What’s More Precarious Than The US Senate? American Higher Education
One of the few US institutions as unstable as the US Senate is higher education.
Enrollment is declining, public support is declining, costs are rising, student debt is astronomical, political tensions and interference are ubiquitous, university presidents are being forced out, and mental health problems are rising. Concerns are growing. Especially after the trauma of the pandemic.
Most of this is gleaned from the Chronicles of Higher Education. I had a marginal role at my alma mater, so I signed up for a subscription—a fun euphemism for “lifetime trustee,” “went out to the pastures”—and primarily to the editor-in-chief and president of the publication. For tribute, former colleague Mike Riley.
The report is great and the picture is depressing.
Once a matter of motherhood and apple pie, the number of Americans who believe college has a positive impact on their country has fallen to a slim majority.
The university has become the favorite whipping boy of the Republican Congress. Boise canceled a rally address on Native Americans under constant condemnation by right-wing lawmakers. The University of the Ozarks in Arkansas has pulled back on social media praising its diversity. Margaret H. Venable, president of Dalton State University in Georgia, told the Chronicle.
Two of America’s most famous public universities, Wisconsin and North Carolina, are under attack from the Republican Congress.
In Madison, a bipartisan commission appointed by the Democratic and Republican governors unanimously selected UCLA Law School dean Jennifer Mnookin as the new president. Invisible to her, she comes under fire from conservative lawmakers like State Speaker Robin Voss. Primary contact: At UCLA Law School, I taught a course on important race theory.
In Chapel Hill, criticism from wealthy alumni and politicians forced Nicole Hannah Jones, an accomplished journalist and author of the controversial 1619 Project, to reject an offer to become a professor. The American Association of College Professors accused the North Carolina Legislature of “improperly seeking to extend its powers” to the UNC.
In such an environment, the tenure of university presidents is short-lived. The University of Tulsa fired its president in just 74 days. The University of Wyoming president disappeared six months after him. Oregon, 9 months.
Admiral William McRaven was brought in to head the University of Texas system and facilitate relations with the state’s political system. He declared that leading a university was the “hardest job” in the country and resigned after three and a half years. McRaven led the special operations team that killed Osama bin Laden.
I have long felt that a competent politician is the ideal university president. Examples include Terry Sanford from Duke two generations ago, John Brademas from NYU a generation after him, and Mitch Daniels from current Purdue.
Today it is difficult even for those good leaders.
The pandemic has complicated matters. Virtual learning is inferior to in-person teaching. Since 2020, millions of students have dropped out. There are worrisome mental health problems and an increase in suicides. The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe raises new questions. The Chronicle cited a very realistic hypothesis: Suppose a college student becomes pregnant in a state that bans abortion, and a college employee gives her abortion pills.
There are many conundrums. College tuition continues to soar. Many states are cutting support for public schools, and 45 million Americans already owe her $1.6 trillion in federal student loans.
There is a clash of parochial ideologies. The awakened political left can be an intimidating force in elite schools. There are students and professors who avoid emails and texts for fear of a wake-up attack. The political right is playing the race card in an attempt to outlaw teachings of critical race theory that few can define.
(As an aside, I am amused by the ruckus of right-wing politicians against “elite” universities. Most of the top Republican politicians are Ivy League graduates. Conservative Supreme Court justices — All have “elite” Ivy League degrees.)
In “After the Fall of the Ivory Tower,” journalist Will Bunch writes that higher education has become “a devious meritocracy” that serves mainly the wealthy. Beginning with the GI bill, the American dream of college education enabling each generation to do better than their parents is unavailable to too many working-class families.
Bunch argues that this division is a major factor in political polarization. The Democrats are now the party of most college graduates, and the Republicans are the party of uncollegeed whites.
These are big challenges.
As an amateur observer, I have a few points. Despite all its flaws, American higher education is still the envy of many in the world. College must include costs. We need less interference from politicians, but not more…and look at the Chronicles of Higher Education.
Al Hunt is the former Editor-in-Chief of Bloomberg News. Previously, he was a reporter, bureau chief and editor in Washington for The Wall Street Journal. For nearly a quarter of a century, he wrote columns on politics for The Wall Street Journal, The International New York Times, and The Bloomberg View. He hosts the Political Warfare Room with James Carville. follow him on twitter @Alhant DC.