The Christian College Phenomenon: Inside America's Fastest Growing Institutions of Higher Learning
Thomas Chesnes; Samuel Joeckel
Abilene Christian University Press, 2011
368 pp., 24.99
The Faculty Lounges: And Other Reasons Why You Won't Get the College Education You Pay For
Naomi Schaefer Riley
Ivan R. Dee, 2011
216 pp., 22.95
The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why it Matters
Oxford University Press, 2011
264 pp., 45.95
Abelard to Apple: The Fate of American Colleges and Universities
Richard A. DeMillo
The MIT Press, 2011
344 pp., 29.95
The Best of Times and the Worst of Times
The "best of times and the worst of times" characterizes the contrast between many private and public institutions of higher learning. This divide was accented recently when Andy Crouch informed me that the summary of Baylor's conference on educating for wisdom was "refreshingly hopeful," especially "after reading Anthony Grafton's NYRB article on the state of university education."
The books in Grafton's omnibus address the ills of public education. The story at mainly private universities targeting wisdom is markedly different. Compare Grafton's appraisal of public higher education with the perspective offered by a recently published collection of essays, The Christian College Phenomenon. The latter's subtitle speaks volumes, "Inside America's Fastest Growing Institutions of Higher Learning."
Institutional growth among the Coalition of Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) for most of the 1990s was 36.9 percent while publics grew by only 3 percent. The most recent data (2006) finds the other privates outpacing publics by 15 percent in increased enrollment—and these Christian universities outpacing the publics by over 67 percent! The students' (and their parents') commitment to pay the higher tuitions only accents the preference for the religious classroom, real or virtual. During a recent engagement at Liberty University, Jerry Falwell, Jr., informed me it will likely become the nation's largest university, projected to reach 80,000 students due to its online programs. He wasn't boasting, but shared it when I asked, and noted the awesome responsibilities ahead.
In the conclusion of The Christian College Phenomenon, George Marsden, one of book's thirty authors, notes that the CCCU institutions have actually guaranteed their differences from the publics through faculty hiring and other gatekeeping practices. By making the hiring litmus test more general ("basic evangelical doctrinal commitments and evidence of personal faith in Jesus Christ"), and by adding the component of the willingness "to integrate faith and learning in the area of one's discipline," Marsden asserts that "CCCU schools have built in a sense of difference into the very fabric of the academic enterprise." Of the 4,300 CCCU respondents to the survey underpinning Phenomenon, 68.9 percent consider themselves at least "somewhat conservative," while only 20.8 percent consider themselves "somewhat liberal," percentages that seem to mirror conservative evangelicalism. At least by this marker, the hiring practices are working. While the desirability of private universities is not surprising, especially if a college aligns with one's religious beliefs, the various charges being levied against the publics are a bit more baffling. Some charges are perplexing because publishers are marketing them as new information, when they've been obvious shortcomings for decades. Others are remarkable because they are passionate charges coming from unlikely voices within the publics. And a third category includes those articulate charges from journalists—usually candid and controversial—reminiscent of Alfie Kohn's prophetic warnings in Punished by Rewards (1993).
Against the backdrop of Phenomenon's positive review of Christian higher education, let's consider a book in each of the above three categories, beginning with one from noted journalist Naomi Schaefer Riley. And yes, The Faculty Lounges, her newest book, is getting negative press from many academics—many consider it an unfounded rant. Once again, the subtitle shouts her thesis with two thumbs down to much of higher education: "And Other Reasons You Won't Get the College Education You Paid For." I'm reminded here again of Kohn.
Critics hammered Kohn, mainly because they were from inside the academy and he was not. Who was he to criticize K-12 education (and higher education departments that credentialed its teachers)? He presented a straightforward warning that the inflated use of egalitarian awards would lead to disaster. Where were his datasets—i.e., approved by educators? His regression studies? How dare he suggest that some students were failures? Well, as journalists often do, they report what they see among the key indicators. In essence, without approved datasets he was challenging the behaviorists—but with a healthy dose of common sense. Perhaps we'll find that today's rampant "extended adolescence," documented by Kay Hymowitz at the Manhattan Institute, is somehow linked to Kohn's concerns for this generation, not Hymowitz's controversial notion of eminent male characteristics.
The Faculty Lounges is Riley's predictably controversial diatribe. She's an outsider, which shows in the details—such as citing Eugene Rice as a current officer in the defunct American Association for Higher Education. But her main points are weighty all the same. Many faculty and administrators at religious institutions (including me) came to appreciate her through God on the Quad—a positive assessment of private religious education. Her winsome prose and outside view positioned her as an objective reporter, and her discovery or first interaction with religious institutions makes the book all the more believable. She also is a respected journalist through her regular contributions to many leading media outlets, including a key role in the Houses of Worship column in the Wall Street Journal's Friday edition. So, you ask, why is she in trouble on this one? In this book she's picking on tenure, so it appears that the qualifications to assess have changed.
It's controversial for the same reason as Kohn's—she's an outsider charged with stringing together anecdotes. However, she makes a case by implying that at some point enough anecdotes either make datasets or certainly warrant attention. A few minutes after she appeared on the educational panel for National Conversations at the National Press Club (a panel that Randy Swing, president of AIR, applauded as the best he had heard), a scholar whispered to me, "She'll get in a lot of hot water with her new book." The fulcrum of Faculty Lounges is to abolish tenure, also Mark C. Taylor's key recommendation in Crisis on Campus. As an esteemed scholar at Columbia, and on the same panel at the Press Club, he gave up tenure to live out his principles. Conversely, I suppose people will find her guilty of trying to take away something that isn't hers; that she has no stake in the game. But the Morrill Act (1862, creating Land Grant institutions) seems to support Riley's position.
Riley builds on her awareness of the academy through own her parents' educational journeys, and she makes some believable and provocative points. She asserts that the progressives behind the research university became self-proclaimed public intellectuals, "[a]nd yet their expertise meant that these men could not be held accountable by the public, who [they alleged] knew nothing of such complex matters." She finds the current status of tenure a joke, especially since "academic freedom" is its main defense: "At the very least, there is no reason why tenure shouldn't be abolished at the vast majorities of the four thousand degree-granting colleges and universities in the United States where academic freedom is an almost irrelevant concept." Faculties should have to prove to taxpayers why they need it. She also gives a litany of examples of colleges with overt political, philosophical, or ideological mission statements, along with an inquiry into the need for academic freedom within most disciplines. And, she highlights the growing practice of "professors of practice" who are needed in the classroom due to the lopsided research model (including Duke's).
Riley finds it ironic that during this economic downturn, the persistence of tenure ensures maintaining departments with few students, and prolonging faculty doing trivial research: "The people most likely to have tenure are those least likely to need it. The star professors out there—Stanley Fish, Henry Louis Gates, Alan Dershowitz, and many others that no one outside academia has ever heard of—do not need tenure." They are like free agents in professional sports, and tenure becomes a non-issue for them. "The Olin Experiment" is her concluding case study—and her standard for hope. Dr. Richard Miller left his tenured dean position at University of Iowa's engineering school to become the first president of the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts. No tenure. Miller says, "Peer review doesn't spark really creative ideas. It's a hindrance to it …. Peer review makes faculty members worry about what everyone else thinks. It makes you propose only things that succeed. It makes you conservative." Olin College attracts an average of 140 applicants per teaching position.
But consider Riley's overall picture in the light of the survey results on scholarship in Phenomenon. It appears that most professors included in that report consider themselves "professors of practice." Only 24.1 percent of CCCU faculty respondents had "written a published book" (N=1907, p. 163). If we assume that the remaining 75.9 percent are stellar teachers and mentors, perhaps that's okay. However, having spent much of my career in upper administration and consulting dozens of schools and hundreds of educators, the data just doesn't support this. And if they're not stellar, then—unlike their counterparts at the research universities—they don't have their scholarship as a trump card.
And this 24.1 percent statistic is troublesome for two more reasons. Let's call them the Schwehn Principle and the Briner Challenge. In his landmark Exiles from Eden, Mark Schwehn (now provost at Valparaiso University) states that it's not scholarship or teaching by which faculty must be evaluated, it's both, and that the scholarship of teaching involves regular research. And the late Bob Briner's Roaring Lambs has prompted numerous "world-changing" or "Roaring Lambs" societies among Christian organizations. His simple challenge is to excel at the highest level outside the Christian subculture, to meet the established guild's standards of excellence as a witness to one's faith. In most cohorts of higher education, professors without at least one scholarly book (or top scholarship in their medium) haven't met the minimum guild requirement, let alone the standards for excellence. It's a balance between many competing demands, and as Lindsay Waters of Harvard University Press warns in his splendid screed Enemies of Promise, let's not be given to mediocre prolixity either.
In addition to the category of books coming from journalists, another category involves passionate charges coming from unlikely voices from within the publics—like the rich observations by Richard A. DeMillo, Distinguished Professor of Computing at Georgia Tech Institute of Technology. In his introduction to Abelard to Apple, and in an engaging interview with Scott Jaschik for InsideHigherEd, this esteemed scholar says it was a book he had to write. And that unlike most books on the ills of higher education, he wanted this one to read like a novel. Well, the result is a solid appraisal but it reads like a novel written by a computer professor. Think of The Structure of Scientific Revolution, but with smoother segues. I recommend it for its walk through the path of funders and corporate ties molding our top colleges. While the dozens of studies from the Education and Student Development arenas focus on profiles of student cohorts (millennials, digital natives, etc.) and motivational factors (life purpose, alignment, etc.), DeMillo focuses on the billions of research dollars that have driven university priorities and a hierarchy of aspirant agendas of college presidents. He and Michael Lindsay (Gordon College's new president, and author of Faith in the Halls of Power) could co-write a helpful sequel for president-making, and target presidential search committees.
And as for presidents trying to prompt an institution's reach to the Elites (around 70 at the top of various rankings), or to impress those presidents at higher-ranked institutions, DeMillo says stop it. Just quit the silliness. Old School peer review is shackling these leaders, all once the brightest kids in their classes. Schools remain in the "middle" (with another 3,000 or so) if they don't have at least $1 billion in general endowment and $1 billion endowed for research. His call for presidential moxie is refreshing, from his discussion of Purdue University's first presidential choice (chided for focusing on hyper-structure, including numbering students' napkin holders) to movers and shakers like MIT giving away their curriculum.
In DeMillo's telling, Abelard and Apple Computer represent moments of revolutionary reform for education. At times this analogy works well; at other times it's a stretch to equate Abelard's critical-thinking revolution with technological or other creative deliveries. What does work is the comparison and contrast between Abelard and great teachers today, who are able to reach many more students. The section on one such professor, physicist Leonard Susskind (known as the father of String Theory), is delightfully provoking, showing a traditional lecturer's success with the iTunes U world. Another section highlights the explosion of remote delivery for England's Open University, which realizes millions of downloaded lectures annually.
In the final analysis, DeMillo contends, universities should apply to their own operations "three principle lessons of the expanding global economy": 1) Focus on value [of the academic degree to the student]; 2) Focus on costs, and; 3) Establish reputation [around their own agendas, not from "chasing" the elites]. He concludes this informative book with ten basic recommendations, including a few fresh ones. Universities should "adopt the Wisconsin Idea" (even though it was launched in a sermon by the President of the University of Wisconsin in 1877—my, how things have changed). John Bascom challenged universities to tie their success to society, especially the health of their own communities. DeMillo notes that the University of Phoenix's very existence nationwide was made possible by colleges failing to give their neighbors access, ignoring Bascom's challenge. Universities, he contends, should also "[b]alance faculty-centrism and student-centrism." He notes that it is "human nature that decisions in a faculty-centered university—even those framed in moral terms—reflect self-interest." Inevitably this self-interest has raised expenses, which sits uneasily with his somewhat naïve recommendation to "Cut costs in half." Hundreds of colleges are operating on a shoestring, so it's a much easier proposition than implementable strategy.
The third book, representing those hyped for new ideas that really aren't, is by distinguished political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg, who offers a seductive proposal for cutting costs: simply excise several layers of administrators, especially "deanlets" and "deanlings." The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters is forcefully humorous; Ginsberg writes with a mature confidence while taking no prisoners. His own campus, Johns Hopkins University, is directly targeted throughout. Ginsberg's style reminds me of the ease with which Walt Kaiser can size an issue over coffee, or David Hoekema over half a cup. The candor carries weight, though his thesis is almost as repetitive as Cato's end to every speech: "Carthage must be destroyed."
Trustees at each of the schools targeted will likely study the "university bloat" hammered in The Fall of the Faculty, even though it's been one of key cost measures considered for decades—but rarely with such bravado. The average public university in America has 9 administrators for every 100 students, and privates have eight. However, Vanderbilt employs "sixty-four staffers for every one hundred students when Emory manages with a still grossly inflated thirty-four …. Perhaps the government was picking on Vanderbilt and compelled it to hire all the stray deanlets it could find at local unemployment offices." Ginsberg contends that if many of the deanlets were released, their absence would go unnoticed. Also, that if ranking procedures, like USNews, factored administrative bloating in their evaluation, suddenly we'd see fewer deanlets and deanlings. At times his sarcasm wears thin, but overall, his stinging indictment delivers. Ginsberg observes that the proliferation of programs catering to minority groups, of life skills classes, and of student development courses has created a "shadow curriculum," and that the assessment emphasis has handed administrators power once held by faculty. Also, that the use of contingent faculty has not lowered the actual cost to students (though this likely needs to be challenged), and that the more adjuncts, the higher the pay for administrators.
Unlike Riley, Ginsberg remains firm on the need for tenure and its protection of academic freedom. While only 30 percent of all professors have tenure or are on a tenure track, he contends that most scholarly books come from this same group. He asks how many foreign students choose colleges where such scholarship is taking place, and how many, in contrast, choose a college based on the reputations of "deanlets and deanlings." While CCCU colleges and other religious schools have their share of struggles, Baylor's conference on wisdom and many CCCU events seem to be a world apart from the books appraising the ills of higher education. Though Dickens wasn't addressing higher education in A Tale of Two Cities, the opening of his novel seems apropos, especially changed to present tense:
It is the best of times, it is the worst of times, it is the age of wisdom, it is the age of foolishness, it is the epoch of belief, it is the epoch of incredulity, it is the season of Light, it is the season of Darkness, it is the spring of hope, it is the winter of despair, we have everything before us, we have nothing before us, …"
And in case you're curious, I have four degrees, two from private evangelical institutions, and two from a public institution. While there are marked differences between Wheaton College, Indiana Wesleyan University, and Miami University of Ohio, I've recommended all three to thousands of people through the years. If I were writing strictly from my own educational journey, there would be no "worst of times." And that would be naïve.
Jerry Pattengale is Assistant Provost at Indiana Wesleyan University, Executive Director of National Conversations, and Director of the Green Scholars Initiative. He also serves as Senior Fellow, The Sagamore Institute; Distinguished Senior Fellow, Baylor University's ISR; and Research Scholar, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
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