A Call for Nuance

Derek Bok's new book asserts that much of the recent criticism of higher education is inaccurate or oversimplified, but that plenty of serious problems do exist.

August 15, 2013

Derek Bok can hardly be accused of being unwilling to criticize American higher education. His 2007 book, Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More, lived up to its title.

But in his new book, Higher Education in America (Princeton University Press), Bok appears impatient with the cottage industry producing books saying that colleges are doomed to fail, cost too much, are too liberal (politically), are too conservative (in terms of unwillingness to change) and any number of other criticisms. Bok -- the former president of Harvard University -- notes very real problems in American higher education. But he writes that "the principal problems with many of the criticisms ... is not that they are wrong, but that their sweeping nature diverts attention from significant weaknesses that can and should be remedied."

Bok's defense of higher education challenges numerous bits of conventional wisdom, such as the idea that colleges change too slowly. "[Ev]en a cursory look at the progress of higher education over the past 60 years reveals that colleges and universities have adjusted in timely fashion to a series of major challenges -- from the sudden influx of veterans after World War II, and the massive enrollment growth that followed, to the rapid response to government efforts after 1980 to speed the commercialization of scientific discoveries and the recent surge in online education and massive open online courses."

Faculty members accused of abandoning their students for research may take comfort in Bok's analysis that they spend considerable time on their students -- far more time than is the norm for faculty members in other countries.

Not all professors will like his take on tenure, however. He writes that tenure's critics exaggerate the idea that the elimination of tenure might save money or add flexibility, and that they ignore the pressure on those without tenure to grade too generously. At the same time, Bok writes that tenure proponents "have yet to present a convincing argument" that lifetime job security is "essential or even the most effective way" to protect academic freedom. And he writes that the logic of an argument is undermined to some extent by the reality that "a large and growing majority of faculty members do not enjoy tenure and hence are without the protection it affords to write and speak freely."

As his answer noting the growth of adjuncts suggests, Bok's analysis is not Harvard-centric, but reflects many trends that may be less evident in Cambridge than elsewhere.

Via e-mail, Bok answered some questions about the themes of his book.

Q: Your book notes numerous criticisms about higher education, or predictions that higher education is falling apart. Do you think we are in a period of particular criticism of/predictions of the demise of American colleges and universities, or is higher ed always a target?

A: Higher education is more widely criticized in recent times than in the past because it is perceived as mattering more to more people now that universities are seen by the public as being closely linked to economic growth and prosperity, on the one hand, and to opportunity and the American Dream, on the other. The more universities are thought to matter, the more closely they are scrutinized.

Q: Your book argues that while there are indeed problems in higher education, the system is in fact quite strong. Why are the critics wrong?

A: I do not see any contradiction in the fact that higher education has some real and legitimate problems at the same time as it is sufficiently strong to be widely regarded as preeminent in the world. The problems listed below are genuine and substantial. At the same time, American universities are still rightly considered preeminent in many important respects, notably research, the training of researchers, and the quality of professional education -- e.g., law, business, and medicine, in particular -- and they will probably remain so for at least another generation.

Q: Many people argue that non-elite higher education is facing particular pressures -- private colleges without large endowments that are anxious about filling their classes, and non-flagship publics that can't hire faculty or build facilities to serve the influx of students. Is higher ed at risk of a two-tiered system, where only the best-financed colleges are able to thrive?

A: Compared with other advanced countries, America has unusually large differences in resources between the wealthiest and the poorest colleges and universities. For that reason, when finances are tight, as they have been over the past several years, the wealthier institutions are in much better shape. The wide disparity in resources is one reason why America has a disproportionate number of the most highly rated universities in the world but probably has a large number of institutions that would be regarded as weak compared with other higher education systems in Western Europe.

Q: What do you consider the major challenges facing higher education today?

A: There are three major challenges from the standpoint of the number of people affected and the potential impact on the welfare of society. (1) The low level of educational attainment among people age 25-34 caused by the sluggish growth in the percentage of young people earning college degrees over the past 30 years. This has caused the United States to lose its historic lead in educational attainment, thus threatening economic growth, equal opportunity, etc. (2) Problems involving the quality of undergraduate education, as evidenced by the sharp drop over the past 40 years in the amount of time students spend on their classes and the accumulation of evidence that undergraduates are not learning as much as most people thought and are making only modest progress in acquiring the key intellectual skills of critical thinking, writing, analysis of problems, etc. (3) The high cost of college, especially for families in the lower half of the income scale. (I should add that although colleges and universities are partly responsible for all these problems, other factors beyond their control are partly responsible as well.)

Q: You were a university president for many years. What can presidents do to reshape the debate about higher education?

A: Rather than sound defensive, university presidents need to be in the forefront in seeking and championing ways to address the problems [listed above]. As universities are currently administered, however, presidents are hard-pressed to play this role, since they generally spend relatively little of their time on academic affairs while devoting most of their day to fund-raising, administration, and representing their institution to various outside constituencies. It is always a problem when the heads of an organization are able to spend only a small fraction of their time on the principal functions of  the institution they lead.


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