Policing the Academy II
Impostors in the Temple, by Martin Anderson, New York: Simon & Schuster, 255 pages, $22.00
Inside American Education, by Thomas Sowell, New York: The Free Press, 368 pages, $24.95
Universities, if they stand for anything in the prevailing environment of moral relativism and deconstructionism, are the guardians of good scholarship. By guaranteeing excellence in instruction and rigorous honesty in research, they demonstrate that it is possible to seek out the truth without tarnishing that search by responding to the many temptations of the external environment. Such was their early origin in the medieval monasteries, and such is their prime justification in the modern world.
If this is correct, several (at least) of the country's elite universities, most notably Stanford, are no longer universities in any meaningful sense of that term. That is the principal message of Martin Anderson's Impostors in the Temple and Thomas Sowell's Inside American Education. These books follow a series of popular works, all highly critical of America's universities, that have focused on a recent spate of scandals, mostly at elite private universities. Anderson and Sowell provide the best contributions so far to the debate over America's universities. Both books are well documented, scholarly, and well written. They are very persuasive concerning the decline and fall of the American academy that has paralleled the closing of the American mind.
In Impostors in the Temple, Anderson explores two episodes at Stanford—one involving a professor's death and one involving overhead charges for government-funded research—that reveal much about the institution's ethos. Allan Cox was a world-renowned scientist, a former dean of the School of Earth Sciences who had just been named acting associate provost and dean of all research activities at Stanford. He met an untimely death, at age 60, in January 1987 when the bicycle he was riding hit a California redwood tree, which smashed his skull.
Cox was eulogized in a statement to the press and at a memorial service jammed by a capacity crowd of 1,000. At the service Donald Kennedy, president of Stanford, lauded him: "We loved him, we trusted him, and we still do. Most of all we wish that he were here so that we could show him." Cox was honored by the Stanford faculty in a unanimous resolution crafted by Nobel-laureate economist Kenneth Arrow: "The essence of Allan Cox is a rare quality—the ability and determination to bring out the best in others." The Stanford administration minted a medal in Cox's honor: the Allan V. Cox Medal for Faculty Excellence Fostering Undergraduate Research at Stanford University. The announcement of the medal stressed that it "honors Cox's vision of the potential for faculty-student partnership."
But the real circumstances surrounding Cox's life and death were dramatically different from the false image projected by senior members of his university. The county coroner later confirmed that the death was a suicide, a staged accident, after three of Cox's close friends told investigators that Cox had revealed his suicide plans to them the day prior to his death. The learned professor had reason to contemplate ending his life. The local sheriff's department had just received a complaint from Bellingham, Washington, alleging that "Cox had molested a nineteen year old youth from the time that he was fourteen."
The boy whom Cox had allegedly seduced was the son of a Stanford Ph.D. student whose work Cox was supervising. Confronted by the boy's father, Cox allegedly had admitted the facts and had offered to help pay for the boy's counseling. Three days before his suicide, Cox learned that the parents and the son had provided Bellingham police with signed statements accusing the professor of molestation, a felony offense. These events were well publicized throughout Palo Alto before the eulogy charade.
Martin Anderson does not pass moral judgment on Cox, although molestation of a minor is a heinous offense. Instead, he passes moral judgment on those members of Stanford University who perpetuated the lie about his life and death. Stanford's Cox Medal, Anderson argues, is an institutional lie, and its existence says a great deal about the nature of the academic intellectual community in the 1990s.
Nor is this the only lie involving Stanford's administration. During the '80s Stanford received hundreds of millions of dollars from the federal government for research. At the end of 1991, after a lengthy examination of the books, federal auditors determined that the university may have overcharged taxpayers $480 million for research costs. Once again, Stanford President Donald Kennedy was at the center of the alleged fraud.
The thesis of Impostors in the Temple is not complex: The members of the governing boards of America's universities—variously referred to as trustees, regents, overseers, and visitors—are responsible for the death of integrity in the world of higher education. They make the rules, they are ultimately responsible for monitoring, they are the ones who bear the guilt, even if they will not acknowledge the shame. They have proved totally derelict in their duties and, in consequence, they have presided over the disintegration of higher education in the United States.
A survey conducted by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges in 1985 estimated that there were 48,000 trustees and regents governing some 3,200 institutions of higher education. Most of them, 86 percent, governed private schools, while the remaining 14 percent were on boards governing public universities. As Anderson notes, there is a thread of responsibility in the governing of public colleges and universities, since most of their trustees are selected by a government official who is elected by the people. But even that slender thread is missing in the private colleges and universities, which, in effect, are responsible only to themselves. As a consequence of an incestuous selection system, the typical trustee is an old, white male, a businessman who holds no advanced academic degree, a non-intellectual. The composition of most boards of trustees, Anderson writes, "is a recipe for disaster, a witch's brew of incompetence, timidity and neglect."
In the absence of effective monitoring, agents within the academy—presidents, other senior administrators, and the tenured professoriat—have seized control and have pursued their own selfish bureaucratic objectives at the cost of teaching and good scholarship. They have done so with few financial constraints. Public universities had access to rising state budgets throughout the '80s, and private universities have long conspired to rig prices. The latter practice, Anderson contends, is symptomatic of the contempt in which much of the private academy holds its own clientele.
Anderson's main focus is on the alleged abandonment by faculty of their responsibilities for sound teaching and advising of students in favor of highly specialized, often meaningless, and almost always poorly communicated research—the "glass bead game," as he aptly labels it. Hermann Hesse's 1943 novel, The Glass Bead Game, was a parody of the intellectual world as Hesse saw it then, but it is remarkably prophetic of our own time. The glass bead game in Hesse's book was just a game. But it was played with such intensity that it gradually took over the professional lives of the intellectuals who played it. As they played the game with increasing skill and fervor, they retreated from reality, earning respect and honor for their game skills as the highest possible level of intellectual achievement, even as they soared off into ultimate irrelevance.
Anderson offers one example after another of glass-bead-game scholarship in contemporary America, not least in his own discipline of economics. The phenomenon is epitomized by the tragi-comedy of The American Economic Review, a journal that specializes in publishing trivial irrelevance, that is all but unreadable, and that would probably not survive under free-market conditions.
Playing the glass bead game, so-called scholars reduce their own teaching commitments to negligible proportions, exploit graduates as teaching assistants, sacrifice the search for knowledge in favor of mindless publications, and indulge themselves in unchecked intellectual arrogance, lust for power, and professional, political, and personal corruption—all of which have brought their institutions into general disrepute. Although Anderson illustrates the breakdown in graphic detail, it's worth noting that most of his examples are drawn from elite universities. I must say that my own personal experience at George Mason University, both as faculty member and as graduate dean, does not generally support his principal hypotheses. Political pressures almost inevitably would culminate in the dismissal of the president should any state university significantly emulate the malfeasance of the private sector as described in Impostors in the Temple.
Although Anderson's book is powerful in identifying the malaise that blankets the U.S. academy, it is somewhat weak and misguided in its proposed solutions, which tend to be institutionally conservative rather than radical and market-oriented. He identifies 10 measures that are necessary "if we are to restore the integrity of the academic intellectual world": 1) prohibit student teaching, 2) stop rewarding spurious research and writing, 3) change the Ph.D. degree process, 4) end faculty tenure, 5) reorganize faculty titles and responsibilities, 6) return to the four-year bachelor's degree, 7) take sexual harassment seriously, 8) ban political discrimination, 9) stop athletic corruption, and 10) crack down on institutional corruption.
Unfortunately, although Anderson briefly identifies the failure of property rights that has brought the American academy to its knees, he does not translate that insight into an effective program of market-based reform. Instead, he proposes adding more intellectuals to the governing boards, "men and women who understand the business they intend to oversee." He suggests that the news media should place university trustees under relentless investigative pressure, that the trustees should be paid appropriately for their services, and that they should be sued mercilessly for any breach of their fiduciary responsibilities.
Anderson does not adequately take account of the fact that the absence of market pressures seriously erodes incentives to detect and punish bad behavior. Perhaps most dangerously, he equates scholarly success with administrative zeal and efficiency. Many leading intellectuals rank among the worst of the impostors in the temple, the least dedicated to teaching and service of all the faculty under Anderson's microscope, the least fitted to deal with the exigencies of the real world.
Thomas Sowell's book is wider in scope than Anderson's, depicting the decline and fall of American public schools as well as its colleges and universities. In his chapters on higher education, Sowell observes that the quality of American college education has declined and is unacceptably low; that ideology has supplanted academic skills in too many social-science and humanities courses; that campus racial policies have had disastrous consequences; and that free speech has been sacrificed to the ideological conformity of politically correct thinking. Sowell mounts a well-documented and convincing case in support of each of these contentions, offering examples so disturbing that I cannot help but conclude that many of America's elite colleges and universities are filled with faculty who are intellectually and morally depraved.
Sowell shows how a declining school system has reduced average SAT scores for college undergraduates in return for dramatically increased budgets. He describes how universities' admissions offices cynically mismatch black undergraduates, placing many of them in colleges too advanced for their educational skills, so that three-quarters of all black undergraduates fail to graduate within five years. He shows that many social-science and humanities faculty abuse tenure in order to promote political agendas or to peddle pornography under the guise of interdisciplinary studies:
"At Arizona State University, a student in a course on 'Human Sexuality' testified before the institution's board of regents that the slides shown included not only 'genital penetration from a variety of positions and angles' but also oral sex, to the accompaniment of such professorial remarks as 'I sure hope she doesn't sneeze' and 'Imagine if she got a cramp in her jaw now.' Another student in the course, a young woman who missed an examination, reported that she was told by the professor that she could make it up by writing a ten-page paper on her own sexual experiences."
Sowell demonstrates the systematic discrimination by college administrators against white male students and the indoctrination to which they are ruthlessly submitted. He offers examples of the slippage within academia from standards of truth and integrity to conform with the lies and obfuscation of politically correct agenda setters dominated by gays, feminists, Marxists, and underqualified racial minorities, many of whom justify their university positions on non-scholarly grounds, especially in the leading institutions.
"Like mismatched minority students," Sowell writes, "mismatched minority faculty have sought refuge in non-intellectual pursuits, such as community activities and campus political activism, in denunciation of standards they do not meet, and in complaints about the moral shortcomings of colleagues or of American society in general. Given the stark alternatives of (1) losing one's self-respect by accepting the prevailing academic standards and values, and (2) protecting one's self-respect by repudiating those standards and values, it can hardly be surprising that many have chosen the latter."
Sowell is less sweeping than Anderson in his condemnation of the American academy. He recognizes, correctly, that many American postgraduate institutions are unsurpassed anywhere in the world and that many small liberal-arts colleges offer a fine undergraduate education. He is more cautious than Anderson in condemning the research orientation of faculty in the major universities. Simultaneously, he is more critical even than Anderson on issues of race and political correctness. As a leading black economist, he can speak more freely and honestly on such matters in the current, intolerant intellectual climate.
Yet Sowell, like Anderson, is short on solutions, relying essentially on the abolition of tenure and the promulgation of information to the trustees as the pillars of his academic reform. Sowell also fails to identify the failure of property rights that is at the root of the problem. Consequently his solutions are superficial, attempting to paper over the consequences rather than addressing the causes of the threatening disaster.
In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith identified public endowments as a significant contributor to indolence and sloth within institutions of education, especially at universities where a teacher was prohibited from receiving any fees from his pupils: "The interest is, in this case, set as directly in opposition to his duty as it is possible to set it. It is the interest of every man to live as much at his ease as he can; and if his emoluments are to be precisely the same, whether he does, or does not perform some very laborious duty, it is certainly his interest, at least as interest is vulgarly understood, either to neglect it altogether, or if he is subject to some authority which will not suffer him to do this, to perform it in as careless and slovenly a manner as that authority will permit."
American universities are institutions characterized by producers who do not sell, customers who do not buy, and owners (donors and taxpayers) who do not control. In this unpromising environment of inadequately specified property rights, it is not surprising that the market nexus fails to materialize, leaving the producers with extensive power that they predictably abuse in the tragic ways depicted by Anderson and Sowell. It is not surprising that customers who value university services well below the cost of providing them do not exercise even such authority as they possess to discipline universities, or that they do not treat their programs with the respect that a full market price would evoke. It is not surprising that trustees who do not receive profit-related bonuses for their services show little or no enthusiasm for the efficient governance of their institutions.
In 1989-90, voluntary contributions to higher education from alumni, foundations, corporations, and others totaled almost $10 billion. In addition, private endowments built up from past contributions exceeded $1 billion in each of at least a dozen academic institutions. The federal government appropriated approximately $15 billion of taxpayers' money in the form of subsidies, grants, and contracts. State governments appropriated a further $33 billion from their own budgets. Students on average paid much less than 50 percent of the full cost of their higher education from their own or from their parents' budgets. People who are able to secure a university education rely on tax subsidies from the less wealthy to enhance their human capital, further widening the initial inequality of wealth and income in the United States.
Government subsidies exert a corrosive influence on the quality of higher education, destroying the market nexus between customer and supplier and bringing with them a host of affirmative-action and other conditions that distort the higher-education market, that violate individual property rights and demoralize the academies. With subsidies come notions of entitlement that have persuaded the American academies to accommodate students who are unfitted, by reason of intellectual incapacity or indifference, to the rigors of higher education.
In those universities that have acceded to financial incentives to downgrade the quality of their enrollments, to the mismatching of minority students, and to the grade inflation necessary to graduate the misfits, it is little wonder that many talented faculty hesitate to commit large proportions of their time to undergraduate instruction. It is little wonder that underqualified faculty discover a ready clientele for undemanding courses in pornography or in political indoctrination. It is little wonder that once-renowned institutions such as Stanford sink into a morass of lies and fiscal malfeasance.
Socialism does not work in American higher education any better than it worked in the Soviet Union, and for precisely the same reasons—most especially, the destruction of property rights that it implies. What is missing from the American academy is the ruthless, impartial monitoring and wealth-maximizing market incentives that only competitive capitalism provides.
Suppose that all federal and state subsidies were removed from the American higher-education system, together with the tax privileges the schools now enjoy. Marginal students would immediately withdraw from the system, and, under the pressure of a major contraction, the existing tenure system would collapse. Absent subsidies, aggressive, for-profit university corporations would emerge, offering varied educational packages, constrained by stock-market surveillance.
Some universities no doubt would attract faculty by offering tenure or longterm contracts, with salaries reflecting the job security thus provided. Others would compete with higher salaries but short-term contracts. Some faculty would seek out salaried employment. Others would incorporate themselves as independent contractors. The market would find a competitive equilibrium reflecting varied consumer preferences. Well-qualified students eager to partake in higher education but too poor to pay their way would borrow against the enhanced human capital that a truly effective college system would deliver. They would know that their fees would directly influence the pattern of educational services that they would receive.
Those of us who share classical-liberal principles should not rush to endorse institutionally conservative solutions, even when we are shocked by the evidence presented in these two forceful books. Instead, let us use the evidence as ammunition in a crusade to privatize America's last outposts of Marxism-Leninism.
Charles K. Rowley is general director of the Locke Institute in Fairfax, Virginia, and professor of economics and senior research associate at the Center for Study of Public Choice, George Mason University.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Policing the Academy II".