The University on the Skids



Higher Education?

How Colleges are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—and What We Can Do About It

by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus

Times Books, 2010, 288 pp.



Issuing dire prognostications for the future of higher education has been a favorite pastime for academics since St. Bernard took up his case against Abelard for applying the rules of logic to theology. The latest addition to the intense debate currently brewing in academia on the topic is Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus’ Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—and What We Can Do About It. It’s a good read, if you haven’t been following the discussions.


Hacker and Dreifus, an accomplished academic/literary couple based in New York City, speak with authority. Hacker is the author of the bestseller Two Nations, Black and White, Separate, Hostile and Unequal (Scribner, 1992)and teaches at Queens College. Dreifus is a regular contributor to The New York Times’ Tuesday “Science Times” section and is an adjunct professor of International Affairs at Columbia University.


Their book opens with a wide-ranging survey of the problems afflicting higher education in the United States, an education that students and families are finding it more and more difficult to afford. The authors lament that astronomical increases in tuition, coupled with a declining economy, are making it harder and harder for the middle class—not to mention the poor—to achieve social mobility through our educational system. According to a report released in July 2010 by the College Board, the United States now ranks 12th among 36 developed nations in the percentage of the population aged 25-34 holding a post-secondary degree.1


Unfortunately, most Americans are unaware of how the university’s employment practices are contributing to the decline. We often hear politically motivated outrage on talk news programs over the seditious behavior of tenured radicals with cushy jobs, without recognizing the implications of the fact that most teachers in the college classroom today are adjunct professors. These professors—many with Ivy League Ph.D.s—are making little more than their students who are waiting tables at the local diner in order to pay for tuition. Hacker and Dreifus are correct to warn us of the long-term impact that this trend will have on our national dream of achieving an equitable society.


Higher Education? is divided into four parts: The first three chapters lay the blame for the decline of the university on 1) the self-interested behavior of aging, tenured professors; 2) administrative bloat within the universities themselves; and 3) the shifting of undergraduate teaching responsibilities from tenured faculty onto the shoulders of graduate students and adjunct faculty. The second part of the book examines the decline of the liberal arts and the growing popularity of vocational degree programs. The third part is a bit of a hodgepodge, with chapters addressing the cost of tuition, the indefensibility of tenure, and college sports. In the final part of the book, Hacker and Dreifus give their recommendations for reforming the system and provide a list of the “top ten” colleges that appear to be providing the sort of student-centered education that the authors are promoting. Parents who are dreading having to mortgage their homes in order to finance their children’s college education would be relieved to find only one “prestige” school on the list—Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


Hacker and Dreifus’ approach to the problems they address and the solutions they offer fall on both sides of the political spectrum. On one hand, for example, they support the unionization of graduate students and contingent faculty, who now make up two-thirds of the academic labor force. On the other hand, they argue that tenured faculty cannot govern themselves, and blame most of the spiraling tuition costs on the tenure system itself. Sadly, right-wing critics, who love to demonize the university as a hotbed of liberalism, are likely to seize on their evidence that tenure is driving up tuition costs; for without tenure, it would be much easier for outsiders to force the university to fire professors with controversial political views. Conservative pundits, for their part, are likely to ignore what the authors have to say about the “proletarianization” of the academic work force. In essence, Hacker and Dreifus argue that replacing tenured faculty with graduate students and part-time teachers as a cost control measure is one of the primary causes of the degradation of the quality of higher education. The obvious solution to the exploitation of the academic labor force—unionization—is of course anathema to conservatives.


The book is adequately researched, but unfortunately Hacker and Dreifus ignore the work of some important predecessors in the academic labor movement. All discussions of the future of higher education should begin by acknowledging Bill Readings’ The University in Ruins (Harvard, 1996), which provides a solid theoretical analysis of the modern higher education system. This groundbreaking work, published posthumously, unveils how, under the rubric of “excellence,” control of the university has been wrested from the faculty and turned over to corporate-trained administrators, who have been hired to run the university as if it were an investment bank or a sports conglomerate. Two other important foundational thinkers are missing as well: Stanley Aronowitz, a veteran political activist at City University of New York, and Cary Nelson, current president of the American Association of University Professors (A.A.U.P.).


The shortcomings of Higher Education? are most obvious in the chapter on tenure. The authors did admit that it is a “tangled” problem, and they argue, quite rightly, that tenure as it exists today promotes cautiousness and conformity in the professoriate at the expense of creativity. In a tight academic job market—an endemic problem in the humanities for the past forty years—Ph.D. candidates will succumb to the pressure to play by the rules in order to get hired. The result is that, over the long-term, the discipline rots from within because of too much inside-the-box thinking. In a world where job market pressures strain and discard the intellectual gadflies from the system long before they arrive at their first tenure review, the argument that tenure protects your teaching job in times of controversy only serves as a smokescreen. What it really does, as Hacker and Dreifus argue, is protect the privileges of the elect few.


Our discussions over the complicated issue of tenure are not helped by intellectual dishonesty or by naïve either/or thinking, however. University presidents who are hired to cut costs and streamline decision-making procedures will say whatever it takes to get the A.A.U.P. off their backs, and need to be called to account for their duplicity. Lined up against them are the faculty’s true believers, activist types who are ready to die on the mountain for academic freedom. Everyone, including Hacker and Dreifus, should stop framing the debate as a matter of saving tuition dollars versus abolishing tenure. In particular, it would help matters considerably if both sides admitted publicly, and not just to themselves, that a professor’s job security depends, as it always has, on extenuating circumstances, such as the courageous backing of a university president or board of regents, a vigilant faculty senate, a powerful faculty union, friendships with local power brokers, a star scholar’s access to the media, the community’s acknowledged economic dependence on the university, and a political climate of tolerance and acceptance of dissent.


Unfortunately, because sloganeering fares better than complexity in the media market, discussions about what ails the university will probably continue to focus on numinous ideals like academic freedom, rather than on the more practical matter of faculty governance. A trade school can be run like a business, but not a university, whose success as an institution is due in part to its long tradition of self-government.


Hacker and Dreifus put their fingers on many of the reasons why the university is foundering, but the most important piece of the puzzle, what happens to the quality of higher education when the faculty no longer governs the university, is missing from their account.


Leading theorists on the academic labor movement looking to change the system would do well to study the medieval university’s relationship with the church, which once played the role in university politics now assigned to corporate America. The conflict began in the twelfth century, when much to the displeasure of church leaders, the faculty achieved critical mass at Paris and Bologna and formed a universitas, or loose association of faculty and student guilds. Inspired by independent scholars such as Abelard, they decided that the liberal arts and not the church fathers should dominate the curriculum. Since then, decisions over what should be taught in the university, who is qualified to teach it, and what competencies are required for the conferral of a degree, have been left in the hands of faculty committees. Until now, that is, when university faculty, faced with too much committee work and too few tenured colleagues to share it, have ceded more and more of their governance responsibilities to academic administrators who think primarily in terms of the bottom line. Administrators, in turn, encourage the faculty to slough their teaching responsibilities off on grad students and adjuncts, so that the faculty can focus on their research—which is where the money is these days, especially in engineering and the sciences.


As we find with two other important institutions bequeathed to us by medieval Europe, i.e., trial by jury and parliament, collective decision-making with one’s peers is fractious, tedious, and inefficient. But woe to the future of democracy if we circumvent it.




1. John Michael Lee, Jr. and Anita Rawls. The College Completion Agenda (College Board, 2010).



Academia, University