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View from the Lectern: What is Wrong with Higher Education?

Most college students (or their parents) ask themselves whether it’s worth going into debt to fund a university education (what some may call cashing in the family fortune). Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, in their provocative book Higher Education?, reframe that familiar question: What happened to the education in higher education?

Iowa Senator Charles Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Banking Committee, says he has yet to be given a satisfying answer for why tuition is increasing two or three times the rate of inflation: “You’d be paying fifteen dollars for a gallon of milk if it had gone up as fast as tuition in the past twenty years.” Hacker and Dreifus, searching for answers, followed the money. They found a litany of priorities that seem misplaced if education were indeed the penultimate purpose of higher education: varsity athletics (in particular football), tenure (in particular advancement incentives that stop at full professor), an arms race among colleges to attract students (fancy food, dorms, workout facilities, and other amenities), too many administrators (getting paid too much), rewarding faculty excellence at research (instead of teaching), staffing classes with part-time adjuncts and graduate students (instead of professors) and, the focus of this blog, a grow-or-die mentality.

Hacker and Dreifus found that the culture of higher education rewards growth of most any kind, not just sustainable growth.  Presidents, provosts, deans, and professors all get rewarded if they can produce more stuff, the easier to count the better: bigger endowments, new buildings, larger research budgets, more publications, higher graduation rates, higher admission criteria, nationally ranked sports teams, and so on.  As a result, colleges mortgage their futures with loans for buildings, wine and dine endowment donors, create new research centers and research parks, and lionize faculty that land the biggest grants and write the most papers.  Quality takes a back seat, unless it leads to quantity.  Sustainability gets ignored, unless it attracts funding, students, and recognition.

Sustainability provides a challenging lens with which to view the world because it focuses attention on society’s development trajectory. It forces us ask questions such as: What future should we strive to create? How do we sustainably develop qualities that improve conditions?  Is all growth and development good, or does some create unsustainable and unstable conditions that ultimately cause more harm than good?  These are difficult questions to answer.  These topics make people uncomfortable.

Institutions of higher education have the privilege and responsibility to be leaders of cultural aspirations, not just engines of technological and economic growth.  Our graduates must be culturally aware, not just employable.  Yes, society needs people with leadership, citizenship, and job skills, but more importantly we need leaders, citizens, and workers that comprehend the challenges of sustainable development and have the courage to contemplate and advocate a vision of a sustainable future.

The grow-or-die mentality that has captured campus culture must evolve. We need to focus on outcomes promoting sustainable development of our communities, student engagement in civil society, and, most importantly, appreciation of cultural qualities that add meaning and purpose to life over and above marketability and accumulation of stuff.  And that means re-focusing energies on undergraduate education, especially re-invigorating the humanities.  It is the humanities that help us understand the meaning of life and negotiate answers to the difficult questions about our values and our future.  When we spend money on higher education, and we must, let’s make sure we are investing in, rather than consuming, our future.

R. Bruce Hull, IV, Ph.D. is a professor in the College of Natural Resources at Virginia Tech practicing social ecology. His work focuses on healing forests fractured by pressures of urbanization and globalization. He is author and editor of over 100 publications, including two books: Infinite Nature (Chicago 2006) and Restoring Nature (Island 2000). He serves on the editorial advisory board for Gale’s GREENR environmental and sustainability studies web portal.

Posted on: January 26, 2011, 9:00 am Category: View from the Lectern Tagged with: ,

2 Responses

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  1. Marc Stern said

    Amen, Bruce and Bruce. As more and more of the economic burden of feeding the machine falls on faculty (as states back off on their financial contributions and professors are more and more gauged on their return-on-investement — particularly with regard to dollars and research outputs), one has to wonder how commonly the big picture is lost by those who most people probably assume should have it foremost in mind. I also wonder how things differ at private institutions as opposed to publicly supported institutions.

  2. Bruce Goldstein said

    I agree -I’ve been a professor for 7 years, and have seen what Professor Hull is describing – high tuitions and student debt, along with little emphasis on undergraduate education in faculty evaluation. One of the external drivers is a diminished support from states for their universities and colleges, which encourages the kind of behavior Hull describes.

    Professor Hull’s emphasis on the humanities sounds right, although the trends he identifies make this less likely, since the humanities don’t “pay their way” in grantmaking and are shunned by an increasingly pre-professional student body. However, Hull’s own work bringing the humanities into the natural resource field is an example of how to nurture these essential critical and contemplative skills. Check out his class page, at

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