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American Universities Have Lost Their Prestige

Commentary

Nothing is stranger than the contemporary American university.

Not long ago, Americans used to idolize their universities. Indeed, in science, math, engineering, medicine, and business, many of these meritocratic departments and schools remain among the top-ranked in the world.

Top-notch higher education explains much of the current scientific, technological, and commercial excellence of the United States.

After World War II—won in part due to superior American scientific research, production, and logistics—a college degree became a prerequisite for a successful career. The GI Bill enabled some 8 million returning vets to go to college. Most graduated to good jobs.

The university from the late 1940s to 1960 was a rich resource of continuing education. It introduced the world’s great literature, from Homer to Tolstoy, to the American middle classes.

But today’s universities and colleges bear little if any resemblance to postwar higher education. Even during the tumultuous 1960s, when campuses were plagued by radical protests and periodic violence, there was still institutionalized free speech. An empirical college curriculum mostly survived the chaos of the ’60s.

But it is gone now.

Instead, imagine a place where the certification of educational excellence, the Bachelor of Arts degree, is no guarantee that a graduate can speak, write, or communicate coherently or think inductively.

Imagine a place that requires applicants to submit high school grade-point averages and standardized test results but doesn’t require its own graduates to pass a basic uniform competency test.

Imagine a place where after an initial trial period, a minority of elite employees receive lifetime job guarantees.

Imagine a place supposedly devoted to equity where only 30 percent of the faculty are privileged enough to be tenure-tracked. The other 70 percent are second-class, categorized as part-time or “contingent” faculty. And they receive a fraction of the compensation per hour of instruction as their more elite counterparts.

Imagine a place that cherishes student interaction and criticism of the “establishment,” yet the ratio of instructors to administrators is about one to one. The money devoted to non-teaching administrative costs is now about equal to the money devoted to classroom instruction.

Imagine a place where “diversity” is the professed institutional ethos, while studies reveal that liberal faculty outnumber their conservative counterparts by over 10 to 1.