Academic Malaise: Bring Back the Groves of Academe

Mohamed Gad-el-Hak

“Happiness is not the absence of problems but the ability to deal with them”—French judge and political philosopher Charles-Louis de Montesquieu (1689–1755), famous for his articulation of the theory of separation of powers.

The Malaise

There is a malaise creeping into the American tertiary education system. Shared governance of academe is slowly becoming a dinosaur. Tuition costs are increasing at triple the general inflation rate. Tenure-track faculty are systematically replaced by term teachers. Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are mushrooming. Universities in the United States are no longer the envy of the world. Those interconnected vagaries will be raised in turn, but first the genesis. Let there be light!

The Genesis

The modern autonomous university traces its roots to the University of Bologna (1088), University of Paris (1150), University of Oxford (1167), and University of Modena (1175). Those followed the sixth century Christian cathedral schools and the Islamic Al-Azhar University (975), which emphasized the scholarly studies of their respective religions.1 Today’s universities are institutions of higher education and research that grant academic degrees in a variety of subjects and provide both undergraduate and graduate education. They can be public or private, with a handful of the latter type being for-profit institutions, a neo-circumstance.

The word “university” is derived from the Latin universitas magistrorum et scholarium, which means community of teachers and scholars. Not community of teachers, scholars, and innumerable vice presidents. Universities are self-regulating guilds that determine the qualifications of their members. The original secular universities were specialized associations of students and teachers with collective legal rights usually guaranteed by charters granted by princes, prelates, or the towns in which they were located.

To commemorate the 900th anniversary of founding the University of Bologna, which was the first to adopt an academic charter guaranteeing academic freedom, Constitutio Habita,2 388 European university rectors signed the Magna Charta Universitatum.3 More universities have been added as signatories to the original 1988 document. By 2018, the total reached 889 universities from 88 countries.4

Faculty Governance

The American Association of University Professors issued its first statement on university governance in 1920. The declaration emphasized the importance of faculty involvement in personnel decisions, selection of administrators, preparation of budgets, and determination of educational policies. Refinements were introduced in subsequent years, culminating in the development of the 1966 AAUP Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities.5

Nowadays, the ideal of faculty participation in academe’s affairs is becoming a distant memory. For the most part, university budgets are decided solely by administrators. Hiring of those administrators in particular occasionally comes top-down with little or no regard to faculty input. Faculty senates are declawed and derided by some administrators as “debate clubs” or, worse, “sandboxes for faculty.”6

Instead of shared governance, presidents with little academic experience and governing boards with none now mostly decide university affairs. In public universities, the state’s governor politically selects such boards. In a handful of states, the general public elects university board members. In either case, mostly businessmen and businesswomen—some of whom would like nothing more than to manage a university as a successful business—constitute many boards. There are serious pitfalls with that sincere albeit misguided effort. Witness as one example the insatiable appetite for sponsored research, which emphasizes engineering, medicine, and business studies over those of humanities and sciences. Guardians of the medieval university’s trivium and quadrivium curricula constantly have to justify their existence.

Administrator Misdeeds

Following the 2012 debacle of the board’s firing (later reversed) of the University of Virginia president, a professor there, Siva Vaidhyanathan, articulated the situation best:

In the 19th century, robber barons started their own private universities when they were not satisfied with those already available. But Leland Stanford never assumed his university should be run like his railroad empire. Andrew Carnegie did not design his institute in Pittsburgh to resemble his steel company. The University of Chicago, John D. Rockefeller’s dream come true, assumed neither his stern Baptist values nor his monopolistic strategies. That’s because for all their faults, Stanford, Carnegie, and Rockefeller knew what they didn’t know.

In the 21st century, robber barons try to usurp control of established public universities to impose their will via comical management jargon and massive application of ego and hubris. At least that’s what’s been happening at one of the oldest public universities in the United States—Thomas Jefferson’s dream come true, the University of Virginia.7

At Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, the provost decided to disband the faculty senate as a protest for their perceived slow pace, or perhaps as revenge for choosing a senate VP who earlier pushed for a faculty vote of no confidence in the university’s president.8

In my own university, following a time-consuming and expensive search for a new provost, the president decided to form a second search committee instead of selecting one of the three chosen as finalists by the original committee, and those three successfully completed campus visits. It appears that the “president’s candidate” didn’t pass the original committee’s scrutiny. Mediocrity magnetizes mediocrity. Democracy is slow and messy, but as Winston Churchill once said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

The Culprit

Related to the issue of faculty governance, or lack thereof, is the rapid rise in tuition, which is currently running at least three times the general inflation.9 Add to that, a few schools charge additional tuition for each credit a student attempts above an arbitrarily defined threshold, so-called market-based tuition pricing structure. This threshold is now 12-credit hours per semester, which hits particularly hard engineering students who typically have to take 15–18 credit hours per semester in order to graduate in four years.

Administrators blame federal and state regulations as well as the rising cost of faculty’s salary and benefits. But in the meantime, universities are systematically replacing tenure-track faculty with term faculty. The latter earn near the minimum wage, and for part-timers no benefits such as pension and health insurance. In some institutions, the number of contingent (non-tenure-track, term, adjunct, and part-time) faculty approaches 76 percent of the total.10 Additionally, term faculty are, of course, deprived of any semblance of academic freedom. Faculty, on the other hand, blame the inflated tuition cost on the steadily increasing number of administrators (as a percentage of faculty or students) and their skyrocketing compensation packages. The faculty also fault the five-star cafeterias, luxury gymnasiums, and lush landscapes.


Massive open online courses are also seen as a future cost-cutting tool. In 2012, Sebastian Thrun, a former Stanford computer scientist and founder of the MOOC company Udacity, predicted, with a bit of hyperbole, that within half a century the world will have just ten traditional universities left.11 On the other hand, Donald Verene argued that online education rests on a mistake, which confuses information for education and training for teaching.12 A forum organized by the editor of Academic Questions presented the pros and cons of MOOCs, but the cons gained the upper hand.13

The Trouble with Online Education

Humans are social beings and learning is a social process. Both require interaction and connection to flourish. These factors undermine the effectiveness of an online class. In our digital, mobile society, on-site discussion forums are still the most effective tools for student–student and student–teacher interactions.14

Even in a large lecture hall, a good teacher is able to sense the students’ mood and receptivity, and instantly adapt to them. In a good course, there are rich spontaneous interactions that can take place among all. In a 2012 New York Times op-ed, Mark Edmundson, professor of English at the University of Virginia, likened a memorable non-virtual course to a jazz composition: there is a basic melody that you work with—as defined by the syllabus—but there is also a considerable measure of improvisation against the disciplining background.

Acquiring knowledge is not the same as knowing what to do with it. Learning to analyze, evaluate, synthesize, collaborate, innovate, and use the unlimited information available is what education is all about. In my opinion, MOOC does not offer much beyond a do-it-yourself learning from the vast information available on the Internet.

There are of course the fortunate few who have superior discipline, motivation, and intellect to self-learn and make sense of the boundless information out there, but the majority does not possess these gifts. MOOC and the Internet are no different from having a library at your disposal. Both offer monologues not dialogues. Dialogues are individual, labor-intensive, and expensive, but they nurture learning and critical thinking. Monologues are the polar opposite.

MOOC panic, mania, and tsunami are some of the recently coined phrases. Lecture-based instruction could undoubtedly be improved, but MOOC is far from being a panacea for our real or perceived pedagogical shortcomings. Would anyone retain a physician or an esquire who is taught the fundamentals of, respectively, medicine or law via MOOC courses? Believing that MOOC would improve the learning process is in the same lalaland as wishing that incessant texting and tweeting could produce the next Tennessee Williams.

Return to the Medieval University?

In an influential lecture delivered in 1947, “The Lost Tools of Learning,” Oxford-educated Dorothy L. Sayers advocated a return to the medieval university where the syllabus was divided into two subsequent parts: the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and music). She eloquently wrote, “We have lost the tools of learning—the axe and the wedge, the hammer and the saw, the chisel and the plane—that were so adaptable to all tasks.” Sayers suggested that we presently teach our children everything but how to learn.15

Are online courses beamed to millions around the world, to students separated from each other and from the teacher, and other modern innovations helping or hindering the quest for teaching how to learn? There are several journals devoted to online learning, teaching, and administration; for example, MOOCs Forum, Hybrid Pedagogy, and The Internet and Higher Education. But despite the MOOC’s deluge—even Harvard is jumping into the fray, and the president of the University of Virginia nearly lost her job because she was not adopting Internet learning fast enough—this contrarian believes the new pedagogic paradigm is, in the long run, a setback for the ability to learn and for honing critical thinking skills, in both the sciences and the humanities.

Technology enabled MOOC, but the prohibitive cost and extreme selectivity of top universities allowed it to mushroom. The recently unveiled college admissions bribery scandal is an inevitable result of the race to enter top-ranked colleges, combined with university administrators’ insatiable appetite for money.16 In short, thirty-six wealthy parents of elite-college applicants (to Yale, Stanford, and UCLA) were accused on March 12, 2019, by the U.S. federal prosecutors in the District of Massachusetts, of paying more than $25 million between 2011 and 2018 to a “college admissions counselor,” who used the money to fake student test scores, doctor sports photos, and bribe college officials.

University Standing

Regardless of the culprit for high tuition cost, are the students at least getting their money’s worth? The answer is a resounding no. In an influential book, Allan Bloom described how higher education has failed democracy and impoverished the souls of today’s students.17 Twenty-four years after Bloom’s bombshell, Richard Arum pointed out that 36 percent of the student population shows no discernible change in cognitive skills after four years in college.18 More recently, Kevin Carey deflated the myth that the United States has the world’s best colleges. He argued that while it is true that some of the best higher-education schools in the world are in the U.S., our universities on average are no longer producing the best graduates. For example, in a recent standardized math test, the United States along with Hungary and Lithuania battled it out for last place among developed countries.19

Republic of Scholars

The issues discussed herein have been researched elsewhere, even outside of the Americas.20 The last reference in the sequence features an author from Norway (Ivar Bleiklie) and a second from England (Maurice Kogan). They analyzed “how the dominant ideals about the actual organizational patterns of university governance have changed over the past few decades away from the classical notion of the university as a republic of scholars towards the idea of the university as a stakeholder organization.” The problems are widely documented, and it is about time to have a dialogue between all “stakeholders” to seek remedies.


Mary McCarthy prefaced her 1951 novel The Groves of Academe with a quote from Horace’s Epistles, Atque inter silvas academi quaerere verum (And Seek for Truth in the Garden of Academus). What is the cure for the aforementioned malaise? I invite the readers to chip in elixirs that may bring back the groves of academe.

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