Preview: The sad state of American higher education has been well documented. You’ve probably read a dozen or more articles about the latest outrage: “political correctness,” an anti free speech movement which has overtaken many colleges in the 1990s. Newsweek, Time, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and all the major news networks and journals of opinion have opined about a new “McCarthyism” of the left.
But virtually no one has explained how and why “PC,” along with the deterioration of education in general, has spread so fast and so far. Here, Hillsdale College President George Roche reveals the secret: where government money goes, corruption follows, and today nearly all public and private colleges are dependent on federal funding.
American Colleges in Crisis
We’ve been hearing a lot about the ills and excesses of American higher education in the last few decades. People on all sides of the political spectrum are deeply disturbed by them and have called for a variety of solutions. But no solution will work until we identify the root cause of these problems.
It is not the lack of money spent on education—we spend billions. It is not some sweeping social injustice—we live in an age which offers unprecedented freedom, diversity and opportunity. It is not even that we have forgotten the best ways of teaching knowledge or inculcating virtue, although we have indeed forgotten and are paying a heavy price. So what is the root cause? It is the dead hand of political influence.
Government money and the inevitable fall-out of that money are ruining American higher education. As early as 1952, a national academic commission warned: “We are convinced that it would be fatal were federal support to be substantially extended…the freedom of higher education would be lost.”
Evidence abounds to reveal that federal money and federal control are ultimately responsible for: quotas; lowered academic standards; soaring costs; loss of efficiency and productivity; corruption; price-fixing; incoherent curricula; “politically correct” thinking; the politicization of campus life and administration; neglect of traditional values; and the abolition of free inquiry and open discussion.
Quotas and Lowered Standards
Enforced by the threat of withholding federal funds, quotas have become the single most egregious display of political muscle and influence on campus today. Of course, no one admits enforcing quotas; but they quite clearly dictate which students are accepted, which are given financial aid, and which faculty and staff are hired, promoted or given tenure. When you control who is teaching and who is learning, you have a large measure of control indeed, and that is just what government-mandated affirmative action amounts to: control of higher education.
The resulting loss of quality in education is enormous, and has negative consequences not only for the immediate welfare of this generation, but for generations to come. When merit ceases to be the primary qualification for college admissions and hiring policies, should we be surprised when it is absent in the classroom? Once you begin, as virtually all major educational institutions in this country have, to judge people and reward them solely because their race, their ethnic background or their sex is an alleged disadvantage, you have accepted the premise that merit is actually unjust and undesirable and that genuine equal opportunity is a myth.
The lowered standards that quotas encourage not only adversely affect admissions, hiring, curriculum and issues of equality, but also result in attrition rates that ought to make headlines as a national scandal: One half of all students who enroll in America’s colleges never graduate.
Soaring Costs, Financial Collapse
Another closely guarded secret of higher education is that many colleges are on the verge of financial collapse. Brought about by heavy attrition, overexpansion and an endless proliferation of costly programs, numerous institutions—the names would surprise you—are scrambling for their very survival. One prominent East Coast institution about Hillsdale’s size, but with 2 1/2 times the endowment and 2 1/4 times the tuition, is about to close its doors, despite every effort to rally alumni and outside support. More are bound to follow in the next decade.
Why aren’t such colleges, which seem to be in excellent shape on the surface, prospering?
One reason is the soaring cost of a college education, which makes it harder than ever for schools to attract and retain students. College costs are rising far faster than inflation—twice as fast as the general economy. The average tuition fee at public colleges is $12,000; $19,000 at their private counterparts. Tuition has gone up because the government, like the dealer in a high-stakes poker game, has raised the ante for all the players through massive amounts of federal student aid.
Some of the increased expenditure is also due to faculty expansion, but the real jump has occurred in non-faculty hiring. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, academic support staff has increased an average 61 percent nationwide since 1979. At some schools it is far higher; at the University of Michigan, the figure is 87.5 percent. Colleges not only have every incentive to expand in the quest for more and more government funding, but they are compelled to do so, because their federal patrons in Washington, D.C. want to micromanage virtually every aspect of academic life.
Colleges are required to keep detailed records of all applications, enrollments, academic records, personnel files, suspensions, hirings, promotions, denial of promotions, and so on, all broken down by race, ethnic background, age and sex. They must also hire on-campus “supervisory personnel” whose only job is to make sure that the school paying their salaries is complying with all federal regulations and to be on the lookout for any sign of alleged discrimination. One affirmative action planning officer’s smug explanation for the rising levels of college support staff is: “They have to hire more people like me.”
Larry Uzzell, a former DOE official, reveals that “the Department of Education regulation-writers openly dictate to schools…The department enforces a total of more than one thousand pages of fineprint laws and regulations—a standing refutation of the 1950s claim that federal aid would not promote federal control.”
When it comes to financial mismanagement, colleges are the worst-run institutions in the country. The federal trough has encouraged long-term fiscal irresponsibility and even outright corruption.
Look for a moment at government research grants to education, which are rapidly becoming a disproportionate part of many institutions’ budgets and which lead to all kinds of faculty, staff and facility expansion that can’t be reversed once the grants are exhausted.
Then there is the question of “overhead.” Suppose a college receives a four-year, four-million dollar grant for chemistry lab research. For the first three years, the grant is used to pay for the research as well as the costs of administration. But, quite typically, the college will have incurred so many overhead costs that during the fourth year, all remaining funds will be redirected to administration and the chemistry department will get none; the purpose for which the grant exists is what is deemed expendable.
At Stanford University, the richest school in America, the overhead rate for federal grants is 74 percent. It charged the government $550 million in overhead in the 1980s. Stanford allocated this taxpayer money to such worthy purposes as the renovation of the president’s closets, the depreciation of a 72-foot yacht, and “edible art.” When challenged, the University agreed to reduce its rate to 72 percent, but no more; after all, Harvard Medical School’s overhead rate is 88 percent, and it is seeking to persuade the government to allow an increase to 96 percent! (Wisely, the government has decided to reduce its research grants to Stanford by more than $18 million.)
Not to be outdone, Dartmouth has achieved a new low in ethical misconduct in its systematic suppression of the Dartmouth Review. Believe it or not, the school sought federal reimbursement of thousands of dollars in a court case against this independent and “politically incorrect” student newspaper.
The corruption is even more wide-reaching. The U.S. Department of Justice has charged a number of well-known colleges with illegal price fixing on student aid, further suspecting that heavy tuition increases over the past several decades reflect collusion.
Rejection of Traditional Governance
The rejection of traditional patterns of institutional governance is also to blame for the dismal performance of today’s colleges. Whereas trustees and administrators once guided most daily and long-term decisions, faculty senates and committees have usurped their role.
The loss of efficiency and productivity at faculty-driven institutions is striking. Education critics like Charles Sykes, author of Profscam and The Hollow Men, have produced hundreds of pages of evidence to prove that many teachers don’t teach. The central responsibility and mission of colleges—educating undergraduates—is often left up to a sundry collection of part-timers and graduate students. At Princeton, for example, one-half of all undergraduate courses are taught by graduate students; Sykes claims that the figure is as high as two-thirds at some schools, even though they continue to expand their faculty and staff.
This trend will continue because there is less and less accountability to the consumer—the student, the parent, the alumnus, the outside donor, in short, the real world. That erosion of accountability is directly related to the flood tide of political money reaching American campuses.
Quotas, soaring costs changes in governance, corruption and financial collapse, have also resulted in reduced emphasis on the traditional liberal arts and the growth of shabby, incoherent, politicized curricula. With the campaign for “diversity above all things,” there is a deliberate abandonment of a core of common knowledge for students. They are now treated to a smorgasbord of relativism and “alternative” courses. (All this, by the way, drives up the tuition costs cited earlier.)
Just a few years ago, Johns Hopkins University, which was receiving $500 million a year in federal grants alone, decided to gut its classics department, reducing the number of professors by half; it further announced an across-the-board 10 percent cut for the humanities. The same thing has happened at other institutions.
But that’s not all; there are more common assaults on the curriculum. Four Harvard professors, members of the Academic Subcommittee of the University’s Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Issues Network, recently wrote to the faculty soliciting course descriptions for their new student brochure (Yale’s was enclosed as a sample).
As Midge Decter reports, for only $18,000 a year you can provide this kind of thoroughly “mainstream” education for your 18 year-old son or daughter. Or, for about the same cost, you could try Swarthmore, where students can enroll in a “history” course that “examines love and death, vocation and avocation, life after death, and the resurgence of the occult in United States popular culture.”
For English majors, there is a course in “Laconian conceptions of metaphor and metonymy, feminist deployments of psychoanalytic theory, and the Marxist reconsiderations of culture…with special attention to the conflations of personal vehemence found in feminist and black poetry of the 1970s and 1980s.”
At Barnard College (at least the last time I checked) the freshman seminar requirement could be fulfilled by taking a course called simply, “Seduced and (Sometimes) Abandoned.” As my 18 year-old freshman daughter would say, “Get real.”
Where are these ridiculous courses coming from? Are they rare exceptions? Well, here are just a few of the papers presented recently at the annual meetings of the Modem Language Association, the largest, most prestigious and most “mainstream” faculty organization in the country:
- “The Detective as Pervert”
- “Strategies for Teaching a Feminist Latin American Culture Course”
Or consider this comment from an Ivy League religious studies professor summarizing what then-HEW demanded his department do to keep up with changing times: “we should discontinue such old-fashioned programs [Biblical studies], in which minority groups could not participate, and instead establish programs without language requirements, which they could do—e.g., a Ph.D. in black theology or whatever.”
Federal agencies, incidentally, always call for reductions in academic requirements. For years, they have also actively supported and engaged in race-norming, whereby an individual’s test score is “adjusted” according to his race. Minorities should protest this dumbing-down as racist, and not just on the grounds of civil rights. When objective standards take a back seat to race-centered practices, the self-esteem of the very groups being “protected” is destroyed.
Objective standards, free inquiry and open discussion are just what is at issue in the current debate over “PC,” or “political correctness.” The Wall Street Journal charges that PC has turned the American academy into “an ideological foxhole” overrun with “ivory censors.”
Even critics on the left agree that the college campus is the last bastion of radicalism. Marxist historian Eugene Genovese complains that black and women’s studies courses are often nothing more than “ideological conscious-raising sessions.” Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. worries that professors are telling minorities that “the Western democratic tradition…is not for them.”
Such fears are well-founded. Intellectuals who came of age in the 1960s have moved into the classroom and their anti-traditionalist, anti-capitalist, anti-American biases have moved with them. Grown fat on federal grants and minimal or nonexistent teaching loads, they have become “a kept class,” hostile to the Western tradition, hostile to the culture which feeds it.
Many observers are also troubled that PC professors have launched open war on religious values and the spiritual roots of Western civilization. Gone is the notion that the moral life has anything to do with education, or that the history of the West, based on a 2000 year-old Judeo-Christian heritage, is worthy of study. “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Culture’s got to go” was the chant at Stanford. At Duke one student’s indignant remark sums up how the hostility is communicated in the classroom: “I wouldn’t touch Milton. I know what that guy was up to—he was a sexist through and through.”
Common PC targets are the “Great Books” and classic works of Western civilization that are dismissed as the work of “dead white males.” (This attitude pervades all of American education. The New York State Board of Education, for instance, has characterized the U.S. Constitution as “the embodiment of the white male with property model.”)
PC advocates call not only for the abolition of the core curriculum (in the few places where it still survives) but for a plethora of new Marxist, minority, feminist and Third World college courses and for a complete restructuring of campus life. Washington Post columnist William Raspberry calls this, plainly, a new form of segregation. Subsidized feminist, Chicano, black, gay, and lesbian courses, clubs, associations, centers, dorms, and dining arrangements for every conceivable racial, ethnic, cultural, political, and sexual preference breed more, not less, intolerance and divisiveness.
At the University of Connecticut, there is a ban on “inappropriate laughter.” At Kenyon College, men are allowed to enroll in “Biology of Feminine Sexuality,” but are forbidden to speak. At one school there are even rules against failing to include someone in a conversation. The University of Michigan has attempted to restrict 1st Amendment rights by establishing the most restrictive campus-wide codes of acceptable/unacceptable behavior and speech.
According to the Detroit News, Michigan even dictates the use of politically correct vocabulary: “sexual orientation” over “sexual preference,” “life partner” over “spouse,” and (my personal favorite) “personhole” over “manhole.” Similar instances of PC are the rule at Berkeley, Oberlin, Emory, Yale, Stanford, Duke and elsewhere.
Baruch College, one of New York’s model affirmative action schools, fell short of PC expectations and was nearly denied accreditation in 1990 by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools. While declaring Baruch to be “an excellent academic institution,” the agency objected that it “emphasized academic values without exhibiting equal concern for the values of social justice and equity critical to serving working people in a multicultural urban environment.” (The agency has also labeled 15 to 20 other colleges suspect and is proceeding accordingly.)
PC also challenges other aspects of academic freedom. Schools regularly match professors’ racial and ethnic background and gender with courses they are allowed to teach, resulting in segregated academic fields. By a variety of indirect methods, students are also “matched” to their “appropriate” areas of study.
When it comes to dissenting from the PC party line, students can forget about their chances of receiving a fair hearing. If a professor dissents, he is faced with the prospect of organized vilification, denied committee appointments, lost tenure and promotion opportunities, and other forms of harassment.
In summary, PC has shifted the focus of higher education from the search for truth to mere indoctrination and political transformation—reflected most strongly in the leveling impulse which is its central feature. In the name of multiculturalism, social justice and diversity, we are left with just the opposite: rigid conformity.
Political Money = Political Campuses
I have argued throughout that it is federal funding that has paid for and encouraged the rot which is eating away at American higher education. As a college president who knows first-hand how tough it is to raise millions of dollars to keep a school going, it is certainly tempting to ignore this conclusion. Federal money is such easy money. There are literally hundreds of inducements and pressures to accept it, and it always appears—at first—to come without strings attached; there are plenty of politicians and bureaucrats to assure it.
Don’t believe them: Federal funding always means federal control, and it wrongly shields colleges from the normal and healthy forces of the marketplace. Educational reform is impossible so long as billions of dollars in federal funding keep the current system afloat.
Look only at one single index of how dependent American colleges have become on the federal government: Of all available student aid, 75 percent is federal; 7 percent is state; and 18 percent comes from the institutions. That means three out of every four dollars in student aid is a federal dollar.
One out of every two college students depends on federal aid. There is consuming reliance on federal funds to support every aspect of higher education, at private as well as public colleges. They will now pipe any tune to insure that federal largesse continues.
How can anyone seriously suggest that federal funding has no impact on academic freedom when it picks up most of the tab?
Hillsdale College: Free from Federal Funds and Federal Control
Compare politically funded campuses—public and private—with Hillsdale College:
- we keep costs down
- we stress teaching—real students, real professors
- we hire and promote on merit
- we admit students on merit
- the overwhelming percentage of our students graduate
- traditional values and attitudes are defended as the core of a genuine liberal arts education
- quality orientation and objective standards inform and guide our educational mission
And at Hillsdale, the entrepreneurial solution is to raise all our own funds from the private sector. The College does not accept one penny of federal money. We are therefore free from most kinds of government control, able to determine our own affairs and to defend the freedom and traditional values of our faculty and students and of our growing constituency throughout the country. Once other colleges valued this kind of freedom and independence—the question is, will they ever value it again?