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Climbing Up the Learning Curve

My three years of probing into the state of higher education result in bemusement, irritation, and then insight.

By Jane S. Shaw

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September 06, 2009

When I joined the Pope Center three years ago, I thought I knew a fair bit about higher education. In addition to reading extensively in preparation for the job, I’d spent more than twenty years as an editor working with academic scholars—and, indeed, I am married to an emeritus professor and former department head.

I knew about the problems facing academia. They include rising costs (always above inflation, even in this recession), leftwing ideologies (see more below), slipping academic standards (at UNC-Chapel Hill, for example, over 80 percent of the grades are As or Bs) and the loss of a common curriculum (a watchdog group rated 20 out of 100 schools with an “F” for failing to provide one).

The Pope Center’s goal is to help correct these and other flaws. But to be effective I had to expand my knowledge of colleges and universities. I’d like to share with you some of the things I learned, both good and bad.


  • My first discovery: Many academics have a lot of time on their hands. Surely that is the explanation for why the leading news journals for higher education, the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed, publish lengthy commentary, analysis, and, well, chit-chat. Their faculty-authored essays range from the arcane (“Empathy in the Virtual World”) to the popular (“Why We Love ‘Mad Men’”). For people in the “real world,”—and indeed for the most productive academics—time to write such commentary is hard to come by.

  • People in academia (including administrators) can be rather nasty. Look at the comments published in Inside Higher Ed, starting with my first editorial foray there. My 2007 article defending regional accreditors against further government intrusion may have had a touch of naiveté, but it certainly wasn’t “strewn with factual errors” as one commentator blithely claimed. I had expected more decorum from academics.

  • When aroused, faculty respond like Furies. My first experience occurred close to home, at North Carolina State University. In late 2006, a group of humanities faculty heard that a dean was interested in obtaining a grant from the Pope Foundation (not the Pope Center). Because the Pope Foundation is considered a conservative organization, leftwing activist faculty abhorred the thought. (They probably also sensed that they were unlikely to be recipients.) The virulent reaction by this small group of faculty killed the idea before it took root.

  • Just as that furor died down, a faculty protest erupted at a small school in New York state, Hamilton College. An alumnus tried to donate $3.6 million to build a center for the study of Western civilization. Once an angry wing of the faculty spoke up (even though, of course, the center would have been headed by a faculty member), the school rejected it.

    The list continues. Donors tried to start an Academy on Capitalism and Limited Government at the University of Illinois (it was massacred). Even the University of Chicago was attacked from within for proposing an institute named for Milton Friedman. And the New York Times’ mere mention of a center for Western civilization at the University of Texas at Austin galvanized faculty to destroy it. So much for academic freedom.

  • And then there’s tenure. Tenure is hard for us normal “working stiffs” (that is, the public) to understand. Barring extreme dereliction of duty, tenure gives faculty members job security for life. This security is costly to universities and creates disincentives for productivity, so administrations (especially public ones) are slowly cutting it (in some cases picking up the slack by piling on administrative jobs). But that leaves a privileged, tenured elite at the top of the faculty pyramid.

  • Just how cushy the life of the elite faculty can be was revealed at N.C. State this year. It was bad enough that the chancellor and provost had agreed to short-circuit normal channels to hire the wife of North Carolina’s governor and later to pay her lavishly. The arrangement (when revealed) led to their resignations. But the real public outrage occurred when the perquisites associated with the two administrators’ “retreat rights” became known. The chancellor was given a six-month leave at his full pay of $420,000—to prepare for the teaching job to which he would retreat, which initially was going to earn him $252,000. The provost’s initial deal was even more generous. (Both were rescinded after heavy publicity.)

Such tales of real academic life notwithstanding, I’ve learned positive things, too, about higher education. The heart of a university is its teaching faculty, and I have met wonderful teachers. Not only does the Pope Center honor North Carolina professors with our Spirit of Inquiry Award, but I discovered a national organization composed of faculty who teach classic texts—and who love doing it. Those members of the Association of Core Texts and Courses are rescuing at least some students from ignorance of the world’s intellectual heritage.

Great teachers, yes. Great pupils? Yes and no. Fewer and fewer students read books. Revved up by instant and easy electronic communication, free to select the easiest courses, and increasingly interested in preparing for jobs, many students can’t or won’t settle down and take the time to get into an author’s mind, which is required when you read a book more difficult than one by John Grisham. As Tom Bertonneau reported in a three-part series, a lot of students live in a post-literate era.

In addition to finding great teachers, I also finally “got understanding,” as Solomon advises in Proverbs. I learned some important factors that help explain why academia differs from “real life.” About a year after I joined the Pope Center, I read a book by Robert E. Martin, emeritus economist at Centre College. In subsequent discussions and, ultimately through a brilliant paper he wrote for the Pope Center, I came to understand the incentives in academia—why the faculty is so powerful, why there is so little cost control, and why there is resistance to freedom of thought. Martin’s paper is a Rosetta stone.

Here’s what struck me so forcibly. First, higher education is an industry, a giant industry; it makes money, just like Wal-mart and Microsoft—a lot of money. Students (or their families) are willing to fork over many thousands of dollars a year to be educated and the federal government helps them do it.

But the “companies” in this industry don’t have to make a profit. Nor do they have a clear owner to report to. To use economic jargon, there is no “residual claimant,” no one who benefits financially from good decisions and suffers financially from bad ones and therefore keeps the company on track.

These two factors spawn a principal/agent problem. The people who are running the schools (the agents) frequently don’t do what long-term owners (the principals—if there are any) would want.

Without profit, all the money that comes in tends to get spent. But spending this revenue builds in costs for the following year, so even more revenue is needed. That is why presidents are chosen for their ability to raise money, not for controlling costs.

In Martin’s view, “shared governance” (in which faculty have a governing role as well as administrators) has evolved over time to monitor the various agents (faculty, administrators, and trustees). But shared governance has broken down. One reason is that administrators effectively bar communication between board of trustees and faculty. Another is that trustees, familiar with hierarchical organizations, don’t have a clue about shared governance.

Depressing? Not really. Once understanding comes, effective strategy can follow.

With a clearer focus, the Pope Center has become more selective about its strategies to help students, parents, and taxpayers of North Carolina overcome the principal/agent problem. We’ve started in that direction and we are going to do more. I hope you'll stay in touch with the Pope Center.



 


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