The Dead, the Dying, and the Not Feeling Too Well

Ashley Thorne

There are several ways that colleges and universities can decline. They can dumb down the curriculum to make way for a political agenda, or they can simply run out of money and have to shut down operations. The concept of institutional decline prompts some questions: What went wrong in the first place? How does a college die gracefully? These questions and a Chronicle of Higher Education article “How Does a President Shut Down a College?” inspired the newest issue of our journal Academic Questions

This issue, themed “The Dead, the Dying, and the Not Feeling Too Well: Case Studies in Academic Malady,” is now available online at our publisher’s website. In it we explore the various ways that colleges decline, if not to outright extinction then at least toward a state of intellectual atrophy.

It begins with the premise that universities deteriorate when they aren’t fortified by a strong educational purpose. One article by Adam Kissel chronicles the decline of the University of Chicago’s core curriculum, and one by Stephen Zelnick (already posted at recounts Temple University's departure from the Great Conversation. Dr. Howard Schwartz tells how his alma mater Antioch College (which closed in 2007) slowly self-destructed when it compromised its integrity in the name of “cultural pluralism,” and Norman Fruman examines the moral compromise of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).

Other highlights include “Difficult Labor: The Perils of Birthing a New College,” in which Richard Bishirjian tells of uphillchallenges when he founded Yorktown University and sought to get it accredited; and Sheldon Avery’s “Taking the Pulse of Historically Black Colleges.”

In addition to our themed articles are several essays on other topics. We offer three book reviews, one by Russell K. Nieli on Larry Purdy’s Getting Under the Skin of “Diversity”;one by Robert Jackson on Rethinking Expertise, “a treatise on the language of science”; and one by our own Tom Wood on Measuring Up: What Educational Testing Really Tells Us. Diane Auer Jones tells in an interview why she believes college is not for everyone, and Peter Wood suggests some unusual books, articles, and items of academic interest (teaser: one is the newly modified version of Jane Austen’s classic, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies).

All colleges face ups and downs throughout their lifespans. How can a college survive and thrive through difficult times? We think wise governance combined with rigorous academic standards and open inquiry are a good formula for success, but few institutions adhere to this philosophy. Perhaps some colleges and universities should fade away—out of the 4,314 we have, how many do we really need?

Last month I commented on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s report that 114 colleges, most of which are religiously affiliated, had failed the Department of Education’s test of financial responsibility. Failing the test could be a sign that a college is in danger of closing. Usually, only one or two colleges shut their doors each year, but with the recession, there may be more at-risk schools.

Perhaps that’s why, as Peter Wood wrote in his introduction to the AQ issue, organizations such as the Lumina Foundation, the College Board, and the Carnegie Corporation, as well as President Obama, have voiced goals to dramatically increase America’s percentage of college graduates. Would doubling the number of students enrolled in higher education save some of the colleges and universities that would otherwise go extinct? Or would it only make their demise slower and more painful?

Take a sneak peek at our new AQ issue and judge for yourself.

The print version of this issue is set to come out in August. To read the online version, click here and log in. If you have not yet accessed the journal online, click here to learn how to do so. If you are not a member of NAS you can click here to become one and receive free future copies of Academic Questions.


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