From Wall Street to College Street

(Editor’s note: This is the first of two articles based on a paper presented at a conference sponsored by the Fund for the Study of Spontaneous Orders and directed by John W. Sommer in February 2012.The second part is here. These articles are part of an occasional series of such essays.)

The gruesome sexual abuse scandal and cover-up within Penn State’s football program that exploded during fall 2011 rocked the conscience of a community, spawned a raft of criminal indictments of university officials, and ended the careers of the university’s storied football coach Joe Paterno and the university’s long-serving president.

The severity of the depravity at Penn State renders the incident nearly unique. But the response of the university’s leadership—to downplay and cover-up the allegations—is not.

Based on my experience serving as an independent trustee on the Dartmouth Board of Trustees and my academic study of higher education governance, I believe that the cowardly response of Penn State’s leadership is consistent with how many university boards today would respond. I submit that the core principle animating the modern university is a fundamental dishonesty that subverts its core mission. Although the events at Penn State are extreme, they merely magnify the smaller dishonesty and lack of integrity that characterize the modern university.

The purpose of this two-part essay is to sketch the basis for my provocative claim and explain how this situation came to be. I will also offer some tentative suggestions as to how to rectify it.

Evidence of the myriad dishonesties that illustrate the core of the modern university is manifest.  Some of the evidence is systemic and some is anecdotal evidence that illustrates deeper truths. Consider some examples.

College Athletics. Universities with big-time athletic programs operate what amounts to entire parallel universities, providing special classes, dorm, disciplinary rules, and other arrangements for athletes in major sports. Admissions standards are routinely relaxed, watered-down courses are offered (scandalously so at the University of North Carolina), and bread-and-circus recruiting practices (as exemplified by the University of Miami’s excesses) differentiate athletes from all other students. 

Meanwhile, those students in non-revenue sports—who remain closest to the student-athlete ideal—are punished in the chase for ever-larger football television revenues.  Conferences today span thousands of miles geographically, difficult enough for football and basketball players to fly to, but positively brutal for non-revenue students who bus to many of their away games. Former George Mason University president Alan Merton once characterized the relationship between big-time athletics and the rest of the university at many places as “being on the island”—a world unto itself, as athletic programs stood apart from the main university, distrusted by faculty and isolated from the university proper.

Academic standards. Rampant grade inflation has reduced accountability for students. The curriculum is in shambles—the university offers no coherent vision of what its students should learn in order to graduate, but simply a mélange of faculty idiosyncrasies and intellectual quirks.  A recent honors history graduate of Dartmouth once told me of his wish to take a class in the American revolutionary and founding eras before graduating—only to learn that just two relevant courses were offered during his senior year, one on women during the founding era and another on slaves during the founding era. 

While many courses with small enrollments serve a vital part of the university’s mission, a disproportionate number of these classes are esoteric and narrow courses created for their politically correct value rather than their education value. Offering these dilettante classes places a greater burden on the good professors who teach courses that their students appreciate.

Freedom of speech. The university has betrayed its mission of free thought, inquiry, and speech. According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, only a very small number of universities fully protect free speech on campus. Students who swim against the politically correct orthodoxy find themselves routinely harassed and intimidated, providing a signal to other students to self-censor themselves rather than risk being outcast.

Furthermore, the fecklessness of university leadership can be illustrated by a few high-profile examples.

Consider the appalling saga of the Duke lacrosse scandal: a rush to judgment by some faculty, the university president, and a board of trustees that stood aside as the reputations of several Duke students were systematically trashed. Yet despite the debacle Duke’s president remains at the helm (his five-year contract was recently renewed), the bullying faculty members are unaffected and unrepentant, and the board of trustees has never accounted for its misfeasance.

To add a personal note illustrating that it wasn’t only Duke’s administration that allowed Duke students to be trashed, one Dartmouth undergrad joined a “Friends of Duke Lacrosse” site on Facebook. According to the student, Dartmouth’s dean of the Office of Pluralism and Leadership (not to be confused with the school’s Office of Diversity) learned of the student’s action and sent him an email upbraiding him for his lack of sensitivity.

Harvard’s president Lawrence Summers ran afoul of the “PC police” with some remarks given at an academic conference on the supposed underrepresentation of women in academic science and engineering positions. Summers famously refused to attribute the disparity to rampant sexism and discrimination by university faculty (a hypothesis on which I offer no opinion here)—and rarely has any public official received such a firestorm of criticism from a group for not being denounced as sexists. Soon Summers had a full-scale rebellion on his hands (there were other factors at work as well) and the board of the Harvard Corporation soon tossed him overboard.

Nor has Dartmouth (where I was elected as a write-in candidate by the alumni body to the board of trustees and served from 2005-2009) been spared the trend. During the era when Dartmouth was ruled by President James Freedman, the president launched an unprecedented personal attack on the editors of the Dartmouth Review and sought through kangaroo-court student disciplinary proceedings to destroy the students’ academic careers and to silence the independent publication. The board of trustees sat idly by as the president pursued his vendetta, costing the college hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees and betraying its core values.

If it is true that an animating characteristic of the modern university is its systematic dishonesty, how did this situation come about?

Although myriad forces underlie this, one umbrella concept is the growing corporatism of the university—i.e., the capture of the university by corporate values rather than academic values. This corporatism has been furthered by well-intentioned reformers who believe that the solution to what ails the modern university is to model universities after private for-profit corporations, with university presidents in the role of CEOs. Although well-intentioned, this experiment has proven counterproductive.

To make the argument more concrete, let me point out that the animating principle of the modern university is a focus on the image and “brand” of the university, rather than the underlying substance of the education experience received.  Governance of the modern university is almost completely absorbed by how to market the school’s brand rather than how to improve its underlying quality. The focus of every discussion is what impact a particular action (or inaction) will have on the school’s brand.

Why that is so will be the topic of my second article.