Some 20 years ago at my alma mater, Lawrence Cunningham, now a professor of theology at Notre Dame, began a colloquium by asking the audience why the institution of the university exists.  The audience offered suggestions such as “to prepare a trained workforce for the modern economy” and “to bring about social justice.”  The professor then surprised his listeners by declaring that all their answers were incorrect: The university, uniquely among social institutions, exists for the scholar.

Historically, this proposition seems incontestable.  With very few exceptions, such as the University of Bologna, which was driven by organizations of students seeking instruction that would enable them to make a career in law, medieval universities originated as groups of scholars forming corporations to sell their services.  The income from the tuition charged went in large part to maintain the faculty in their pursuit of truth, an activity blessed and further underwritten by the Church, with which universities maintained a close association.  Faculty took religious vows and typically lived in poverty, or close to it.

For centuries, a university education, with its focus on the liberal arts, was available to, and seen as desirable for, very few people: future clerics, lawyers, and physicians (from the Middle Ages), and other socioeconomic elites (from the early-modern period).  However, in the 20th century, a university degree came to be seen as white-collar-job training and a ticket to upward mobility.  Nearly everyone, it seems, wants one today.  Federal, state, and local governments do their best to oblige, spending hundreds of billions of dollars annually to subsidize colleges and universities both directly (underwriting the budgets of public universities) and indirectly (helping students afford tuition with Pell Grants, subsidized Stafford Loans, etc.).

Since the financial meltdown of 2008, the education gravy train has come under scrutiny from above and below.  Many potential college students and their parents are beginning to show reluctance to pay six figures for a bachelor’s degree that may take six years to complete and will no longer guarantee a job upon graduation, given the current economic climate.  Government officials have finally noticed that, according to the American Institutes for Research, more than half a billion dollars in aid each year goes to freshmen who drop out after one or two semesters.

Attempting to capitalize on the growing sense that students and governments aren’t getting their money’s worth, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus argue for a far-reaching reform of America’s colleges and universities.  In so doing, they make prescriptions based on the assumption that these institutions exist not for scholars, but for the instruction of students.

Part One of their book, What Went Wrong?, purports to show that the lion’s share of university resources is not devoted to teaching students.  Full-time faculty have light teaching loads, administrative positions having nothing to do with academics abound, and a large portion of pedagogical activity is performed by part-time instructors who are paid very little.  Part Two, Ideals and Illusions, asserts that tuition-paying parents are being sold a bill of goods.  The dozen American schools with the loftiest reputations do not deserve them; for example, they don’t produce “national leaders” with the frequency they claim.  Teaching quality varies widely, and students often go entire semesters without having contact with an actual faculty member, because so many undergraduate courses are taught by graduate students.  Moreover, vocational training has come to take precedence over the liberal-arts curriculum.

The authors’ solutions to these problems, presented in Part Three (Some Immodest Proposals), involve a reorientation in the thinking of universities and their constituencies: Any nonacademic activity or position must prove its usefulness to the university’s academic mission or be jettisoned.  Thus, most intercollegiate athletic programs would be destined for the chopping block.  In the interests of improving teaching quality, schools should seek parity in the pay-per-course part-time and full-time faculty receive, replace tenure with multiyear contracts, and evaluate full-time faculty primarily (even exclusively) on their teaching performance instead of their research.  To reduce tuition costs and the accompanying debt headaches for students, universities and colleges should slash student-services budgets, which fund everything from multimillion-dollar “activities” complexes to free condoms in dorms.  A final section, Facing the Future, discusses trends such as distance education and profiles a handful of colleges the authors think are doing right by their students and faculty.

Hacker and Dreifus present an apparently compelling case for several of their recommendations.  The proliferation of administrative positions at universities over the years has several causes, not the least of which is the ever-increasing burden of paperwork necessary to satisfy accrediting bodies.  It’s true, though, that the attempt to create “multiversities” that explore everything under the sun has led to a diversion of precious resources to centers, institutes, and programs that have nothing to do with these institutions’ mission statements.  The authors cite the University of Minnesota, which has almost 200 of these entities dedicated to subjects such as “Integrative Leadership” and “Transdisciplinary Tobacco Use.”  Ending or spinning off programs like these could help universities refocus their efforts on their historic missions.

The salvo against intercollegiate-athletics and student-affairs budgets also seems justified.  One by one, Hacker and Dreifus refute the arguments so often heard in defense of sports programs (“they build school spirit; they boost donations to the school; they help integrate campuses racially”), showing them to be empirically unsubstantiated.  In the aggregate, intercollegiate athletics is a money loser and a tremendous distraction from academic life for those involved in it.  Given the devotion of Americans to their sports, though, it’s worth asking what would happen to the enrollment (and accompanying tuition revenue) of a college or university that followed the authors’ advice.  I teach at a small school where around 40 percent of the traditional undergraduates participate in a varsity sport.  Many of these students chose to attend my school without any scholarship award because of the opportunity in athletics.  We’d be likely to lose the majority of those students, and large sums of money, to other schools, should we cut those programs.  Similar concerns could easily be raised about cutting back on campus amenities for students; to what extent will a school’s lower price tag make up for an austere campus where students “have nothing to do”?  Hacker and Dreifus are correct that such things do not advance the academic mission of universities, but the competition for student “customers,” who have access to Pell Grants and subsidized loans to help them indulge their appetites, is fierce on the lower rungs of the academic ladder.

The attack on faculty research and institutional service is where the authors’ proposals become more problematic.  Certainly, it seems unjust that a full-time professor who teaches six courses per academic year gets paid, say, $60,000 at the same time that adjunct instructors receive five percent or less of that figure for teaching one course.  The authors calculate that many full-time professors earn hundreds of dollars for each hour of work they perform, but they arrive at these inflated figures by counting only the hours actually spent in the classroom with students as “work,” thus assigning a dollar value of zero not only to the scholarship these faculty produce and the work they do for university committees, but to the time they spend outside class grading and tending to other administrative duties related to their courses.

The problem with this analysis is that, at research universities, teaching is routinely defined as less than 50 percent of a full-time professor’s responsibilities.  The authors’ solution is to do away with research.  But even at schools that focus on teaching, where research expectations are minimal or nonexistent (and teaching loads substantially heavier), faculty routinely spend ten to fifteen hours per week dealing with responsibilities in their job descriptions that have nothing to do with their classes.  And because research has always been a central part of the university’s purpose, to eliminate it from the institution seems a bit extreme.

No doubt there is plenty of navel-gazing and frivolous research happening on campuses of research universities across the country, with tenure-track faculty cranking out “compost” articles (the authors’ term), hoping to impress their tenure committees, but Hacker and Dreifus themselves admit that most college students are getting their education at “off-brand” regional schools where the teaching load and salaries of full-time faculty are reasonable and where students have more interaction with faculty.  Their thesis would be more persuasive if it were presented as an attack on the small elite of administrators and tenured faculty in the Ivy League and Russell Kirk’s “Behemoth U.”  To be sure, the authors devote a chapter to debunking the “Golden Dozen” schools, but obviously the experience of students and faculty in those rarefied regions is not typical of the American college experience.

None of these criticisms detracts from the authors’ important achievement in calling attention to the diminishing returns in higher education today and offering provocative solutions that should stimulate needed debate.  Some of their suggestions, should anyone act on them, could help us take the first of many needed steps toward a recovery of the historic role of the university in Western society.


[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 (New York: Times Books) 288 pp., $26.00]