Just about everyone in America seems to be angry at higher education. Congress is angry. State governments are angry. Donors are angry. Parents are angry because schools are so expensive, and students are angry because they aren’t getting what they paid for. Just 36 percent of Americans now tell pollsters that they have significant confidence in higher education, down from 57 percent less than a decade ago.
Elite schools in particular have become the site of culture-war battles over free speech, representation, global politics, and state control. Higher education has come under fire from one side for illiberalism, and from the other for injustice. Earlier this month, Harvard President Claudine Gay stepped down amid discoveries of plagiarism in her work as well as denunciations of her administration’s diversity, equity, and inclusion policies. Just today, a new complaint emerged against Harvard’s chief diversity and inclusion officer, Sherri Ann Charleston, alleging that she, too, engaged in scholarly misconduct. (Neither Charleston nor the university has responded to a request for comment on those allegations.)
Much of this fury looks political, but in a recent book, “Whatever It Is, I’m Against It”: Resistance to Change in Higher Education, Brian Rosenberg argues that the problems run much deeper. They’re embedded in the very structure of our colleges and universities. He has plenty of experience from which to judge: Rosenberg spent 17 years as president of Macalester College; he’s also held appointments at Harvard and other schools. In Rosenberg’s view, the American university is “an almost perfect deflector of change”—at a time when change is absolutely necessary.
The 4,000 or so degree-granting institutions of higher learning in America don’t tend to operate like businesses, which must adapt or die. Instead, a typical college is motivated to remain the same, operating through structures that are rare outside higher education. Thus the ever-swelling prices and worrying attrition rate. In the meantime, colleges have tended to resist the spread of online learning, artificial intelligence, and other technologies that might bring them new opportunities.
As a university professor myself, I’m dismayed by the state of higher education but unsure of how it might be fixed. I sat down with Rosenberg last week to talk about the drawbacks of academic tenure, how expertise itself erodes collaboration, and what it means that we’ve become so fixated on campus politics at just a handful of the nation’s best-known schools. In short, we discussed how universities work today—and why they often don’t. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Ian Bogost: In a typical job, people have a role and maybe even a profession with which they identify. But they generally work together to accomplish a goal. How are universities different?
Brian Rosenberg: In a lot of organizations, you hear complaints about people being siloed. But higher education is extraordinarily siloed. People expect that, even! Of course, if you look at a college, you’re going to find 40 different majors and 35 different departments or more. Academics tend to identify more with their field—literature, biology, mechanical engineering—than their job or their institution.
Let’s say you work in a company in human resources. Do you see yourself primarily as someone who works within that organization, or do you see yourself primarily as a representative of the human-resources profession? Most people would say, “I see myself as a member of that company.” In higher education it’s the opposite. Almost never do university faculty think of themselves as members of a team, making decisions for the good of the whole. And as a result, you have extraordinarily ineffective, inefficient, and often dysfunctional organizations.
Bogost: So you’ve got faculty whose loyalty is attached to their field more than their institution. But then, those same faculty often get unusual say in how that institution is run.
Rosenberg: In virtually no other workplace does a structure like this exist. A shared governance system essentially means that a university’s faculty gets a say in a lot of decisions about what the organization does and how. It means that only consensus can move you forward. And consensus might have to come from hundreds or thousands of different people!
If your goal is preservation of what exists, consensus is great because you just never move very quickly. The closest analogue that I would make to the way higher education works is the way a city government functions. There are very few people who would say that city governments are efficient and effective. People get frustrated because things seem to move at a glacial pace. The things that they’re concerned about don’t get addressed.
A big part of the reason for that is structural. It’s not that people who get elected to be mayors are all assholes, or don’t care. But the mayor’s power or authority is constrained in all kinds of ways—by city councils, unions, and zoning boards, for example. A college president is like the mayor of a small city. So, people should not expect colleges and universities to change at a more rapid rate than they expect their cities to change, because the governing structure is essentially the same.
Bogost: I’ve sometimes compared universities favorably to cities. A university is like a city! That feels better than comparing them to businesses. But yikes, you’re right.
Rosenberg: You really should compare higher education to government. Congress is paralyzed; well, the reason Congress is paralyzed is exactly the same reason higher education is paralyzed. You have too many different, conflicting and competing priorities, incentives, interest groups. And you almost never end up with something that makes everybody happy.
Bogost: And like the government, the less universities appear to do, the less people trust them. It’s a vicious cycle.
Rosenberg: The declining public faith in government and the declining public faith in higher education can be tracked to the same root cause: They don’t really do anything. They don’t change. They don’t respond to complaints. There is this extraordinary tension right now between higher education and Congress. But in a lot of ways the two are mirror images of one another.
Bogost: So, you’ve got a group of people loyal first to their areas of interest, who can put a halt to change of almost any kind by withholding consensus. And they aren’t going anywhere, either, because of tenure.
Rosenberg: Tenure is essentially a guarantee of employment for life that is decided early in your career. You might get tenure and work for another 40 years. The only two groups that have this lifetime guarantee are federal judges and tenured university faculty members. Some people will push back and say that tenured professors can be dismissed for all kinds of reasons. But neither my experience nor the data support that. Most tenured faculty members, in my experience, do their jobs really well. Typically, what happens with a tenured faculty member who behaves badly or is extraordinarily ineffective is that they get paid for doing nothing.
Bogost: I’ve got tenure, and I can’t deny that it’s a great perk.
Rosenberg: The justification for tenure when it was institutionalized in the 1940s was, first of all, faculty members made less money than people in other industries. Job security was the incentive that replaced higher compensation. But today’s faculty salaries are pretty much in line with those of other people who work in nonprofit areas that serve society. If you can explain to me why it is financially necessary to guarantee a faculty member a job for life, but not equally necessary to guarantee an ER nurse a job for life, I’d like to hear that argument.
The other reason—the more compelling reason—for tenure is that it guarantees academic freedom. It’s essential that faculty be able to research, teach about, write about, and speak about topics that might be considered unacceptable to the people who run the university—and even to the general public. And so tenure gives them the protection to explore those areas.
But there are ways to guarantee academic freedom that don’t necessarily require tenure. There are countries in Europe where academic freedom is constitutionally enshrined. That’s not going to happen in the United States, but there are specific institutions without tenure that have included a right to academic freedom in their faculty handbooks.
The definition of academic freedom has become considerably more capacious than was intended when it was first defined, too. The 1940 statement on tenure referred to what you could do and say in the classroom about your subject matter, and what you could do and say in your research, and what you could do and say in certain extramural utterances, so long as they didn’t violate certain basic professional standards or bring embarrassment to the university. It has expanded now to basically mean that because I’m an academic, I can say anything I want in any context without any repercussions—a get-out-of-jail-free card because I happen to be a college professor.
Bogost: But isn’t part of the idea of tenure that it allows you to take risks? It seems like tenure should produce more change rather than less. Why doesn’t it?
Rosenberg: Because the risks that people are willing to take are not risks that endanger themselves. They’re willing to be controversial within their disciplines. They’re not willing to take risks that would endanger, say, the institution of tenure itself. And a lot of the changes that probably need to happen at colleges and universities would pose a risk to people in tenured positions. The one thing that almost all tenured faculty members agree upon is that they deserve to be tenured!
Bogost: It’s almost like you’re saying that the American university is broken because it has the properties of the American university. The university can’t change, because in changing it would become something different from what it is.
Rosenberg: These institutions in many ways were designed for stability and the resistance to change. And they’ve been spectacularly successful at that. Many of the longest-lived institutions in the world are universities, and so they have been remarkably good at preserving themselves.
If one believes that the next 100 years should be a repeat of the past 100 years, then you could argue that the current system is doing what it’s supposed to do. But I believe we are in a different moment. Consider the economic model, the demographics, the loss of public confidence, and, maybe most important, the ineffectiveness of these institutions. Less than half of African American students who start a four-year degree in the United States graduate within six years. I mean, if you think things just need to stay the same, then you have to be okay with that number, right?
Throw on top of that the reality that, whether we like it or not, technology has the power to make higher education cheaper and more accessible than the current campus model will ever be.
Bogost: It seems like people are justified in being angry at higher education, but they are angry for the wrong reasons.
Rosenberg: People focus much too much on a small group of elite institutions, like Harvard. The reality is, most of American higher education bears about as much resemblance to Harvard as the automobile industry bears to Lamborghini. Harvard is a luxury good. And maybe at Harvard, they’re spending lots of time worrying about, say, the Israel-Palestine conflict. Most students going to community college in the United States are not showing up on campus worrying about Israel and Palestine. They’re trying to complete their classes.
I think some of what these institutions have done is simply the easiest way of trying to signal to the public that they are serving the social good when, in other, more substantial ways, maybe they’re not. Harvard meets the full need and requires no loans of students up to a pretty high income level, which is impressive. But almost half the students at Harvard pay the full price.
Bogost: What does that have to do with change at other institutions?
Rosenberg: Institutions that were much less elite began to feel as if they needed to emulate what Harvard was doing or what Princeton was doing, or what Williams was doing. Even other elite ones! Look at what’s happening at the University of Chicago, which is one of the richest institutions in the world and it ran a quarter-billion-dollar annual deficit last year. And when asked why, they might say, well, you know, we need to compete with Harvard. We need to compete with Stanford. It really does nothing to serve the public good. Nothing.
Lost in all the focus on “wokeness,” DEI, academic freedom, anti-Semitism and the like is the reality that higher education is failing to address its most pressing and important problems: It’s too expensive, and, outside the world of elite institutions, it’s woefully ineffective at getting students to completion. These problems are well known and well documented, yet the obstacles to change prevent them from being addressed in any serious way. The question of whether or not Harvard makes a statement on Israel and Gaza is insignificant compared with whether more students at more colleges can graduate. A lot of colleges and universities are at the point now where they have to stop being what they are. And have to start being something else.
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