What Really Matters in Higher Ed

Ashley Thorne

This week the Chronicle of Higher Education has a special section on “Diversity in Academe.” One article featured there, “Diversity Takes a Hit During Tough Times,” (subscription required) examines how the economic downturn has forced colleges to evaluate their priorities. Colleges are asking, “Is a large diversity program really necessary for our institution?” Richard Vedder, of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, doesn’t think so:

Richard K. Vedder, an economist at Ohio University who also directs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, says it has become "faddish" for universities to boast about their commitment to minority students by pointing to the size of their diversity offices. "The question is, at a university with 20,000 students, can you do the job with three to five people, or do you really need 25 to 35?" he asks. Mr. Vedder sees most diversity jobs as a bull-market luxury—and believes they should be scaled back, along with intercollegiate athletics, to protect core teaching and research operations during hard times. 

Nevertheless, universities are scrambling to salvage their diversity departments, however superfluous, and one professor says this is a time of testing: “The next few years will show whether a university's commitment to diversity is real or whether it's something that is done just for the rhetoric.”  Clearly this is the upside of the recession, giving colleges an opportunity to examine what’s really important in higher education – not race, identity groups, or political correctness brownie points, but simply, higher education. As the dean of St. Lawrence U puts it, “If you don't have the basic curriculum, and you don't have the faculty and you're not paying them, then all of the other programs in the world don't matter one bit.”

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