The editorial pages of The New York Times seem to have become the destination of choice for people who want to say uninformed things about American higher education. Let me rephrase that slightly: They have become the destination of choice for people who want to say uninformed things that are designed to get readers angry at American higher education, which I presume is why The Times keeps them coming. In today’s America, anger sells.
Though this receptivity to misleading opinion pieces has been around at The Times for a while, it seems in recent months to be building to some sort of crescendo. On April 4 of this year, the paper published “The Real Reason College Tuition Costs So Much” by Paul Campos. According to Campos, the “real reason” boils down to generous government subsidies and bloated administrations. These are longstanding talking points that are unsubstantiated by any evidence. Believe it or not, there are people who actually study this stuff, and there is evidence compiled by economists and others that explains the rise in college costs. None of that is in Campos’s opinion piece, and none of it confirms his conclusions. (I would recommend Why Does College Cost So Much? by Robert Archibald and David Feldman to those who want a thoughtful answer to the question.)
On May 20 the paper published “Platinum Pay in Ivory Towers” by Frank Bruni. I am a fan of Bruni’s work, but he seems to have lost some of his usual good judgment when it comes to the subject of colleges and universities. This particular piece expressed ire at the $8.5 million payout by Yale University to its recently retired president, Richard Levin.
It is fair to find such a sum outrageous. It is less fair to move to Bruni’s conclusion that “the lofty pay of college presidents is part of higher education’s increasingly corporate bent, of the blurred lines between the campus and the marketplace.” Using the example of how a university with many billions of dollars chooses to spend several million as the basis of generalizations about American higher education is like using Warren Buffett as an example of the typical American investor. The latest data from the College and University Association for Human Resources show that the median salary for research university presidents is about $450,000, with most other sectors not coming close to that, and community college presidents having a median salary of $188,000. By comparison, a 2012 study showed the average salary of a partner in a large American law firm to be $681,000. There are far more law partners than college presidents in America.
The nadir of this trend was reached on June 6, with the publication of “Why I Defaulted on My Student Loans,” by the journalist Lee Siegel. Siegel is the author of four books and a contributor to publications including Harper’s, The New Republic and The New Yorker. I assume he makes a living. He is proud of having defaulted on his loans, which he took out, he says, in order to attend “a small private liberal arts college.” If his online biography is correct, Siegel went on to receive three degrees from Columbia University.
It is hard to know how properly to describe Siegel’s piece. One might begin with self-centered, condescending and poorly reasoned. He accepts no responsibility for having chosen a private college over a less expensive public option in the first place; he finds offensive the notion that he might have had to take a job that he found less than true to his “particular usefulness to society” -- which was to write smart things -- in order to pay off his debts. He finds the entire notion of repaying a debt for the receipt of a benefit a “social arrangement that is legal, but not moral.” He encourages others to follow his sterling example.
All this would be easy to dismiss as a colossal display of arrogance and irresponsibility were it not for the imprimatur of respectability bestowed by The Times. I understand the fact that the views expressed on an opinion page do not reflect those of the paper or its editors. But I also believe that those editors have a responsibility to act as, well, editors, and to publish pieces that meet a certain standard of thoughtfulness and stand at least within spitting distance of the facts. It saddens me that the newspaper that is ostensibly the gold standard of American journalism seems to be taking its lead from angry blogs.
I’m thinking of submitting an opinion piece to The Times entitled “College Causes Cancer.” I don’t have any facts to support the claim, but apparently that doesn’t matter, and the title is catchy as hell.
Brian Rosenberg is president of Macalester College.
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