In Defense of American Higher Education
reviewed by Leonard L. Baird - 2003
Title: In Defense of American Higher Education
Author(s): Phillip G. Altbach, Patricia J. Gumport and D. Bruce Johnstone (Editors)
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore
ISBN: 0801866545, Pages: 368, Year: 2001
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Higher education is the object of many criticisms, as the contributors to this book ably explain. Although Birnbaum and Shushok show that higher education has been considered to be in “crisis” about many of the same issues since at least the 1970s (finance, confidence, curriculum, stagnation, diversity and leadership), the level of criticism has reached new heights in recent years. Some of the critiques focus on trends that affect the whole society, including higher education’s responses to technological change, demographic changes and globalization. Some critiques focus on more internal issues, such as teaching methods, curriculum, and expenses. The authors make several observations that are helpful in understanding this thicket of criticisms. First, most of them are concerned with prestigious research universities and elite liberal arts colleges. These colleges enroll a minority of students although their intellectual, cultural, and economic power is great. Secondly, much of the criticism comes from within academe, as well as without. Third, and perhaps most important, the critics make opposing claims. For example, the view that higher education is not responsive to the needs of society contrasts with the view that it is too responsive. The view that colleges should be accessible and affordable for everyone entails expenses that conflict with the view that the costs of the system to society should be very low. The view that the professorate should teach more is opposed to the view that professors should be involved in meeting the needs of society, either through direct service or pragmatic research.
Some of the authors in this book take on the main contentions directly, while others deal with them as part of a larger context. One of the first group is Martin Finkelstein who uses years of survey data to show that there is little merit in the claim that faculty neglect teaching for research; overall, the most recent national data show that faculty spend almost two thirds of their time on teaching and a fifth of their time on research. Despite stories of exorbitantly paid faculty “stars,” the average faculty member makes less than three-fourths the salary of similar professionals. In a trend that does not bode well for attracting new talent into academe, the average assistant professor’s salary is now below the average family’s income. In a related chapter, Johnstone presents data on the costs of higher education which leads him to conclude that they are far from “out of control,” but are quite expectable, especially considering the increased demands placed on the system for increased enrollments, public service, etc. In contrast, he cites the many ways colleges have tried to keep costs down in recent years, such as the use of part-time faculty and seeking outside funding. He also notes that these same “solutions” create problems of their own. Curiously, Johnstone writes virtually nothing about the burgeoning administrative sector (see Gumport and Pusser, 1995; Leslie and Rhoades, 1995). Keohane provides a fairly traditional and familiar defense of elite liberal arts education as providing skills in critical thinking best utilized by academically able students. Richard Freeland presents an historical analysis to show that academic institutions do “…adapt to evolving social needs, and these adaptations, broadly considered have produced extensive social benefits” (p. 233). He also argues that presidents play a significant role in these adaptations, and that presidents are neither puppets nor oligarchs.
Among the contributors providing a general context, Altbach discusses the historical development of the evolution of the American academic model into its present differentiated and diverse form. A good deal of this diversity is due to the vibrancy of the private sector, which is not a major force in most other countries. However, the very strength of the system, an institution for almost any purpose, makes any national policy difficult to formulate, and also means that entirely different issues are paramount in different sectors (e.g., research universities compared to community colleges), which has implications for governance, finance, and criteria of success as George Keller discusses. Martin Trow provides a useful comparative analysis and argues that because American institutions have adapted to mass education, have long been oriented toward service, and have extensive experience with finding nongovernmental funding, they are decades ahead of their European counterparts.
Both Art Levine and Jack Wilson discuss the challenges and possibilities of developments in technology, and the varying levels of rhetoric that go with them. On the challenge side, some commentators predict that physical universities will be replaced by cyber education, and that the traditional concept of the degree will be obsolete. Among the possibilities is what Wilson refers to as “mass customization” in which any student with any preparation and learning approach can be accommodated and educated. In any case, a recurring theme among the contributors is the need for higher education to incorporate technology. Wilson does, however, make the sobering observation that technology changes very rapidly, but human beings change slowly. The challenge, clearly, is to find ways for technology to match the ways people think and work.
Another recurring point is the increased diversity of students. Altbach and Trow connect this diversity to the American policy of the greatest possible access to higher education as does Kuh. Kuh also discusses how access often means part-time, community education in which the chances of intense engagement with the life of a campus are low. Kuh recommends developing learning communities and making service learning regular parts of the educational experience to enhance students’ learning. Kuh also analyzes the ways in which traditional faculty think and value which can be very different from those of their students, causing much confusion and occasional frustration on both sides.
A third theme is the function of research in higher education. LaPidus shows that while most graduate education is in pragmatic fields at the Master’s level, an important segment of doctoral students is trained in research and aspire to academic careers. That full-time faculty positions in research-oriented institutions are rarer, underlines the need for universities and professional societies to outline other career possibilities to students. The research that is done in higher education is criticized by legislators and journalists for being too esoteric or not having ready pragmatic implications. However, as several authors point out, this sometimes “impractical” basic research is the function of major research universities, and they lead the world in most disciplines.
Across the contributors to this book is a basic distinction, made in Gumport’s analytical chapter, between those who have adopted the metaphor of higher education as an industry, and those who consider it an institution. Without necessarily using these words, some contributors, like many other commentators, adopt these images, and develop the evidence and arguments that are consistent with them. Those adopting the industry metaphor describe markets, competition, and cost-efficiency. Those who think of higher education as an institution describe purposes, social functions and impact on the culture. Gumport’s analysis helps to clarify the reason that discussions of higher education often result in people talking about different things. One could imagine a higher education system that is a success as an industry and a failure as an institution, and vice-versa. This book could provide support for readers who hold either view, as well as many challenges to them. Overall, the contributions are informative and gather together scholars and evidence from many areas. Whether a reader concludes that it is successful as a defense of higher education will probably depend on which of Gumport’s metaphors they adopt.
Gumport, P.J., and B. Pusser. 1995. A case of bureaucratic accretion: Context and consequences. Journal of Higher Education, 66(5), pp. 493-520.
Leslie, L.L., and G.G. Rhoades. 1995. Rising administrative costs: Seeking explanations. Journal of Higher Education, 66(2), pp. 187-212.