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The Endangered University

Stover at Yale

by Owen Johnson
Ross and Perry, 386 pp., $34.95 (paper)


Along with freedom, the other sacred word in today’s college is “diversity.” Nearly sixty years ago, the Harvard “Red Book”—the famous faculty report on general education published in 1945 when the end of World War II was in sight but not yet at hand—identified the coming challenge of postwar America in a chapter ominously entitled “Problems of Diversity.” By using that word, the authors were not exactly prophesying the impending influx of women, as well as racial and ethnic minorities, into historically white and male institutions; they had in mind no clear picture of demographic change, but they did anticipate what they called “differentiation” in the “inner sphere of ability and outlook” of future students. With a sigh of Brahmin realism, they conceded that the old economy in which “thousands of lighter jobs…used to call for a brisk young pair of hands” was disappearing, and that unprecedented numbers of young people would finish high school and want a chance to go to college.

This prediction was borne out in the postwar years, which saw enormous growth in the size and quality of public universities and the rise of a community college system that afforded educational opportunity to millions of first-generation college students. Anticipating the surge of democratization, the “Red Book” authors had asked prospectively, “How can general education be so adapted to different ages and, above all, differing abilities and outlooks, that it can appeal deeply to each, yet remain in goal and essential teaching the same for all?” With a flourish—but not without reason—they concluded that “the answer to this question…is the key to anything like complete democracy.”1

This question has never been answered. In fact, by tacit agreement, it has been dropped. The new diversity has exerted a necessary and salutary pressure to open the curriculum to non-Western and other nontraditional subjects. But there has been almost no parallel effort to establish courses that bring students of “differing… outlooks” together into productive discussion. As Louis Menand argued in these pages a few years ago, most of the high-sounding postwar talk about general education was “lip-service,” and the growth has been mainly in technical and practical education.2 The few institutions that still have compulsory “Great Books” programs—such as the University of Chicago, Columbia, and St. John’s College—adopted them well before World War II. I happen to teach at one of those institutions, which naturally expresses public pride in its rigor and wisdom, but as my former colleague the literary scholar Arnold Rampersad (now at Stanford) remarked a few years ago at the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Columbia Core Curriculum, the Core is like the interstate highway system: we are glad we have it, but we could never build it today.

The new diversity has tended to exert pressure on the curriculum to be more various at precisely the time when some measure of commonality is needed. Yet it is risky to raise any question—even a friendly one—about the educational consequences of diversity. Among the few who have done so is Peter Gomes, Harvard’s long-serving chaplain, who writes in his contribution to Distinctively American, Steven Koblik and Stephen R. Graubard’s collection of essays on the future of liberal arts colleges, that by the 1970s, diversity had become

a goal so frequently and fervently espoused as to take on the nature of a sacred cow, immune to criticism or examination. Those who did risk a challenge to the concept were consigned to the ranks of the sentimental or self-interested old guard, who refused to recognize the new demographics of America and longed for the old boy network of the past. The great conundrum of diversity, however, was not in its variety but in its purpose.

For what end was this new and diverse student population created? What purpose, other than statistical, was to be achieved by the new diversity?

These salient questions have been answered in essentially two ways during the decades-long debate over affirmative action. The first answer is the remedial argument that has created so much legal and poli-tical turmoil, since, as Anthony Kronman, the former dean of Yale Law School, puts it, any argument that emphasizes past group discrimination invites

a contest of right against right—a conflict between the defensible claim of minority applicants to a form of special treatment and the equally defensible claim of non-minority applicants to be judged by their individual qualifications alone.

The second argument, which has proven more persuasive to the courts, is that diversity (to be achieved not by quotas, but by considering race as one factor in admissions decisions) contributes to the purposes of liberal education, which Kronman summarizes as “expansion of the student’s powers of sympathetic imagination” through appreciation of “views, moods, dispositions and experiences other than his or her own.”3

Since colleges and universities are committed to this second argument, it would seem that they should do whatever they can to foster a genuine exchange among students of diverse backgrounds in their residential buildings, eating facilities, and classrooms. Some colleges do in fact match students from contrasting circumstances as roommates when they first arrive, but since relatively few colleges provide guaranteed or mandatory housing beyond the freshman year, and upperclass students expect to choose where and with whom they live, this approach has little lasting effect.4 On many campuses one sees dispiriting, if understandable, racial clusters—“Asian tables,” “Hispanic tables,” “Black tables”—in the dining halls. The one place where students might be compelled to listen to one another—“to educate ourselves by knowing opposite lives,” as Stover put it a long time ago—is the classroom. And yet small-group education is expensive and therefore increasingly rare, and universally required courses, where students of different backgrounds cannot avoid each other, are almost unknown. The human proclivity to stick to one’s own, especially in our age of diversity, is an argument for a shared general education, not against it.

With a few exceptions, academic leaders have been notably silent on these matters, beyond issuing the usual bromides about multicultural tolerance.5 They seem to be afraid of offending one or another of the interest groups to which they are beholden: trustees, faculty, donors, parents, politicians, and the students themselves. Derek Bok, former president of Harvard, defends presidential reticence by rightly pointing out that some of his predecessors “argued openly against trade unions, opposed marriage between different ethnic groups, and favored property qualifications for voting.” But being out of step with the times is no argument for self-censorship, as Bok himself exemplifies in his indignant book, Universities in the Marketplace, on the perils of commercialism.


No one who spends much time on a college campus can fail to sense that it is a place rich—even ripe—with paradox. Although the agedness of our elite institutions accounts for much of their prestige, the institutional past tends to be reviled as a dark age of prejudice. The old paternalistic college has been thrown out with a hearty good riddance, yet, as Gomes points out, today’s students “want to retain all their hard-won autonomy, while at the same time insisting that institutions assume a moral responsibility for protecting them from the consequences of that autonomy.” (Presumably, Gomes has in mind the fact that although students long ago rejected the college in loco parentis, whenever trouble breaks out over some incendiary “hate speech,” college authorities tend to get blamed for not parentally stepping in.) To stroll around any venerable campus is to see the past flit by in mottoes that express repudiated ideals. Across the façade of the building that houses the campus ministry at my own university, for example, is written: “Erected for the Students that Religion and Learning May Go Hand in Hand and Character Grow with Knowledge.” But it is hard to know what tests of character today’s college employs, since it is almost as difficult to get expelled as it is (except in science) to get a “C.”

There is a nervous sense that something basic is missing—a nervousness that may account for the rise of compensatory institutions within the institutions, such as the Center for Human Values at Princeton, formerly directed by the political philosopher Amy Gutman (now president of the University of Pennsylvania), or the Institute for Ethics at Duke. But what can it mean that thinking about ethics has become mostly an extracurricular activity?

It is sheer insouciance to pretend that nothing is wrong. Cheating, especially in the form of plagiarism, is rampant in today’s colleges. A recent article in The New York Times Book Review (“students are fuzzy,” the author explains, “on what’s cheating and what’s not”) reports that one of the many Web sites that offer term papers for sale has the winningly candid name CheatHouse.com. In his autobiography The Bridge, Ernest Poole (Princeton, class of 1902) writes that during his college days, only once did he see a cheating incident. Sitting behind the cheater during an exam was the class president, who, seeing his classmate “furtively…looking at notes,” whispered in his ear, “Tear up your paper and flunk this.” Suitably shamed, the culprit obliged. This kind of peer-group policing apparently no longer works at Princeton, where there is also a serious problem with vandalism of the golf carts used by disabled students to get around campus. Last May, the installation of surveillance cameras in the Princeton University store triggered a surge in shoplifting arrests. “Nobody wants to think,” said municipal prosecutor Marc Citron, “that a Princeton University student, a future secretary of state…would dare to commit shoplifting.” Perish the thought.6

Students have always learned by example, and while there is no hard evidence of a higher incidence of vandals or cheats among professors than in any other professional group, the fact is that the professorial example is not always an uplifting one. In his dean’s report to the Harvard faculty in 1991, Henry Rosovsky wrote, with uncommon candor, that the faculty had “become a society largely without rules, or to put it slightly differently, the tenured members of the faculty—frequently as individuals—make their own rules” with regard to teaching loads, outside business ventures, consulting time versus teaching

time, etc.7 A me-first ethos, Rosovsky believed, was destroying what was left of an older civic attitude according to which “a professor’s primary obligation is to the institution—essentially students and colleagues—and that all else is secondary.” Professors were coming to regard the university as serving them rather than the other way around. A few years later, Donald Kennedy, the former president of Stanford, agreed that the idea of institutional citizenship was under siege, and wrote a whole book entitled Academic Duty, in an effort to articulate the responsibilities that ought to go hand-in-hand with academic freedom. It has had no discernible effect.

As Derek Bok makes clear in Universities in the Marketplace, opportunities for institutional and personal profit have jumped because of growth in “technology-transfer” partnerships with corporate investors and government agencies, especially since the passage in 1980 of the Bayh-Dole Act, which permits both universities and individual researchers to share in profits from inventions or therapies developed with public funds. And there is, of course, the continual quest to enrich the university by bringing in money through its athletic programs, which elicit alumni contributions—though these efforts are usually futile, Bok says, since revenues are typically plowed back into the athletic programs themselves. He cites one case in which the University of Oregon spent $250,000 for a billboard in order to promote its quarterback for the Heisman Trophy.

  1. 1

    Paul Buck et al., General Education in a Free Society (Harvard University Press, 1945), pp. 81, 93.

  2. 2

    College: The End of the Golden Age,” The New York Review, October 18, 2001.

  3. 3

    Is Diversity a Value in American Higher Education?” Florida Law Review, December 2000, pp. 40, 46.

  4. 4

    There are some acerbic comments on this subject in a forthcoming book by Ross Gregory Douthat, Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class (Hyperion, 2005). The plush house and college residential halls constructed by Harvard and Yale in the 1920s and 1930s—complete with paneled dining halls, libraries, and common rooms—are lavish by most dormitory standards, but in fact they were conceived as a way to democratize student life. Before their construction, wealthy students lived in “gold coast” apartments while poor students boarded in or near slums.

  5. 5

    Questions are also being raised about exactly what kind of diversity has been achieved in today’s top col-leges. William Bowen’s call for preferential admissions for needy students is one challenge to current practice. Another comes from Henry Louis Gates Jr., who recently remarked, “I just want people to be honest enough to talk about it,” in calling atten-tion to the fact that many students of color are not of African-American descent, but are West Indian or African immigrants or their children. As his Harvard colleague Mary C. Waters, chair of the sociology department, put it, “If it’s about getting black faces at Harvard, then you’re doing fine. If it’s about making up for 200 to 500 years of slavery in this country and its aftermath, then you’re not doing well.” Sara Rimer and Karen W. Arenson, “Top Colleges Take More Blacks, but Which Ones?” The New York Times, June 24, 2004.

  6. 6

    Suzy Hansen, “Dear Plagiarists: You Get What You Pay For,” The New York Times Book Review, August 22, 2004, p. 11. The incidence of cheating is, of course, hard to measure, but one authority on the subject, Donald McCabe of Rutgers University, finds that the number of students reporting “cut and paste” plagiarism using Internet sources quadrupled between 1999 and 2001. McCabe also describes a sharp rise over the last four decades in the number of students reporting “unpermitted collaboration” (academic integrity .org/cai_research.asp). Drawing on McCabe’s research, David Callahan, The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead (Harcourt, 2004), p. 217, estimates that serious cheating in college increased by 30 to 35 percent during the 1990s. On the golf cart vandalism at Princeton, a letter from concerned students describing the problem as “endemic” was posted last year at www .princeton.edu/usg/vandal.html. For the shoplifting story, see The Times of Trenton, May 23, 2004. There is no reason to assume that shoplifting is a Princeton specialty. The MIT Coop has a big problem too.

  7. 7

    Henry Rosovsky, “Annual Report of the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, 1990–1991,” Policy Perspectives, Vol. 4, No. 3 (September 1992), pp. 1b–2b.

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