What’s Wrong with Higher Education?

John J. Miller is a conservative writer, founder of the National Review Online blog Phi Beta Cons, author of several books, and he has been called “one of the best literary journalists in the country” by the Chronicle of Higher Education. On October 21, he gave the keynote address at the Pope Center event “Colleges and Universities Today: What Parents and Citizens Need to Know” at the picturesque Carmel Country Club in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The root of all evils in our nation’s higher education system is, according to Miller, a lack of transparency and accountability. “No sector in American life or culture,” he said, “is more unaccountable than higher education.” And that’s just the way the powers-that-be in our colleges and universities would like to keep it, because “if you look closely at what they’re doing, you see how much they’re doing wrong.”

Miller outlined three main problems with our country’s colleges and universities, all of which arise from this lack of accountability. The politics and worldview of faculty and administrators are remarkably unbalanced: “They’re radically out of step with the American mainstream and are downright hostile to the beliefs of most Americans.” They’re doing a terrible job of teaching our children: “Academic standards have withered to the vanishing point.” And they cost way too much: Costs are “so high that for many students, higher education is arguably a bad investment that they shouldn’t make.”

Miller’s experiences at the University of Michigan, which he attended in the late 1980’s, served to illustrate a number of the failings of higher education.  The first on the docket was the extreme political imbalance on campus. This lopsidedness leads to intolerance of dissent, which in turn translates into restrictions on political speech, often in the form of speech codes.  Michigan enacted one of the first and most stringent speech codes in the country, documented in a pamphlet that Miller still possesses and, in his talk, took time to read from.

Even though the speech code he referred to was enacted a generation ago and some of the most odious parts of it were struck down as unconstitutional by a federal court ruling, it is still a useful illustration. University speech codes still persist, even at Michigan, and such codes have proliferated widely since. Several schools in North Carolina—Appalachian State, Davidson, Wake Forest, and UNC-Greensboro—are rated “red-alert,” the worst possible rating, by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), and not a single university in the state has been given a “green light” rating.

According to Miller, speech codes are a means of enforcing what John Rosenberg, writing on Minding the Campus, has called “The New Puritanism.” Speech codes enable administrators and faculty to “stop 19-year-olds from questioning their most cherished orthodoxies.”

Another major problem with the modern academy is the deterioration of standards, especially in terms of required core classes. Again recalling his days at Michigan, Miller concluded that it was possible to get a good education at the university, but a student could have gone to Michigan and graduated without getting one. “The problem was that you had to seek it out,” he said. “Michigan didn’t make sure you received it and in fact it was quite possible to get a lousy education simply because there were so few requirements.”

To demonstrate the problems arising from such lax standards, he pointed to a New York Times political reporter who didn’t understand the concept of “the rule of law,” declaring, “This is what our universities have wrought: a generation of students whose thinking is so impoverished that the one who goes on to one of the most prestigious beats in all of journalism—political coverage at the New York Times—behaves as if she’s never heard the term ‘the rule of law’ before.” Upon reflection, “the scary thing is that maybe she hasn’t.”

There are rays of hope amid the darkness, however. New and relatively new ranking systems are being implemented to get some kind of idea about what students are getting for their tuition dollars. US News and World Report, Forbes, and soon the Pope Center will all be providing valuable information to potential students about what they can expect from different colleges.

Moreover, Miller mentioned that the public perception of higher education has shifted drastically since he graduated from Michigan. Today’s generation is a lot more skeptical about the American university, the term “political correctness” has captured the popular imagination, a consumer culture is developing in which people actually weigh costs and benefits, and an infrastructure has been developed to support a “counter-intelligentsia” (including, for example, the Heritage Foundation, the John Locke Foundation, and the Pope Center).

Despite these signs of hope, however, Miller’s speech was, overall, rather gloomy. Thankfully, the Pope Center’s Jane Shaw followed the straight shot of doom and gloom about higher education with a chaser of good news and optimism, highlighting the efforts of the Pope Center.

As Jane pointed out, we here at the Center do our best to ameliorate all the troubles Mr. Miller highlighted: the overwhelming anti-traditional and anti-capitalist bias, slipping standards, erosion of the core curriculum, and rising costs. To fight such iniquities, we publish articles, research papers, and get our ideas out at events co-sponsored with other think tanks from across the country.

Furthermore, we help bring conservative speakers to North Carolina campuses to offer viewpoints that would otherwise seldom be heard. We host the Spirit of Inquiry contest to honor some truly outstanding teachers. We are even working on developing an economics course for community colleges that will promote economic literacy.

And we could use your donations!

Overall, it was an illuminating evening for those who don’t know much about the current state of higher education—and, I hope, enlightening and inspiring to those who care about our colleges and universities.