Our Universities: Why Are They Failing?

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Wolfgang Volz/laif/Redux
Killian Court in front of Building 10 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts, September 2002

American universities crowd the tops of many world rankings, and though these ratings are basically entertainment for university administrators and alumni, they do reflect certain facts. A number of American universities offer their faculty salaries and working conditions, laboratories and libraries that few institutions elsewhere can match. They spend more not only on their staff, but also on their graduate and undergraduate students, than their peers overseas. Though their fees seem enormous by European or Asian standards, they have worked hard in recent years to keep them from deterring poor students by offering more generous aid for undergraduates and by paying full fees for all doctoral students. At every level of the system, dedicated professors are setting students on fire with enthusiasm for everything from the structure of crystals to the structure of poems.

Yet American universities also attract ferocious criticism, much of it from professors and from journalists who know them well, and that’s entirely reasonable too. Every coin has its other side, every virtue its corresponding vice—and practically every university its festering sores. At the most prestigious medical schools, professors publish the work of paid flacks for pharmaceutical companies under their own names. At many state universities and more than a few private ones, head football and basketball coaches earn millions and their assistants hundreds of thousands for running semiprofessional teams. Few of these teams earn much money for the universities that sponsor them, and some brutally exploit their players.

At competitive private colleges and universities, admissions directors reserve places in each class for the children of alumni and potential donors; for athletes, many of whom will make less use of their academic opportunities than their classmates do; and simply for those who can pay. And at universities that boast of their commitment to undergraduate teaching, too many professors gabble through PowerPoint slides twice a week and entrust the face-to-face teaching of actual students to underpaid graduate students and Ph.D.s on short-term contracts, who do their best to impart basic skills in writing and quantitative analysis while earning only a few thousand dollars a course.

It’s not hard to see why colleges and universities resist simple evaluations. There are now almost five thousand universities and colleges—both two-year and four-year—in the US. Millions attend them, including around 40 percent of eighteen-to-twenty-four-year-old Americans and a great many older students. Postsecondary education stretches from the tree-shaded Olympuses of the Ivy-plus private group and the imposing quadrangles of the great public universities to urban community colleges that run twelve hours a day, surrounded only by vast parking lots that are never big enough to accommodate everyone. It’s private and public, mass and elite, ancient and ivy-covered, contemporary and cutting-edge. No generalization could do justice to this vast and varied scene.


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