It’s Time For A New (Old) Kind Of University: Update

Ms Alma Mater
Consider these news items:

  • “At Western Michigan University, it is considered harassment to hold a ‘condescending sex-based attitude.’…Tufts University in Boston proscribes the holding of ‘sexist attitudes,’…

    At Northeastern University, where I went to law school, it is a violation of the Internet-usage policy to transmit any message ‘which in the sole judgment’ of administrators is ‘annoying.'” source

  • “Purdue has a $313,000-a-year acting provost and six vice and associate vice provosts, including a $198,000 chief diversity officer. It employs 16 deans and 11 vice presidents, among them a $253,000 marketing officer and a $433,000 business school chief…U.S. universities employed more than 230,000 administrators in 2009, up 60 percent from 1993, or 10 times the rate of growth of the tenured faculty…

    UConn has a $312,000-a-year provost and 13 vice, deputy and associate vice provosts, including one overseeing ‘engagement’ who makes almost $275,000 a year. The university has seven vice presidents and 13 deans. President Susan Herbst, who receives a $500,000 salary, has a $199,000 chief of staff…

    Purdue’s brand spending, led by Teri Lucie Thompson, a former insurance executive who is the school’s $253,000-a-year vice president for marketing and media and chief marketing officer.” source

  • “The concern is enhanced by the perception that administrators, administrative expenses and ancillary operations have expanded relative to the academic mission. (p 4)…”These ‘contingent,’ ‘itinerant,’ or ‘outsourced’ teachers grew by 40 percent or at eight times the rate of tenure track faculty. (p 10)…

    At Cornell over the past thirty years [adjunct instructors have] expanded at eight times the rate of tenure line faculty (p 22)…Essential professorial duties have ballooned to appropriate increasingly larger portions of the day. The emphasis on outside research funding forces an endless cycle of proposals and reports. (p 27)…

    The academic life no longer is a vocation in the sense of a calling to study and educate but a profession to be pursued for pecuniary benefit and intellectual stimulation. (p 57)” source

  • “Florida Gulf Coast University actually banned expressions deemed ‘inappropriate.’ Did you hear that one? I’ve always hated the expression ‘know what I’m saying’ Does that make it a violation of the speech code? Or is it racist for me to suggest that it is? Know what I’m saying?” Or any of the university articles by Mike Adams.
  • Watch to the end!

From these and other well known facts, we conclude modern universities have these main functions:

  • To provide facilities and means to produce world-class, useful research, research which is funded by government and industry.
  • To provide facilities and means to produce make-work, nearly useless and even harmful research, funded primarily by government.
  • To provide entertainment for the nation, mainly through men’s football and basketball programs which are stocked by low- to no-pay athletes.
  • To provide employment for an ever-expanding bureaucracy of deans, associate deans, assistant deans, provosts, assistant provosts, vice presidents without number, diversity officers, and so on.
  • To allow the burgeoning administrative staff to experiment in social meddling, such as inventing speech codes and orientation programs.
  • To give employment to adjunct teachers (who perform the bulk of instruction at many places).
  • To provide facilities and opportunities for students to socialize, “hook up”, and organize various activities.
  • For students to, within four to six or more years, earn a “degree.”
  • To allow some students to learn a trade.
  • to allow some students to spend three to four years exposed to the best that was thought and said, and to prepare for a future career.

All these were on my mind when I read Robert C. Koon’s piece “Dark Satanic Mills of Mis-Education: Some Proposals for Reform” in the Imaginative Conservative:

The “higher education system” in the United States has metastasized to the point that the body politic will soon be unable to sustain it. Tuition and fees have grown at more than three times the cost of living in the last two decades, outstripping even the rise in the cost of medical care. These enormous costs reflect the burden of a tenured professoriate that is increasingly well paid and decreasingly burdened with identifiable classroom duties. At the same time, the value of the education that it provides is vanishing, even when measured in terms of the financial bottom line. Only a minority of college graduates secures a job that in any sense “requires” a college-educated holder, while total college debt now dwarfs the aggregate of consumer debt and approaches that of all mortgages. At the same time, it is harder and harder to maintain with a straight face that students are—by engaging with pop culture studies, turgid French semiotic theorizing, or left-wing activism—acquiring the intangible and ineffable values of a liberal education, as classically understood.

No need to continue: examples like these can be continued indefinitely. There’s no shortage of books, which come out roughly monthly, which contain the same and worse. All authors offer a fix, and while the details of these fixes differ, they may all be classed as tweaks: keep the system as it is, but sand off an edge here, clean up some grit there. They also share this trait in common: none of the fixes have the slightest chance of working. Ask a Dean to give up power? Fire a Chief Diversity Officer? Eschew adjuncts? There is a better chance of Chuck Schumer turning Republican.

What intrigued me about Koons, and the reason I highlighted his article, was the unique solution he offered, which may be summarized thusly: forget ’em. That’s my crude language. Koons was far politer.

The idea is sound. Ignore the old system, which hasn’t any hope of being repaired, and start again. Let those who wish pile up debt, collect “womyn’s studies” “degrees”, and be taught by adjuncts at Behemoth U. But for those students who actually want to learn, we have to do something different. Nothing radical. Just return to the roots of what a classical liberal education was meant to be. (There are some colleges, like Thomas Aquinas, that have already begun.)

Here are Koons’s main proposals:

  • “Disassemble the existing system. De-fund state universities.” I’d add that if we want research as a society, then by all means, let’s have it. Done by professional scientists at research institutes (preferably privately operated) whose duties do not include teaching, except perhaps for guiding apprentices.
  • “Eliminate or ignore accreditation. The regional accrediting bodies are little more than higher-education cartels, ensuring that students can go to any college they like so long as they are all the same.”
  • “Encourage the development of small residential colleges that collaborate through the Internet.” This eliminates the trappings of office. Professors should also, as they used to, be the administrators. What a radical thought! Update Faculty as administrators avoids this all-too-common nonsense. Strike against whom?
  • “Create disinterested, double-blind evaluation of student learning.” I see this, but don’t love it. There isn’t a system invented that can’t be gamed. I say let students and families decide which teachers and colleges they like.
  • “Abolish distribution requirements, the pseudo core curriculum of the present system, and replace them with a true core curriculum. This would eliminate most of the politically correct hurdles students face: requirements in multiculturalism, social justice and global learning, for example.” Amen.
  • “Abolish or reform the Ph.D. In the liberal arts, replace the Ph.D. with the M.A., or a new doctorate in Liberal Arts, dropping the requirement of ‘original research.'” This won’t be needed, given his idea below.
  • “Ban the use of temporary, part-time, and non-tenure-track teachers.” Except in the case of illness or death, etc. “Eliminate the distinction between tenure-track and non-tenure-track instructors. Give everyone who has the responsibility for teaching students equal status in departmental and college decisions.” Amen again.

Saving the best for last, after mentioning the wide availability of free or low-cost books and other materials (colleges are “stampeding” to get on-line), this:

[W]e need to create a national society or collegium of scholars, backed by the resources of far-sighted philanthropists. The society would offer bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the classics of Western civilization, based on a battery of formal examinations and interviews. We would invite the graduates of traditional colleges and Internet universities, along with those who are self-taught or who have acquired their education through informal networks and private tutors, to seek these formal qualifications.

What a fantastic idea! Back to the groves of academe. I’d only change his idea to deemphasize the “degree” part, given government control and regulation of that word.

We’re only at the sketch stage here. Just what would this collegium of scholars look like? Would there need to be a physical location? Who’s paying? What’s the process? What should we require? Who knows? But let’s start talking.

Stay tuned as in the future we together work on this.

Update If there are scholars interested in discussing this seriously, please use the Contact Page above to send me an email. I think we’ve got something here.

Update I earlier reviewed Academically Adrift here: “We find disturbing evidence that many contemporary college academic programs are not particularly rigorous or demanding…Students often embraced a ‘credentialist-collegiate orientation’ that focused on earning a degree with as little effort as possible…12 percent of coursework was devoted to other subjects that included courses on their transcripts in areas as diverse as golf, tennis, and ‘ultimate Frisbee.'”

Update Welcome to Jerry Pournelle’s Chaos Manor readers! It’s quite an honor to be linked to (inside joke: the surfer was Larry Niven’s idea). The good Bish weighs in as well.

Update I earlier wrote a series University Professors Teach Too Much which is relevant. ” It would be better for all if these professors were not made to toil the five to seven-plus hours a week required to competently teach classes such as ‘Pre-college mathematics’ and ‘Introduction to reading’ to ill-prepared, largely unmotivated high school graduates.”

Update Katie’s link below emphasized: College, Reinvented: The Finalists. “When we invited readers to imagine what kind of college they would create if they could start one from scratch…”

Update Myth of the American Meritocracy (college admission scandals).

Update NYT talks of “MOOCs”, the latest buzzword to breathlessly describe books with batteries, i.e. massive open on-line courses. Truly, there is nothing new under the sun.

Update New York Times, as always, unable to see the joke, but recognizing the problem. ” Mr. Ellsberg, 35, graduated from Brown University and spent years trying to translate his expertise in post-colonial critical theory into a paying career.”

Update One idea that’s working: The Great Books Honors College (entirely on-line).


  1. GoneWithTheWind

    I would add the proposal that administration be trimmed by at least 50%. A simple mandate that the administrative staff be reduced by 10% each year for five years. As radical as this sounds it is likely that even after the 50% trim admin will be bloated. But it would be a good start.

    A former member of admin at a state college.

  2. John W. Garrett

    The education racket is clearly quite lucrative for professors and administrators. It has becoming increasingly obvious that it is a business operated for their sole benefit. The hype and exaggeration that has accompanied the marketing of the business has misled many a poor student.

  3. Ray

    I am for eliminating government funding of student loans. Without that funding it would not be possible for costs to increase as they have. Students that take out those loans are simply selling themselves into indentured servitude.

  4. Andy

    It is not as bad but similar in the UK, I suspect that it has been imported by American academics. I used to work in a very old and popular university and I have no idea what all the admin staff did. But then again I was the scummy teacher with no research, so was seen as worthless.

    So I left.

  5. Noblesse Oblige

    The Koons essay is fascinating, though I think that he does a disservice to poor old Francis Bacon. As for defunding the universities, that will not happen until they can no longer be afforded, a point we are rapidly approaching along with the rest of state and federal government excesses. The whole thing will need to fall of its own weight.

  6. George Steiner

    Mr. Oblige

    Show me something that falls of its own weight.

  7. andrew Davison

    George, how about the straw that broke the camel’s back?

  8. Brian

    All of these proposals are too complicated and meddlesome. The only thing that is needed to create the proper incentives for reform is to adjust the monetary incentives by capping the amount of government backing for student loans to, say, $2,500 per quarter and then indexing to broad-based inflation. If a school wants to charge more than $10,000 per year in tuition and ancilliary expenses, then fine, but many of the students will then have to find additional financing sources (part-time work, savings, non-government backed loans, grants, and scholarships), which will force the end-customers (students and parents) to become pickier in evaluating the value proposition, and schools to become more attentive to the actual value delivered.

  9. Greg Cavanagh

    They’ve realised that they have a captured audience. Tertiary educatioin is pretty much compulsory to get anywhere in the work force.

    So, at whatever the cost, is there any real alternative? I’m glad that some are seeing that there is and returning education back to what the word stands for.

  10. Dodgy Geezer

    If you want a successful system, follow the money.

    Universities in the UK were descended from the monasteries – which were funded by bequests. Monks were paid to say prayers for their benefactors, and studied in the meantime. That’s effectively how universities were run up to the 1950s – they had bequests which funded them, a Dean and Bursar to invest and allocate the money, and the Professors simply ran their research/teaching as they saw fit. They were either interested in truth, or university politics…

    The minute you fund universities in a commercial way by charging students, you have lost this idealistic aura, and you are into crude trade – so much cash for so many hours lecturing. And all the attendant scams and sharp practice of a typical business…

  11. Noblesse Oblige

    @ Mr Steiner. “Mr. Oblige…
    Show me something that falls of its own weight.”

    We will.

  12. rank sophist

    In ancient times, universities were for intellectuals and apprenticeships were for those who wanted to learn a trade. Today, if you apply for any job above minimum wage, the first thing they want to see is a college degree. If you put forward a reform of the college system before addressing this fundamental cultural problem, you’re going to end with a generation of McDonald’s employees.

  13. Gary

    These criticisms are painted with too broad a brush. Certainly every one of them is valid at some institution; however, overall they’re as useful as the US News College Rankings (which if you don’t know are a measure of wealth, based on variables largely unconnected with learning, and gamed by some institutions). There are many schools where students are trained to be competent nurses, engineers, business-people, and scientists — even where there are large numbers of graduates in the humanities, arts, and social sciences. It’s not a total wasteland.

    No time for a comprehensive rebuttal, but let me offer some selected observations:
    1. With college participation rates at historic highs, there will be more students unready for college. Institutions are under pressure from the public and politicians to “offer opportunity” to these kids. The faculty dislike dealing with unprepared students, but have little choice in the matter.
    2. State-funding of public institutions has declined so much from peaks in the 1980s that there is little more to cut. At the same time states set much of the costs of college (negotiated salary and benefits). Unionization, at least in some places, puts a further squeeze on the budget. Private schools may have more flexibility because of large endowments that publics don’t have.
    3. Accrediting bodies, in fear of intrusive governmental accountability, are demanding more evidence of actual learning in contrast to evidence of program variety. Yet this is very difficult to measure — a simple exit exam, equivalent to the SAT/ACT entrance exams, would be largely useless because learning at the college level is more about evidence-collection, synthesis, analysis, and application (the so-called “deep-learning” elements of education) than it is about fact-recall.
    4. Banning the use of temporary, part-time, and non-tenure-track teachers is unrealistic since they are needed where permanent faculty unaffordable. They cost about a 1/4 as much. Maybe tenured faculty cost too much, but that’s another issue. Schools would rather have fewer of the adjuncts for several reasons: reduced commitment to the institution, no contribution beyond teaching time, possibly lower teaching skill, etc.

    OK, that’s all I have time for here. Must get back to doing my part to improve learning outcomes. Full disclosure: I’m a 3+ decade, non-academic, non-managerial, staff member of a 4-year public university, so yes, I do have a horse in this race. I see both sides, but blanket criticisms only tell the bad half of the story.

  14. Briggs


    Pay particular attention to the “wit” who penned, “Let’s Go Monk! The 21st-Century Monastery, Reinvented.” This must be the Jon Stewart entry.

  15. Doug M

    Dodgy Geezer,

    It is my understaning that at the University of Balogna, thougt to be the oldest, the students hired and paid the teachers and determined the ciriculum.

  16. although not perfect. <– a place to start.

    another place I found recently that has hope for augmentation of education..

    In a completely different venue, minecraft. I watched my 6 year old son build a hideout. Rooms to store his pets. Rooms to trap monsters. Rooms to look out over the valley. Valleys carved out of a random scape, populated with trees he planted. I went to work and my boss was playing with a 3d modeling problem where he was carving out valleys and populating them with trees. The differences in their activities were significant, but at the same time the fundamental skill was still being built. The ability to perceive a 3d world on 2d screen and interact with it. Minecraft also has in it the ability to create machines from simple components. Some gent managed to construct a fully functional calculator using NAND elements he built from switches activated by red stone. They are both fascinated by videos of other people building worlds inside minecraft.

    It would not take much to create a math, social studies, engineering curriculum around kids playing minecraft. You just have to optimize the reward strategy.

    It will definitely be gamed, but that is sort of the point of game isn't it.

  17. I have an idea for a new type of university, zero tuition, federally funded, and the very best education available in the world. Based on the notion that somewhere, the very best English 101 professor in the world is giving a lecture that can be videotaped and distributed, that all class materials can be transmitted electronically, why not just federally fund ONE internet university, offer all courses free, and charge some ridiculously low fee ($10.00???) to take the final exam for any course at one of a high number of facilities set up for the sole purpose of administering exams?

    There will always be Princeton, Dartmouth, Harvard, and Yale for the uber-rich to send their children to hobnob with other children of the uber-rich. We should probably keep MIT, Cal Tech and Stanford so the very bright can synergize with the very bright,but, having graduated from OSU after five years of studying and having a full time job at the royal tuition cost of $4500.00, I can testify that I learned nothing in a classroom I couldn’t have learned online, had online existed.

    Problem, exploding costs: solved. Problem, diversity: solved. Problem, low quality education: solved. What’s not to like?

  18. Clayton Wrobel

    @GoneWithTheWind: Would the trimming be done on a per administrator basis? Say, a little off the top?

    Sorry, it had to be done! 🙂

  19. Rod Montgomery

    I believe it was Herman Kahn who observed that universities sell four things: Research, Knowledge, Credentials and Monuments.

  20. John

    You don’t go to college to learn things, you go to college to learn how to think. And if you learn how to communicate effectively, so much the better.

  21. bkindseth

    When I got my first computer, an Apple II+ in ~1983, I also purchased a typing tutor program, by of all companies, Microsoft. The program put up two groups of 4 letters on the screen, then measured your response for each letter. I believe that it also had a picture of the keyboard on the screen. It would continue to drill you based on your response for each letter. Periodically you could take tests. I was impressed with the application of the computer to education. The typing tutor example was almost 30 years ago. The possibilities now are incredible. Think of a free online university, similar to wikipedia. In addition to measuring the students ability to learn the program could also measure its ability to teach. That feedback could be used to continuously improve the teaching material.

  22. William Clardy

    Perhaps I’m just betraying my own prejudices, but I find it troubling that the comments on this article start with a contribution by someone who does not realize that 5 consecutive 10-percent cuts will not produce a 50-percent net reduction. The actual reduction will only be a little more than 40 percent (1 minus the value of 0.9 raised to the 5th power).

    Likewise for the bright soul who thinks that replacing tuition with federal (or even state) subsidies would reduce educational costs when such a move would merely mask them, perversely removing a very significant restraint on their climb).

  23. Doug Proctor

    I was lucky to graduate in ’78 and get into the oil and gas industry. It goes through busts and booms every 5 years or so but the work’s been steady. My loans were minimal in those days, not like today (I have university age kids).

    Worth it, for me, for others? Not all those I graduated with stayed in their profession. Bunch came to hate it, not just lawyers, either. The guys with the liberal arts and general accounting ended up in marketing or running their own businesses.

    It could be that what we’re seeing here is misleading. If the general level of getting college degrees has gone up relative to college-degree jobs, there will be a lot of college grads with non-professional jobs. Are they better people to the level of their debts? That would be the question to ask: knowing what you are doing now, would you blank out all the college-derived knowledge and experience and go into the working world without it?

  24. David L. Hagen

    Hopefully applying Adam Smith via internet competition will bring some sanity. e.g. see

    The CollegePlus Bachelor’s Degree Program allows you to earn your fully accredited Bachelor’s degree in two to three years, without debt, for around $15,000, and with the freedom and flexibility to gain life experience while you earn your degree.

  25. ErisGuy

    Them American people long ago decided the purpose of the university was to incarnate Progressive morality, to teach it in classroom (which why professors are Leftists–they must teach their charges how to think), and to demonstrate its superiority by example (the purpose of all those deans and provosts is a parallel justice system).

    Since America’s churches and familities failed in their duty to recognize, accept, and implement the “new civilization” of the Soviet Union, in what other institution could the hopes and dreams of the future be placed?

    The American people will not easily allow the University to diverted from its purpose of teaching that AmeriKKKa is the worst of all nations, that white people are the cancer of the planet, that…, well no reason to continue we all know what universities teach.

    And when enough graduates have learned their lessons, the trainees of the University will be the majority, properly elect their legislatures and executives, and utopia will arrive.

  26. On the subject of teaching too much, Australian poet Henry Lawson wrote a little ode to Australian Engineers:

    The relevant stanzas:
    Ah, well! but the case seems hopeless, and the pen might write in vain;
    The people gabble of old things over and over again.
    For the sake of the sleek importer we slave with the pick and the shears,
    While hundreds of boys in Australia long to be engineers.

    A new generation has risen under Australian skies,
    Boys with the light of genius deep in their dreamy eyes-
    Not as of artists or poets with their vain imaginings,
    But born to be thinkers and doers, and makers of wonderful things.

    Boys who are slight and quiet, but boys who are strong and true,
    Dreaming of great inventions-always of something new;
    With brains untrammelled by training, but quick where reason directs-
    Boys with imagination and keen, strong intellects.

  27. ezra abrams

    funny how all these people who defend free speech, people who are paid by right wing groups, never mention the threat to thought from the religous, or from corporations.

    altho I agree that salary scales are out of control

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