American higher education is older than the nation itself and a magnet to aspiring students at home and throughout the world. Millions enroll in its institutions, learn from its professors, and benefit from its energy, research findings and intellectual sophistication. It affords employment to more than 3.8 million people, full and part-time (with about three-quarters of them teachers and administrators), and it is responsible for more than three percent of the nation’s GNP. Yet for all these things it is also highly disorganized, has neither national nor local leadership, and has no general agreement about its specific goals, no means to measure its success, and no reliable way to reduce its myriad redundancies.Much of the success of American higher education, as well as its failure, is due to its fundamental conservatism. Built to last, higher ed changes little year by year, holding fast to the past (its great libraries being testimonies to that loyalty) while inching forward into the future (with research leading the way). But that conservatism is costly, measured by problems universities don’t want to address. The American university’s oddity, making it both highly productive and remarkably inefficient, is owing to a tension among its several masters. Decades ago, Clark Kerr pointed out that the university serves, albeit uneasily, many competing entities. Each of them—faculty, students, alumni, trustees, parents, the public, the government, foundation officials and the media—believes it should have primary say in defining a university’s goals and purpose. A naive observer might think that college and university administrators are in office to resolve the tensions and conflicts arising from these incompatible views. Isn’t that what college presidents are for? On the contrary, having been the president of two good schools (Wesleyan and Emory), I know that presidential power is choked at every turn, first by external constraints and then more tightly by timidity. The president of any college or university might appear to be a powerful being on a bully pulpit. But presidents today feel hostage to forces beyond their control. From the vantage afforded by their offices, they get to see a lot, but everywhere they look, they see others cramping their authority. The faculty, not the administration, gets to say what the institution teaches. Research ideas bubble up from the faculty; they don’t trickle down from the president. Parents and students decide who will show up in the fall and where; the tuition dollars and student fees they deliver determine whether or not a university’s income can match its operating expenses. Foundation and government officials also control much of the largesse that does or does not go to a school. Trustees, not administrators, possess the formal fiduciary responsibility for the institution; when the key moment comes, they alone have the authority to say “farewell” to one president and “welcome” to someone new. At public institutions, taxpayers and their elected representatives control much of the school’s revenue. Accrediting agencies assess the soundness of every institution; not to be accredited is a death sentence. The media also exerts considerable pressure on what the public makes, for good or ill, of a school’s reputation. In short, presidents have some say, but so do many others. With everyone having a piece of the action, unattended agenda litter the campus. This is dysfunctional conservatism. Nowhere has the dead hand of destructive inaction been more heavily felt on campus than in big-time intercollegiate athletics. This depressing spectacle has been thoroughly discussed in myriad editorials, congressional hearings, books, articles, investigative reporting and disclosures from athletes themselves. The stunning mismatch between the academic and athletic goals of American colleges and universities has been exposed again and again, but to no avail. Taylor Branch in The Atlantic has rightly seen the athletes (particularly basketball and football players) as exploited and manipulated; Joe Nocera in The New York Times describes them as hostages to the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The physical well being of thousands of football players is jeopardized on the field of play. Everything that can be said about such malignity has been said. But the schools see the facts before them and behave as if they were not there. James Duderstadt, a former president of the University of Michigan, knows how powerless his administrative colleagues have become: “Despite efforts at the margin, individual presidents and institutions will never act unilaterally and risk losing athletic competitiveness. College sports is simply not the ditch presidents will ever risk dying in.” Here’s what the ditch looks like: a messy mix of money, institutional prestige, and weekend glory. The annual revenue of big-time sports is some $106 billion. The public wagers more, much more, on the games. Nevada bookies collect some $80 million every time the Final Four basketball tournament is played; the FBI says that some $2.5 billion is wagered illegally. Lots of Americans, with lots of money on the line, want the system to continue. The colleges make this system work. Someone in higher education should be able to put on a good face on what is an institutional wrong. But the scandal has no convincing defenders, no one willing to accept responsibility for what goes on year after year, campus after campus. Now and again a few entreaties for understanding emerge from the offices of presidents, athletic directors, and coaches. They turn out, all of them, to be spurious. Here are three of them:
- Intercollegiate athletic competition builds character and instills the virtues of leadership and personal responsibility;
- All the money from gate receipts, television royalties, and other sources of income goes either to the institution to beef up its academic offerings or to the athletic department in support of worthy “low-profile” sports that are not, like football and basketball, money-makers;
- Having a high-visibility athletic program enhances the prestige of the institution and gives it a glamorous public profile, which is useful in recruiting the best students and the best faculty.
Those fond of the “character-building” argument say that, while winning is always good, to endure defeat is equally good. It teaches important lessons: pain is part of life and that to experience loss is to take a large step on the road to wisdom. In fact, players learn other lessons: that money is paramount in big-time sports, that they are pawns, and that the games are part of a larger calculation about which they are told little.The notion that intercollegiate athletics increases the likelihood that the players will graduate as leaders, possessing an enhanced sense of civic responsibility, has been devastated by James L. Shulman and William J. Bowen in The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values. After examining thirty schools—public and private, small and large, coeducational and female—Shulman and Bowen concluded that athletes were no more likely “to be leaders in civic activities” than other students. Nor have they become leaders in industry, law, or medicine in disproportionate numbers. While some athletes have been happy to claim, after graduation, that they had been taught leadership on the field, the post-graduation results say otherwise. What, then, of the second argument, that money from “revenue-producing” sports is funneled into academic pursuits or that it supports sports that can’t produce income? The second part of the argument is valid; the first is bogus. Some schools, but very few, see a “profit” from sports at the end of the year. So if there is any money to be distributed (likely from football or basketball), some of it can go to sports like tennis or track or volleyball. But Murray Sperber, in College Sports Inc.: The Athletic Department vs. the University, has shown that almost all schools lose money. Of the 2,345 athletic programs in existence, only 1–2 percent make any money at all. Those programs are free to direct some of it to the sports that never make a dime; for all the other programs, deficits for everyone is the rule of the day. Roger Noll, a Stanford economist who has scrutinized how money gets counted in intercollegiate sports, says, “for all schools outside (and most in) Division I, intercollegiate athletics is a financial drain—commonly hundreds of dollars annually per student enrolled.” The NCAA itself confirmed that finding several years ago: “the data available bear out that the vast majority [of Division I teams] do not generate revenues that exceed costs.” Sperber also debunks the amusing fantasy of thinking that those running the athletic programs would gladly ship any of their receipts over to the academic side of the house: “Rather than financially help the university, most athletic programs siphon money from it . . . . [T]o cover athletic program losses, schools must divert money from their budgets and other financial resources. Thus funds that could go to academic programs, student scholarships, faculty and staff salaries disappear into the athletic department deficit.” The third argument, that institutions earn prestige and glamor by maintaining high-visibility athletic programs, makes much of the positive side of public relations but nothing of the negative. Keep in mind that, in sports, for every winner there is a loser. Duke University, for example, has mounted a superb basketball program over the years; that program has given glamour to the school. But Duke, fond of boosting the notion that the education it provides is every bit as good as its basketball team, also plays football. It has fielded one of the least-successful teams in big-time football over the past ten years. In 2005, Duke beat only one opponent. In 2006, it lost every game. In 2007, it lost every game but one. From 2008 to 2010, it lost 24 and won 12 games. In 2011, it settled into mediocrity, losing nine and winning three. In 2012, it won six and lost the same number, losing its last five games. No one at Duke would be silly enough to boast that the education it provides is every bit as good as its football team. A celebrated victor in one sport and a perpetual doormat in another, Duke illustrates the general principle that schools seeking to enhance their reputations as academic institutions on the field of sport must live with the mercurial attractions of athletic glamor. Few people can bring themselves to believe that if colleges and universities in this country were reinvented, they would include inter-collegiate athletics as they now exist. Who would demand, all over again, such a distortion of academic values and such exploitation of young men and women? Would the faculty plead for their return? Not the professors who already see such activities as expensive distractions combining momentary frenzy with lowered admission standards. Schools with big-time sports now spend up to twelve times as much on each of those who play those sports as they do on those who are in the classrooms to study. Would those students, given a choice, want the system to continue? Would they champion a farm-system for genuinely professional teams in football, basketball, and baseball? Big-time sports, then, owe their survival to administrative faint-heartedness and the momentum of the passion they generate. Thus again, campus conservatism. Having long ago lost any serious connection to learning, such activities are a monument to unattended agenda. Weak leadership, leading to stasis, illuminates another continuing embarrassment to American higher education, one that has been around for decades: the rankings. Led by US News & World Report but also including surveys by Fortune, Forbes, Newsweek, Princeton Review, Washington Monthly and others, those annual lists are everywhere read and, depending on their results, dismissed or lauded. University and college administrators, happy to point out their inadequacies should their school do poorly, are just as happy to demonstrate abundant pride in their own school should it do well. But the game itself is inherently pointless because, year after year, the rankings remain virtually unchanged: Harvard and Yale, Princeton and Stanford—and all others bringing up the rear. Almost everyone who has taken a hard look at the lists knows that they cannot reveal, because their methods have no reliable way of finding out, just how good an education one receives at each school. Nor do the schools themselves know or even seem to want to know. Indeed, most of the most prestigious schools wouldn’t dream of acquiring a genuine outcome assessment (“We know we are excellent”). What is needed for genuine self-analysis to succeed? My answer: studies that are nation-wide, objective, and that make their results public. Strong administrators, working together, could create these studies. Presidents could take the lead—first by ridding the schools of the U.S. News albatross and then by establishing common standards of achievement. Part of the administrative timorousness arises from a tradition of competitiveness that forbids most joint ventures. The schools somehow believe that each of them is meant to survive alone, proudly independent. This myth lives on, despite the fact that American colleges and universities are quite similar in curriculum, faculty customs and fundamental organization. Each might be “unique”, but they all have the same DNA. Out of those similarities one could forge genuinely cooperative ventures. The fundamental unanswered question that such assessments could explore is clear: What are the incremental advantages—in knowledge, clarity of written expression, analytic prowess and intellectual power—that a school provides? Yes, Harvard is a good university. But incoming Harvard students are also superb. What additional strengths does Harvard provide to those talented young people? To this question, Harvard cannot, or will not, respond. Other schools would remain just as silent if they were asked similar questions. Academic leadership could determine, from inside, just how well each schools is doing in its primary duty: to educate. But the way in which presidents work—along with provosts, deans, the faculty and almost everyone else—shows that they are satisfied when rankings are good and snooty about them when they’re not. Almost all the schools routinely turn over the data, such as it is, to the magazines. But given that the schools will not or cannot answer the question of incremental value with any specificity, they permit the rankings they privately revile to serve as markers of prestige, knowing all the while how little they measure. Thus more campus conservatism. One last example: grade inflation. Since the 1960s, observers inside and outside the academy have pointed out that grades don’t mean much. The commonsensical assumption that some students can accumulate more knowledge, write better and demonstrate greater ability at problem solving than their classmates has unraveled. In its place we have a counterintuitive history: Everyone has done just about as well as everyone else. Two scholars, Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy, have analyzed the transcript records of some 1.5 million students at 200 four-year schools, public and private. Going back some seventy years, their research shows that “A” has become the most common grade on the American college campus, making up 43 percent of all grades—a 12 percentage point increase since 1988, and a 28 percentage point increase since 1960. They conclude, “America’s institutions of higher learning gradually created a fiction that excellence was common and that failure was virtually nonexistent.” Not every goose can be a swan. Grade inflation tells us how and why something grossly out of kilter with conventional understanding thrives at campus after campus. Why? The answer is that each party involved in the system can secure certain advantages. Administrators aren’t unhappy with the system. It allows class enrollments to remain stable over time, meaning much less messiness caused by dropouts, readmissions, transfer admissions and bitter feelings among competitive students and tuition-paying parents; every tuition-paying student is a valuable financial asset. Faculty members know that while it might prove satisfying to distribute grades separating the excellent from the mediocre, the end result could be endless arguments with students (and their parents) over grades and classrooms dominated by grade-seeking and fear of failure rather than by learning. Again, they choose the easier path over the more painful one. Negative action gets rewarded with positive reinforcement. The end result? Desire for change is met by an equally powerful desire to keep things as they are. Led by strong administrative initiative, things could change. The schools could set up stronger grading standards—ones to be shared only by the teacher and the student. They would give both parties a clear indication, from F to A, how strong the student’s work has been. Failure could be identified and dealt with; genuine excellence could be rewarded. But at the end of the course, an official institutional grade could be given out, one that would certify that, in almost every case, the student had completed the course in creditable fashion. Unrealistic? Perhaps. But it could at least be something to work toward, rather than to continue perpetuating a myth of universal excellence. If nothing at all is done, grade inflation, injurious though it is, will likely remain part of the unattended agenda. Thus, once again, campus conservatism. Given these three issues—big-time sports, rankings, and grade inflation—the evidence is clear: unattended agenda abound on campus after campus. Higher education is an immensely important American institution, but it has been able to sidestep a crucial duty: rigorous self-analysis to solve problems rather than allow them to pile up year after year. I end with a recommendation. Everyone knows about the skyrocketing salaries of university administrators. The increases in their compensations long ago outstripped all advancements in faculty salaries. Executive salaries are driven higher and higher by the encouragement of executive compensation firms (which like to see salaries go up, because their fees then go up), and by trustee pride (no board of trustees would be happy to think that the president it oversees is only “average”). As long as this ratchet system is in place, why not award compensation on a simple basis? Ask presidents to give an account of themselves: To what degree, and with what diplomatic and political skill, have you been able to reduce the dead weight of unattended agenda on your campus? What problems long aggravating this system that you have been tasked to oversee have you been able to resolve? University presidents and their colleagues are experienced enough to know what the future will bring if things don’t change. Scrutiny of higher education will prove more and more exacting. For as long as a college degree has been a sine qua non for professional success that American families have been willing to pay for, a product both eminently respected yet mysteriously opaque, the American system of higher education has maintained its standing with the public. But as prices for higher education continue to rise, the moment will arrive when customers will get genuinely contentious. As consumers, they will want to know what tangible benefits will come with their investment of so many thousands of dollars. For decades, they have been willing to honor certain noble abstractions, such as the “life-enhancing” aspects of a college degree. That same consumer will soon not be afraid to ask, after reading the colorful brochures and visiting the shapely lawns of many a campus: How good is the education? What will be learned? What skills will be augmented? What strengths of mind and imagination will be enhanced? Has the school shed the irrelevant and the merely amusing, pursued attainable intellectual goals, and focused on its central mission of strengthening young minds? What, in other words, are we paying for? These are fair questions. They must be asked, and they will be. When they are, genuine accountability, championed by strong administrative leadership, can begin, and it will put an end to the wrong kind of conservatism.