Ultimate Bocce

Peter Wood

The genesis of this issue was an account in the January 16 Chronicle of Higher Education by the president of a college that was closing. In “How Does a President Shut Down a College?” Michael J. Hoyle described the steps he took to wind down the 112-year-old McIntosh College in Dover, New Hampshire (http://chronicle.com/free/v55/i19/19a06001.htm).

The event struck a chord because we had been thinking about various kinds of institutional decline. Much of this decline is like the slow melt of a glacier that is more apparent by the moraine of rubble it leaves behind than by any Al Gore-ish catastrophe. The demise of a college offers a concrete symbol, a marker that says definitively, “Something went wrong.”

This issue isn’t about the deaths of colleges per se, though Professor Howard S. Schwartz does write on the demise of his alma mater, Antioch College. In “Antioch Self-Destructs,” Schwartz takes us back to a student strike in spring 1973, which crystallized the Antioch administration’s deep ambivalence about the college. The administration itself, Schwartz argues, was intent on destroying the old Antioch in the millenarian hope that something new and better would emerge from the ashes. But what emerged was a marginal institution that limped along on subsidies until its trustees finally decided in 2007 to close its doors for good.

The willingness in higher education to ravage existing institutions out of a vague hope that something better will blossom in the rubble is our general theme. In “Acres of Rhinestones: Temple Betrays Its Heritage,” Temple University professor Stephen Zelnick examines how Temple demolished its “Intellectual Heritage Program,” centered on Great Books, in favor of an intellectual potpourri called “Mosaic,” which focuses on what its proponents call “contemporary concerns, such as globalization and environment/sustainability.” Zelnick puts the cultural loss entailed in this substitution in the context of a slow abandonment by Temple over the decades of its older commitment to a well-balanced liberal education.

In “Wasting Away: Chicago’s Declining Core,” Adam Kissel tells a similar story but in a very different manner. The University of Chicago didn’t summarily dismiss its famous core curriculum, but set about in the late 1990s to make it less demanding. The changes and substitutions were complicated, which has made it difficult to assess how significant were the losses for a rigorous liberal arts education. Kissel has sifted through the details. His account shows the institutional obstacles that now face those students who actually seek the content of the old, and the path of easy virtue for the many lured into the trendy substitutes. One substitute is a sequence aptly called “Colonizations.” That’s a perfect word for the popular academic enterprise of keeping the outward form of a rigorous curriculum but swapping in the lightweight ideology that passes for profound insight these days.

Temple and the University of Chicago are not about to go the way of Antioch. The curricular declines that Zelnick and Kissel describe are invisible to most observers, including most students—though not altogether so. This spring the Chicago Maroon, the University of Chicago student newspaper, ran a four-part examination of the core that spoke of its “unassailable strengths” but also captured its numerous lapses into triviality and “sequences that try too hard to cater to the myriad tastes of students while shirking the central mission of the Core Curriculum” (http://www.chicagomaroon.com/2009/5/19/examining-the-core-hum-sosc-and-civ).

Decline in substantive commitment also seems characteristic of many of the professional associations that surround the university. High on the list is the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), founded nearly a century ago to advance the cause of academic freedom. The AAUP too has been “colonized,” gradually relinquishing its principled positions in favor of trade unionism and political advocacy. In “The AAUP: A Moral Autopsy,” Professor Norman Fruman, a long-term AAUP member who eventually resigned, recounts the increments of the organization’s descent.

The case of historically black colleges and universities struck us as a topic that might repay close attention. While some of these colleges have indeed closed, others are thriving—despite stiff competition everywhere for talented African-American students. In “Taking the Pulse of Historically Black Colleges,” Professor Sheldon Avery offers a scrupulously neutral account. Sunrise or sunset?

A similar question could be asked, of course, about other categories of college. The greater number of women’s colleges that existed at the end of World War II have gone co-ed or closed, but among the thriving are Wellesley, Bryn Mawr, Mt. Holyoke, and Smith. Tomes have been written on the dying of the light in American sectarian colleges, but faith-based education is again burgeoning.

Institutional decline is not necessarily a one-way street. It has an element of what the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction.” It may cull the weaker members of a class of colleges and allow educational entrepreneurs to realize new visions. In “Difficult Labor: The Perils of Birthing a New College,” one of those entrepreneurs, Richard Bishirjian, president of Yorktown University, describes the impediments he has encountered—and overcome—to create a new online liberal arts college.

Once upon a time Americans founded new colleges by the hundreds. Today, higher education has reached the point where an industry is said to be “mature,” which generally means it works hard to prevent the rise of new competitors. In the case of colleges and universities this has been accomplished by a vast regulatory regime that makes the cost of entry for would-be competitors prohibitively high. Stifling innovation is also a form of decline. The best way past these artificial barriers, as Bishirjian point out, is for the would-be founder of a new college to buy out an existing college that already has its state charter, regional accreditation, and Title IV certification. Thus a market has sprung up for colleges that hit bottom in their finances, enrollments, and curricula. No matter how dreadful they may be, if they have their paperwork in order, they are worth millions to investors looking to enter the market.

Decline is, among other things, a spectacle and some observers become entranced by it. Our aim, however, is not to paint a portrait solely in the palate of Edward Gibbon or Oswald Spengler. In “Old Ills, New Remedies,” Carol Iannone interviews Diane Auer Jones, former assistant secretary for postsecondary education under President George W. Bush. Auer Jones is a reformer brimming with ideas and offers opinions on topics ranging from Obama’s proposals for higher education to student loans to affirmative action to women in science. She also advocates opening up more paths for high school students who do not want to proceed directly to college and strongly supports improving our community colleges.

This seems a long way from the Chronicle article in which President Hoyle described the steps he was taking to shut down McIntosh College, but I’d like to return to that melancholy event. Hoyle’s account didn’t shimmer with details. McIntosh College seems to have died unimaginatively. Hoyle recounts no final bonfire, no grand farewell. No one carved “Croatoan” into an oak tree and walked off into the Dover woods or carried the household gods into the wilderness.

Rather, Hoyle recommends to other college presidents caught in such an unfortunate situation to be mindful to tell accreditors what’s up and to keep faculty and students informed. “Be everybody’s chief motivator,” he says. To improve morale as McIntosh crept through its final twilight, he introduced a “semester long bocce tournament.”

The actual termination of a college is a fairly rare event. One independent website performs the commendable public service of keeping the vital records of “Colleges and Universities that Have Closed, Merged, or Changed their Names” (http://www2.westminster-mo.edu/wc_users/homepages/staff/brownr/ClosedCollegeIndex.htm). The list shows hundreds of mergers to mere handfuls of terminations.

The prospect of colleges closing in larger numbers, however, has occurred to many observers recently. The costs of running a college mysteriously continue to climb; many colleges have huge debts that reflect recent building sprees; endowments have fallen steeply during the financial crisis that began in 2008; some colleges—Brandeis comes to mind—have seen principal donors lose a substantial portion of their net worth; numerous colleges have had credit ratings downgraded; many states have cut subsidies and ceased to issue bonds for higher education; the student financial aid system has been rocked by scandal, mismanagement, and the disappearance of many lenders; colleges dependent on tuition to meet operating budgets—which is most colleges—have raised tuition despite recession; and traditional bricks-and-mortar colleges face increasingly stiff competition from online institutions. No one factor may be decisive, but the accumulating difficulties suggest that a growing number of close-to-the-margin colleges may fail.

The higher education establishment has proposed a medicine to stave off this imagined epidemic. The tonic has two parts: (1) have the federal government step in with large bailouts and a reorganization of the student loan system, and (2) encourage a truly gigantic growth in enrollment. President Obama supports both steps. Among other things, he has called for America to have by 2020 the world’s highest proportion of college graduates among its youth. This would require roughly doubling college enrollments between now and then—a phenomenally expensive proposition, but one that would certainly forestall any widespread college closings. His call for drastic increases in college enrollment is in line with Coming to Our Senses: Education and the American Future, a December 2008 report issued by the College Board and signed by a who’s who of higher education officialdom. The Lumina Foundation has likewise made increased college enrollment the centerpiece of its considerable philanthropy. Lumina president Jamie P. Merisotis seeks to have 60 percent of Americans holding college degrees by 2025, which, he estimates, at the current rate would require adding sixteen million college graduates to the 30.8 million who will graduate between now and 2025.

The advocates of this gigantic expansion argue that America would benefit by the creation of a much more internationally competitive workforce. Little is said on the score that it would benefit those colleges and universities that may otherwise face institutional decline. But I suspect a connection.

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