Thirteen Is A Start

Peter Wood

 In his poem "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," Wallace Stevens at one point ponders the difference beteen the immediate pleasure and its lingering trace:

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

That's the fifth of his thirteen blackbirds. 

Last week blogger Lesboprof noticed that an article in Chronicle of Higher Education “read like an NAS press release.” Today a Chronicle article titled, “13 Reasons Colleges Are in This Mess:  How greed, incompetence, and neglect led to bad decisions.”  Inflection or innuendo?  It is so hard to choose.

I wish to state categorically that the NAS has not taken editorial control of that splendidly written, indispensible newspaper of record.  In fact, while we applaud the Chronicle’s new speak-truth-to-power approach exemplified in the “13 reasons,” we wonder at its inexplicable neglect of the other 37 reasons.    By the Chronicle’s account, higher education is a “victim of the recession’’ but not a defenseless victim.”  Many colleges have made “mistakes,” and names the common ones that “are likely to haunt higher education for years.”  CHE has a nicely annotated list, but for a brisk summary, these are the headlines: 

      Took on Risky Investments                          

2.      Sloughed Off as Trustees

3      Relied on Cheap Credit

4.      Failed to Play Well With Others

5.      Overbuilt

      Bowed to Boosters

7.      Stumbled at the Statehouse

8.      Led With Unchecked Ambition

9.      Failed to Find a Niche

10.    Ignored Customers' Needs

11.    Built Duplicative Centers

12.    Overcommitted Their Budgets

13.    Stymied Accountability Efforts


#4 is a bit opaque.  “Failed to play well with others” is a delicate way to say that faculty unions took a “what’s-in-it-for-me?” attitude towards any effort to increase productivity.


The “unchecked ambition” in #8 dovetails with #s 3, 5, 6, and 11.  College presidents and boards went crazy spending other people’s money to build campuses that were half pleasure dome, half moon base alpha.


I am sorry about the phrasing of #10, “ignored customers’ needs.”  Students aren’t customers; they are students—a distinct category of relationship.  We don’t speak of sons and daughters being the “customers” of their parents, patients being the “customers” of physicians, or recruits being the “customers” of the army.  Likewise, to speak of students as customers misconstrues the underlying reality.   When we go to college we voluntarily subordinate ourselves to someone else’s idea of what it takes to become educated.  (Unless, perhaps we enroll at Brown University.)  The unfortunate phrasing aside, CHE’s point is that colleges have paid too little attention to older students, working students, students in the South, students in community colleges, etc.

Erin O’Connor, writing on her blog , caustically comments:


None of this is new; if you read higher ed news, you read about this stuff every day. Still, distilled to their essence and gathered in a list, these summary criticisms have a certain clarifying effect; the Chronicle has painted a portrait of an academy that is not only systemically corrupt, but whose corruption originates in some of its most foundational and treasured values (tenure, for example). In its own words, the Chronicle's list explains "how greed, incompetence, and neglect led to bad decisions." That's quite an indictment from a publication entirely dedicated to higher ed, but there you have it.


I’m not especially eager to find fault with the Chronicle on this topic.  We at NAS are pleased to see such a Great Awakening in a publication that has more often comforted the comfortable in higher ed.  Still, I wonder at a few of the items missing from the list.  How about:


14.    Became Addicted to Student Debt


With the rise of the federal student loan system, colleges discovered how easy it was to raise revenue by pushing students into debt.  The result was a loss of market discipline and a shameful exploitation of students.  Colleges became so reliant on this kind of financing of their operational budgets that they are now in a quandary.  How will they proceed if students cannot or will not borrow the ever-growing amounts needed to pay tuition?  One answer—the preferred answer—is to rely on the federal government to prop up and expand the loan system.  But this has the not-so-hidden implication that the federal government will soon have a much larger hand in determining what colleges do and how they do it.  Trading institutional academic freedom to keep the dollars flowing?  Maybe.


And how about:


15.    Luxuriated in One-Sided Politics


Nearly everyone outside higher education who is paying attention knows that colleges and universities have successfully weeded out nearly all the faculty members and staff members who dissent from the Leftist orthodoxies on topics such as racial preferences; speech codes; the importance of race, class, and gender in interpreting history, literature, and the arts; the differences between the sexes; the role of capitalism in the world economy, and so on.  A handful of aging faculty members are all that is left to speak for other views.  New faculty members are recruited exclusively within the ranks of the ideologically conforming.  As John Stuart Mill pointed out in his essay On Liberty in 1859, doctrines that succeed in insulating themselves from genuine debate decline into “dull and torpid assent.”  Colleges and universities that embody this Leftist orthodoxy have lost much of their former claim to be taken seriously as honest brokers in the debate over ideas and have become instead completely predictable partisan players in American politics.  That may give them some advantages in dealing with the current party in power, but it has deep disadvantages in persuading the general public to consider colleges and universities as anything more than another special interest.  The élan of the university has dissipated in favor of seeing it as a mere utility—the equivalent of a cable access provider or the electric company.  Dealing with it may be unavoidable, but its claims to special treatment are now easily dismissed as attempts to preserve unfair privilege.


That leaves only 35 other reasons why “Colleges Are in This Mess.”    But I don’t feel all that much urgency to list them here.  After all, the National Association of Scholars and the Chronicle of Higher Education are pretty much facing pages of the same book.  I trust that in the days ahead, our friends at the Chronicle will fill in the missing pieces.

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