate on trust.”

That prediction applies not just to UNC, and it is a scary prospect. The entire higher education “system” operates on trust, and the public has been finding more and more reasons to be mistrustful. 

The scare quotes around the word “system” are there for a reason: there is no higher education system, any more than there is a vehicle system—there are cars and trucks and bikes and motorbikes, built by competing companies to address different markets, among which consumers may move. 

Similarly, students confront an array of institutions: community colleges, research universities, for-profit online universities, and so on. Also in the mix are the accrediting agencies that are supposed to provide minimal quality guarantees, but quite aside from questions about the effectiveness of those agencies, it is hard to say what accreditation should mean. 

At the other end of the granularity scale, the individual student wandering into a class has little idea, and no reliable expectation, of how she will be taught or what she will learn. Official and unofficial course evaluation guides may help students gauge courses’ entertainment value or workload, but they can be worse than useless in helping students judge a course’s contribution to learning, presumably the reason students came to college.

Higher education, like K-12, has recently been called on to measure outcomes, but it is hard to be confident that the things that can be measured are much related to the real purposes. So it is still the case that most of the time, everybody is stuck trusting that the universities know what they are doing.

Derek Bok is a trustworthy man, and the calm, deliberate analysis in his masterpiece, Higher Education in America, should earn the respect and admiration of every fair-minded critic of universities and colleges. 

Full disclosure: I have been a professor at Harvard under both of Bok’s presidencies (1971–1991 and 2006–2007), and his signature is on the precious appointment letter that fails to mention an end date for my professorship. But my admiration is shared by many others nostalgic for Bok’s pre-social-media, pre-brand-promotion-and-protection leadership style: patient, thoughtful, informed, analytical, and, most of all, personally disinterested, honest and honorable, always about Harvard’s welfare and never his own.

There is far more in Higher Education in America than a short essay can cover, but I would like to focus on one crucial point raised in the book–the question of trust. Many colleges and universities are losing it because their leaders seem more interested in fame and fortune than in education.

This year the Brandeis campus was staggered by the news that its former president, having made drastic budget cuts while in office, was by prearrangement paid $600,000 a year in retirement, for doing little or no actual work. 

The University of Chicago, Northeastern, Marist College, Columbia, Tufts, and Penn, all institutions with their own financial challenges, paid their presidents more than $2 million per annum. Students would be justified in doubting that these leaders can credibly preach to them about the nobility of self-sacrifice, the honor of public service, or the need to balance the pursuit of the almighty dollar against their civic and moral responsibility to improve the world.

Against this background of rapidly rising presidential compensation packages, it is striking to remember that less than a decade ago, Bok came out of retirement to rescue his institution from the damage done by a disastrous successor, and then refused to be paid for doing the job. “I just didn’t need the money,” Bok explained—a rationale that stops few American leaders from accepting everything they think they’re worth.

Bok was a model for the behavior we hope our universities will inspire in their students. Happily, no Harvard president has made those best-paid lists, and President Drew Gilpin Faust pushed back against the gravy train she thought was taking too many Harvard graduates to Wall Street.  She may have muddied her message, however, when she accepted a side gig as director of an office supply company—following the example of Summers, who had been a consultant to a hedge fund while he was president.

It can be argued that large presidential salaries are worth it. After all, effective fund-raisers can bring in many multiples of their salaries. If a two-million-dollar president can raise a billion and a half-million-dollar president can raise only a hundred million, wouldn’t the extra salary bring an enviable 600-fold return on the investment? 

Not necessarily, because universities are not normal businesses. 

As Bok explained in a 2002 essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “[L]avish compensation can hurt a university by undermining the effectiveness of campus leadership…. A huge presidential salary tends to exacerbate tensions that too often exist between faculty and administration. Rather than helping presidents assume the role of primus inter pares, it makes them a breed apart.”

Wise as Bok was in getting these horses before their cart, he was only echoing what one of his predecessors, Charles William Eliot, had written a century before about how to get a good president. “He will not wish to receive a salary so high as to distinguish him widely from his colleagues the professors, except so far as the proper discharge of his functions involves him in expenditures from which they are exempt. He will want to work with a group of associates whose pecuniary recompense and prospects are not very unlike his own.”

The arrogance of power has brought down several high-profile presidents in recent years, presidents whose boldness was not backed up by the reserves of respect and trust they needed to be granted the benefit of the doubt. John Sexton of NYU, Graham Spanier of Penn State, Summers of Harvard, and serial president Gordon Gee come to mind as men whose abuses of power eventually caught up with them. 

And Rick Levin’s determination to launch a campus in Singapore, under the cloud of rumored financial conflicts and faculty intellectual misgivings, probably hastened his retirement as Yale’s president too. 

Professors who see their leaders becoming well-paid celebrities, with the support of the governing boards, may choose to switch rather than fight. There are no data on rock-star professors, and by no means are all of them negligent teachers or poor institutional citizens. But enough of them use their professorships largely for branding their outside activities that they, too, contribute to the fraying of the collegial fabric.

The erosion of trust in higher education, arguably well-deserved given such excesses, is not a small matter, because the pursuit of the truth is not a small matter. As Bok writes in his book (pp.356-57), “A democratic society badly needs credible, unbiased information from highly knowledgeable people in order to enlighten decision-makers and inform public debate. Thus, the country has much to lose if the objectivity of academic researchers can no longer be taken for granted.”

He was referring to the need for faculty to disclose their financial conflicts of interest more routinely than is current practice in most fields, but his point has much larger relevance. 

If the public comes to assume that colleges and universities are like any other businesses, to be suspected of ulterior motives in everything they and their members do, then support for their activities will collapse. The for-profits can provide job training, MOOCs can provide general education for the leisure class, and private industry and government labs can do the research if universities can’t be counted on to do it untainted by financial interests. 

Universities are about the pursuit of the truth, and only at their peril do they give up on Veritas to grab for some other brass ring.