Sunday, April 21, 2013

Mission Ambiguous

It's not too surprising that faculty, parents, students, and boards of governors all have somewhat different visions of the mission of a university.  The biggest stick in this four-cornered fight is held by the boards of governors, and the people who control their money.  Frank Bruni has an NYT story on the version of this fight currently being waged in Texas, where conservative regents appointed by Governor Rick Perry are battling the UT President Bill Powers.

The regents’ apparent animosity toward Powers, whose most recent request for a modest in-state tuition increase they denied, reached a point where state lawmakers passed several resolutions in February making their support for him clear. That was a slap at the regents — and, by extension, at Governor Perry.

And while it reflected political factionalism, it also tapped into a philosophical divide. The regents, Perry and a conservative think tank with great sway over the governor have all called for, or mused publicly about, reforms at the university that many other Texans have deep and warranted reservations about.

The reformers want professors evaluated by how many students they teach and how many research dollars they attract, metrics that favor large classes and less speculative, visionary science.

They want the school to figure out a way, despite huge cutbacks in public funding, to offer students a four-year degree for a sum total of $10,000 in tuition, which is a small fraction of the current cost and seemingly impossible without a diminution in the quality of instruction.

Much as I distrust conservative think tanks, and Perry, I'm not wholly out of sympathy with such efforts. Most parents, and most kids, think college is about preparing for a career, and getting a leg up in the struggle for existence. Faculty, even those researching questions nobody else cares about, tend to think that universities are for research or whatever else it is they do when they aren't teaching.

The battle is part of a larger war that is by no means confined to Texas.

And so colleges in Virginia are now required to provide information for a database that shows what graduates majored in and what they wound up earning 18 months after getting their diplomas. Florida lawmakers have toyed with encouraging students to study engineering by making their tuition cheaper than humanities majors’. Pat McCrory, the new governor of North Carolina, recently advocated legislation to distribute funds to the state’s colleges based not on their enrollments — or, as he said on a radio show, on “butts in seats” — but instead on “how many of those butts can get jobs.”

My impression, though, is that this evolution is happening must faster than almost anybody can anticipate. It's quite plausible that a large fraction of US universities will cease to exist in the next couple of decades. Nathan Harden is slightly more conservative than I (The End of the University as We Know It:

In fifty years, if not much sooner, half of the roughly 4,500 colleges and universities now operating in the United States will have ceased to exist. The technology driving this change is already at work, and nothing can stop it. The future looks like this: Access to college-level education will be free for everyone; the residential college campus will become largely obsolete; tens of thousands of professors will lose their jobs; the bachelor’s degree will become increasingly irrelevant; and ten years from now Harvard will enroll ten million students.

We’ve all heard plenty about the “college bubble” in recent years. Student loan debt is at an all-time high—an average of more than $23,000 per graduate by some counts—and tuition costs continue to rise at a rate far outpacing inflation, as they have for decades. Credential inflation is devaluing the college degree, making graduate degrees, and the greater debt required to pay for them, increasingly necessary for many people to maintain the standard of living they experienced growing up in their parents’ homes. Students are defaulting on their loans at an unprecedented rate, too, partly a function of an economy short on entry-level professional positions. Yet, as with all bubbles, there’s a persistent public belief in the value of something, and that faith in the college degree has kept demand high.

Before one gets too friendly with a snake, though, one ought to examine his plausible motives. More from Bruni:

I’d sound yet another alarm. Scratch the surface of some of the efforts to reform state universities and you find more than just legitimate qualms about efficiency and demands for accountability. You find the kind of indiscriminate anti-intellectualism and anti-elitism popular among more than a few right-wing conservatives.

It’s worth noting that Governor Perry has dismissed global warming as “one contrived, phony mess” and that many of the voices calling most loudly for change at the University of Texas are from the Tea Party fringe.

In other words there’s some crude, petty politics in all of this. And as we tackle the very real, very important challenge of giving young Americans the best and most useful education possible in an era of dwindling resources, that’s the last thing we need.