Surviving the Perfect Storm

On February 20, two Pope Center representatives, Jane Shaw and I, addressed the University of North Carolina system’s Faculty Assembly, an advisory committee to the UNC Board of Governors. Our topic was the future funding of the university, and we were provided with pre-meeting reading materials by former UNC system president Erskine Bowles, AAUP president Cary Nelson, and higher education observer and analyst Jane Wellman.

Jane and I knew we would be speaking to an audience that might be resistant to higher education reform and might oppose the Pope Center’s positions. However, we decided not to soften our message to curry acceptance; rather, we were pleased to have the opportunity to talk straight to those we have wanted to reach, many of whom were unfamiliar with the ideas underlying higher education reform. We divided up the duties: I gave an overview of the major trends, while Jane followed with some practical suggestions for reform.

Our efforts had mixed results. Although some faculty members in attendance were openly not thrilled at our presentations, we also discovered a few new friends. Here is a slightly adapted version of my speech. Jane’s speech is here.

I’d like to begin by saying that we agree with a great deal of the descriptive analysis put forth in the pre-meeting materials, including an essay by former UNC president Erskine Bowles. Those materials, especially the speech by Bowles given before the American Association of Colleges and Universities, suggested that higher education will face increasingly scarce resources and waning public confidence in the future. Higher education, and indeed the nation, are at an important crossroads. Both have had an amazing run of growth and prosperity since World War II, but now there is more uncertainty than there has been for many years. 

President Bowles and the others may even have understated the situation. There is a growing alignment of forces, trends, events, and opinions lining up as if they might turn into a “perfect storm” against our traditional four-year colleges and universities. Our economy is not sound, and Europe’s problems may make things even worse going forward. Higher education faces new competition, changing attitudes, changing technology, and changing politics.

But while we agree as to what higher education’s problems are, we differ greatly from Bowles and the other authors in our views on what you must do about these problems. I do not believe the Pope Center was asked here to merely affirm what others are saying, but to offer our own unique take as we pursue our mission to foster excellence and efficiency in higher education.

I love higher education—it made me smarter. I love visiting campuses and attending lectures. I love working with students and I love exchanging ideas with the many professors I encounter, even those I do not agree with.

I also respect you enough not to soften our true message in order to ingratiate ourselves with you. Instead, we wish to use this opportunity to speak from the heart. Many of you are unfamiliar with us, or are unfamiliar with our views; you may find our ideas a bit shocking or threatening. That is not our intent; if we offend, forgive us; we only want you to look at these matters from a new perspective, so that together we can preserve what is best about higher education. This means that those inside the academia respond to the changing environment, not with intransigence, but a spirit of cooperation.  

I agree with Cary Nelson’s observation that the current situation calls for fundamental changes. His suggestion that the federal government take over all higher education is a pipe–dream, however. Nor would I call your year-to-year funding and salary concerns “crumbs,” as he does. But he is correct to this extent: If all you do, as faculty, is pressure the legislature for more money, raise tuition, and fine-tune your funding formulas, you will do nothing but fight losing battles. You’ve been doing these same things for many years, and yet, this perfect storm continues to build.

The perfect storm continues to build.  There are two reasons why it continues to do so. One is the economy, something over which you have no control. There is a very good chance that it will continue to shrink the resources available to you. The other is to be found in Jane Wellman’s presentation in the pre-meeting materials. She observes that there is “increasing public questioning about both value and values” with respect to higher education. Addressing that problem—actually, it’s several problems, at the least—is the key to maintaining your position as the educational and intellectual center of the nation.

Consider the effects of the student loan debt bubble that’s been building. Even the New York Times has acknowledged its probable existence. Many young people have had their lives ruined by taking on more debt than they can handle to pay for their education, which has often been in disciplines that offer minimal employment prospects. It’s only rational that people question whether higher education is still the path to prosperity.

Already, as Wellman suggests, only 40 percent of the population thinks that higher education is a good or excellent value.

There was a time when all college degrees had great prestige and indicated a certain amount of accomplishment. That no longer seems to be the case. A study by two professors in the University of California system, Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks, entitled Leisure College, USA: The Decline in Student Study Time, found that the average amount a college student studies has dropped from 24 hours a week in 1961 to 14 hours in 2003; 37 percent now study five hours or less.

You should remember that every student who graduates with a degree in a weak program, with poor academic skills, a poor work ethic, and a mind full of immature and anti-social attitudes, is a walking advertisement that higher education is a poor value. I understand that such graduates are in the minority, but it’s a big enough minority that many people notice them. To make degrees more meaningful, you must raise and enforce standards; perhaps it will cause some short-term losses in enrollment and academic jobs, but it will preserve higher education’s image in the long run.

Another element is that many ideas commonplace in the academy are in deep conflict with the values of Middle America. In our universities, faculty often attack what people hold dear. How long will it be before how they will look elsewhere for knowledge and wisdom?

When people feel that an institution is no longer aligned with their best interests and their culture, they seek and find alternatives. At the Pope Center, we see—and are sometimes in touch with—a world that is positively roiling with all kinds of ideas and innovations intended to reform, or even replace, the traditional university. For example, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Peter Thiel has established a program in which he pays gifted young people to forego college in order to concentrate on their passions—so far several successful businesses have been spawned.

Many such ideas and innovations only exist on the fringe right now, but some are gradually making their way into the mainstream. They won’t change your world overnight, but may in the future. Remember that only a few years ago home schooling was a rare novelty. Since then, its growth has been explosive.

The university disregards such concerns—the concerns of the “questioning public”—at its peril. The public consists of taxpayers and voters, who choose the legislators that control state appropriations.  They are parents, who can chose to pay or not pay tuition, and they are prospective students, who can choose other options.  And they are employers who hire for good jobs. They are the alumni who donate to your endowment.

The members of the public are the key to your future funding. So far, they are only beginning to turn away from traditional college education—but they will increasingly need convincing. To do so, you will have to make hard decisions and cast off some long-held assumptions. But in the long run, the academy will be stronger—if, perhaps, a little smaller—because of it.

(Editor’s note: On Monday, Jane S. Shaw will discuss some specific policy recommendations.)