Step-by-Step Moves Can Save Wayward Universities

Our colleges and universities are in some serious trouble, only part of which is structural. Swollen, bureaucratized, and inefficient, they waste substantial amounts of student time and public money. This is unfortunate but survivable. We are an extraordinarily rich society and can tolerate mere waste. The functional troubles of our colleges and universities are graver.

Especially with respect to the things that matter most, our institutions of higher learning often simply fail to educate. Few students attending them will acquire even rudimentary knowledge of their civilization's shape, history, and traditions, and fewer still will be led to a contemplation of any of the big existential issues that give depth and seriousness to the mind. Worse yet, many will leave college imbued with one or another form of irrational, conspiratorial thought, and a set of carefully cultivated resentments. Troubles like these could eventually kill us.

At the root of the academy's life-threatening pathologies is a spiritual malaise that has large sectors of our culture in its grip. Born of immense affluence and the loss of age-old certainties, its tell-tale signs are cynicism, nihilism, and self-indulgence. On college campuses, the specific manifestations include an increasingly crass merchandising of institutions, ‘humanistic scholarship’ fixated on popular culture and sex, and a chronic indifference to almost anything resembling what was once called liberal education. Curing these ills requires nothing less than a broad-based revival of cultural purpose by a means sadly past my powers to prescribe.

Unless, of course, finding these means only entails that each of us gives close attention to our own little corner of the cultural garden, planting modest beds that will eventually merge into vast fields of flowers. If the completion of small tasks can finally yield great ends, there may yet be hope, especially in an academy where localism and fragmentation offer abundant opportunities to grass-roots effort. How then shall we begin?

Individual faculty members have the greatest opportunities, even when outnumbered by the partisans of political correctness. These arise out of the very disorganization indicative of the academy's plight. For example most general education programs now consist of broad catch-all course categories sporting titles like ‘the humanities,’ ‘the social sciences,’ and ‘the natural sciences.’ Prevailing practice allows students to choose almost any combination of courses within them in order to satisfy breadth requirements. Hence, some students complete their humanities requirements by studying French New Wave Cinema, 20th-century fashion, and heavy metal rock, but fail to encounter Shakespeare, American history, or philosophy. Although a snare for many undergraduates, this permissiveness can prove a godsend for enterprising faculty because it permits the creation of ‘programs within programs’ that satisfy minimal standards while doing much more.

Take the case of David Mulroy, professor of classics at the Milwaukee campus of the University of Wisconsin. Surveying general education requirements long on flexibility but short on coherence, he resolved to improve the situation. Working with about a dozen colleagues, Mulroy crafted an entirely new program fulfilling the existing requirements while exposing students to concentrated readings from the great books, as well as demanding courses in science, mathematics, and foreign language. Students choosing to complete the program would gain a special citation on their diploma, similar in kind (though very different in significance), to those already available for taking programs in Latino, Black, and Gay studies.

Needless to say, Mulroy's proposal for a great books program, though only conceived as a student option, threw the campus into an uproar. Somehow the celebration of diversity did not require tolerance for lovers of Homer, Gibbon, and Tolstoy. Predictably, accusations of elitism and ‘Eurocentrism’ flew fast and furious; one savant from the English Department even declared that the word ‘great’ could have no objective meaning. (And on making inquiry, Mulroy discovered that the English Department indeed had lately gone through its course listings and had expunged all references to the ‘greatness’ of authors and texts.)

Despite an opposition deploying procedural stratagems that would have made a senator blush, Mulroy and his colleagues persevered, finally prevailing after a year and a half of conflict. In the end, the university simply realized that denying students the chance to take an enriched course of study would entail more embarrassment than it could stomach.

Today, the program flourishes, attracting not only first-rate students but also considerable philanthropic support. Moreover, its success has inspired emulation and dozens of campuses now have teams of professors seeking to duplicate Mulroy's triumph.

While non-academics are not in a position to design their own programs, they can give vital support to the good ones that already exist, and to those just struggling to be born. Alumni and parental opinion makes a difference to administrators, provided it gets clearly communicated, while trustee attitudes are always of special moment. Encouraging the good and deploring the bad can — when pursued intelligently — yield substantial results.

Donors can play a particularly valuable role by carefully targeting their academic giving, earmarking support for worthy programs and scholars. Donors wishing to support their alma mater but unsure about how much confidence to invest in its leadership can also consider making their gifts in increments, waiting to see how each sum is utilized before plunking a further installment down. (A useful way to locate well-led institutions is to consult the American Academy for Liberal Education, a Washington-based accreditor that has made excellence its standard.)

Another handy organization is the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, also in Washington. Formed to assist donors, alumni, and trustees, it is especially good at providing advice on how to bring beloved-but-wayward institutions back on track. In addition, it operates the Fund for Academic Renewal, which is specially designed to facilitate knowledgeable giving.

For trustees, the truly fateful passage occurs during a presidential search. Most persons seeking these positions are career bureaucrats, capable managers, and practical fund-raisers, but rarely in possession of the vision needed to revive an intellectually ailing institution. Nonetheless, a vacancy at the top can open the possibility of finding the contemporary equivalent of a Jefferson, a Newman, or a Hutchins — leaders who can fundamentally alter an institution's life. To have any such hope, however, trustees must be prepared to work hard, look long, and consider more than just the usual suspects. Those of strong heart can ensure a productive search by educating their colleagues about what is at stake, developing assessment criteria that address genuine education needs, and closely vetting applicants. (My own organization, the National Association of Scholars, has been working to define a pool of educators capable of offering exemplary leadership. Those looking for some might give us a ring.)

In the long run the best way to reform our colleges and universities is to expose them to vigorous innovative competition. Most college administrators, of course, claim that competition for students is already cut-throat and they're not lying. But it is a competition that occurs in a highly insulated market in which law and regulation present formidable barriers for institutional startups and innovative techniques. Accreditation procedures, for example, make new colleges ineligible to receive federal aid for their students until they have been in operation for several years. The full development of distance learning and the growth of for-profit higher education are also hobbled by regulation. Efforts by citizens and policy-makers to relax such constraints could do a world of good.

Thus, we can make our academic gardens grow — working institution by institution, program by program, gift by gift, leader by leader until what would otherwise have required a miracle is by piecemeal miraculously performed.

Stephen Balch is president of the National Association of Scholars, a New Jersey-based education reform institution. This article is reprinted with permission from Crisis in Education.