'Saving Higher Education in the Age of Money'

The "preoccupation with money" is eroding the values of higher education, argues a new book: Saving Higher Education in the Age of Money, published in April by the University of Virginia Press. The authors -- James Engell and Anthony Dangerfield -- question the endowment obsession of presidents, the rating obsession of admissions officers, and the career obsession of students.

May 11, 2005

The "preoccupation with money" is eroding the values of higher education, argues a new book: Saving Higher Education in the Age of Money, published in April by the University of Virginia Press. The authors -- James Engell and Anthony Dangerfield -- question the endowment obsession of presidents, the rating obsession of admissions officers, and the career obsession of students.

Engell is the chair of the English and American literature and language department at Harvard University. Dangerfield is a writer who has taught at Cornell and Harvard Universities and Dartmouth College. Engell recently replied to some questions about the book and its ideas.

Q: Your book is very critical of college administrators -- as you survey the scene in higher education, are there presidents you respect?

A: Certainly there are excellent presidents.  Ruth J. Simmons (Brown), Richard Brodhead (Duke), Anthony Marx (Amherst), Lee Pelton (Willamette) and David Roselle (University of Delaware) come to mind, among others.  Leon Botstein at Bard is another, as is Rebecca Chopp of Colgate (she has reaffirmed Colgate's commitment to civic and ethical education as essential). Joseph Polisi of Julliard is determined to support resource-intensive, culturally vital instruction in the face of declining market demand, while yet maintaining a market-sensitive attitude to program size. He says, "If you develop everything based on the marketplace ... you'll eventually have a school dedicated to American Idol." ( The Wall Street Journal, 4/21/05).

There are some recent former presidents to note, too, including Nan Keohane (Duke and earlier Wellesley), Michael McPherson (Macalester), James Freedman (Dartmouth and earlier University of Iowa, and Mark Yudof (University of Texas). These short lists are by no means exhaustive.

Q: You mention the ways libraries share information and materials as a possible model for academic collaboration. Yet so many top colleges seem to want to be known individually for excellence in so many areas. What other forms of collaboration might be possible?

A: Not only can university libraries share with one another, they can share with the civic community -- San Jose State is one successful example. Joint and collaborative projects involving scientific research are entirely possible and occur. Certain colleges have agreements to let students cross-register (Wellesley and MIT) and some agreements are quite elaborate and involve many activities (the Five Colleges, Incorporated, consortium in Western Massachusetts). Sometimes excellence comes not from exclusivity but from binding together.

Q: You criticize the way market forces lead to gaps in pay rates for humanities professors vs. those in other fields. Most presidents say that they have no choice -- how would you make an argument to a president that the principle of equity is an important one?

A: The point is, as the book documents, these gaps are not holding steady in real dollar terms. They are widening. The result is that fields become denigrated and can eventually be destroyed; talented individuals who have any other options will be less and less likely to enter those fields. And students quickly figure out what an institution values and what it doesn't. Paying people in certain fields comparatively (and increasingly) less and less over time is a signal sent by the institution that clearly says, "We don't value this as much."

Who then wants to study in that field, or consider it as a career when the educational institution itself is willing to let it lag farther and farther behind? Serious erosion of fields may take some time, a generation or two, but it will occur. And, as the field erodes, there is more reason to treat it more shabbily, at least in the minds of some. So it's a feedback loop. One can justifiably accept gaps and differences, including certain differences that are a result of labor markets and demand. But a lack of equity that is growing larger and larger will actually destroy fields and discourage talent from entering them.

Q: From your book, it seems that liberal arts colleges may be closest to upholding the values you want to preserve. Do you think liberal arts colleges may assume a new role as other sectors abandon these values?

A:  First, let's say "liberal arts and sciences." The "and sciences" is important. Those institutions may not do "big science" or comparatively many major research projects (though there are some fine research projects that do come out of colleges and smaller institutions), but teaching the sciences at a college level is crucial for democratic and liberal education. The "liberal arts" as a phrase comes from a set of subjects that emphatically included some that today we would today place in math and science. There is no reason why colleges at research universities and research universities themselves cannot uphold academic values worth preserving. Some show a healthy dedication to a range of them, for example MIT, with its commitments to low-market demand areas, humanities programs, and the performing arts.

Q: What can professors and administrators do if they are concerned about the trends you write about?

A: Professors -- especially tenured professors -- can advocate for changes in the reward structure around the teaching of writing and around teaching as distinguished from research. At present, professorial salaries in general correlate inversely with time spent teaching. And very time-intensive teaching such as that of writing, not only in comp courses but in other contexts, too, is rewarded the least. Senior professors could spend some more time on student writing and on supervising graduate assistants who are assigned to teach writing.

Professors often explore ways to meet that cross over departmental and division lines. These informal exchanges can be as fruitful as elaborate new programs. In other words, attend to institutional governance, protocols, and official bodies, but don't overlook other ways of extending the life of the mind with colleagues outside one's own field. Although it may be a sacrifice, consider accepting some administrative roles that can make a difference to colleagues. Try to make certain that lines of communication are open between faculty, administration and trustees. A breakdown anywhere in that triangulation will eventually cause trouble. Such communication doesn't happen automatically; it takes effort, which can bring good results.

Deans and presidents can encourage these activities. Above all, they can consciously and clearly articulate the several balanced goals and academic values that the institution holds in concert, not just one or two major, obvious objectives. Change will and must occur, but contemplated change, or reaction to external changes and pressures, should be guided by the touchstone of goals (in the plural) for which the institution stands.

It's unfortunate when means start to dictate ends. Keeping several ends in sight -- social, ethical, economic, intellectual, democratic -- and considering how they interact uniquely in any given institution can help set an independent course open to innovation yet building on past strengths. It's tremendously important to articulate the details of this larger vision to alumni, supporters and potential supporters.


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