By the time Texas Monthly’s Paul Burka met with me last summer for an interview about my involvement with higher-education reform efforts in Texas, I—and fellow reformers—had already been painted as barbarians at the gate by the academic establishment. All for a handful of commonsense suggestions for reform that almost anyone running any other kind of organization wouldn’t bat an eye over.
So it was refreshing to read a rather even-handed, objective assessment of events in Texas Monthly’s October cover story. For anyone following reform efforts in Texas, there wasn’t much new in the article, but it was the most complete, most fair take on the debate I’ve seen so far.
I would like, however, to make a few things even clearer, specifically regarding teaching and research, the two things for which reformers often are villainized for even daring to bring into question.
I am for great, transformational teaching and teachers and for world-changing research, wherever it’s conducted. I’ve taught for over twenty years and have worked with and befriended hundreds of teachers. Not long ago, in fact, we held an event to officially honor over thirty of them from all over the country. And last year’s insights into UT-Austin’s productivity and affordability revealed not only star teachers, but star researchers as well.
But a serious problem in higher education today is our institutions’ addiction to “prestige.” No longer does it matter that academic research be necessarily important—meaning that, on balance, it is productive and that it benefits stakeholders outside of academia. Rather it is “important” solely when highly esteemed professors and administrators say it is, even if the results of it exist in obscure journals and reports that few outside academia will ever read or find valuable. And how it’s valued within the system itself is based on a perverse incentive structure that prizes research, no matter how obscure, over teaching, no matter how excellent.
It’s a self- referential, self-preserving system that too often favors status over substance, which means that productivity and intellectual objectivity go by the wayside. Many inside the system know this already. Few will talk about it or challenge it openly.
And what’s the logical conclusion of all this misalignment and perversion? What’s the price of “prestige”? It is, as the New York Times has reported, an environment ripe for corruption and deception:
In fact, several colleges in recent years have been caught gaming the system—in particular, the avidly watched U.S. News & World Report rankings—by twisting the meanings of rules, cherry-picking data or just lying. […] [R]epeated revelations of manipulation show the importance of the rankings in the minds of prospective students, their guidance counselors, parents, the alumni considering donations, the professors weighing job offers—and, of course, the colleges themselves.
We don’t tolerate corporations like Enron submitting false financial reports just to keep the stock price high. Falsely touting fake earnings is fraud in the business world. Using prestige (and its currency: rankings) as a way to avoid criticism or transparency or accountability should be equally fraudulent in academia, a place that purports to seek out truth.
Here’s the reality of higher education today:
- The cost to get a diploma continues to outpace inflation, per-capita personal income, and consumer prices, and, furthermore, it doesn’t even match the diploma’s value in the real world.
- Rapidly devaluing academic credentials place young people in enormous, non-dischargeable debt.
- Teaching is subordinate to research of curious value, even though parents and taxpayers are told otherwise.
- The academic establishment gets anxious and defensive with any attempt to examine its productivity, accountability, or affordability—often with the rather insulting justification that it’d be just too complex for the rest of us to understand.
There’s never been a better, more important time to muster the courage and perseverance to keep asking tough questions about value in higher education and about the near ironclad caste system in academia that advantages the few at the sake of the many. Our future generations deserve a world-class education, not the promise of hollow prestige.