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Scandals of Higher Education

Moreover, if applicants to top colleges were admitted on the basis of grades and tests alone, this would simply ensure that they come overwhelmingly from prosperous families—precisely what Golden is against—since the close correlation of test scores and family income is well documented.11 Golden is right that our current college admissions system has serious problems, but fixing it by making tests and grades count for even more than they already do is not the right fix.


Walter Benn Michaels, an English professor at the University of Illinois, is also angry, but he has a different view of where the problem begins. He directs his anger not so much at the admissions or development office as at the entire culture of academia, which, in his view, has settled somewhere between insouciance and hypocrisy with regard to the widening class divide. “Poor people,” he writes in The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality,

are an endangered species in elite universities not because the universities put quotas on them…and not even because they can’t afford to go to them (Harvard will lend you or even give you the money you need to go there) but because they can’t get into them.

This is basically true, as Bowen and his colleagues demonstrate. What Michaels adds to the discussion is the idea that many academic liberals have been deceiving themselves about this uncomfortable truth while—unwittingly, perhaps—abetting it.

What he means is that the academic left (which he tartly calls the “supposed left”) expends its energy rallying against such phantom enemies as racism and sexism—erstwhile evils that he believes barely exist today, at least not in the narrow social stratum from which college students come. As a result, “progressive politics” too often “consists of disapproving of bad things that happened a long time ago.” But Michaels does not stop at chiding the “supposed left” for indulging in nostalgia for battles already won. He thinks that by obscuring the real issue—the class divide—that persists behind all the smoke and noise over “diversity,” the academic left has become complicit with the broader political right in rewarding the rich and penalizing the poor.

Michaels is fed up with the mantra of diversity, and it is hard to blame him. In the past, one obstacle that kept minority students out of college was patent racism—the asserted association between external physical characteristics (skin color, facial features, body type) and inherent mental capacities or tendencies.12 Today, however, this kind of pseudoscience has been discredited, and the word “race” tends to be employed as a synonym for culture—an equivalence based on the dubious, or at least imperfect, premise that a person’s ancestry tells us something important about how that person experiences the world. The problem with “this way of thinking about culture instead of race,” Michaels says, “is that it just takes the old practice of racial stereotyping and renovates it in the form of cultural stereotyping.”13 People of African ancestry are expected to prefer blues to Brahms. People of Asian ancestry are lumped together in the category “Asian-American” even though they might identify themselves primarily as Laotians or Christians. In any event, they are supposed to prefer engineering to poetry.

Michaels argues that nothing much has changed by substituting the idea of particular cultures for the discredited idea of race. For pragmatic as well as analytical reasons, he wants the left to forget about this kind of diversity, whether we call it racial or cultural (“diversity, like gout, is a rich people’s problem”), and focus instead on poverty. A satirical verse (quoted in another recent book by another English professor, Michael Berubé of Pennsylvania State University) nicely captures Michaels’s point. It might be called the Song of the Abject Affluent, and a lot of people at elite colleges are singing it:

I’m sorry for what my people did to your people

It was a nasty job

Please note the change of attitude

On the bumper of my Saab.14

Quite apart from the question of who “my people” and “your people” are at a time when more and more Americans claim multiple racial descent, this mixture of guilt and pride is mostly for show, just like the car.

Along with racism, the other excoriated enemy of the academic left is sexism, as in the controversy provoked by former Harvard president Lawrence Summers, who posed the question of whether men and women may have different innate intellectual capacities. Michaels regards sexism, too, as a convenient phantom at a time when half the students in the Ivy League, four presidents (soon to include Summers’s successor, the distinguished historian Drew Gilpin Faust), and an increasing percentage of faculty are women. In the transformed world of what was once an old boys club, “feminism,” he writes, “is what you appeal to when you want to make it sound as if the women of Wall Street and the women of Wal-Mart are both victims of sexism.” In fact, few of the former are victims of sexism and many of the latter are victims, first and foremost, of poverty. In short, Michaels thinks the academic left willfully misses the point—that the big obstacle to equal opportunity is not race or gender, but class.

Michaels is right to insist that in the triumvirate of social evils so often invoked in academic life—race, class, and gender—the middle term has all but dropped out of the discussion. But in trying to bring it back, he is too quick to dismiss the other two. He writes, for example, that “it’s their lack of family wealth, not color of their skin, that disproportionately keeps blacks out of elite colleges.” This is too pat. It fails to acknowledge the lingering and subtly pernicious effects of race not so much on institutional policy as on individual experience. Difficult as it is for students from poor families to reach and succeed in the privileged culture of elite colleges, it is all the more so for those who must cross a racial as well as a class divide. Yet he insists that “affirmative action…solves a problem that no longer exists.” Bowen differs, wanting class-based admissions preferences to be a supplement, not a substitute, for race-based preferences.15

As for the mistreatment and disadvantages faced by women, Michaels argues that such problems as domestic abuse are overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, problems for poor women. Here too he overstates the case. He does not acknowledge the vestiges of male domination in university life, especially in certain scientific fields that have been slow to recruit and promote qualified women. Nor does he take into account how the demands of child care, for instance, can hold back even affluent women from professional advancement.16

Still, his main point is a fair one: campus liberals far prefer the soft issues of racial and gender diversity to such hard issues as the effect on American working families of cheap foreign labor or the gross inequities of a public school system funded by local property taxes, or, closer to home, the failure of their own institutions to recruit and support more talented students with no money. I have met very few faculty members who, even as they agitate for far-flung social causes, care to look closely at the admissions policies of their own institutions.17

Michaels has written a bracing polemic that should quicken the debate over what diversity really means, or should mean, in academia and beyond. He can be strident and even snide. But at his best, he recalls Irving Howe’s exasperation with the “puerile” New Left as a movement of privileged children marching under the banner of revolution while the traditional constituency of the Old Left—people trying to make a decent life against the odds—watched the parade go by.


Whatever their differences of tone and authority, Bowen, Golden, and Michaels agree that our colleges and universities are following rather than resisting the national trend toward a widening disparity between rich and poor. This is true not only in how colleges admit their students, but in their internal structure (presidential compensation has crossed the million-dollar threshold in several cases), and in the wealth of leading institutions relative to their competitors (the annual return on Harvard’s $30 billion endowment now exceeds the entire endowment of some of its Ivy League rivals).

The ideal—perhaps a better word is imaginary—university about which Harvard’s great nineteenth-century president Charles W. Eliot remarked that “luxury and learning are ill bed fellows” is dying if not extinct. It has given way to a sprawling and diffuse new entity no longer adequately described by the term coined by University of California president Clark Kerr nearly fifty years ago, when he characterized his “multiversity” as “a series of individual faculty entrepreneurs held together by a common grievance over parking.”18 The multiversity has now become what the entrepreneurial president of Arizona State University, Michael Crow, calls a Comprehensive Knowledge Enterprise, or CKE—a network of corporations, governments, and universities in which the local campus is less and less central to the research, consulting, and international marketing that bring in money and prestige. To many faculty members, parking near the campus now matters less than airport access.

Meanwhile, new universities are emerging throughout the world, especially in China, and American institutions are expanding fiscally and physically in order to meet the challenge—from Harvard (which has acquired 250 acres across the Charles River in Allston) and Columbia (which is buying up a sparsely populated district in northern Manhattan) and the major state universities (a vast new “Centennial Campus” is under construction at North Carolina State University) to relatively small institutions like the University of Rochester and the University of California at Santa Cruz, once an outpost of post-Sixties counterculture.

Even in the richest institutions, the time-proven structures of liberal education—small-class discussion, personal mentors—are being distended if not destroyed, and the incentives of money and renown are pushing faculty toward research and away from teaching. In the shadow of all this growth and proliferation, books about college admissions properly put their emphasis on the question of where and how these institutions get their students; but it is also important to ask what happens to the students once they get in, no matter where they come from.

One thing that happens, especially at the most prestigious colleges, is that students acquire a strong sense of self-satisfaction. (Michaels speculates that one side effect of affirmative action is to reinforce the conviction of predominantly affluent white students “that they didn’t get in just because they were white.”) Former president Neil Rudenstine used to greet Harvard freshmen by telling them that, as nervous and unworthy as they might feel during their first days at college, Harvard would send them into the world proud and confident and ready for anyone and anything. Yet even successful applicants can be driven into anxiety and depression by the entire process of applying, which turns the high school years into a frantic scramble for distinction. And, in a terrible paradox, as our top colleges turn away more and more gifted students—a demographic fact that necessarily leaves many talented students outside the Ivy gates—the frenzy of competition makes the prize of admission worth more and more, leaving rejected applicants feeling wounded and unfit.

It will be difficult to adjust this system toward greater sanity and equity. As a start, it would help to recognize that the history of college admissions is a stark illustration of the law of unintended consequences. Today’s system of personal essays, interviews, and recommendations, meant to ensure a diversity of temperaments and interests as well as racial and ethnic origins among admitted students, was invented early in the twentieth century for precisely the opposite reason: to detect and limit applicants with undesirable traits, notably Jewishness.19 When the system of standardized testing was imposed a half-century ago it was originally intended to break the lock that children of privilege had on the elite colleges and to identify the best minds throughout the nation at a time when, to meet the Soviet threat, top American universities were transforming themselves from finishing schools for the rich into training schools for the bright.20 Today, that system of standardized testing has become a tool of the wealthy, who have many means—expensive schools, private SAT tutors—to inflate the test scores of their children.

How much these ironies and contradictions are being discussed among presidents and trustees in their closed boardrooms is hard to say. Golden, Michaels, and even Bowen cannot tell us. One place to look for evidence of concern is in the steady stream of books by university presidents (or ex-presidents) and deans, of which examples have lately come from the present and former presidents of Duke, Yale, Princeton, Michigan, Wesleyan, Emory, and other leading universities. Typically collections of reworked speeches, such books tend to be hampered and cautious lest anything be said to upset the people—trustees, alumni, faculty, students, the impressionable public—whom presidents have to keep satisfied.21

There is very little about admissions in these books, but here and there one gets hints of discord or even of clashing passions. Harry Lewis, for instance, former dean of Harvard College (he was fired by Lawrence Summers), writes lyrically about college athletes as young prodigies living alongside their schoolmates “in a glorious parallel universe…detached from the banality of ordinary life,” while Bowen, deploying damning statistics that show inferior academic performance by recruited athletes, believes that “college sports in their current form represent a distinct threat to academic values and educational excellence.”22 William Chace, former president of Wesleyan and Emory, has even published an argument with his former self—an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times billed as “the honest talk” he always wanted to deliver to incoming freshmen but never had the nerve to give. He writes, for example, that

more than half of the freshmen at selective colleges, public and private, come from the highest-earning quarter of households. Tell me the ZIP code and I’ll tell you what kind of college a high-school graduate most likely attends.23

The most substantive of the presidential books is Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should be Learning More, by Derek Bok, president of Harvard from 1971 to 1991 and currently its interim president. Bok paints a picture of colleges that, if not dysfunctional, are operating far below capacity. He questions the coherence and purpose of departmental majors, describes programs of study abroad as little more than recreational excursions, criticizes lecturers for their indifference to whether students learn anything, and, in general, holds faculty accountable for ignoring research about which teaching methods are most effective. Many of his points are cogent and timely, but when he tries to say what the fundamental aim of higher education ought to be, the best he can do is invoke today’s reigning banality—“Critical Thinking”—a term that seems to mean something like the ability to think through difficult problems. There is nothing wrong with that goal, but it is a decidedly instrumental one that conceives of students as problem-solvers-in-training to be deployed into a society that needs them.


None of these books—whether by outside critics or inside administrators—has much to say about the interior lives of young people eager for intellectual and aesthetic excitement, learning to examine old ideas in light of new imperatives. If—as Bowen, Golden, and Michaels variously insist—it is a scandal that so few disadvantaged students are able to attend our most advantageous colleges, it is also urgent, in the words (the italics are his) of Donald Levine, former dean of the college at the University of Chicago, to notice that

the scandal of higher education in our time is that so little attention gets paid, in institutions that claim to provide an education, to what it is that college educators claim to be providing.

In Powers of the Mind: The Reinvention of Liberal Learning in America, Levine has written a fascinating history of curricular debates at the University of Chicago, reaching back to its founding more than a century ago. It is a story of serious teachers responding to continuous change in the world and in their particular academic disciplines while always keeping in view the enduring goal of liberal education, which Levine succinctly calls “the cultivation of human powers.” To reach this end requires first of all the recognition that it is unending, in the sense that “the purpose of school education,” as John Dewey put it, “is to insure the continuance of education by organizing the powers that insure growth.” It requires the student to become informed about past and present—to learn, that is, something substantial about history, science, and contemporary societies in order to bring that knowledge to bear on unforeseeable challenges of the future. It requires teachers and students collaboratively to develop (as Bok recommends) analytic problem-solving abilities, but also, as the great Chicago humanist Richard McKeon wrote, to study literature and the arts in order to cultivate “appreciation of artistic, cultural, and intellectual values, as opposed to the random associated reflections which frequently… pass for appreciation.” And it requires the university to make clear to its students what it expects while expecting its faculty to work as educators as well as researchers.

Levine shows how one great research university has struggled to sustain and refresh these standards and goals. He describes how faculty from different disciplines have collaborated on “Big Problems” courses on themes such as “Evil,” or “Language and Globalization.” He discusses the University of Chicago’s brief experiment with awarding degrees only upon successful completion of difficult comprehensive examinations rather than merely for the accumulation of course credits. And he describes how one famous Chicago professor, the biologist Joseph Schwab, in a course dealing with philosophical texts eschewed “class discussions where voice flits around the room while impulses of exhibitionism, excitement, or puzzlement jump from one student to another” in favor of “structured discussion” by putting “one student in the hot seat for a while and working that person as thoroughly and creatively as possible” before moving on to another.

In contemporary universities, this kind of intimate and intense education is threatened and already rare. One Chicago alumnus, Lee Shulman, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, recalls that sitting in Schwab’s classes “fostered clammy hands, damp foreheads, and an ever-attentive demeanor.” Today, a student with those symptoms would probably drop the class for fear of a poor grade, and the teacher would risk a poor score on the end-of-semester evaluations.24 Moreover, if any “general education” program is to succeed, professors need to be tough not only on their students but on themselves—willing to plunge into subjects and texts with which they may not have engaged since they themselves were students, or which they may never have encountered at all.

Unfortunately, most incentives and rewards, especially in prestigious institutions, line up today against this kind of teaching and learning. Large classes are far more cost-efficient than small ones. An increasingly specialized faculty is likely to give only sporadic attention to general education, and is unlikely to reach consensus about what it should be. Even for those who care, spending time on undergraduate teaching is ill-advised in a world where publication and research are the routes to promotion and higher pay. For students, taking intellectual chances is risky as they compete for places in professional schools that regard grades as all-important. As Harvard’s former dean Harry Lewis sums up the matter:

Universities affect horror when students attend college in the hope of becoming financially successful, but they offer students neither a coherent view of the point of college education nor any guidance on how they might discover for themselves some larger purpose in life.

It is certainly a good thing that fresh attention is being paid in books such as Bowen’s, Golden’s, and Michaels’s to the question of whom education is for. But there remains the fundamental question of what it is for and what it should consist of. One way to bring these questions together would be to ask how well our colleges reflect our best democratic traditions, in which individuals are not assessed by any group affiliation but are treated, regardless of their origins, as independent beings capable of responsible freedom.

Opening wider the admissions doors is a necessary step toward furthering that end, but it is by no means a sufficient one. Colleges will fulfill their responsibilities only when they confront the question of what students should learn—a question that most administrators, compilers of rank lists, and authors of books on higher education prefer to avoid.


Scandals of Higher Education’ May 31, 2007

Scandals of Higher Education’: An Exchange April 26, 2007

  1. 11

    In 2004, for example, students from families earning over $100,000 had an average combined SAT score of 1115, while students from families earning between $30,000 and $40,000 had a combined score of 960. See Bowen et al. Equality and Excellence in Higher Education, p. 82, and Walter Benn Michaels, The Trouble With Diversity, p. 98.

  2. 12

    The history of admissions quotas for Jews, for instance, who were once regarded as a distinctive race, is narrated in telling detail in Jerome Karabel, The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton (Houghton Mifflin, 2005). Golden cites anecdotal evidence and disparities in test scores to argue that at elite private colleges a quota system now exists for students of Asian ancestry, whom he calls the “New Jews.”

  3. 13

    Michaels traced the history of this transition from race to culture in an earlier book, Our America: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism (Duke University Press, 1995). In the present book, he says nothing about the rollback of affirmative action by recent referendums in states such as California and Michigan banning the consideration of race in admissions to public universities. While discounting the notion, suggested by Golden, that elite universities impose limits on the number of Asian-Americans they admit, he does not take a position on whether they are subject to de facto quotas.

  4. 14

    Michael Berubé, What’s Liberal about the Liberal Arts?: Classroom Politics and “Bias” in Higher Education (Norton, 2006), p. 93.

  5. 15

    Race does still matter. African-American college students perform less well in college than their SAT scores predict, and “the degree of underperformance increases as SAT scores rise.” See Douglas S. Massey, Camille Z. Charles, Garvey F. Lundy, and Mary J. Fischer, The Source of the River: The Social Origins of Freshmen at America’s Selective Colleges and Universities (Princeton University Press, 2003), p. 16. This trend implies a shortfall between aptitude and achievement, for which explanations include “stereotype vulnerability—the disengagement from school work that stems from fears of living up to negative stereotypes of minority intellectual inferiority” (p. 206).

  6. 16

    Mary Ann Mason and Marc Goulden, in “Marriage and Baby Blues: Re-defining Gender Equity in the Academy,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 596 (November, 2004), find little evidence of systematic discrimination against academic women, but they do find a “pattern of low marriage and birth rates” among those who gain tenure, and a high attrition rate among tenure-track women who choose to marry and bear children.

  7. 17

    Andrew Delbanco, “Where Is the Faculty in the Admissions Debates?,” InsideHigherEd.com, October 12, 2006.

  8. 18

    Eliot is quoted in Deborah L. Rhode, In Pursuit of Knowledge: Scholars, Status, and Academic Culture (Stanford University Press, 2006), p. 16; see also Clark Kerr, The Uses of the University (1963; Harvard University Press, 1995), p. 15.

  9. 19

    See Karabel, The Chosen, especially Chapters 3 and 4.

  10. 20

    The story of the SAT is told in Nicholas Lemann, The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999).

  11. 21

    In addition to those mentioned at the head of this article, other recent contributions to the genre include Nannerl O. Keohane, Higher Ground: Ethics and Leadership in the Modern University (Duke University Press, 2006); A Larger Sense of Purpose: Higher Education and Society (Princeton University Press, 2005) by former University of Michigan and Princeton president Harold T. Shapiro; and The Work of the University (Yale University Press, 2003), by current Yale president Richard C. Levin.

  12. 22

    Bowen elaborates his argument in James L. Shulman and William G. Bowen, The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values (Princeton University Press, 2001).

  13. 23

    William Chace, “A Little Learning Is an Expensive Thing,” The New York Times, September 5, 2006. In Chace’s academic memoir, 100 Semesters: My Adventures as Student, Professor, and University President, and What I Learned Along the Way (Princeton University Press, 2006), he chronicles his increasing feeling as an English professor that he was little more than a “museum docent” giving students a tour of the galleries so they would have something elevated to chat about.

  14. 24

    Recent studies of student evaluations have found that students tend to give good reviews “to instructors who are easy graders or who are good looking,” and lesser reviews to women and instructors born outside the United States. The largest such study, at Ohio State University, finds “no correla-tion between professor evaluations and the learning that is actually taking place.” See InsideHigherEd.com, January 29, 2007.

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