Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Surviving the Perfect Storm

The Pope Center’s Jay Schalin addresses the University of North Carolina’s Faculty Assembly

On February 20, two Pope Center representatives, Jane Shaw and I, addressed the University of North Carolina system’s Faculty Assembly, an advisory committee to the UNC Board of Governors. Our topic was the future funding of the university, and we were provided with pre-meeting reading materials by former UNC system president Erskine Bowles, AAUP president Cary Nelson, and higher education observer and analyst Jane Wellman.

Jane and I knew we would be speaking to an audience that might be resistant to higher education reform and might oppose the Pope Center’s positions. However, we decided not to soften our message to curry acceptance; rather, we were pleased to have the opportunity to talk straight to those we have wanted to reach, many of whom were unfamiliar with the ideas underlying higher education reform. We divided up the duties: I gave an overview of the major trends, while Jane followed with some practical suggestions for reform.

Our efforts had mixed results. Although some faculty members in attendance were openly not thrilled at our presentations, we also discovered a few new friends. Here is a slightly adapted version of my speech. Jane's speech is here.
I’d like to begin by saying that we agree with a great deal of the descriptive analysis put forth in the pre-meeting materials, including an essay by former UNC president Erskine Bowles. Those materials, especially the speech by Bowles given before the American Association of Colleges and Universities, suggested that higher education will face increasingly scarce resources and waning public confidence in the future. Higher education, and indeed the nation, are at an important crossroads. Both have had an amazing run of growth and prosperity since World War II, but now there is more uncertainty than there has been for many years.

President Bowles and the others may even have understated the situation. There is a growing alignment of forces, trends, events, and opinions lining up as if they might turn into a “perfect storm” against our traditional four-year colleges and universities. Our economy is not sound, and Europe’s problems may make things even worse going forward. Higher education faces new competition, changing attitudes, changing technology, and changing politics.

But while we agree as to what higher education’s problems are, we differ greatly from Bowles and the other authors in our views on what you must do about these problems. I do not believe the Pope Center was asked here to merely affirm what others are saying, but to offer our own unique take as we pursue our mission to foster excellence and efficiency in higher education.

I love higher education—it made me smarter. I love visiting campuses and attending lectures. I love working with students and I love exchanging ideas with the many professors I encounter, even those I do not agree with.

I also respect you enough not to soften our true message in order to ingratiate ourselves with you. Instead, we wish to use this opportunity to speak from the heart. Many of you are unfamiliar with us, or are unfamiliar with our views; you may find our ideas a bit shocking or threatening. That is not our intent; if we offend, forgive us; we only want you to look at these matters from a new perspective, so that together we can preserve what is best about higher education. This means that those inside the academia respond to the changing environment, not with intransigence, but a spirit of cooperation. 

I agree with Cary Nelson’s observation that the current situation calls for fundamental changes. His suggestion that the federal government take over all higher education is a pipe–dream, however. Nor would I call your year-to-year funding and salary concerns “crumbs,” as he does. But he is correct to this extent: If all you do, as faculty, is pressure the legislature for more money, raise tuition, and fine-tune your funding formulas, you will do nothing but fight losing battles. You’ve been doing these same things for many years, and yet, this perfect storm continues to build.

The perfect storm continues to build.  There are two reasons why it continues to do so. One is the economy, something over which you have no control. There is a very good chance that it will continue to shrink the resources available to you. The other is to be found in Jane Wellman’s presentation in the pre-meeting materials. She observes that there is “increasing public questioning about both value and values” with respect to higher education. Addressing that problem—actually, it’s several problems, at the least—is the key to maintaining your position as the educational and intellectual center of the nation.

Consider the effects of the student loan debt bubble that’s been building. Even the New York Times has acknowledged its probable existence. Many young people have had their lives ruined by taking on more debt than they can handle to pay for their education, which has often been in disciplines that offer minimal employment prospects. It’s only rational that people question whether higher education is still the path to prosperity.

Already, as Wellman suggests, only 40 percent of the population thinks that higher education is a good or excellent value.

There was a time when all college degrees had great prestige and indicated a certain amount of accomplishment. That no longer seems to be the case. A study by two professors in the University of California system, Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks, entitled Leisure College, USA: The Decline in Student Study Time, found that the average amount a college student studies has dropped from 24 hours a week in 1961 to 14 hours in 2003; 37 percent now study five hours or less.

You should remember that every student who graduates with a degree in a weak program, with poor academic skills, a poor work ethic, and a mind full of immature and anti-social attitudes, is a walking advertisement that higher education is a poor value. I understand that such graduates are in the minority, but it’s a big enough minority that many people notice them. To make degrees more meaningful, you must raise and enforce standards; perhaps it will cause some short-term losses in enrollment and academic jobs, but it will preserve higher education’s image in the long run.

Another element is that many ideas commonplace in the academy are in deep conflict with the values of Middle America. In our universities, faculty often attack what people hold dear. How long will it be before how they will look elsewhere for knowledge and wisdom?

When people feel that an institution is no longer aligned with their best interests and their culture, they seek and find alternatives. At the Pope Center, we see—and are sometimes in touch with—a world that is positively roiling with all kinds of ideas and innovations intended to reform, or even replace, the traditional university. For example, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Peter Thiel has established a program in which he pays gifted young people to forego college in order to concentrate on their passions—so far several successful businesses have been spawned.

Many such ideas and innovations only exist on the fringe right now, but some are gradually making their way into the mainstream. They won’t change your world overnight, but may in the future. Remember that only a few years ago home schooling was a rare novelty. Since then, its growth has been explosive.

The university disregards such concerns—the concerns of the “questioning public”—at its peril. The public consists of taxpayers and voters, who choose the legislators that control state appropriations.  They are parents, who can chose to pay or not pay tuition, and they are prospective students, who can choose other options.  And they are employers who hire for good jobs. They are the alumni who donate to your endowment.

The members of the public are the key to your future funding. So far, they are only beginning to turn away from traditional college education—but they will increasingly need convincing. To do so, you will have to make hard decisions and cast off some long-held assumptions. But in the long run, the academy will be stronger—if, perhaps, a little smaller—because of it.


It is time to end the public schools

I just heard about a little boy—a six-year-old in First Grade—who is being treated like a sex criminal by the drooling half-wits who run the Aurora (Colorado) school system because he quoted an M&Ms commercial to a little girl his own age. Something about "I'm sexy and I know it", a concept of which the poor kid can't possibly have any understanding.

Everybody reading this knows that this is just the latest in an endless series—"a long train of abuses and usurpations" if I ever saw one—of Nazi-like idiocies occurring all over the country, and in Canada, as well. The last one that pissed off every intelligent individual on the continent was when a little girl drew a picture of a gun of some kind, and her father got strip-searched and their home invaded by uniformed goons with the intelligence of vicious man-eating eggplants.

You'll almost certainly recall that criminal incidents like this go back all the way to items like children bringing butter-knives to school—so they could use them to eat the brown-bag lunch they'd brought from home, something else that's now effectively been rendered illegal by food fascists—and being treated like they'd brought an AK-47.

While we're here, exactly what's wrong with bringing an AK-47 to school? Within living memory, kids used to bring their rifles so they could hunt rabbits on the way home. (I'm not sure my dad ever did this, himself, as a little kid in Walden, Colorado, but there's a photo around here somewhere showing him cuddling his "kitty"—a bobcat with enormous tufts on its ears.) In crumbling concrete jungles like "progressives" have made of, say, Detroit or the South Bronx, it might even be necessary for survival. Last time I looked there wasn't any qualifying age on the Bill of Rights, and that includes the Second Amendment.

There's an extremely good reason for that. The Bill of Rights isn't about us, it's about them. It isn't a list of things we're permitted to do, it's a list of things they aren't allowed even to consider.

But I digress. Don't you hate it when that happens?

Stuff like this goes back a hell of a lot further, in fact, than the butter knife incident. When I was a mere fourth grader in Gifford, Illinois (this would have been about 1955, the year that Davy Crockett was a big deal) I pushed a girl who was at least a head taller than I was off the corner of my desk where she had parked her backside just to annoy me. The teacher, a mad shrike who ended up retiring early for reasons of insanity, grabbed me up and slammed my head against the blackboard.

To some, this may explain a lot.

I was then rocketed straight to the principal's office, where the imbecile in charge wanted to know (apparently he'd just read a book) if I went to the movies, and what movie I'd seen last. It happened to be an Audie Murphy western (remember Audie Murphy?), confirming his most horrified expectations. When I got home (a four-block walk in a tiny farming community) and told my folks—who, whatever complaints I ever had about them, always sided with me against the authorities— all hell broke loose. Mom and Dad rattled the school system pretty well.

You could do that, way back then. Another principal of mine—in Sixth Grade—wound up being molasses-and-feathered by irate parents at his next school (every schoolboy's dream). Today, however, here in the United Soviet States of America, it would end the way it did at Waco.

Nowadays, the Glorious People's School System, crammed even fuller of cowards, criminals, and cretins than it was back then, calls the cops. The Thin Blue Line arrives to rachet handcuffs onto little kids and drag them off, traumatized for life, to Durance Vile Junior. I can't believe that no parent so far has shot one of these bastard thugs.

Be that as it may, it is time—and past time—to put these public torture and indoctrination centers out of our misery. It is time to let the kids go home, empty the criminals out of the buildings and raze them to the ground, so that not one stone is left standing on another, and to sow salt on the ruins. And if you can tell me where that idea comes from you were clearly not educated in the public schools.

"But," I pretend to hear you whimper, "wouldn't we be losing valuable aspects of public education? What about the great need to socialize our children properly?" (This is the stock statist argument against home-schooling, as well.) They may feel a need to "socialize" our children, but parents who allow their children to be "socialized" by them shouldn't be surprised when their children grow up to be socialists.

What other valuable accomplishments of modern public education will we be losing by firing these freeloaders and demolishing their day-prisons?

How about mass functional illiteracy, demonstrated by so-called journalists who are (or pretend to be) unable to parse a simple sentence, so that a speaker's concern for his own life and freedom under a given administration is misinterpreted as a threat against that administration? (The reference here is to Ted Nugent, who is a perfect fool in his own right—as is any defender of the Second Amendment who urges other people to vote for Mitt Romney—but he was speaking clearly that day, and I had no trouble at all understanding him.)

How about our children (possibly as an exercise in tolerating abuse by the government) being bullied, beaten up, and robbed by dunces? In an earlier time, our parents taught us how to deal with bullies—I had to do it several times, myself—and it always worked. Today the act of self-defense is punished as if it were aggression.

How about our kids continuing to be brainwashed with massively discredited crackpot theories like global warming—or, in general, environmentalism—Keynesian economics, Neomarxism, or anything promoted by the genocidal United Nations, to a point where they feel they have to apologize for being alive, or even wish that they were not?

No thanks.  It's time we rid ourselves of all these stupid, evil, and insane institutions for good. There is everything to gain and nothing to lose.

Absolutely nothing.  Where public school is concerned, there is no baby in the bath water.


Exactly why is college worth it today?

At a debate last Tuesday in downtown Manhattan put on by Intelligence Squared US, writer Malcolm Gladwell moved the audience to support a ban on college football; his best argument was, roughly, why is a dangerous sport like football tied to higher education at all?

But these days, you’ve got to wonder if much of anything that goes on in college has any useful purpose.  Graduates are leaving school with massive debt and ever-fewer job prospects. What are they spending all that money for?

Rutgers University last week released a study showing the grim picture for those who finished college in the last five years. Only one in two graduates has a full-time job — and 40 percent of those jobs don’t actually require the expensive four-year degree.

Colleges have long held themselves up as places of intellectual pursuits, not factories of future employees. But while universities may not see themselves as somewhere to prepare for a future career, it’s unlikely that students paying more than $100,000 for a four-year degree feel the same way.

Administrators aren’t above stringing the kids along, either. Students studying for a liberal-arts degree often hear they can do “anything” with it. That “anything,” however, could just as easily be nothing.

As for that intellectual growth: A study last year by professors Richard Arum (of New York University) and Josipa Roksa (of the University of Virginia) found that “45 percent of students show ‘no significant gains in learning’ after two years in college.”

Students not only aren’t getting valuable job skills, they’re not even learning rewarding but useless stuff. So what’s the point of college at all? (At least some of those football players manage to go pro — are they the smart ones, after all?)

It’s easy, of course, to say that college is a scam and we should have our children opt out — look at all the success stories of people who didn’t finish college. The challenge would be to find the first parents to start that opt-out revolution. All parents want to give their children a competitive edge in life, and for the last century that has meant attending college.

Maybe it’s time to change the model of what college does for its students. Maybe instead of “Shakespeare in Film” (much as I loved spending afternoons in class watching Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson), we need more courses that focus on resume-building, interview skills or other education often relegated to an understaffed Career Office.

All of college is a career office; it’s time institutions of higher education started accepting that.


No comments: