Cracks in the Ivory Tower

The Moral Mess of Higher Education

[Amazon Link]

Fun fact: I've been involved with "higher education" off and on, mainly on, since 1969. An undergrad for four years, a grad student for … too long a time, a non-tenure-track instructor for seven years, and winding up as a diligent employee geek for 25 years. I won't say I'm an expert, but I kept my eyes open.

Another fun fact: my separation agreement with the University Near Here allowed me to keep my library borrowing privileges, including Interlibrary Loan. And when I requested this book via Interlibrary Loan, the library responded: "Nah, we'll just buy it, and put it on hold for you."

I can't help but think that was a gutsy move on their part. Even though this book is published by the Oxford University Press (respectable!) and has two academic authors, Jason Brennan (McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University) and Phillip Magness (American Institute for Economic Research), it's fundamentally subversive of most features of the modern American university.

The authors make the following complaints about higher ed:

  • Faculty, administrators, and students face bad incentives that cause them to advance their selfish interests instead of working for the common good of their institution.

    One description of administrators particularly rang true: "Administrators respond [to the demand that they appear "busy"] by filling their schedules with meeting after meeting, with a large percentage of those meetings being little more than administrators reporting to each other about what happened at other meetings."

    I can report that this behavior filtered down to those lower on the totem pole.

  • Universities promote themselves shamelessly with gauzy websites, self-advertisements, festooned with meaningless slogans. UNH's "on the edge of possible" is mentioned as a good (by which I mean: bad) example. (I commented on this dreadfulness back in 2016.) Worse, universities don't even deliver on even their nebulous promises; students don't learn much that's useful.

  • Student evaluation of teaching is garbage.

  • Calculating GPAs is an inherently incoherent methodology; the results are meaningless.

  • Academics relentlessly seek their own self-interest while cloaking themselves in the language of morality.

  • Gen eds don't work; they're mostly established to serve the needs of the influential faculty and their departments, instead of students.

  • There are too many low-quality PhD programs which (inevitably) oversupply low-quality PhDs. This wastes everyone's time and money.

  • Students cheat. A lot.

  • Universities waste a lot of taxpayer money; justice demands reform.

Brennan and Magness acknowledge that their treatment only scratches the surface. They don't even touch some topics, most notably athletics and leftist political activism. That's OK; what they do discuss should (but probably won't) cause some serious soul-searching in academic halls.

[And another fun fact: Jason Brennan is a UNH alumnus.]