Research universities

Leaders urge research universities to look beyond U.S. government for support

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Some research university leaders say it's time to look beyond the federal government to states and businesses, given Congress's dysfunction.

USC-based initiative releases new tools for adjuncts and their advocates

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New information from the Delphi Project is designed to help adjuncts make their case for reform.

Wick Sloane's application for the presidency of Yale (essay)

With this column, I apply for president of Yale.  With my Yale degree, an M.P.P.M. that became an M.B.A., how could I fail?

Vacant presidencies are everywhere, and I need to apply quickly. The MIT presidency went vacant and filled before I could even click on "new document." Princeton I’ll leave to CIA Director and Princeton Ph.D. General David Petraeus. He has a prayer of waking the place up on admitting veterans.

My own Bunker Hill Community College is looking. A friend offered to be my campaign manager. Tossing myself under the next MBTA train arriving at the Community College stop would be a cleaner death.  State politics will be the death of public higher education yet.  Federal action or bust.

When Yale alum and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton picks Yale as her Ike/Columbia staging area for the U.S. presidency, I’ll withdraw my candidacy, of course, In the meantime, let’s begin the discussion.

(1) My first act as Yale President will be to apologize to the nation and to the world for the Iraq war.  Too many Elis were present at the creation. George W. Bush. Seated but not confirmed U.N. Ambassador John Bolton. Most troubling, U.S.-Iraq Pro-Consul L. Paul (Jerry) Bremer, who thought disbanding the Iraqi army without pay was a good idea. Dick Cheney, too.

As Yale President, I will order an audit -- why not from Bain Consulting? – course by course, class by class, assignment by assignment of this sad trio to determine how a Yale education went so wrong. Next, I’ll ensure that all courses, graduate and undergraduate, train students to evaluate evidence and sources to know whether a country does/does not have weapons of mass destruction. “Evaluating Sources” is the start of even elementary research guides. Graduation requirements will include ability to do a cost/benefit analysis for decisions such as when to spend a few more weeks or months or years looking for facts versus launching a three-trillion dollar war by mistake.

All Yale dining halls will be open, free, to Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. Homeless veterans will be welcome this winter in all Yale buildings. And we’ll find you a home by spring.

I’ll commission Yale graduate Maya Lin to put up a wall listing the dead, Yale or not, from Afghanistan and Iraq. I’ll withhold paychecks and transcripts for faculty and students failing pop quizzes on battles listed on the Commons end of Woolsey Hall -- Cambrai, Argonne, Somme Chateau-Thierry, Ypres, St. Mihiel, and Marne. I can’t be the last Yale student who read the names of the 1,020 dead and wondered about these battles walking by every day. Has anyone in this 21st century stopped to read the cenotaph inscription: “In Memory of the Men of Yale who True to Her Traditions gave their Lives that Freedom might not Perish from the Earth. 1914 Anno Domini 1918.”

(2) Effective at once, Yale will enroll 250 undergraduate veterans of the Iraq and Afghan wars per class.  Do these men and women all yet have the skills of a Yale freshman?  Probably not.  We’ll start with a summer school for catch-up.  If these men and women need to be at Yale for five or six years instead of four, so what? Their presence in the classrooms will enlighten discussions of wars started by people in climate-controlled Washington, D.C., office buildings.

Yale reports that nine undergraduates there are part of the Yellow Ribbon program in the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which is open to veterans and their dependents. By contrast, Bunker Hill Community College, where I work, has nearly 500 veterans. The trouble with Yale's dodge is that all nine could be veterans or none could be veterans. I'm waiting for clarification.

{3} Turning to Yale and Wall Street: one day at a soup kitchen does not atone for another 364 of hedge-funding. Come on. I will eliminate the annual Yale alumni “Day of Service.” Crazy me. During my elite education, I bought the line from the Gospel of Luke: “And to whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required: and to whom they commit much, of him will they ask the more.” The only justification for a federally subsidized elite education is that its graduates leave the world in better shape than they found it. We baby boom alumni, entering the late chapters of our lives, may be the first to leave the world in worse shape.

Let’s begin repairs with public education. Until such time as the poorest K-12 students in the U.S. have the highest literacy rates in the world, Yale degrees will expire every five years unless graduates have run for school board in their towns.  Notarized ballots mailed to the registrar will suffice as proof.

(4) I will excoriate, scarify, hang by the thumbs the reporters and editors of the Yale Daily News. For years, these would-be journalists have agreed not to contact the trustees, known as Fellows of the Yale Corporation, as long as the Yale president and administration returns calls promptly. Our republic, I will explain, cannot stand for the gerbilization of the press. Yale Daily News alumni my age think I must be making this up.

College presidents don’t raise tuition.Trustees do. I’ll remind them all of the press and the Iraq war. (As of press time, no reply from The Yale Daily News on whether this policy continues.) Margaret Warner, distinguished correspondent on the PBS News Hour, you were a recent member of the Yale Corporation. Whose idea was this?

(5) The Yale undergraduate admissions staff will grow up. A true horror story. It happened to me a few years ago. Ignoring protestations that “It’s just not done,” I prevailed on extracting a visit by Yale to Bunker Hill Community College, not a regular stop. I had set the schedule for the day in collaborative, written emails with the two admissions officers who were to visit. The two arrived an hour late, leaving me to call the admissions office in New Haven, fearing an accident. “We couldn’t call because the phone was in the trunk,” one said on arrival.   

The two, dressed for an evening at the laundromat, knew from the e-mails that the first 30-minute appointment was with students who had to go to work. The second was with the vice president of academic affairs and the deans. The students who hadn’t left were late for work. I apologized to the vice president and the deans, skipped that meeting, and hustled the two through the other appointments as fast as I could. These two Yale admissions officers had brought no business cards, brochures, catalogs, or any material whatsoever about Yale.

MIT visits Bunker Hill Community College to inspire students about education and to honor the teachers of students who excel in science and math, often without having eaten that day. Two BHCC students are at MIT this fall.

(6) With sorrow and regret, I will close my long-inert Yale School of Management. I was in the sixth class of this school, founded on the idea that everyone must from time to time to apply management and leadership skills beyond just business.  A few of us found work such as bringing clean water to rural Pakistan. Or public education.

What’s followed is more than 30 years of whimpering by the school that the school fails to land at the top of the plain-vanilla business-school rankings. Why would a nontraditional, innovative program expect to be on the same list as Harvard, Stanford or Wharton? I thought the Yale brand was about leading, not following.That build-a-better-world dream gave up the ghost with the appointment of a new dean, certainly a fine man, whose prior assignments were pushing other business schools to the top of the standard rankings chart.

The School of Management faculty and students can disperse to Harvard, Wharton and Stanford, where they all want to be anyway. I’m taking the dive for Iraq. Let those universities take the blame for the knuckleheads on Wall Street. Under my presidency, Yale will return to setting the standards to inspire others.

Oh, what about the Yale School of Managment’s under-construction Norman Foster, kazillion-dollar new campus? I’ll tip my hat to Poets and Quants, the web zine trying to make sense of business schools today. In and around this unfinished Xanadu, I’ll dump truckloads of lone and level sand. Steel and marble signs around the site, lit at night, with a poem will warn all who would take a Yale education and follow.

Ozymandias, by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: `Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear --
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.'

Wick Sloane writes the Devil's Workshop column for Inside Higher Ed.

Business group ranks states on effectiveness of public colleges

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U.S. Chamber of Commerce ranks public higher education in state-by-state report card that measures "return on investment." Good data and transparency are lacking among public colleges, group says.

Essay: Research universities must pay more attention to student learning

It is my view that most of us engaged in education at our nation’s leading research universities focus our attention upon the wrong issues.  These universities are wondrously complex institutions that defy easy analysis or understanding.  We therefore tend to concentrate upon their most visible components, such as scientific research, star professors, state-of-the-art facilities and technology, economic development, international impact, and football and basketball teams. 

It has become a cliché that American universities are the best in the world. This claim, while valid in important dimensions, can lead to complacency and neglect of serious problems.

Much of our international reputation is based upon two outstanding features of American universities: unrelenting commitment to an atmosphere of free and open inquiry, and excellence in scientific research. These twin advantages attract the best talent from around the world to American universities, not only to our graduate programs but increasingly to our undergraduate colleges as well.

In other aspects of our enterprise, however, we find ourselves hard-pressed. Our funding model, first of all, is under severe duress. States have repeatedly reduced their support of public universities, most severely in the past five years, a disinvestment that now threatens to erode their quality and competitiveness. 

Some public universities have understandably attempted to make up the deficit in state support by raising undergraduate tuition aggressively and increasing the proportion of out-of-state students. But this strategy undermines the public mission of providing access, creates anger in the state, meets resistance in the legislature, and has now attracted the attention of the White House. As states have shifted the burden of paying for college from their general funds to students and their families, the perception has grown that higher education, once seen as a public good, has become a private interest. And these coping mechanisms, if continued, will lead to general deterioration in the quality of undergraduate education, the very part of our universities that depends most upon state support.

At private universities, tuition and fees plus room and board have, in some cases, reached $55,000 per year. Although most students do not pay that full cost, and though generous financial aid policies and endowment spending have actually brought down the real costs for the average student over the past five years, a degree carrying a price tag of well over $200,000 creates automatic sticker shock in the public.  It also raises real questions about whether we have been paying enough attention to holding down expenses. 

The airwaves are rife with predictions of disruptive change coming to the economic model of higher education.  It is no wonder that parents paying and borrowing for a college education steer their children toward practical majors that seem to promise instant employment, and discourage them from studying the liberal arts and sciences in pursuit of a well-balanced education. A private interest in education today means a purely economic one.

From this inversion of values flows our second problem: a redefinition of the purpose of undergraduate education. Fifty years ago, when I started college, there was a widely shared view in America that the purpose of a college education was to prepare students to become educated citizens capable of contributing to society.  College was in the public interest because it gave graduates an understanding of the world and developed their critical faculties.

Today, many Americans believe that the sole purpose of going to college is to get a job -- any job. The governors of Texas and Florida are quite clear on this point, and draw the corollaries that college should be cheap and vocational, even when delivered at major research universities like the Universities of Texas and Florida.  A university education is more than ever seen as strictly utilitarian.  The reasons are clear: a) as more students and families pay a large share of the costs, they naturally want a ready return on their investment; b) the most desirable jobs in this highly competitive job market require a college degree; and c) the gap in lifetime earnings between college and high school degree holders is huge. 

Today, as many Americans hold a purely instrumentalist view of undergraduate education, they want a detailed accounting of its value. Hence our third problem: close public scrutiny and political accountability.  Parents want to know, what did my daughter learn, and how does it contribute to her career? State legislatures want to know: what is the graduation rate at our university? How many undergraduate students do faculty members teach? And much more.

These questions put us in an uncomfortable position, because in some cases we do not know the answers, and in others we know them but do not like them. Many of us have eschewed the use of instruments assessing the value of general education, particularly at our major universities. We have, often for good reason, lacked confidence that such instruments are reliable measures of the value of a research university education, particularly if they are based on a one-size-fits-all approach. 

However, given the level of scrutiny and skepticism in the public and in state houses, research universities need to take this issue seriously. 

The professionalization of the professoriate has been crucially beneficial for research and graduate training at many institutions, but at most large universities, it has been problematic for undergraduate education. Several recent studies, some flawed but still indicative, have revealed that a significant percentage of students do not improve their critical thinking and writing much at all in the first two years of college. This should come as no surprise, given the dearth of small classes requiring active participation and intellectual interaction.

Too many students are adrift in a sea of courses having little to do with one another.  Many courses, even at the upper division level, have no prerequisites, and many require no debate or public speaking or the writing of papers that receive close attention and correction.  A student’s curriculum is a mélange of courses drawn almost haphazardly from dozens of discrete academic departments.  And there is substantial evidence that students are fleeing demanding majors in favor of easier ones that have the added lure of appearing to promise immediate access to jobs.

The combination of drastic state disinvestment in public universities, student careerism, and pedagogical failings of our own has serious consequences for the country. To take one significant example, we now know that more than 50 percent of the students starting college with a stated desire to major in science or engineering drop out of those majors before graduating.  

We can no longer blame this problem entirely on the nation’s high schools. A substantial body of research demonstrates conclusively that the problem is frequently caused by poor undergraduate teaching in physics, chemistry, biology, math, and engineering, particularly in the freshman and sophomore years. Students are consigned to large lecture courses that offer almost no engagement, no monitoring, and little support and personal attention.  The combination of poor high school preparation and uninspiring freshman and sophomore pedagogy has produced a stunning dearth of science and engineering majors in the U.S.  Our country now falls well behind countries like China and India in turning out graduates with strong quantitative skills. 

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the U.S. in 2009 ranked 27th among developed nations (ahead of only Brazil) in the proportion of college students receiving undergraduate degrees in science or engineering.  As a result, American students are a dwindling proportion of our graduate enrollments in science and engineering. An administration report not only states that foreign students are earning more than half of U.S. doctoral degrees in engineering, physics, computer sciences, and economics but also estimates that the United States, under current assumptions, will in the next decade under produce college graduates in STEM fields by one million.

I fear the practical as well as intellectual consequences of these trends. However, I am not a pessimist; I am a realist. In this, the 150th anniversary year of the Morrill Act, I think we can do something to reverse these trends, if we muster our collective will to do so. The anticipated report of the National Research Council on the state of our research universities will, I hope, focus national attention on the problems and opportunities confronting these vital institutions.

But over time, the renewed public investment in higher education that our country needs is unlikely if we do not acknowledge our own shortcomings and begin to address them. First, we need to say loudly and clearly that improving undergraduate education will receive our closest attention and best efforts. We need to alter faculty incentives by making undergraduate teaching at least equal to research and graduate teaching in prestige, evaluation, and reward. And we need to do research-based teaching that takes account and advantage of the latest findings of cognitive science, which are extensive, on how students learn. In brief, they learn by doing, not by just listening to someone else; they learn by solving problems, not by passively absorbing concepts; they learn best in groups of peers working things out together.

Fortunately, some of our best universities are leading the way. Initiatives at such institutions as Johns Hopkins University, Stony Brook University, the University of Michigan, Stanford, Yale, and others offer great encouragement. The remarkable thing about them is the acknowledgment by faculty that we need to focus much more attention on undergraduate education, and that we need to deliver it more effectively than we have been doing. I find these examples exhilarating and promising.

At the Association of American Universities, we hope to disseminate the findings of such research across our universities, both public and private, and thus to stimulate more students to persist in their study of math and science and engineering. We have embarked on a five-year project led by top scientists and experts in science pedagogy designed to help science departments implement these new teaching methods. One of my hopes for the future of research universities is that student learning will be at the center of faculty concern, research will inform teaching, undergraduate classrooms will be places of engaged, participatory learning, and a university education will be not just a means to an entry-level job, but an invitation to a lifetime of learning.

I am well aware of the difficulty of changing those cultures. It will take a broad and deep effort to realize serious and sustainable gains.  The stakes are high, not just for our universities but for the country.  In the global knowledge economy, an educated public is essential not just to economic competitiveness but to national well-being. 

Hunter Rawlings is president of the Association of American Universities. This article is adapted from a speech delivered on February 28, 2012, at the De Lange Conference at Rice University.

Midwestern colleges launch campuses built on public-private collaboration

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Throughout the Midwest, a new name highlights interest of universities and politicians in technology transfer.

Hello, Aggregator

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University PR offices ply the levers of new media to try to publicize the work of their researchers.

'Abelard to Apple'

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The latest book to suggest that American higher education needs to face up to a period of radical change is Abelard to Apple: The Fate of American Colleges and Universities (MIT Press). Abelard represents the medieval ideal of scholar/teacher/philosopher while Apple is the world of iTunes U. The author is Richard A. DeMillo, Distinguished Professor of Computing, professor of management and director of the Center for 21st Century Universities at Georgia Institute of Technology.

Admissions: Worse Than Ever

Our younger child just finished the college admissions sweepstakes. He got into one of his top choice schools, but he says he feels more unburdened than proud. Now he can get on with his life, enjoying the things he loves to do. He no longer has to worry about marketing his “admissions package,” as if he were the latest toothpaste or laundry detergent. 

Our family last went through the admissions experience eight years ago when our older child applied to college. Although he ended up at one of the “hot” Ivy League universities, we sadly concluded that the selective college admissions process had no redeeming social value. You just lived through it, hoped your child survived unscathed, and prepared to hand over your bank account.  

Unfortunately, it has gotten worse since then. More than ever, higher education seems like a commodity, as selective colleges market themselves shamelessly, increase applicant demand, and manage enrollments as if they were commercial enterprises. And, in response, an industry of expensive services and consultants to teach applicants how to game the admissions system is booming. Uncalculated is the toll on students, integrity and fundamental fairness.

This time around, college planning started just before ninth grade, when the college counselor at our son’s school met with parents and students to advise on the importance of course selection over the next four years. The message was to take diverse and challenging courses if you hope to get into a selective college -- loosely defined as the top 50 colleges and universities in the U.S. News & World Report annual survey. No big deal: Anyone who is interested in a rigorous liberal arts education for their child would probably take this advice anyway.  

Then came 10th grade’s pre-pre-college admissions testing regimen: the PSAT, given by the College Board, and the PLAN, from ACT Inc.  This was to get students ready to take the same tests again in 11th grade, to get them ready to take the tests that count big time in college admissions, the SAT and ACT.  Although originally devised as alternatives, counselors now tell students to take both the SAT and the ACT and submit the score of the one they do best on. These tests are in addition to at least three SAT II  “achievement” tests and, of course, a battery of Advanced Placement exams for those rigorous courses they are counseled to take. Pile on top of these the now de rigueur SAT and ACT review courses -- at, not incidentally, anywhere from $700 to $3,000 a pop.  

Our son, a motivated student with top grades and a challenging academic program, is a very good, but not spectacular, standardized test-taker. Friends with children at other schools told us that kids had to have 1500 SAT’s to be in the admissions hunt at top-echelon colleges. Looking at the median test scores published by colleges and information services all over the Internet, this notion did not seem completely off-base. But even if it meant going to a lesser member of the “nifty 50” group of colleges, our son eschewed review courses on the grounds that he already had a heavy schedule and would rather read some good books than spend hours taking boring SAT or ACT prep classes. Obviously, we had done something right in his education, but we were definitely out of the mainstream.  

He opted not to take the SAT at all, and ended up scoring in the 99th percentile on the ACT after doing some test prep at home on his own. This he was proud of, because, as he said, he isn’t a wiz at standardized tests, and he didn’t take an expensive prep course. I suppose it was a kind of reverse snobbery (“anyone can do well if they take a prep course, but I did it on my own”) and a real sign of the times in the selective college admissions world.  

Fate was cruel to him in other ways. The night before the first AP exam in his junior year, he developed golf-ball-sized lymph nodes all over his neck and groin that looked suspiciously like lymphoma. It took four days to determine that he had mono, not cancer. This scare did put the whole college admissions lunacy in perspective for us.  

On the other hand, our son endured AP and SAT II exams while suffering from mono. Now he had a new dilemma. Does he tell colleges he took the exams while sick? Does he take tests over in the fall?  No matter how well he did, would he have done better if he had not had mono? In the end, he decided to accept fate. He did reasonably well on the tests, there were limits to how much of his life he was prepared to devote to getting into the “perfect” college, and he did not like making excuses, even good ones.

Our son’s college application experience was tame compared to children of a lot of upwardly mobile, well-educated, Baby Boom parents. For starters, the popularity of private “college consultants,” notwithstanding their ludicrous fees, took us by surprise. One family we know had a consultant on retainer from the time the child was in seventh grade. This was in addition to the cost of SAT prep courses and the professional editor for the college essay. The total bill for these services was more than $30,000.  

An acquaintance we bumped into at a wedding last summer informed us she had just opened a private college consulting business, having recently retired from her position as a highly successful college counselor at an elite prep school. She offers a four-year package for about $15,000, or the college-application-only option for the all-important senior year for about $5,000. Her phone was ringing off the hook. Could this possibly be worth the extraordinary expense?

More important, what message does it send to children about their worth and competence when we act as if the only way they can make it into a selective college is to hire high-priced help to package and market them? Is the admissions prize worth this psychological price? As bad, are we raising a generation of young cynics?

Looking for Help

A quick Internet search revealed no shortage of expensive, fear-mongering consultants to guide students and their families through what they imply is the mine field of selective college admissions.  After reading these sites, we wondered if a mere mortal could possibly fill out an application for an elite college, never mind actually get in. I went to Amazon.com and did a search for books on college admissions. The first book that turned up was A is for Admission; the Insider’s Guide to Getting into the Ivy League and Other Top Colleges (Warner Books, 1999), the controversial, tell-all exposé of selective college admissions by Michelle A. Hernandez. Hernandez is a former Ivy League admissions officer who now has -- you guessed it -- a college consulting business. I ordered the book and read it cover to cover.  

She confirmed what our older son had learned from an admissions office friend at his Ivy League university: You are lucky if an admissions reader devotes 15 minutes to the application your child labored over for months. It might even be more like 10 minutes. Hernandez also explained how, by calculating a so-called “academic index,” the selective college admissions office will reduce your child’s entire high school career to one number, weighted heavily in favor of standardized tests. The book had the ring of truth, not the least because it confirmed my by-now-cynical view of the selective college admissions process.  

Hernandez also instructed how to play the admissions game, with specific coaching like: play down economic advantages; play up work experience, especially hard manual labor; show long-term passion about a few things; choose teachers for recommendations who you know can write with style; and most importantly (was this tongue-in-cheek?) be yourself. Her follow-on volume, Acing the College  Application: How to Maximize Your Chances for Admission to the College of Your Choice, was prescriptive about how to fill out an application, including how to do the “brag sheet,” the list of activities and interests that is required in the Common Application  now used by most colleges.

Of course, her example of a brag sheet, taken from one of her clients, made the applicant sound like a combination of Albert Schweitzer and Steven Spielberg. If this was the competition, it was very discouraging. Her advice on college interviews was sensible and contained a list of common interview questions. (Spot on, according to our son, after having gone through six interviews.) You can retain Ms. Hernandez for what is undoubtedly thousands of dollars, or you can buy the books for a total of about $25. We chose the cheap alternative.  

One of the great eye-openers in the college admissions experience was the amount of disingenuousness involved in writing the college essay. Our son’s school spends a few weeks in English class early in the senior year working on crafting personal essays in order to prepare for college applications, so we naively assumed that students wrote their own college essays.

Not necessarily. As we spoke to parents in other places who had lived through the senior year with their children, we personally came to know of a father who wrote his daughter’s college essay, a father who had his son’s college essay written by an employee of the father’s business, and parents who hired professional editors or writers to “help” with the college essay. The worst part is that in every case, these children got into their first choice schools.  

We live in a small town in upstate New York and thought we were immune to what we viewed as these metro-area ethical challenges. Wrong again. The summer before our son’s senior year, we received a glossy brochure from a professional writer in our town. He has gone into the business of helping students to “find their voices” in the “all important” college essay, a service for which he charges the mere pittance of $1,500. Isn’t your child’s future worth it? There seems to be so much deception in college essay writing, I have come to the conclusion that essays should be eliminated from applications in favor of a personal essay question administered in a controlled environment by the College Board or  ACT and forwarded by them to colleges. Ironically, I never imagined I would find myself advocating for yet another college admissions test.  

The same family that spent more than $30,000 on college consultants claimed that the college counseling staff at their well-regarded country day school advised that if the family was of a charitable bent, the application year would be a good time to make a significant donation to their child’s first-choice college. The family said they pledged half a million. An old friend who has been on the faculty of an elite liberal arts college in New England for a quarter century confirmed that over the past five years it has become well known that a contribution of $500,000 to $1 million to a selective college can secure a spot in the class for a student who is academically qualified.

Since 90 percent of applicants to such colleges are academically qualified and most of them are not admitted, the wealthy who are prepared to be generous at the right time appear to be able to buy admission for their children. Off the record, some selective college administrators we know demur that you have to pledge to rebuild the library in order to influence an admissions decision. Whatever the price, the dirty little secret seems to be that admission is for sale in what sounds like a pretty straight-forward, if expensive, transaction.   

Toward the end of our son’s wait to hear from colleges, he had a nightmare that notification finally came but merely said, “No conclusion.” Did it mean he was consigned to college admissions purgatory forever? This was a fate worse than death. Happily, he awoke and was eventually admitted. Just as happily, we will never have to live through this experience again.

But we cannot help wondering if the selective college admissions process is losing integrity with every passing year. Reading thousands of applications at ten or fifteen minutes apiece, can admissions officers really see through anything but the most obvious and overblown applicant marketing? How can we believe their universal representation that each application is carefully reviewed? And what happens to families whose children go to schools with under-staffed and overburdened guidance offices and who cannot afford private college consultants, clever essay editors, test prep courses and mammoth charitable contributions?

These questions raise issues of fairness that go far beyond the current debates about affirmative action. Let’s hope the colleges are trying to answer them.  

Author/s: 
Deirdre Henderson
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Deirdre Henderson is a mother and lawyer who lives in upstate New York.

The Great Mismatch

Doctoral education in the United States has changed rapidly over the last 30 years, with increasing specialization and the emergence of new sub-fields for graduate study. Depending on the nature and size of a university, some of these fields and sub-disciplines fit into traditional academic departments, while others demand their own departments or even colleges. Examples of the former abound, such as post-colonial studies, which may often find a comfortable home in an English or comparative literature department. In the latter category are fields like criminal justice, public policy, social work and nano-scale science and engineering -- highly-developed fields that attract increasingly large numbers of students and significant government and foundation funding.

We live within an academic marketplace of ideas, and the best institutions respond to the emergence of new areas of inquiry with vigor. Indeed, research universities can be judged by their ability to recognize and institutionalize new areas and disciplines, supporting excellence within them and nurturing their growth. Scholars typically lead administrators in these efforts, writing books that outline possible boundaries of a new field, establishing journals to define the area, or gathering colleagues for forward-looking conferences intended to advance cutting-edge approaches and methods.

From our standpoint, the more fields and defined areas of doctoral study, the better:  Formal establishment of these areas is typically the result of tremendously high student and scholarly demand. New areas of study are also the result of significant investments by universities and, in the case of public institutions, taxpayer dollars. Not surprisingly state officials and the public are eager for an accounting of how their investments stack up against others. This issue becomes all the more important when, as is true with the National Research Council ratings project, participating public as well as private institutions must pay to be part of the study.

Given that pushing the research envelope is one of the central tenets of any great university, it seems ironic that a survey designed to evaluate the quality and breadth of research would leave so much of our nation’s research untouched. Despite the imagination, interdisciplinarity, and fluidity one finds across the academy in recognizing emerging fields, our most prominent rating system -- the NRC Assessment of Research-Doctorate Programs -- has not responded, and in fact has resisted the change we see around us.

This fall the NRC released its new taxonomy, listing the fields that would be assessed and those that would not be studied. The new taxonomy reflects our worst fears for the assessment of Ph.D. programs: It fails to recognize a large number of thriving and vitally important fields where some of the most talented researchers in the world can be found. Among these fields are criminal justice, public administration and policy, social work, information science, gender studies, education, and public health. We have expressed our strong objections about these exclusions to Ralph J. Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Sciences, and to Charlotte Kuh, study director for the NRC Assessment. We have received no response, and other academic leaders have been treated with the same disregard when they have challenged plans for the new assessment. Such behavior seems especially problematic given the importance of the NRC study for institutions and researchers.

Placing fields like gender studies and information studies in the new, nebulous "emerging fields" category -- fields that will not be rated -- does not solve the problem in the least, but simply steers important scholarly endeavors in a giant black box. The justification of the taxonomy boldly notes that "emerging areas of study may be transitory," hence it is risky to evaluate them with the same rigor used for other fields. From what we can discern at least, information science, the study of race, of ethnicity, of sexuality, and gender have already emerged, and have profoundly changed the academy for the better. We imagine that scholars in these fields are not transitory in the least: A large number of them hold endowed chairs, run centers, manage departments, edit journals, lead foundations and run major institutions.

To make matters even more painful for us, for our faculty, and for colleagues around the nation, the National Academies recently asked for our financial support for the project -- a contribution of $20,000 for larger research universities like our own. We felt compelled to pay the price, but we did so reluctantly and over the strong objections of leading scholars on our campus.

One can critique numerous aspects of the NRC rating system, and a variety of leaders in higher education have done so quite eloquently for more than a decade since the last report. The data collection takes years to compile, and these data quickly become outdated as faculty members move and institutions change. We understand that the new system will involve online questionnaires and include a database that can be updated annually, and we appreciate the National Academies’ efforts in this regard. Another difficulty with earlier NRC studies has been the inclusion of reputational surveys. The forthcoming NRC study has promised to eliminate the reputational rankings from its rating system, and this, too, is an improvement. Among the worst offences of the system has been the bias toward large programs; much of the variance in previous ratings can be explained elegantly by department size (The 600-pound gorilla of a department, even with many unproductive scholars, will come out ahead of the smaller and higher quality programs). Perhaps the questionnaires planned for institutions and admitted-to-candidacy doctoral students in selected fields will help add a new dimension to program quality that will compensate in some programs for differences in size.

But these revisions, while potentially significant, only make the intentional and unexplained omission of major fields of knowledge, critical to the development of the academy, more inexplicable. Methodological change is not much of an advance if one is not measuring the right population of fields and disciplines. A social science parallel, from public opinion research, is relevant here:  You can refine a survey instrument all you like, sweating over question wording, order effects, and non-response to the survey. But if you are asking respondents about banal issues of little political import, why bother?

There is an even more troubling irony in the current effort. The NRC has chosen not to include “those fields for which much research is directed toward the improvement of practice,” such as Ph.D. programs in “social work, public policy, nursing, public health, business, architecture, criminology, kinesiology, and education.” This approach, of course, flies in the face of a recently-released report on “The Responsive Ph.D.” by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. This report identifies the principle of “a cosmopolitan doctorate” as central to the future of the Ph.D. The report emphasizes that such a doctorate “will benefit enormously by a continuing interchange with the worlds beyond academia” and calls upon doctoral education to “open to the world and engage social challenges more generously.” The NRC assessment, by excluding so many well-established Ph.D. programs, will simply have the effect of reifying the status quo at research universities, instead of helping us respond boldly to the loud and chronic public call for an open and responsive academy.

The Taxonomy Committee argues that the task of evaluating research in these fields lies “beyond the capacity of the current or proposed methodology.” We do not accept this argument as valid, particularly given the proposed scope and expense of the projected NRC study. Further, the taxonomy displays no systematic logic with regard to which applied and interdisciplinary programs are included and which are excluded. Why include nutrition or pharmacology, clearly applied fields, but not criminal justice? Why is the study of sexuality not included while German linguistics and Latin American Literature both are? There is no decision rule in sight, and the taxonomy does not even come close to matching the current landscape of the academy. Perhaps if the NRC had retained the reputational measures, they might have been able to mount an argument about excluding particular fields. But, ironically, the new approach makes the taxonomy more distant from reality. It is removed from the marketplace of ideas, and excludes the voice of the scholarly community.

Apparently the NRC is not open to arguments like the ones above, and as a result, the ratings they will eventually produce will not reflect a great deal of the most important scholarship in higher education today. Not only will the final report have gaping holes, ignoring the work of thousands of scholars, but the NRC will also fail to recognize that interdisciplinary research with practical application matters immensely.

We predict that this next round of results will be received -- whenever it is complete -- as a dinosaur, an artifact of uneven logic and old-fashioned thinking about what constitutes true scholarly discovery. We are grateful that other assessment systems are appearing and regret that the NRC will spend over $5 million on a quickly outdated effort to assess graduate education. Thankfully, such short-sightedness will not stop our best scholars from developing new approaches, forging innovative fields, training hungry students, and changing the world for the better through their work. We call on the National Academies  – yet again -- to reconsider their taxonomy, so that leaders in higher education can demonstrate to our public officials that we are capable of evaluating the very research enterprise with which we have been entrusted.

Author/s: 
Kermit L. Hall and Susan Herbst
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Kermit L. Hall is the president and Susan Herbst is the provost of the State University of New York at Albany.

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