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).
Like everyone in higher education, where the politics are bloodier because the stakes are so much smaller (variously attributed to Woodrow Wilson and Henry Kissinger), I've found myself working in colleges and departments alongside devout obstructionists, academic colleagues deeply resistant to change (any change), who stifle leaders, douse optimism, and undermine progress.
Generally, they're senior colleagues who have either chosen to resist or learned not to trust new colleagues who enter the scene with ambitions for change. To begin with, their obstructionism is almost always more effective than their ambitious colleagues' proaction because they are better organized: we don’t need to study community organizing to know that it's easier to organize against something than it is to organize for something!
Their tactics include:
"it can't be done": stopping meetings with arcane rules they can't produce, that predate the memories of everyone present, and that no one dares challenge for fear of looking uninformed;
the loud and persistent "no": scaring untenured faculty by the adamance of their negativity and challenging the confidence of their chronological peers to take them on once they've staked out their positions;
and storytelling aimed at portraying the advocates for change as turncoats who don't respect the good work of the faculty.
Fundamentally, their strategy is to churn up a climate of disaffection and anxiety aimed at establishing themselves as the sympathetic figures protecting faculty and the status quo.
And I'm a perpetrator because -- like so many of us who gather to chat at the coffee shop, the bar or the grocery store -- I churn the climate with delicious my-god-did-you-hear-abouts in which I recount the bad behaviors, give incidents of obstruction more and longer life, encourage colleagues who didn't know (and who, therefore, didn't feel bad) to now know and feel bad about what was said or done, and hope-upon-hope that I can invoke a bit of sympathy to make me feel a bit better about the blow I suffered in my support for good change and stronger as I gird for the next blow. I'm a perpetrator because, when I do this, I spread the odious climate of the resisters and become an unwitting accomplice of their bullying style.
Stay with me as I change the metaphor to one that every classroom teacher will recognize. Every one of us who has taught has walked into a new classroom, looked out over the sea of new students, found most looking eager and ready to learn, anxious to connect; and found one, two or three students propped in the corners or in the very back row, jeering, sleeping, distracted or even obnoxiously taunting us and their peers to stop doing what we're doing and pay attention to them.
Inexperienced teachers will become consumed by the distracters and all but ignore the large plurality of eager students (perhaps trying to prove to themselves that they can conquer the confrontational challenge). The price of this inexperience is the loss of precious instructional opportunities with the 29, 28 or 27 students who are eager to move to the next level ... and, if protracted, the loss of those learners in that class.
(This metaphor brings to light an added complexity: arguably, these distracters deserve our sympathy and attention as well. A complexity of conditions may bring them to these behaviors. But, while we may not like the behaviors -- we may not even like the people -- they are students [or colleagues] whose positions demand that we find the time and seek the skills to understand and help engage them with their peers.)
How do we stop being unwitting accomplices of obstructive behavior? There are at least four things that concerned colleagues and change agent leaders can consider and do to overcome the obstructive behavior and, perhaps, reduce its effects:
1. Personalities play a big role in the politics of higher education, of course. But let’s never confuse idiosyncratic personalities with obstructionism: gruff pessimism (for example) is not the same as obstructionism. In fact, the informed input of a gruff pessimist may add important contrarian value to the conversation or final decision.
2. We're ethically obliged to authentically try to understand the logic and motives of colleagues who resist before we label them obstructionists. In the same way that sunlight is the best disinfectant, openly and inclusively examining controversial issues and decisions is an opportunity -- and a litmus test -- for airing objective and fact-based differences. If it doesn't -- or won't -- come out in open and inclusive conversations, then it probably isn't objective or fact-based.
3. The logic and economics of both learning and change compel us, first, to invest in securing and optimizing those who come predisposed to participate in it; supporting, encouraging, incentivizing and rewarding those who come ready to explore and to invest energies in learning and change. Progress happens when we move forward; that’s what deserves our attention, more so than simply removing (or complaining about) hurdles. By focusing on those colleagues who are predisposed to moving forward we either ignore and plow past whatever hurdles exist, or build allies whose investment in -- and mounting commitment to -- progress engages them in either marginalizing or removing obstructions.
4. Neither teaching and learning nor change are events; they're processes. Protracted, challenging and expensive processes. When someone chooses to become an obstructionist, usually it's a long-term commitment (perhaps lasting up to and beyond retirement). Concerned colleagues and change agents need to adopt a similarly distant horizon toward which they navigate their collegial efforts. When our frame of reference is small (like this afternoon's meeting, a hallway conversation, or a committee decision), small hurdles, problems and confrontations loom unreasonably large. When our sense of temporal context is longer (as in a two-year program curriculum, a three-year strategic plan, or a five-year promotion and tenure decision), then the same hurdles become manageable, like squalls that buffet us around while we right our ship to navigate towards that point we're aiming to reach on the horizon.
Higher education is under attack from just about every direction. Ironically, that which ought to liberate our creativity, to challenge us to find our better angels, may bring out the very worst in some of our colleagues. So let's be clear: in the long term the worst we can experience is never perpetrated by bad people who do bad things. The worst occurs when good people stand by and do nothing. The times call for each and every concerned colleague, those of us who are ambitious and see changes that need to be made, to step forward, work to understand, lead, persevere, and be strong.
Anonymous has experience as a dean at four universities during a 30-year career and is author of two books and several dozen articles on education and public leadership.