Questioning the mission of college

 

AUSTIN, Texas — The flagship campus of the University of Texas here has been in the national news often over the last year, mainly because of a legal challenge to its race-conscious, diversity-minded admissions policy. The Supreme Court heard arguments in the case in October; its decision, not yet rendered, could affect affirmative action nationwide.

But there’s another, equally weighty contest being waged at the school, and it concerns nothing less than the future of higher education itself.

Do we want our marquee state universities to behave more like job-training centers, judged by the number of students they speed toward degrees, the percentage of those students who quickly land good-paying jobs and the thrift with which all of this is accomplished? In the service of that, are we willing to jeopardize some of the trailblazing research these schools have routinely done and the standards they’ve maintained?

Those questions are being asked and fostering acrimony on campus after campus, the one here in Austin chief among them. In public remarks over the last few years, Hunter Rawlings, the president of the Association of American Universities, has called Texas both the “epicenter of public debate about the function” of higher education and “ground zero” in a welling crisis.

Rawlings is referring to the tension between the nine regents who set policy for the University of Texas, Austin, all of them appointed by Gov. Rick Perry, and the university’s president, Bill Powers. The regents’ apparent animosity toward Powers, whose most recent request for a modest in-state tuition increase they denied, reached a point where state lawmakers passed several resolutions in February making their support for him clear. That was a slap at the regents — and, by extension, at Perry.

And while it reflected political factionalism, it also tapped into a philosophical divide. The regents, Perry and a conservative think tank with great sway over the governor have all called for, or mused publicly about, reforms at the university that many other Texans have deep and warranted reservations about.

The reformers want professors evaluated by how many students they teach and how many research dollars they attract, metrics that favor large classes and less speculative, visionary science.

They want the school to figure out a way, despite huge cutbacks in public funding, to offer students a four-year degree for a sum total of $10,000 in tuition, which is a small fraction of the current cost and seemingly impossible without a diminution in the quality of instruction.

They want expanded online classes. And they want programs tailored more precisely to the job market of the moment.

Powers says he’s open to much of this — to a point. “I and every other university president I know has made efficiency and affordability and using new teaching systems a high priority,” he told me when I met with him last week. The issue, he added, is how to do this while still “educating students at the highest level.”

The pressures on him and university administrators around the country stem from the severity of the country’s economic downturn and state governments’ accordant budgetary woes. Funding of public universities hasn’t just declined; it’s plummeted. Increases in tuition have been necessary, even as students find it more difficult to afford. Some students can’t make it to the finish line of a bachelor’s degree, which betters their odds of employment. Others graduate with crippling debt into a grim job market and wind up with work that doesn’t reflect the level or focus of their education.

And so colleges in Virginia are now required to provide information for a database that shows what graduates majored in and what they wound up earning 18 months after getting their diplomas. Florida lawmakers have toyed with encouraging students to study engineering by making their tuition cheaper than humanities majors’. Pat McCrory, the new governor of North Carolina, recently advocated legislation to distribute funds to the state’s colleges based not on their enrollments — or, as he said on a radio show, on “butts in seats” — but instead on “how many of those butts can get jobs.”

“If you want to take gender studies, that’s fine, go to a private school,” he added. “But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.”

How practical versus idealistic should the approach to college be? I’m somewhat torn, and past columns have reflected that. I applaud proposals to give young people better information about how various fields of study match up with the job market and about projected returns on their investments in college. And for students who want college to be an instant pivot into a job with decent pay, a nudge toward certain disciplines makes excellent sense.

But college is about more than that, with less targeted, long-term benefits that aren’t easily captured by metrics. And some of the reforms being promoted right now lose sight of that and threaten to lessen the value of a degree.

“You just don’t know what your education is going to result in,” Rawlings told me by phone last week. “Many of the kids graduating from college these days are going to hold a number of different jobs in their lives, and many of those jobs have not yet been invented. For a world like that, what’s the best education? Seems to me it’s a very general education that enables you to think critically.” For precisely that reason, he said, the push in China now is for more young people to study humanities, even as the new emphasis here is vocational.

He and Powers raised an additional concern: that the devaluation of any university research that doesn’t have an imminent payoff or attract outside sponsorship could put the country at a global disadvantage down the line. “You never know where scientifically driven curiosity will lead you,” Powers told me, and he’s dead right. Sometimes game-changing, immensely lucrative epiphanies lie on the far side of seemingly esoteric inquiries.

I’d sound yet another alarm. Scratch the surface of some of the efforts to reform state universities and you find more than just legitimate qualms about efficiency and demands for accountability. You find the kind of indiscriminate anti-intellectualism and anti-elitism popular among more than a few right-wing conservatives.

It’s worth noting that Perry has dismissed global warming as “one contrived, phony mess” and that many of the voices calling most loudly for change at the University of Texas are from the tea party fringe.

In other words there’s some crude, petty politics in all of this. And as we tackle the very real, very important challenge of giving young Americans the best and most useful education possible in an era of dwindling resources, that’s the last thing we need.

© 2013 New York Times News Service

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