Ten Busy Years, Ten Key Events

The past decade has shaken the nation’s colleges and universities. The political correctness that dominated the 1990s continues, but criticism and competition have challenged the sector’s complacency. Sometimes still called “the envy of the world,” the nation’s colleges and universities are being charged with high costs, lack of accountability, and poor outcomes. Change could come with a bang, not a whimper. Here are the Pope Center’s “top ten” events and trends during the decade.

10. Board of Regents v. Southworth

In 1996 Scott Southworth and two other law students at the University of Wisconsin at Madison filed a lawsuit against the Wisconsin Board of Regents. They claimed that the existing student fee policy forced them to support political and ideological student organizations to which they objected and thus violated their First Amendment rights.

The case went to the Supreme Court, which in 2000 (yes, technically in the previous decade) upheld the fees. In the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy argued that even though people should not be forced to directly subsidize speech they abhor, the student fee system was more like a subsidy of free speech for students in general—as long as the collected funds were distributed in a “viewpoint neutral” way. This paved the way for this decade’s campus culture of indoctrination. Expensive, partisan, and often irrelevant speakers frequently appear on public campuses—with no recourse for students who object. For example, over the past ten years, North Carolina schools have hosted Tucker Max, Gloria Steinem, Angela Davis, and Danny Glover—all of them paid for, at least in part, by student fees.

—Jenna Ashley Robinson

9. A Hoax at Duke

In March 2006, three Duke University lacrosse players were described by one faculty member as “almost perfect offenders,” since they were “the exemplars of the upper end of the class hierarchy, the dominant gender, the dominant sexuality, and the dominant social group on campus.”

There was one major problem with Wahneema Lubiano’s analysis—the three lacrosse players committed no offense. They were, in fact, victims themselves, falsely accused of rape by a stripper hired by lacrosse team members. The resulting controversy became the most highly publicized example of an increasing phenomenon: the campus hoax, in which members of supposedly aggrieved ethnic or sexual groups claim to be victimized by bigots. Lubiano herself, along with many other members of the Duke faculty, became an “almost perfect exemplar” of the campus radical who sees the world through a prism of race, class, gender, and sexual grievances. The case also revealed how impotent university administrations are when confronted by an aggressively politicized faculty, even when those faculty are so obviously wrong.

—Jay Schalin

8. Admissions Preferences

In June 2003, the Supreme Court issued two decisions that kicked off years of litigation and state political initiatives. Both involved admissions policies at the University of Michigan that had given preferences to students based on race. In Gratz v. Bollinger, the Court held (6 to 3) that the undergraduate admission policy, which awarded a substantial number of points to applicants just on the basis of racial minority status was too mechanistic to pass constitutional scrutiny. In Grutter v. Bollinger, however, the Court held (5 to 4) that the admissions policy used by the university’s law school was permissible because it used race in a more nuanced way.

The two decisions led to more litigation. Many university administrators thought that Grutter gave them carte blanche to give racial preferences to students whose ancestry put them in the “underrepresented minority” class. White and Asian students who were turned down, however, filed suits claiming that their programs were slightly disguised quota schemes in violation of Gratz. And a number of states initiated political action to ban the use of race preferences in state university systems.

—George Leef

7. The Dawn of Sustainability

The sun may be setting on the academic focus on diversity of races, ethnic groups, and cultures. But an enthusiasm for sustainability is surging into ascendance.

Sustainability is an offshoot of the environmental or “green” movement. According to Second Nature, an organization that works with “senior leaders” on campus, sustainability means making sure that “people’s capacity to meet…basic needs is not systematically undermined.”  It defines these needs as subsistence, freedom, protection, affection, participation, understanding, leisure, creativity, and identity.

In practice, the movement has led to the Presidents’ Climate Commitment, by which 676 presidents so far have pledged to “reducing global warming emissions” and “integrating sustainability into their curriculum.” The sustainability movement is promoting the adoption of “green” technology in campus buildings, even if the costs are high. It also advocates for the creation of environmental studies programs and a string of lightweight activities such as going without trays in lunchrooms and banning plastic water bottles. It has, however, spurred a counterforce. The National Association of Scholars has been out front in pointing out its pervasiveness and fundamental silliness.

—Jane S. Shaw and Duke Cheston

6. Disruptive Technology

For-profit colleges took off during the past decade by using online education more effectively than nonprofit schools. They now represent nearly 10 percent of all enrollment in postsecondary education as they reach out aggressively to previously underserved populations—working adults, many of whom are low-income.

These schools depend enormously on federal student aid—their students are heavy users of grants and subsidized loans. Some of the schools have been darlings of Wall Street—among them, the Apollo Group (which owns the University of Phoenix, with more than 400,000 students) and Kaplan University, which contributes far more to the profits of its parent company, the Washington Post, than does the newspaper.

The Department of Education and influential senators have attacked for-profits for their aggressive marketing and low graduation rates. The schools may falter as a result, but new models are likely to keep them alive. One example is StraighterLine, a company that provides online courses for a fraction of the usual cost—$99 a month, plus $39 per course. Students can pick up credits for basic courses and tuck a lot of school under their belts at amazingly low prices.

—Jane S. Shaw

5.  The Fall of Larry Summers

Harvard is the Big Kahuna of American higher education—what happens there enthralls the public. In January 2005, Lawrence Summers, president of Harvard and former Treasury Secretary, mentioned the possibility that the smaller number of women in science may be due to inherent differences in men’s and women’s aptitudes. He also downplayed the role of discrimination. A couple of female faculty members were outraged, the story appeared in the Boston Globe, and the reaction kicked off an international furor.

Summers apologized again and again, but ultimately lost his job because of antipathy from faculty members in the arts and sciences. Never known as a diplomat, Summers reprimanded Cornel West, a black African-American studies professor known for his hip-hop music writing, and West left for Princeton. Summers was also accused of protecting a colleague, Andrei Shleifer, who had supervised Harvard’s work on privatization in Russia while apparently making lucrative personal investments. Harvard and Shleifer settled with the Justice Department for $28.5 million.

But the outrage at Summers’ mild, contemplative statements about women, expressed at an academic meeting, epitomized the extent to which, in spite of their famed support of academic freedom, faculty draw the line at certain topics.

—Jane S. Shaw

4. A Government Takeover

In April 2010, President Obama signed legislation ending subsidized bank-based loans to college students. The law replaced those loans with direct lending, in which the Department of Education, rather than private institutions, provides subsidized loans to students through their colleges. The law also provided additional mandatory funding to adjust the maximum Pell grant for inflation. The program will pump more than $60 billion into financial aid programs over the next 10 years.

The government’s “direct loans” are more costly to taxpayers than are loans that subsidize private lenders. Since its inception in 1993, the direct loan program has spent $10.7 billion more on interest payments than it has collected in interest and fees. More than $6.2 billion of loans in the direct loan program are in default. From now on, this program will be the only federal student loan program.

—Jenna Ashley Robinson

3. An Iconoclast Emerges

Books that challenge core beliefs about higher education did not use to come along very often. In 2004 Professor Richard Vedder of Ohio University published Going Broke by Degree, a book that took a wrecking ball to the notion that government spending on higher education boosts economic performance. Vedder argued that that scarce resources could be put to more economically beneficial uses than increasing state university spending, much of which actually has nothing to do with education at all. Furthermore, Vedder found a statistically significant negative relationship between state higher education spending and economic growth. States that spent the most heavily on higher education tend to have slower economic growth.

Vedder’s book opened many eyes to the fact that the conventional wisdom about higher education is often greatly at odds with the truth. It undoubtedly affected his being named to the Bush administration’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education (the Spellings Commission), which issued a report stressing greater access, lower costs, and more accountability.

—George Leef

2. The Ward Churchill Affair

A few words written in 2001 by an ethnic studies department head at the University of Colorado showed the nation how deeply influential the radical left had become on the American campus—and how badly some sunlight is needed to disinfect the institution.  

In 2004, the Rocky Mountain News revealed that Professor Ward Churchill had described the financial workers killed in the 9-11-2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center as “little Eichmanns.” Further investigation discovered that Churchill had been hired, tenured, and promoted despite appallingly inadequate qualifications. Furthermore, he had violated the extremely lax limits of academic freedom by attempting to indoctrinate students inside the classroom and by making irrational statements outside of it. He lied repeatedly about his background and blatantly plagiarized others’ work.

Yet many in the academic establishment stood by him. Colorado’s president suggested that Churchill was merely the victim of a “new McCarthyism,” even though her defense would cost her job. Although the Colorado Board of Regents booted him out in 2006, in 2009, a jury ruled that he had been wrongly fired. However, a district court judge then refused to force the school to reinstate him.

—Jay Schalin

1. The End of Higher Education’s Gilded Age

The American university expanded greatly during the post-World War II era. The era’s general prosperity—and faith in the benefits of higher education—provided ever-increasing funding, sometimes from the students and sometimes from the taxpayers. Public university systems became powerful state entities, extending their missions into regional economic development, social programs, health care, and K-12 education. Prestigious private universities built war chests of endowments that totaled billions of dollars, permitting them similar opportunities for influence.

Some observers have even suggested that there is a higher education “bubble” forming, that costs and expenses are spiraling out of control, driven by government funding, financial aid, student loans, and a demand for higher education that far exceeds the realistic rewards.

Whether academia will undergo the same sort of collapse that the housing market suffered remains to be seen. But higher education’s Gilded Age is now over. When the Dow Jones Average fell below 7,000 in March of 2009, the private colleges’ endowments no longer looked so big, and the schools became less eager to fund extraneous activities.

The down economy, which continues, is having even more impact on the public sector. State revenues have fallen dramatically, and their universities are being forced to pull in their belts in equally severe fashion. Mission creep will necessarily end, courses, programs, and even entire schools will be eliminated, and many universities will reduce enrollments.

The result should be leaner universities, more focused on primary goals.

—Jay Schalin