Naked Self-Interest in the Academy

Why elite institutions take advantage of all too many master’s students.

July 29, 2021

In his classic history of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment -- during which, from 1932 to 1972, government scientists studied untreated syphilis in impoverished Black sharecroppers -- the eminent historian of medicine James H. Jones explained how such an ethically indefensible, scientifically useless study could take place over a 40-year span.

Racism alone, Jones shows, is not a sufficient answer. After all, many of the experiment’s architects were widely regarded as racial liberals. A key figure responsible for implementing the study, Nurse Enice Rivers, was herself Black, as were several participating physicians.

Nor was the study simply a product of class bias.

Rather, as Jones persuasively argues, the explanation lies in the self-validating nature of science. Again and again, the study’s defenders justified their research on the grounds that it contributed to the advancement of scientific knowledge.

The Tuskegee study is a textbook example of the how professionals defend, justify and rationalize unethical and abusive behavior. It also illustrates a point that needs to be underscored today: that the well educated are especially likely to blind themselves to the vile consequences of their actions.

Take, for example, academic programs. It’s illegal for for-profit institutions to routinely leave graduates with unaffordable debts. But that isn’t the case with nonprofit institutions, as a hot-off-the-press article in The Wall Street Journal makes clear. Entitled “Eternally Hobbled for Life,” the article examines top universities’ master’s degree programs whose graduates fail to generate enough income to keep up with six-figure federal loans.

A faux pas is saying something everyone knows to be true but isn’t allowed to voice aloud. The article’s money quote comes from Julie Kornfeld, Columbia’s vice provost for academic programs, who “said master’s degrees ‘can and should be a revenue source’ subsidizing other parts of the university, according to the Journal.”

According to the Journal’s analysis of 2015 and 2016 graduates from master’s programs at top-tier private universities, roughly 38 percent of the programs failed the gainful-employment test.

It should be a basic moral principle: it’s unethical to leave students with excessive and unrepayable debt.

How, then, does this pattern persist?

If patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, then intellectual obfuscation is the last refuge of self-interested academic institutions and programs caught with their pants down. All the usual arguments are bandied about:

  • That leaving graduates with a high level of debt (in Columbia president Lee Bollinger’s words) “is not what we want it to be.”
  • That the institutions are “always focused on affordability” (according to New York University spokesperson John Beckman).
  • That substantial amounts of funds raised will go to financial aid (though how much will go to master’s programs remains unstated).

Of course, what we’re in fact seeing is the unregulated free market at work. No-limit loans for master’s degrees, no gainful-employment requirements, little or no oversight from accreditors or the U.S. Department of Education, combine with revenue prospects, high student demand and opaque outcomes to create a win for campuses and faculty but along with long-term losses for the students.

Of course, we’ve heard this story before. At some level, everyone knows that graduate school is responsible for higher ed’s debt crisis. Professional master’s degrees may be a cash cow for institutions, but they all too often leave graduates adrift, forced to delay marriages, children and home buying.

What, then, is to be done?

  • Demand utter transparency about student outcomes. Self-validation is generally a form of self-deception. We assume that a particular graduate program is useful and rewarding, well, because we offer it. We don’t systematically study outcomes. But as Justice Louis D. Brandeis recognized, sunlight is the best disinfectant. We need much greater transparency -- and this can’t take the form of a newspaper article now and then.
  • Demand accountability. We recognize self-validation in certain instances: when a faculty member stereotypes students along ethnic, gender or racial lines or assumes that transfer students are weaker academically than those who start at a four-year institutions. But then we ignore other areas where narrow self-interest outweighs student interests. If the government won’t impose some kind of gainful-employment test, institutions, perhaps through the accrediting process, must do this themselves. We must demand that nonprofits act like nonprofits but operate in students’ best interests.
  • Demand that institutions offer more lower-cost options. I am left dumbstruck by how few name-brand institutions have followed the example of Georgia Tech and offer very high-quality programs in high-demand fields at a fraction of the cost of in-person programs. Part of the unfulfilled promise of MOOCs was that they’d find ways to use interactive technologies to make high-quality programs more widely accessible. It’s no longer OK, in my view, for institutions to draw a sharp distinction between their in-person programs and those offered through their extension or continuing education or general studies wings. Access and equity demand that institutions take steps to make quality programs more readily available.

You’ve heard the quotes that make us laugh: “If I have to choose between you and me -- I like me better.” Or “It is not conscience, but self-interest, that makes cowards of us all.”

Let’s not delude ourselves: naked self-interest exerts a powerful influence on the behavior even of the high-minded. I worry that too often even our most prominent institutions, acting in their own self-interest, fail to avert harm to our master’s students. I taught at institutions where master’s students lack access to the most prominent professors, who are closed out of advanced courses and even archives, and who graduate with a relatively worthless credential.

That’s a form of immorality that dares not speak its name.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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