Our Universities: How Bad? How Good?

Tim Davis/Greenberg Van Doren Gallery, New York
Couch in Car, Vassar College, 2010; photograph by Tim Davis from Vassar’s sesquicentennial exhibition ‘150 Years Later: New Photography by Tina Barney, Tim Davis, Katherine Newbegin,’ at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Poughkeepsie, New York, through March 27, 2011

The rhetoric of crisis seems to have become endemic to writing about the American university. Some twenty-five years ago, Harvard Dean Henry Rosovsky declared American universities to be “the world’s best.” There was a good deal of dissent from this judgment during the 1980s and 1990s, beginning with Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987) and continuing with more juvenile attacks such as Charles Sykes’s Profscam (1988) and Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals (1990). But these were salvos in a culture war about the definition and mission of the university, and political dissents from what was seen as a predominantly leftist intellectual and artistic elite.

The new crisis accuses the American university of failing to educate (variously, failing to train the mind and to prepare for the workplace), of losing its place in international competition, of being an institution top-heavy with administrators and pandering to a faculty that does very little, as well as to students who care more about expensive cars and state-of-the-art fitness rooms than about Socrates. Above all, the university has become unjustifiably expensive, inaccessible, and unaccountable. The subtitle given by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus to Higher Education? sums it up: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—And What We Can Do About It.

Debating education has always been an American pastime, and choosing the “best colleges” a lucrative business, as U.S. News and World Report has well understood. The debate has long been studded with reformist notions, utopian or practical, but it was sustained by the belief that American universities were something of high quality—indeed, something precious—that were worth the attention they got, and worth striving to enter.

The universities in turn have on the whole made efforts to make themselves far more democratic than they once were (the changes in their demographics since the 1960s are, when you think about it, quite remarkable), to open their gates to the disadvantaged of American society more fully than many other sectors of society, and to try to make their benefits available to those who can’t pay for them. The wealthiest among them claim to adhere to a “need-blind” admissions policy—that is, to admit the freshman class without looking at its scholarship requests, then provide the financial aid each student needs. To be sure, that policy can be pursued only by a handful of colleges, and there is evidence that the sticker price is now so high that many who might get adequate financial aid don’t even try for admission. Moreover, in the competition among universities for the best and the brightest, there has…

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