The War on Higher Education

November 26, 2003

Two columns ago, I analyzed "The College Cost Crisis," a report written (or at least signed) by U.S. Reps. John A. Boehner, an Ohio Republican, and Howard P. (Buck) McKeon, a California Republican, both members of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. I found the report (these are the words I used) misleading, shoddy, slipshod, superficial, meretricious, and worthless, and gave it a failing grade.

One would think it would be hard, even for Representatives Boehner and McKeon, to outdo that performance, but I underestimated their resourcefulness. The two anti-higher-education crusaders have now produced a Web site -- again at the taxpayers' expense -- and it earns all the adjectives I bestowed on their first effort plus one more: dishonest.

The centerpiece of the Web site -- College Cost Central: A Resource for Parents, Students, & Taxpayers Fed Up With the High Cost of Higher Education -- is a list of 12 yes-or-no questions to which those same parents, students, and taxpayers are asked to respond. Only three of the questions are real; that is, only three of the questions are framed with the objective of finding out something the researchers don't already know or think they know. The others are designed to elicit -- no coerce -- responses that can then be used to support the conclusions that McKeon and Boehner have reached in advance of doing any research at all.

Here, for example, is the first question: "Can colleges and universities be doing more to control their spending and avoid large tuition hikes that hurt parents and students?" Although this has the form of a question, its core content is four unsubstantiated assertions: colleges and universities do not control their spending; uncontrolled spending is the sole cause of tuition hikes; those hikes are large (in relation to what norms or practices is never specified); and they hurt parents and students.

The real question then is, "Do you think that colleges and universities should stop doing these horrible things?" and of course anyone who understands it that way (and what other way is there to understand it?) will answer "yes" and thus provide Boehner and McKeon with one more piece of "evidence" with which to convict higher education of multiple offenses.

The second question is even cleverer: "Do parents and students have adequate information about college financing and the ways in which colleges spend their money?" McKeon and Boehner like this question so much that they ask it again two slots later: "Do parents and students have the information they need to fully exercise their power as consumers in the higher-education marketplace?" The right answer to both questions -- and it is the right answer -- is "no": Parents and students do not generally have that information.

But is it the responsibility of the colleges and universities to provide it, which could be done only by mounting month-long seminars at a cost that would then be added to the "skyrocketing" tuition paid by the students and parents who attended them (if they did, and they probably wouldn't)?

If students or parents wanted to understand college financing (an understanding apparently beyond the reach of members of Congress), wouldn't it be their obligation first to frame the question (easier said than done) and then to do the research, just as it is the obligation of buyers in any marketplace to make themselves into informed consumers? I use the vocabulary of "consumers" and "marketplace" only because Boehner and McKeon do (I consider it wildly inappropriate), but in the mercantile contexts from which the vocabulary is drawn, the rule is still caveat emptor, and no vendor is expected to explain in detail how the product he offers is made.

The "consumers" for whom McKeon and Boehner show such solicitude are, in the jargon of any trade, lazy; and indeed it is the beauty of the question that it allows those who haven't bothered to learn how colleges work to transfer the culpability of their ignorance to another party. "I don't know what I'm doing; it must be your fault." Answering the question makes you feel good and even self-righteous about a failure that is finally yours. (There's a kind of genius working here, although it is malign.)

If a question doesn't coerce or pander, it imputes blame where there may not be any: "Do you believe the construction of facilities at colleges and universities is contributing to the dramatic increases in the cost of higher education?" The suggestion is that a "yes" answer (to which the respondent is obviously directed) would mean that colleges and universities were doing something wrong.

But what would it be? Constructing laboratories? Dormitories? Libraries? Classroom buildings? Could an academic institution be doing its job and not be constructing facilities? What's the point of this question? No point really, except to add one more (underdefined) item to the list of crimes of which colleges and universities are presumed guilty in this indictment masquerading as a survey.

It is not an indictment solely constructed by Boehner and McKeon, who are merely playing their part in a coordinated effort to commandeer higher education by discrediting it. If the public can be persuaded that institutions of higher education are fiscally and pedagogically irresponsible, the way will be open to a double agenda: strip colleges and universities of both federal and state support and then tie whatever funds are left to "performance" measures in the name of accountability and assessment.

The folks who gave us the Political Correctness scare in the '90s (and that was one of the best PR campaigns ever mounted) are once again in high gear and their message is simple: Higher education is too important to be left to the educators, who are wasting your money, teaching your children to be unpatriotic and irreligious (when they are teaching at all), and running a closed shop that is hostile to the values of mainstream America.

It's a potent formula: less money, more controls, and controls by the right people; not pointy-headed professors or wooly-headed administrators, but hard-headed businessmen who will rein in the excesses (monetary and moral) to which people with too many advanced degrees are prone.

The assault is sophisticated and it comes from several directions and assumes different forms. There is the old accusation (tried but not true) that faculty members spend too much time on arcane research and not enough on teaching. Recently this old saw has been given a new twist by pundits who complain, as David Kirp, a professor of public policy at Berkeley, has in The New York Times, that universities are competing with one another in an unseemly fashion to lure star professors whose "main loyalty" is to "what they write" rather than "to their students or their institution."

As usual, no evidence is provided for this libel, which, given everything I have seen and experienced in 43 years of teaching, is simply false. People just can't seem to think straight about this one. Last month at an economic summit called by the Illinois governor, several speakers rose to pay tribute to the researchers at the university who, it was said, were providing the technology and biomedical knowledge so necessary to the state's economy.

Yet these same speakers, some of them state officials, saw no connection between their praise and the demand, to which they give voice on other occasions, that professors get out of the laboratory and back into the classroom.

When professors are not being attacked for doing too much research, they are being attacked for having the wrong political opinions. David Brooks is only the most recent sage to point out that, especially in the humanities and social sciences, a huge percentage of the faculty is self-identified as left of center. The result, says Brooks, a columnist for the Times, is a small brave band of conservative professors and students who are the victims of discrimination and can cope only if they "keep their views in the closet."

This is a mixture of nonsense and paranoia. In any institution I have ever taught at, conservative students are more vocal than their counterparts, especially when they are complaining loudly that their voices aren't being heard. And as for the assertion that "faculties skew overwhelmingly to the left," I would say first, that it is a supply-side problem -- if conservatives really want to spend their lives teaching modern poetry and Byzantine art, they should stop whining and do the dissertations and write the books, and they'll get the jobs -- and second, that it's not a problem.

There is no necessary, or even likely, correlation between the way one votes in a local or national election and the way one teaches or conducts research. Every permutation -- Republican voters who espouse radical epistemological theories, Democratic voters who resist theory and stand up for traditional academic practices -- is possible and easily documented.

Brooks laments that students "often have no contact with adult conservatives" (a version of the "role model" argument that he and his friends usually reject as demeaning); but the real shame would be if students had no contact with highly qualified, cutting-edge instructors. The political affiliation of one's professors should be of no concern at all -- and Brooks himself in another piece reports that students quickly discount their instructors' political views when they become aware of them -- as long as that affiliation and its imperatives are not substituted for the educational and scholarly imperatives that should be the only reference points in the classroom.

But that's just the trouble, some conservative critics reply. All too often, they argue, teachers use the classroom as a vehicle for political indoctrination, and administrators contribute to the hegemony of liberal thought by refusing to finance conservative groups and speakers. Here the response is easy. If an administration is really distributing money and meeting rooms according to political criteria, it is engaging in unconstitutional activity (see Rosenberger v. Rector, 1995) and any court in the land will stop it.

And if teachers are really indoctrinating rather than instructing students -- something difficult to do in 90 percent of the classes one might teach -- they should be reprimanded and, if they persist, removed from the classroom. In short, the proper antidote to educational malpractice is to insist on fidelity to the educational mission. The proper antidote is not, however, to "seek academic diversity," as U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, a Georgia Republican, is trying to do by introducing an "Academic Bill of Rights" that would ask universities to provide "a level playing field" marked by "intellectual diversity."

Intellectual diversity is not a respectable intellectual goal. The only respectable intellectual goal is the pursuit of truth, and if in the course of that pursuit many different approaches arise, as they will in some fields, that's fine; but it would also be fine if in a particular field there were (at least temporarily) a convergence of views and not very much diversity at all.

The requirement of diversity is always, whether it issues from the right or the left, a political requirement, and it is the thinly disguised agenda of Representative Kingston and others to alter the political makeup of university faculties and install in key positions academics who think as they do. This was clearly the case when someone from the House Energy and Commerce Committee sent a list of projects -- investigating among other things the populations at risk for infection by the AIDS virus -- that should not be funded to the National Institutes of Health. It turned out that the list was compiled by something called the Traditional Values Coalition, which believes that abstinence and fidelity are the best responses to the epidemic. To be sure, the coalition is entitled to its beliefs. What it is not entitled to is the tailoring of publicly financed scientific research to conform with those beliefs.

I could go on listing the signs. They are everywhere, and what they are signs of is the general project of taking higher education away from the educators -- by removing money, imposing controls, capping tuition, enforcing affirmative action for conservatives, stigmatizing research on partisan grounds, privatizing student loans (here McKeon is again a big player) -- and handing it over to a small group of ideologues who will tell colleges and universities what to do and back up their commands by swinging the two big sticks of financial deprivation and inflamed public opinion.

So much is clear and indisputable. What is not clear is the response of the academic community to this assault on its autonomy and professional integrity. Too often that response has been of the weak-kneed variety displayed by the Association of American Universities when its president, Nils Hasselmo, offered a mild criticism of McKeon's ideas and then said "We look forward to working with Mr. McKeon."

No, you should look forward to defeating McKeon and his ilk, and that won't be done by mealy-mouthed me-tooism. If the academic community does its usual thing and rolls over and plays dead, in time it will not just be playing dead. It will be dead.

Stanley Fish, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, writes a monthly column for the Career Network on campus politics and academic careers. His most recent book is "How Milton Works" (Harvard University Press, 2001).