In 1900, the mathematician David Hilbert listed 100 mathematical problems that he felt would be good problems to address in the next century. Many of these have been solved, but some still wait for solutions. I found myself thinking of this recently as I realized that the season of Lent had begun. While this is traditionally a season of fasting and repentance, many today also approach this season as an opportunity to find ways to bring about a more just world. I found myself thinking of the Hilbert problems because it occurred to me that those of us in higher education could bring our collective minds together to address several issues that, like the Hilbert questions of years ago, seem to need addressing. I truly believe that the well-educated mind in higher education can attack these problems and find innovative solutions.
My first thought was that I have to believe that my colleagues, including my fellow economists, can find a way to run higher education without exploiting contingent faculty. Those of us who are conscious of the situations under which our purchases are produced nevertheless find ourselves participating in an institutional structure that pays very low wages to well-qualified workers who are at the mercy of the institutions they work for. This becomes even more of an issue when we, as chairs of our departments, need to find and hire such teachers. While some colleges such as Ursuline, where I work, make an effort to help these professors acquire experience and skills in their time teaching as adjunct professors, not all do. Indeed, I suspect that the effort Ursuline puts into helping our teachers develop as professionals is rather unusual. The movement called the “New Faculty Majority” that has been described in this publication is making some first steps towards trying to find ways to give such faculty a stronger voice in the institutions that could not function without them. Can those of us with the luxury of tenure find ways to support their efforts?
I also realize that many students graduate from college with huge debts to repay, and I wonder if there is a better way to help students fund a college education. Along this line I am reminded of an article  I read recently about the role Catholic colleges like my own could play in helping poor students earn college degrees. While this article addressed Catholic colleges, I know that many people who teach at a wide variety of universities also perceive a college education as a path out of poverty and into well-paying jobs for disadvantaged students. I suspect that there are ways to make college education more accessible to all students. Educating more citizens may well make a further positive difference in the economy as a whole.
While we are tackling the question of how to make higher education more accessible to all students, maybe we can ask how to improve all levels of education for all students. I find it ridiculous that we confine students to schools funded by property taxes from their neighborhoods, since those from poor neighborhoods will automatically be forced to attend schools that are funded at a lower level than those serving students from more wealthy neighborhoods. Indeed, this is actually a question that has relevance to higher education, since students who never really learn to read or write or how to do math cannot possibly perform at the level that we would like to see from our students. While primarily a matter of justice, their difficulties also expands our workload as we teach students the skills they did not learn the first time.
As a faculty member, I sometimes find myself defending the tenure system, especially now that I am on the “other side” of the selection process. However, I still have to ask if there might be a better way to motivate academics, especially young parents who find themselves in the tenure track process during their child-bearing years. How about it, game theorists (and others), could we find a better way to solve the principal-agent problem and encourage professors to do their best work?
My daughter once wrote her name, followed by the letters “Ph.D.” on a piece of paper that she posted on the door to the closet in my office, claiming it as her own office. I don’t know what career she will end up pursuing, but if she does decide to enter academia, I hope that some of these issues will have been addressed by then. I have to believe that the collective brains of those of us in academia could make great progress towards making higher education a more just place, and that we can do so before the start of yet another century.