Anthony Grafton on the crisis (“if there is a crisis,” as 1984-era Hal Riney would say) in higher education. One thing that’s sure: the effort to crack into the top athletic tier isn’t the right answer. At least, it’s not the answer if the question is, “how do you make colleges better?”
After such knowledge, what forgiveness? The system runs, in part, on its failures. Administrators count on the tuition paid, from borrowed money, by undergraduates who they know will drop out before they use up many services. To provide teaching they exploit instructors still in graduate school, many of whom they know will also drop out and not demand tenure-track jobs. Faculty, once they have found a berth, often become blind to the problems and deaf to the cries of their own indentured students. And even where the will to do better is present, the means are often used for very different ends.
In many universities, finally, the sideshows have taken over the big tent. Competitive sports consume vast amounts of energy and money, some of which could be used to improve conditions for students. It’s hard not to be miserable when watching what pursuit of football glory has done to Rutgers, which has many excellent departments and should be—given the wealth of New Jersey—an East Coast Berkeley or Michigan. The university spends $26.9 million a year subsidizing its athletic programs. Meanwhile faculty salaries have been capped and raises canceled across the board. Desk telephones were recently removed from the offices of the historians. Repairs have been postponed, and classroom buildings, in constant use from early morning until late at night, have become shabbier and shabbier.
When critics argued that it made no sense to support football at the expense of teaching, an official spokesman replied: “The university’s direct support to athletics represents only about 1 percent of the Rutgers budget.” Presumably he counted on readers not to know that in any large organization’s budget, the entire amount of money that is not committed years in advance is no more than 1 or 2 percent—or, to put it more specifically, that athletics has swallowed the money that could otherwise have been used to improve the university’s core activities. Christopher Newfield is not the only sober, informed observer who believes that political elites are deliberately attacking middle-class education.