Public criticism of higher education continues to gather momentum; the primary issues are cost, quality and political bias. The objective evidence regarding high and rising cost is compelling and the body of evidence suggesting a secular decline in quality is also growing.
The political bias issue is more controversial, although it is nonetheless important. Bias is an existential threat to higher education’s central mission (scholarship and instruction). If society cannot trust the academy to produce nonpartisan scholarship and instruction, why should it support higher education? Financial support is always dependent on the public's perception with respect to our value added. There is no escaping that rude fact. In an era of compromised economic prospects and rising global competition, these are not issues that can be ignored without consequence.
In our contacts with students, we learn to read their responses to questions about performance; you either learn this or you will be manipulated by students. When I ask students about their performance, there are some responses that always make me suspicious; an aggressively defensive or indignant response, for example, suggests the student is in denial or is hiding something. If the student admits deficiencies, recognizes an absence of effort or a problem comprehending, this is a good indicator of sincerity. If the student follows through with remedial action, the results generally improve.
Is the academy’s collective response to questions about cost, quality, and bias constructive? Do we appear willing to objectively consider the issues and to reform where necessary?
Based on our actual record, one could reasonably conclude that the academy is not “cursed with self-awareness.” We are uncomfortable with introspection and actively discourage inconvenient questions. When teaching loads or class sizes are discussed, faculty members studiously avoid the cost question, preferring to focus on how reduced loads and smaller classes will improve quality. No attempt is made to balance the very real higher costs with the intangible improvements in quality. Worse still, we make no effort to study the outcome after teaching loads or class sizes are reduced; did we really improve quality? It is hard to escape the conclusion that we really do not want to know the answer to that question.
There is cause for hope, however; some insiders are asking the right questions. Unfortunately, these brave souls are at risk of being shouted down by those who believe all the issues are either bogus or a political agenda. For example, a prominent University of Virginia social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, is asking very important questions about his discipline.  He documents the absence of conservatives in his profession and explores what that absence means for the quality of research and the professions’ credibility with the general public, where conservatives out number liberals two to one. In the end, he calls for a “post-partisan social psychology” and affirmative action for conservatives in social psychology.
By making this stand, Haidt is taking a professional risk for the sake of improving both research and teaching. Since he is a committed liberal and is going outside his own comfort zone to take on this politically incorrect topic, he is to be respected.
According to Haidt, the damage done to the social psychology profession is through the creation of a “tribal moral community” that leads its members to be “blind to any ideas or findings that threaten our sacred values.” He also notes that tribal moral communities create inhospitable environments for those who do not share the tribe’s sacred values. It is worth pausing for a moment to consider how at odds that is with the values expressed by scholars and diversity advocates alike. It also explains why campus diversity programs rarely concern themselves with intellectual diversity; the people who control those programs are committed members of the tribal moral community who believe alternative intellectual perspectives have little diversity value.
In order to illustrate why tribal moral communities obstruct research, Haidt revisits the firing of Larry Summers as Harvard’s president. During an academic conference on the chronic problem of female underrepresentation among math and science faculty at the elite research universities, Larry Summers suggested the disparity might be explained by the greater variance in male IQ scores than in female IQ scores. Summers’ point is that the higher variance means there are more men in the upper tail of the distribution than there are women (it also means there are more men in the lower tail of the distribution). Despite the fact that this hypothesis needs to be tested, the event launched the movement that led to his firing. Haidt says social psychologists should be most “outraged by the outrage” over Summers’ comment and very supportive of testing the hypothesis.
Haidt’s work has significant implications for academic culture and is a defining moment for all of higher education. It comes from a scholar in the right discipline to explore the inherent conflict between tribal moral communities and higher education’s mission: scholarship, and teaching. Tribal moral communities obstruct research and they easily turn education into indoctrination. Furthermore, they explain why higher education stubbornly refuses to reform.
The well-established tribal moral communities on campus create very high costs, both in the literal and figurative sense. We spend insufficient time and effort asking difficult questions about cost, quality and bias. When these questions are raised, some people become very angry and indignant, even enraged that a member of the campus community could suggest there might be a problem. Anger and indignation are aggressive defenses; they suggest the angry person cannot support his or her position with evidence or carefully reasoned argument; it is an unambiguous red flag. Anger, indignation and character attacks are used to enforce adherence to “sacred values” and for that reason they have no place in a community of scholars.
We are very gifted in the art of analyzing the behavior and motivations of other groups and institutions. Furthermore, we are intensely trained in the tools used to conduct complex inquiry; yet, we rarely bring those tools to bear on our own activities. As a consequence, our costs grow out of control, quality declines, and we become progressively more defensive. These are not behavioral modes with survival value in a technocratic society.
An important part of the academy’s “sacred value” set is the conviction that academy members are not subject to the same failings that plague the rest of humanity. It is a belief in “academic exceptionalism,” if you will. Members of the academy who served elsewhere in society, such as the military, government, and/or corporations, know this is simply not true; people are basically the same wherever they serve. The academic exceptionalism assumption leads to insufficient protection against the pursuit of self-interest, which causes the pervasive principal/agent problem.
The principal/agent problem always means that costs are higher than necessary. It also means some people do not carry their share of the load. Ironically, the worst example of economic exploitation in our capitalist economy occurs in higher education (a decidedly non-capitalist institution), where adjunct faculty members are employed at will, carry a disproportionate teaching load, are paid very little, and have few benefits; they are truly the modern “reserve army of the underemployed.” This is why “accountability” is a legitimate public concern.
Someone totally unfamiliar with our academic culture would assume that a “community of scholars” pays close attention to the quality of its intellectual climate. They would be surprised to learn that that subject is taboo. Try raising this issue on your campus. Make a careful intellectual argument for a post-partisan university. Explain how an ideology free zone is most conducive to controlling bias in research and teaching, or how it teaches true critical thinking skills, rather than the sophomoric notion that “critical thinking” means saying harsh things about other people’s character and motivation.
Fearless and totally honest introspection leads to self-improvement and, after all, self-improvement is why we committed ourselves to a lifetime of study. Imagine what kind of working environment you would find in a post-partisan university.
Robert Martin is emeritus Boles Professor of Economics at Centre College and author of The College Cost Disease: Higher Cost and Lower Quality (Edward Elgar, Ltd, 2011).