What’s more unsettled than US Senate? American higher education
One of the few institutions in America as unsettled as the United States Senate is higher education.
Enrollment is falling, public support is slipping, costs are rising, student debt is astronomical, political tensions and interference are omnipresent, university presidents are being driven out and mental health concerns are rising, especially after the traumas of the pandemic.
Most of this is gleaned from the Chronicle of Higher Education. I subscribed, as I have a peripheral role with my alma mater — a “lifetime trustee,” a pleasant euphemism for “gone out to pasture” — and chiefly due to the respect I have for the publication’s editor-in-chief and president, Mike Riley, a former colleague.
The reporting is terrific, the picture depressing.
The number of Americans who believe college has a positive effect on the country, what used to be a motherhood and apple pie question, has fallen to a bare majority.
Colleges have become a favorite whipping boy of Republican legislatures. Boise State, under constant haranguing by right-wing legislators, cancelled a convocation speech about Native Americans; the College of the Ozarks in Arkansas pulled back social media celebrating its diversity. “If I make a public statement that I like cats better than dogs, that creates unhappiness with the institution,” Margaret H. Venable, president of Georgia’s Dalton State College told the Chronicle.
At Madison, a bipartisan committee, appointed by a Democratic governor and a Republican governor, unanimously chose Jennifer Mnookin, Dean of the UCLA Law School, as its new chancellor. Sight unseen, she is under attack from conservative legislators like state assembly speaker Robin Vos. The main charge: The UCLA law school taught a course on critical race theory.
At Chapel Hill, criticism from a wealthy alumnus and politicians forced Nikole Hannah-Jones, an accomplished journalist and author of the controversial 1619 project, to reject an offer to be a professor. The American Association of University Professors Association charged that the North Carolina legislature is “inappropriately seeking to expand its purview” over UNC.
In this environment, the tenure of college presidents is short-lived. Tulsa University fired its president after only 74 days. The president of the University of Wyoming was gone after six months; Oregon State, nine months.
Admiral William McRaven was brought in to head the University of Texas system and to smooth over relations with the state’s political establishment. He resigned after three and a half years, declaring that leading a university is the “toughest job” in the country. McRaven led the special operations team that killed Osama Bin Laden.
I have long felt that accomplished politicians are ideal university presidents: Both jobs place a premium on raising money and satisfying diverse constituencies that have little in common; examples include Terry Sanford at Duke two generations ago, John Brademas at NYU a generation later and currently Mitch Daniels at Purdue.
Today it’d be challenging even for those superb leaders.
The pandemic has compounded the problems. Virtual learning is inferior to in-person teaching. Millions of students have dropped out since 2020. There are disturbing mental health concerns and a rise in suicides. The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe brings new issues. The Chronicle cited a very real hypothetical: Suppose a college student gets pregnant in a state that bans abortion and a college employee gets her an abortion pill. Are there criminal charges?
Conundrums abound. College tuitions keep soaring; many states have cut back on support for public schools, and 45 million Americans already have incurred $1.6 trillion of federal student debt.
There is a clash of fringe ideologies. The woke political left can be an intimidating force at elite schools; there are students and professors who avoid email and texts, fearing woke attacks. The political right plays the race card in trying to outlaw the teaching of the critical race theory, which most can’t define.
(As an aside, I’m amused by tirades of right-wing politicians against “elite” colleges; most of the top Republican politicians are Ivy League graduates: Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis, Ted Cruz, Elise Stefanik, and five of the Supreme Court’s conservative justices — all have “elite” Ivy League degrees.)
In, “After the Ivory Tower Falls,” journalist Will Bunch writes that Higher Education has become a “rigged meritocracy,” largely serving the well-to-do. The American dream, starting with the GI bill, that a college education would enable each generation to do better than their parents is unavailable to too many working-class families.
This divide, Bunch argues, has been a major factor in political polarization. Democrats now are the party of most college graduates, and Republicans of non-college education whites. This breeds resentments.
These are big challenges.
As an amateur observer, there are several takeaways; for all its imperfections, American higher education remains the envy of much of the world; colleges must contain costs; we need less — not more — interference from politicians … and take a look at the Chronicle of Higher Education, which has some uplifting stories too.
Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for The Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.