A Meeting of the Minds for Higher Ed Reform

Ashley Thorne

Both sides of the political spectrum care about higher education and its reform, but most of the time, they talk about it only amongst themselves, said George Leef, Director of Research at the Pope Center, yesterday. He submitted that higher education reform is too important to be cabined off into partisan camps.

To that end, the Pope Center had pulled together a panel representing a plurality of views for its Washington, D.C. event, “Higher Education Reform: Where the Right and the Left Meet.” The panelists were Kevin Carey, policy director at Education Sector; Claudia Dreifus, co-author of Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids – And What We Can Do About It; Naomi Schaefer Riley, affiliate scholar at the Institute for American Values; Murray Sperber, author of Beer and Circus: How Big-Time College Sports is Crippling Undergraduates; Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity; and NAS’s president Peter Wood.

Each one was asked to give two five-minute summaries, one on what’s wrong with higher education and one on how to fix it. Five minutes was a good allotment, forcing the panelists to make succinct points and making these points more memorable for the audience. Mark Schneider, vice president of the American Institutes for Research, expertly moderated the panel.

I was especially interested to hear Kevin Carey, with whom I have engaged in some debate over student learning outcomes and expanding college enrollments. His discourse in this seminar was, as it is in his writing, open and courteous. During the panels he was often the one to call attention to points of agreement between the participants. Claudia Dreifus seemed a sort of maverick among the group and frequently challenged opinions voiced by the others. Naomi Riley gave a compelling metaphor about what people want out of higher education. She asked, “What if I produce a well-written newspaper and you are all buying it, but only to line your birdcages?” Murray Sperber spoke from his current experience in the classroom on students’ need for better guidance in writing and research in the Google age. Richard Vedder offered a rapid-fire list of problems and solutions, and Peter Wood gave a compact history showing how colleges got to their current state.

All in all, the panelists were able to agree on much more than I expected they would. It was universally acknowledged, for example, that students aren’t learning at the level they should, and that we need better means of assessing what they learn. One phrase heard several times was “We don’t know what a degree means.” Another nearly unifying cause was support for phasing out tenure. Murray Sperber seemed to be the only one who thought that, even for professors who shamelessly neglect their classes after they receive tenure, the tenure system is the only way to ensure a foundation for academic freedom. In this he agrees with the AAUP. Naomi Riley, however, was of the mind that without tenure, academic freedom and freedom of speech for all faculty members would be strengthened. And most agreed that professors need more incentives to improve their teaching – as opposed to the current incentives to increase their publishing. Peter Wood, Murray Sperber, and Kevin Carey concurred that core curricula could benefit higher education.

The rub came when it was time to identify how solutions could be initiated. Carey suggested the government could do good things for colleges by setting new standards; he drew a comparison with the FDA. Dr. Wood on the other hand advocated colleges designing their own core curricula, in order to preserve their free choice and a diversity of education.

Dr. Wood had some other distinctive ideas for higher ed solutions:

  • Retire “shared governance”
  • Get rid of schools of education; use an apprenticeship model instead
  • Employ privately run competency tests for graduates to assess their knowledge
  • Have grading done by someone other than the person teaching the course; this can vastly diminish grade inflation
  • Eliminate barriers for new colleges
  • Promote alternative forms of credentialing, as accreditation is unhealthily tied to the student loan system
  • Move the government out of higher education

Virginia Foxx, chair of the House Education Subcommittee on Higher Education, spoke at lunch. She summed up well the arguments made in the panels and called on the audience to remember higher education’s ultimate goal: to educate and equip wise and productive members of society. When one audience member, Center for Equal Opportunity president Roger Clegg, mentioned “federally-funded institutions,” she said, “I am really on a crusade to get people to stop using that term. There is no such thing as a federally-funded institution; there are only taxpayer-funded institutions.”

Let’s move from wishful thinking to action, she urged. Start implementing solutions even if they aren’t perfect, because no solution is. Our problem-solving in higher education reform should reflect the same rigor, quest for truth, and attention to details that we want to see in our college classrooms.

The Pope Center is to be commended for hosting this event, and I hope there will be more to come. As George Leef said, reform is too important to be done behind partitions. I did fear that the dialogue would come to a deadlock when panelists butted heads but was pleasantly surprised by the general atmosphere of openness and willingness to find common ground. I think the continuance of such conversations could propel a movement that will not only acknowledge shared goals, but, as Virginia Foxx advised, begin to accomplish them.

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