Receiving Princeton’s Madison Medal at Alumni Day, Feb. 22, Hunter R. Rawlings III *70, president of the Association of American Universities, called his talk “The Lion in the Path,” crediting his Haverford College professor Howard Comfort for that all-purpose title. In fact, Rawlings’ topic was sharp and specific: the criticisms facing higher education in general and the humanities in particular. Below is an excerpt from his address. While his talk left no doubt about the difficulties at American colleges and universities, Rawlings ended with optimism, singling out three former students — Bill Clausen, Heng Du, and Lillian Aoki — at Cornell University, where he taught classics and served as president: “They make their classes vibrant and enjoyable, whether they are teaching them or taking them, and they make our research universities fantastic places to be.”
Editor's note: Following is an edited version of the article published in the April 2, 2014, issue of PAW.
As you all know, higher-ed bashing has become a popular blood sport in the United States. It is hard to pick up a newspaper or magazine or read an online periodical without being confronted by an article attacking our universities. The most common complaint, of course, concerns the high price of tuition and the mountain of student debt. But there are many others: stultification of the curriculum, the failure of students to graduate on time, the proliferation of administrators and staff, the leftward tilt of the faculty, the poor teaching of the faculty, the impenetrable diction of the faculty, even the “irrelevance” of the faculty (a recent charge in the friendly editorial page of The New York Times).
Most of this barrage of criticism stems from looking at universities as businesses: bloated, expensive, out of date, ripe for disruption like the music and newspaper industries. After years of recession, falling middle-class salaries, and rising tuition (much of it caused by withdrawal of state support), college is viewed by many Americans as a purely instrumental means of preparing for a job, any job. Credentialing is dominant now, and fits well with American pragmatism, love of business, and desire for efficiency. This is one of the principal reasons for the (overhyped) reaction to online education in the last 15 months: MOOCs [“massive open online courses”] and other online instruments seemed to offer a quick, cheap fix for the notoriously inefficient nature of academia. Never mind that the quality of these courses is still suspect, completion rates are ridiculously low, and they violate almost every principle research has taught us about the best ways for students to learn.
Adding fuel to the fire, politicians from the president to members of Congress, governors, and state legislators are piling on, calling for change, in the form of greater accountability, cheaper “delivery systems,” learning-outcomes measures (usually reductionist), and rating systems (always reductionist). Universities are on the defensive, hard-pressed to make their value proposition in the face of so much criticism.
At the same time, U.S. colleges and universities have never been so much in demand by American families and by the rest of the world, have never been ranked more highly in every conceivable international rating system, have never contributed so much to the production of critical knowledge, to national security, and to national economic growth. And they have never before exercised such positive influence on their local economies — indeed, on the quality of life, even on the viability, of their neighborhoods. Think what West Philadelphia would be without Penn, or New Haven without Yale, or Pittsburgh without Carnegie Mellon and Pitt. Not to mention the spawning of entire high-tech powerhouses in Silicon Valley by Stanford, in Massachusetts by MIT and Harvard, in North Carolina by UNC Chapel Hill, Duke, and North Carolina State universities.
Other countries are now doing whatever they possibly can to emulate American universities and even our liberal-arts colleges. Look at Singapore, where Yale is collaborating with NUS [National University of Singapore] to start a high-end, traditional American liberal-arts college with a new East/West core curriculum; China, which is creating partnerships with multiple American universities; even India, where a group of entrepreneurs is founding an American-style liberal-arts college. It is ironic that what these countries especially envy is our liberal-arts colleges, at a time when much American opinion regards them as expensive relics.
So ... how do we make sense of this peculiar state of affairs, this paradox at the heart of the critique of American higher education?
First, a very brief history lesson: Our colleges and universities became the best in the world for four essential reasons: 1) They have consistently been uncompromising bastions of academic freedom and autonomy; 2) they are a crazily unplanned mix of public and private, religious and secular, small and large, low-cost and expensive institutions, all competing with each other for students and faculty, and for philanthropic and research support; 3) our major universities combined research and teaching to produce superior graduate programs, and with the substantial help of the federal government, built great research programs, particularly in science; and 4) our good liberal-arts colleges patiently pursued great education the old-fashioned way: individual instruction, careful attention to reading and writing and mentoring, passion for intellectual inquiry, premium on original thought. In other words, we have remained true to the idea of enabling students to develop their own knowledge and talents and personalities, the 19th-century German, Humboldtian ideal of Bildung, education of the whole person for citizenship in a culture.
Today, we take these four facts for granted. That is myopic, and threatens to become dangerous.
Other countries as small as Singapore and as large as China now recognize why our higher education model is so strong and are trying desperately to emulate our success, but they can succeed only to a limited degree. Freedom is the sine qua non for great universities, and diversity and competition have driven our performance. Authoritarian countries with top-down, government-sponsored universities cannot reproduce our “system” — primarily because it is not a “system.” This explains why Asian universities now want to partner with American universities: Without us, educators there know they cannot have open universities whose purpose is to educate the whole person rather than train thousands of technocrats. They know that, without full academic freedom, they have a hard time teaching real history, real social science, even real literature. And by the way, their students know the difference: That is why they are pouring into our universities at unprecedented rates for undergraduate education, and even into prep schools here. They want the kind of open, critical education we offer here.
In spite of their obvious success, and the huge demand for their “product,” American universities suffer criticism here at home for several quite unsurprising reasons:
First, with the recession and the declining income of the middle class, and the massive withdrawal of state support for public universities, college has indeed become less affordable for many American families.
Second, Americans have bought the message that their children must go to college to have a chance for a decent job. The result is that while in 1970 one-third of high school graduates went to college, in 2012 one-half did. The pressure is on families to send children to college at precisely the time when it has become more difficult to afford.
This is a familiar scenario in this country: Just as Americans want the services offered by the federal government, but do not want to pay for them with their tax dollars, Americans want a college education for their kids but states do not want to pay for it with state funds. So enrollments in college burgeon, state support goes down, tuition goes up, classes get bigger because faculty get cut, students fail to graduate on time because they can’t get the classes they need, and they have to work long hours and borrow a lot of money. Is it any surprise people don’t like this scenario, and blame universities for it? I think not. We are trying to educate an all-time-high percentage of citizens in a democracy where income inequality has reached dangerous proportions, and where a college education has become a private interest, not a public responsibility.
Third, universities, public and private alike, are now very big players. When I was growing up, colleges and universities were bucolic oases of learning removed from the major rhythms of American life. They were, for the most part, quiet and sedate outposts of the privileged few, almost all white, who could pursue higher education while the vast majority of Americans were content with the high school degree that afforded them access to steady jobs. And higher education then had little to do with the American economy, much less with the needs and interests of other countries.
Today, research universities are multi-billion-dollar enterprises that comprise vast businesses as disparate as complex medical centers, entertainment industries in the form of intercollegiate athletic franchises, high-tech companies spawned in university laboratories, government-sponsored institutes doing most of the nation’s basic and a fair amount of its applied research and development, public-service centers reaching farmers and small-business owners across whole states, real-estate magnates buying up neighborhoods and whole segments of major cities, entire campuses abroad, and now online-education companies pursuing profit here and around the world. The teaching of undergraduate students on campus has become a quaint, tiny fraction of these universities’ purpose and function.
This is why universities find themselves today constantly on the front page of the newspaper, engaged in urban-development fights, mired in the health-care debate, confronting athletic scandals that affect not just their reputation but their very identity, and turning over their exhausted presidents every few years as boards of regents and governors intrude into what has become the biggest and most public business in many states. When I started my Ph.D. program in classics here at Princeton almost 50 years ago, I thought I was entering something akin to the priesthood; today, as president of the AAU visiting certain states, I feel as though I am Citizen Kane!
My point is this: Anything as big and public and consequential as a research university is going to garner its share of news, and that frequently means, given the news business, bad news. We should get used to the fact that we will have to endure a lot of criticism, much of it unwarranted and unfair. It comes with the territory.
The fact is, however, that some of the criticism of our universities is justified: We have, many of us, relegated undergraduate education to a low place in academia by devaluing undergraduate teaching, and we have broadened and loosened the curriculum to the point where at many universities it is a flabby smorgasbord of courses bearing no relationship to each other, utterly lacking in coherence. It is also true that as enrollments have risen, academic rigor has declined and grades have inflated.
In addition, until recently, we have not paid enough attention to limiting our costs, and to running efficient operations through sensible policies and practices. And we probably have taken the high-tuition, high-financial-aid strategy as far as it can reasonably go. We need simplicity and more transparency in tuition, we need to do a better job of finding and helping indigent students, and we need to be more responsive to the problems confronting the middle class.
This is not to mention the monster called intercollegiate athletics. Probably the most disheartening facet of our universities today is that many of the best of them are running gigantic entertainment businesses with billions of dollars in revenue, multi-million-dollar coaches, TV networks, and the like, in which the entertainers, namely the so-called student athletes, are not paid for their work, and everyone else is. This is the business ripe for disruption, and signs are that disruption is coming in the form of judges’ opinions on “pay for play,” and student/athletes’ attempts to unionize, and public reaction to fraudulent academic programs for athletes.
But the real threat to higher education today is, in my opinion, not internal, it is ideological: the expectation that universities will become instruments of society’s will, legislators’ will, governors’ will, that they will be required to produce specific quantifiable results, particularly economic, and to cease researching and teaching certain subjects that do not fit the utilitarian model. Last year [Oklahoma] Sen. Tom Coburn got an amendment to the Senate budget bill essentially requiring the National Science Foundation to stop funding research in political science. Texas has instituted a system by which to quantify professors’ work and evaluate them according to the number of students they teach and the grant dollars they bring in. Florida came close last year to charging extra tuition to students studying humanities at state colleges in order to discourage the practice. President Obama wants the Education Department to rate universities on a numerical scale, and many states are now already evaluating universities on the basis of the average earnings of their alumni 18 months after graduation. We are in the age of data, we measure anything that can be measured, and we treat what we measure as dispositive: We take the part for the whole.
Albert Einstein apparently kept a sign in his office that read, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” This aphorism applies all too well to our current rage for “accountability.” As Derek Bok points out in his recent book Higher Education in America, “Some of the essential aspects of academic institutions — in particular the quality of the education they provide — are largely intangible, and their results are difficult to measure.” Frankly, this is an obvious point to make, but all of us have to make it, and often, in today’s commodifying world. Quantity is much easier to measure than quality, so entire disciplines and entire academic pursuits are devalued under the current ideology, which puts its premium on productivity and efficiency, and above all else, on money, as the measure.
Maria Popova, who writes a blog called Brain Pickings, wrote this: “In an age obsessed with practicality, productivity, and efficiency, I frequently worry that we are leaving little room for abstract knowledge and for the kind of curiosity that invites just enough serendipity to allow for the discovery of ideas we didn’t know we were interested in until we are, ideas that we may later transform into new combinations with applications both practical and metaphysical.”
I am seriously concerned about the tendency of some members of Congress to stop funding the apparently impractical. Here’s why: See this iPhone. It depends upon seven or eight fundamental scientific and technological breakthroughs, such as GPS, multi-touch screens, LCD displays, lithium-ion batteries, and cellular networks. How many of those discoveries were made by Apple? None. They all came from research supported by the federal government and conducted in university and government laboratories. Apple makes a great product, but it depends upon government-sponsored science, much of it curiosity-driven, not economically driven.
The most succinct encapsulation of the value of curiosity to practical pursuits came from Michael Faraday; when asked by William Gladstone, chancellor of the exchequer, about the utility of electricity, Faraday is purported to have replied, “One day, sir, you may tax it.”
My friend Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, talks about “the last frontier of medical research” — neuroscience. “There are 86 billion neurons in here,” he says, tapping his forehead with an index finger. “Each of those has maybe a thousand connections. So the complexity of this structure exceeds anything else in the known universe, and some have even worried that our brains are not complicated enough to understand our brains.” President Obama has called on the country to focus even more scientific attention upon the study of the brain for these very reasons. I am certain that, with funding and attention, many breakthroughs in understanding the brain will come forth in the next few years.
But let me tell you something: Whatever neuroscientists discover, they will have a hard time matching what emerged from Emily Dickinson’s brain well over a century ago:
The Brain — is wider than the Sky —
For — put them side by side —
The one the other will contain
With ease — and You — beside –
The Brain is deeper than the sea —
For — hold them — Blue to Blue —
The one the other will absorb —
As Sponges — Buckets — do –
The Brain is just the weight of God —
For — Heft them — Pound for Pound —
And they will differ — if they do —
As Syllable from Sound —
There are scientific, and there are poetic, renderings of the brain. I am drawn to both, but Dickinson’s poem rises above the material realm into the pure ether of aesthetics, philosophy, and religion. For reasons unknown to scientists, and to the rest of us, we human beings aspire to understanding and joining with higher things, universal things, things we cannot see or touch. I don’t know how to measure the value of Emily Dickinson’s poem, but clearly she knew how to measure the brain, the sky, the sea, and even God.
Whatever we do, let’s not let the bean counters diminish the creation and teaching of qualitative things.
For the record: This article corrects the description of Francis Collins published in the April 2, 2014, issue of PAW.