The Politics of Higher Education
Political interference in higher education, we are told, is increasing. The partisan divide in views on higher education, we hear, is deepening. Campuses “are driving political division.” “The diploma divide lies “at the heart of this country’s many divisions.”
Is it the case, as a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education seems to suggest, that colleges and universities were venerated in the past and that only since the 1960s became punching bags or political cannon fodder, caught (to mix metaphors) in the cross-hairs of conservative ideologues?
Of course not.
I was a bit surprised to read a piece in the Chronicle by the country’s foremost authority on McCarthyism and the universities entitled “The 50-Year War on Higher Education.” As her own books demonstrate, political attacks on higher education date back much further.
McCarthyism aside, just think of the gay purges at the Universities of Texas, Missouri, and Wisconsin during the 1940s or the late 19th and early 20th century attacks on academic freedom that gave rise to the American Association of University Professors.
A truncated view of history blinds us to an unsettling reality: That criticisms of colleges and universities as bastions of elitism and as threats to social order are as old as the counternarrative that celebrates higher education as a founts of truth, preservers of wisdom and cultural achievement, and drivers of social mobility.
I sometimes quip that American society suffers from selective amnesia. There’s a tendency to forget how few Americans attended college even in the relatively recent past and how low the graduation rate was. (There’s a reason why the UT alumni association is called the Texas Exes; you could join even if you never got a diploma).
For many of today’s undergraduates’ parents, going to college was something only upper middle-class young people did.
And even in the 1990s, going out of state or even to a private college or university was surprisingly rare. Private 4-year schools were still largely the preserve of the children of professionals, executives, or business owners. The college-going market had not yet been nationalized, let alone nearly universalized.
I fear that the true political threat to universities comes less from ideologues than from a diminishing faith among broad segments of the public in the power of higher education to transform lives, open doors, and open minds. It’s that loss of faith that gives traction to the recent political attacks.
Nor should our colleges and universities and lobbying organization be blind to the mounting concerns among Jewish and Asian Americans, who have been among the strongest advocates for higher ed’s value, that their children are increasingly unwelcomed on the more selective campuses. Heterodox liberals, too, decry self-censorship on campus and administrators’ failure to aggressively defend academic freedom, not just in Florida but in the Northeast. Double standards about academic integrity and plagiarism don’t help.
The “war” on colleges and universities takes many forms. It can be found, of course, in explicit attacks on tenure and on faculty members’ free speech. But it can also take somewhat more subtle forms: In doubts about the value of the humanities disciplines (you’ll recall President Obama’s reservations about the worth of degrees in art history) and in the fears that universities have grown less open to unfettered inquiry and thought.
But if you were to ask me, the biggest threat comes from mounting anxieties about college’s return on investment: That the cost of attendance is too high, completion rates are too low, and learning and employment outcomes too uncertain and that society needs to embrace faster, cheaper – and less rigorous and well-rounded – paths into the workforce.
When campuses offer credit-bearing courses on Harry Styles, we shouldn’t be surprised that our curriculum is regarded as frivolous and trivial. When a campus like my alma mater pits itself against a longstanding local business, don’t be shocked to discover even the most liberal townies turning against the campus.
Higher education leaders need to condemn the increasingly widespread narrative that “not all high schoolers need to go to college.” That’s just a way to keep whole segments of this society down. But our sectors’ spokespeople cannot do this with a straight face when nearly half of those who go to a 2 or 4-year school fail to graduate and when 40 percent of those who do graduate find themselves underemployed, with the negative long-term consequences that result.
There is no reason why as a nation we can’t find a way to deliver a traditional campus experience with quality and care and at reasonable cost. Even if it this is hugely expensive, the potential ROI is huge – and goes well beyond just creating productive future workers.
All those who wish to go to college should be able to go – and receive a real college education, not an unbundled or self-paced simulacrum.
Our colleges and universities want to be admired. But on what grounds? The answers aren’t a mystery.
Because our institutions promote expertise, solutions to social problems, advance social mobility, and contribute to a more inclusive society. And, yes, because these institutions venerate the love of learning, and produce graduates who are culturally literate, civically knowledgeable, and have pondered the biggest issues of our time and all time, involving aesthetics, divinity, evil, free will, identity, justice, morality, human nature, and the meaning of life.
If we want our institutions to be better loved than government, technology companies, foundations, or churches, then we need to be clearer about our true contributions to society – beyond the number of people we employ, the number of businesses we patronize, or the amount of research dollars we bring in.
That would require more visible connections with high schools. More community outreach. Greater efforts to invite the community to campus. And, above all, providing an education that not only prepares graduates to enter into rewarding careers, but to lead meaningful and productive adult lives.
The educational model we have embraced, which consists of a smorgasbord of disconnected courses coupled with very limited advising and mentoring and graduation requirements that can be met in multiple ways without much attention to learning and skills outcomes, works well for some students, but certainly not for all. It maximizes options, flexibility, and serendipity but makes little effort to help students or their families understand the purposes of a college education that goes beyond career preparation.
Yes, colleges must stop trying to appease their political opponents. But doing that effectively will require our institutions to demonstrating that our deeds match our words: That we truly are doing everything in our power to bring students to success and to genuinely serve our communities.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.