Reforming Higher Ed in 2021

The year 2020 brought changes that colleges would have never made by choice. Enrollment declines, remote classes, and dramatic employee cuts (for faculty and some staff alike) were unthinkable a year ago. But, for the sake of the future, more work remains. Below are some priorities the Martin Center staff would like to see catch fire on campus.

Jenna A. Robinson, President

Expand the Number of Universities Committed to the Chicago Principles

In 2021, more universities should adopt the Chicago Principles of Free Expression—especially here in North Carolina. The Chicago Principles go beyond merely legal protection for free speech. They demonstrate a university’s commitment to the importance of free and open inquiry, robust debate, and unfettered freedom of thought to the university’s mission of preserving, discovering, and transmitting knowledge.

The statement reads, in part:

Because the University is committed to free and open inquiry in all matters, it guarantees all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn.

This should be a bedrock principle at all institutions of higher learning, because without this commitment true academic freedom and discovery are impossible.

The Chicago Principles are needed now more than ever—to push back against the cancel culture, bias response teams, and self-censorship that plague university campuses. The Chicago Principles are a first step to real renewal at our colleges and universities.

More Students Choosing Apprenticeships

After the 2020 presidential election, proponents of student debt forgiveness began to revive their arguments for forgiving at least some student debt. They rightly point out that some graduates struggle to keep up with payments and never begin to make a dent in the principal. But they fail to point out the root causes: high tuition, low graduation rates, and too many students majoring in disciplines that don’t help them pay off their debt.

Many former college students who now struggle to repay their debt should have considered alternatives to the four-year degree, especially apprenticeships. Apprenticeships allow students to work and learn without going into debt. Apprentices leave their programs with valuable and high-demand skills that lead to rewarding jobs. As the Martin Center wrote last year, “the Department [of Labor] reported that the average wage for an apprentice-trained worker is $50,000 per year—nearly $4,500 more than the U.S. median individual income and $300,000 more than non-apprenticed workers earn over the course of their careers.”

The Department of Labor should remove barriers to employers creating more apprenticeships and more students should take advantage of this alternative opportunity to the four-year degree.


Jay Schalin, Director of Policy Analysis

Let Many Flowers Bloom

What I hope for in the New Year is that there will be an explosion of higher education innovation.

In particular, the time is ripe for the emergence of brand-new institutions that explicitly reject the “woke” academic zeitgeist. Lots of lessons have been learned in the mad, bad year of 2020. For instance, colleges’ complicity with, leadership of, or submission to such organizations as Black Lives Matter and Antifa has raised awareness about how radical much of academia has become. More people have to be waking up to mainstream higher education’s rejection of traditional American norms of individual achievement, empirical facts, and everyday objectivity (such as agreeing that gender is a matter of biology and not choice). Why would anybody attend a college that deems you a second-class citizen responsible for historic crimes way in the past, long before your grandparents were born?

I’m already aware of a few new schools founded by people with whom I am personally acquainted. In September 2021, Thales College in Raleigh, North Carolina will open its doors to students for the first time. It has a unique work-study component in which all students will serve paid internships every term, year-round, to ensure they are business-ready upon graduation and to make the cost of attendance easy to pay for.

In another case, a group of academics is putting together a consortium called “Lyceum College” that will not immediately be a degree-granting institution but will still provide high-quality online instruction from conservative academics. Learning, not credentials, will be the goal. (Although it may be that it will become a credential in its own right, as its students prove to be better learners than C-minus slackers at accredited colleges.)

New colleges emerge all the time. It would be nice to see a rash of new ones appear this year that will hold the line against the current madness.

Alumni of the Right, Unite!

I’m not sure if this qualifies as a reform, but I would like to see an alumni revolt in 2021. For too long, alumni have passively accepted the leftward drift of their alma maters.

They have continued to write checks, passively read the propaganda rags that serve as alumni magazines, and, when they serve on boards or committees, allow the administrations to lead them around by the nose like gelded donkeys. One would think that higher education’s excesses—from silencing free speech to tearing down statues to promoting irrational radical ideas—would cause a national moratorium on giving to colleges or compel angry alumni to show up at board meetings demanding that common sense be restored. But so far, little of that has happened.

It would be nice to see a rash of new colleges appear that will hold the line against the current madness.

Still, as higher education keeps pushing its agenda further to the left and reducing the marketplace of ideas to a one-sided propaganda machine, some alumni are waking up to the need to fight back. One place is at Washington and Lee University, where “woke” administrators and faculty are even attempting to remove all traces of Robert E. Lee from the campus—including changing the school’s name. An alumni organization known as The Generals’ Redoubt now keeps thousands of alumni and donors informed and can mobilize them against further politicization. Another is at the University of Texas at Austin, where a Facebook page called “Stop the Insanity at UT” has several thousand followers. Let’s hope for more of this pushback in 2021.


George Leef, Director of Editorial Content

College Leaders Should Abandon Racial Preferences

For almost 50 years, most American colleges and universities have been dedicated to the concept of “diversity”—meaning that they strove to create student bodies that had enough “representatives” of our large racial groups.

As a result, admissions criteria have been made wildly unequal. Students with identical academic profiles might be virtually certain of acceptance or have no chance at all depending on which racial group they fit into. Some are preferred, others not.

Higher education leaders defend their racial preferences, spending huge sums on litigation rather than just treating all applicants the same. So far, they’ve been successful. The University of Texas fended off a challenge to its preference system in a case that made two appearances before the Supreme Court (Fisher v. University of Texas) and Harvard has so far prevailed against a suit brought by Students for Fair Admissions, winning favorable judgments in the trial court and First Circuit.

Nevertheless, college leaders should give up on racial preferences and the diversity mania. I say that because such preferences are very unpopular with the American people.

Opinion polls have shown that for years, but the strongest evidence came in the recent election with the thunderous rejection of Proposition 16 in California.

That proposition was put on the ballot chiefly at the behest of University of California officials who disliked the state constitution’s language forbidding racial preferences in student admissions and other state functions—language inserted following the passage of Proposition 209 in 1996.

“Embracing equality, not mapping out racial proportions, is an American value.”

The measure was backed by all important institutions in the state. Proponents outspent those who wanted to retain the racial neutrality required by law by about 16 to 1. They pulled out all the stops to get it passed, including media blitzes, editorials in the state’s major newspapers, and even scurrilous charges of racism against the people opposed to it.

Nevertheless, Proposition 16 failed, by 57-43 percent.

Writing in USA Today, Ward Connerly, the architect of Prop 209, nailed the truth: “As it turns out, embracing equality, not mapping out racial proportions, is an American value. The NO on 16 campaign drew from Republicans, Democrats, independents, and men and women of all colors and creeds.”

If racial preferences are that unpopular in California, think about the rest of the nation. That’s why college leaders should abandon them before the Supreme Court rules them unconstitutional or their own bases of support rebel against them.

College Students Need to Learn Logic, but Very Few Do

If you scan the mission statements of colleges and universities, most will tell you that they are dedicated to building “critical thinking” skills in their students. That sounds good, but do the students actually learn how to use their minds to evaluate claims and arguments?

The answer, I say, is no. Let me point to just one of a vast number of examples.

Last fall, a group of infectious disease experts published a paper known as the Great Barrington Declaration. The thrust of the argument made by the authors was that the “lockdown” approach to dealing with COVID-19 was a costly mistake and that a better policy would be to protect the small population groups clearly vulnerable to the disease, but allow others to go about their lives.

The Declaration was immediately attacked, but not on the authors’ reasoning. It was attacked because a small amount of the funding for the American Institute for Economic Research, which published the paper, came from “right-wing” funders such as the Koch Foundation.

Those making that argument, college graduates all, ought to have seen that they were making a basic error of logic. Arguments stand or fall on their own merits, which have nothing to do with the circumstances, financial or otherwise, of the people making them. Logicians call that the ad hominem circumstantial fallacy.

There are numerous logical fallacies and educated Americans commit them every day. They would do so less frequently if college curricula included a required course on logic—but hardly any do.

People don’t have an instinct for telling sound reasoning from fallacious reasoning; they need to learn how to detect the difference.

If college students had to take a course on logic—even two credits and perhaps online—we would raise the level of “critical thinking” significantly. And if we could stop arguing on fallacious grounds and instead focus on logical argumentation, much of the bitterness and acrimony that we find in our political discourse would disappear.

Higher education leaders ought to want that.


Anthony Hennen, Managing Editor

State leaders Need to Consider Shrinking or Closing Some Colleges

In April, Jeb Spaulding, chancellor of Vermont’s State College System, proposed closing three campuses as the health and financial realities of COVID-19 became clear. His proposal would bury him.

Within five days, public outrage forced Spaulding to withdraw his proposal. Before the end of the month, and after no-confidence votes from faculty and staff from system colleges, Spaulding submitted his resignation.

Spaulding is a cautionary tale: Across the United States, public higher ed systems are losing students, can’t control costs, and have few leaders willing to take action and make unpopular changes. If Vermont—with a shrinking college-age population and disappearing private colleges—can’t embrace reform, the battle in other states to control college costs and adjust the status quo will be even harder.

For the good of public university systems in the future, state leaders need to take hard steps now. That includes cutting academic programs, the administrative bureaucracy, and athletics. The needed cuts may also mean closing campuses. As the Martin Center has written about previously, pandemic-related cuts have focused on professors and academic programs, preserving the too-high staffing levels of the bureaucracy. In states like Pennsylvania, which has had a 20 percent enrollment decline since 2010 in its 14-university state system, a baby boom will not come to save it. Mergers, consolidations, and closures may be the only way to sustain public colleges as educational institutions, rather than serving as a glorified jobs program for the towns in which they were built.

For the future of public colleges, the viral growth of their bureaucracies, athletic arms, and obscure research projects need to be stopped.

The cuts will be fought over bitterly. The people willing to lead the reforms will not be beloved, and it will be a thankless task. But, for the future of public colleges, the viral growth of their bureaucracies, athletic arms, and obscure research projects need to be stopped.

“Higher education is in the midst of a major sea change,” Spaulding told the Vermont State Colleges board of trustees. “I believe then and now it was the best available path forward. Time will tell whether I was right or wrong.” Other states should heed his example, rather than bow down to the mob that declared him a heretic.

Reform the College Transfer Process

If college admins are serious about aiding poor and under-served students, they need to make it easier for students to transfer credits from community colleges.

Transferring is becoming more common, but college transfer processes are still complicated. Transfer students don’t always have an advisor to walk them through what credits will count at their new university. The difficulty in navigating a new place can delay their graduation or push them to drop out altogether.

Some colleges have made good progress on improving the transfer problem. In North Carolina, transfer (or articulation) agreements between the University of North Carolina system and the North Carolina Community College System has made transferring smoother. The Comprehensive Articulation Agreement (CAA) ensures students who earn an associate’s arts degree or associate’s science degree can enter a UNC school with junior status and provides a list of courses that are guaranteed to transfer to a UNC school.

UNC schools also have agreements with local community colleges to make it easier for students to transfer to a four-year college while staying close to home. UNC-Wilmington, for example, has agreements with 17 community colleges that includes more programs than the CAA. Private colleges in North Carolina, too, have made transferring easier. A group of 30 colleges works with community colleges to make sure students don’t lose the credits they’ve earned.

Yet, room for improvement remains. Four-year colleges need to give community colleges more information about their requirements and what students need to do to succeed, and community colleges need to do better at advising students who want to earn a bachelor’s degree. Both two-year and four-year schools need to support students and make it easier for them to navigate a bureaucratic process so they don’t waste their time.

Student success begins with the basics. Students need to do their part as independent adults in meeting deadlines and taking responsibility for their future. And colleges need to make that process easier for them, with easy-to-access information and advisors who understand the common problems transfer students will face. It may not mean a flashy new building to show donors and prospective students, but it might mean a more affordable—and complete—education for the students who enroll.


Shannon Watkins, Senior Writer

It’s Time for Colleges to Hold In-person Classes Again

Students need to be allowed back in the classroom.

There’s little dispute: in many cases, online and in-person classes are not equal in quality and effectiveness. The differences are innumerable. Online classes, especially in their current “Zoom” form, lack many of the valuable—and arguably irreplaceable—features crucial to student learning.

For example, no matter how advanced a particular online platform may be, it is difficult to replicate the natural social interactions that take place in a classroom. This poses a unique obstacle to effective teaching in many disciplines. Courses in literature, history, or philosophy, for instance, are often centered around organic back-and-forth discussions taking place between the instructor and students.

There are additional struggles for students who take “hands-on” classes. Visuals, graphics, and powerpoints cannot adequately replace physical interaction tools, models, and equipment.

Visuals, graphics, and powerpoints cannot adequately replace physical interaction tools, models, and equipment.

Another drawback to online education is that it’s easier for students to “tune out” and do less work than they would otherwise have to in a face-to-face setting. For example, unless specifically prohibited by the professor, students can disable both the video and audio on their “Zoom class” and walk away from their computer—and yet still get credit for “attending” class.

Perhaps the most serious concern about online learning is that it is nearly impossible to prevent students from cheating on tests. Despite the development of software that essentially “watches” students through a webcam as they take a test, there still isn’t a foolproof safeguard against academic dishonesty. Unfortunately, students are innovative in finding ways to take advantage of the lack of in-person accountability.

For all the above reasons, and given that the coronavirus does not pose a serious threat to most college-aged people, colleges and universities across the country should reopen their campuses for in-person learning. They can do so safely by taking proper health precautions, such as conducting robust testing and contact tracing, and requiring those infected to self-quarantine.

Of course, remote-learning options should still be made available for students who are high-risk.

Bring Back—And Keep—SAT Requirements

In July, the University of North Carolina Board of Governors (BOG) enacted an “emergency temporary waiver” of SAT admissions requirements. Advocates of the waiver argued that it was necessary due to the unforeseen challenges posed by COVID-19. Officially, UNC administrators proposed that the board “waive the standardized test requirement for students applying for admission in Spring 2021, Summer 2021, and Fall 2021.”

While many students have been unable to take the SAT or ACT due to pandemic-related cancellations, it’s unclear that a complete waiver of testing requirements was necessary. As BOG member Steve Long pointed out, schools could still require test scores, but make exceptions for those who are unable to get a score because of COVID-19. Such a policy would have been far less drastic.

Unfortunately, the temporary waiver has set the stage for schools to get rid of testing requirements altogether. The student representative on the BOG, for example, has expressed hope that the SAT waiver will lead to “something more permanent.”

And university systems in other states have already announced plans to ax the SAT. In May, the University of California system announced plans to phase out the SAT over a five-year period. The system said it might create its own test or get rid of testing requirements entirely.

Higher education leaders, in North Carolina and nationally, should resist the temptation to allow a temporary emergency waiver to turn into a permanent policy change. Abandoning academic rigor may alleviate student stress in the short term, but long-term student success is dependent on institutions of higher education maintaining robust and rigorous standards.

Even in a pandemic-ridden world, admitting underprepared students into colleges and universities—and thereby increasing the likelihood that they will drop-out with student loan debt—is not a compassionate response.


Sumantra Maitra, Nonresident Fellow

It’s Time to Slash the Bureaucracy

As we limp out of the COVID-19 pandemic, higher-ed in the entire Anglosphere is in desperate need of reforms. To start, downsizing administrative bloat will be a welcome course correction for the academy.

Prior to the pandemic, the higher ed model was already reeking with pressure. According to estimates, the growth in university bureaucracy in the last 30 years has been around 221 percent compared to around 10 percent growth in faculty. In some universities, staff outnumber faculty by a ratio of 2:1. Most diversity and inclusivity officers, to give one example, earn more than double the amount of any associate professor.

This has resulted in two things. The first is a massive increase in tuition cost to fund a Byzantine behemoth. From infrastructure to administrative salaries, it is the students who have to fund it, pushing them into more and more debt. It is unsustainable.

University bureaucracy, like all bureaucracies, follows the laws of self-sustenance and survival.

Second, university bureaucracy, like all bureaucracies, follows the laws of self-sustenance and survival. We see more attempts by the university administration interfering in academic research, and when there are cuts due to COVID-19, faculty bear the brunt. As we discussed in the Martin Center policy brief “Higher Education after COVID-19,” culling administrative positions is the key reform that needs to be initiated to ensure the survival of the academy.

Any such cuts should focus on protecting core academic functions and ruthlessly downsizing auxiliary capacities, including any administration positions involved in student services, student mental well-being, and such. Those are not core functions of any academic institution.

There needs to be an immediate hiring freeze and funding cuts, as well as a reduction in support staff. Most administrative functions should be delegated to junior academic staff and research students. That way, core academic functions will continue as tuition costs drop.

Students Deserve Rigorous Classes Again

The second reform I’d like to see is one that ensures more rigor in some disciplines.

As mentioned earlier, part of the reason student tuition has increased several-fold is due to a bloated bureaucracy focusing on corporate buzzwords and diversity initiatives while neglecting the core functions of the academy. But that is not the sole reason. Academy itself is to be blamed as well for its dilution of expertise.

Since the rise of interdisciplinary studies in the early 1990s, more and more academic disciplines and study centers were hijacked by concepts and paradigms which not only were less rigorous, but which questioned the very idea of rigor as Euro-centric and hetero-patriarchal. These disciplines, in James Lindsay’s useful terminology, are collectively known as grievance studies. They have produced utterly ridiculous, ahistorical, ideological, and diluted research, along with replication crises, bloated and self-referential journals, and wastage of valuable scholarship funding.

Grievance studies also created academic echo-chambers as well as a gap between the Ivory tower and taxpayers. We charted the problem in detail, as well as provided solutions, in the Martin Center’s brief “‘Witches’ and ‘Viruses:’ The Activist-Academic Threat and a Policy Response.”

The reform I’d like to see is a return to rigorous research designs and a control on funding which results in more policy-relevant and historic research.