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Pruning the Ivy: The Overdue Reform of Higher Education

reviewed by Elaine El-Khawas - April 25, 2008

coverTitle: Pruning the Ivy: The Overdue Reform of Higher Education
Author(s): Milton Leontiades
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 159311740X, Pages: 127, Year: 2007
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Milton Leontiades tells us that he served as dean of a business school at a prestigious public research university (not named) for 15 years, following a career in business and government. In this book, he describes the numerous ways that universities do not act like businesses, and he urges fundamental reform. In eight chapters, he reviews the problems needing reform, from high costs and low productivity to ineffective governance and threats of increasing competition from foreign universities and for-profit online companies. Despite the sweeping title, he does explain (p. 31) that research universities are the focus of this book.

Leontiades offers strong opinions throughout and is especially critical of the power that university faculty have over academic decisions. His particular ‘axis of evil’ is tenure, academic freedom, and shared governance. He urges reform of all three, and stresses that they all must be attacked as one. He does not mince words. As he declares, “tenure combined with academic freedom and faculty governance handcuffs a university’s ability to manage effectively…. Shielded by tenure, faculty do not need to explain their actions or be held accountable for them” (p. 42). He continues: “[a] caste system of members who have unfettered authority to decide who to exclude or include, and on what terms, would be viewed with amazement outside of academe” (pp. 43-44). With passion but also with repetitiveness, he tells us about the six-figure salaries offered to new professors of finance, the six hours of teaching per week that many faculty have, and the much too brief six-year probation that leads to lifelong employment security.  

He also assails the narrow definition of research that shapes decisions on faculty hiring and promotion. As he argues, “[i]f a top-tier academic journal received a manuscript that appealed to a lay reader, for example, it would be immediately rejected or sent back for a major rewrite.  Readability is not the standard. Just the opposite” (p. 31). This narrow approach is a product of poor faculty governance; he contends: “It is a system they structured, support and defend…. This method of setting one’s own conditions of employment is unique” (p. 31). As he notes, “[i]t is like a firm allowing its employees to make the rules, and then expecting them to vote for longer hours” (p. 32).

It’s a slender volume, but filled throughout with strong statements about what is wrong with academe. The author does not choose to be balanced in his remarks – which is his prerogative, of course – but he thereby reduces his prospects for convincing others. He rails against faculty unions, for example (pp. 22-23), but does not acknowledge that they are found at only a narrow slice of universities. He assails universities for a lack of attention to efficiency and productivity, but fails to acknowledge a sweeping move over the last two decades toward managerialism, performance-based budgeting and outcomes reporting mandates to state agencies and accreditors. His own experience is his special lens: “To counter their lack of managerial expertise, university presidents could hire persons equipped to handle complexity. I assume some do. My experience has been the opposite” (p. 57).  

His passion leads to real whoppers, as in: “…the undergraduate curriculum has scarcely budged in more than 50 years” (p. 87). This remark, embedded in a criticism of faculty influence, is countered a few pages later in still another attack on faculty ideologues, by his statements that “the undergraduate curriculum has drastically shifted from classics to culture” (p. 90) and that “[m]andatory courses required for graduation dropped off sharply despite many more courses among which to choose” (p. 90). Such overly broad claims are not convincing.

His chapter on the politics of the professoriate is highly one-sided, arguing that faculty have a leftward tilt with “far-reaching institutional consequences,” including new hiring tilted by ideology and teaching that has obvious bias. His sources are themselves biased, starting with a study of only 1,643 faculty; why didn’t he instead use the nationally representative surveys of much larger numbers of faculty conducted by UCLA and by the U.S. Dept of Education? Other sources for this chapter include the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (for a survey of only 50 colleges), David Horowitz, the National Association of Scholars, and George Will. The Larry Summers ouster gets discussed twice within this chapter, as a “prime example” of the influence of extremist faculty.

Anyone urging broad reform of American research universities, or of American higher education, would cover some of the topics found in this book: escalating tuition levels that threaten affordability; the need to find greater efficiencies and more productivity; and the importance of practical contributions from faculty research. This book, however, is long on opinion, and lacking in balance. It feels like an extended opinion piece, relying mainly on personal experience, other opinion pieces, and journalist accounts. It offers an unrelentingly negative view of the way that academic decision-making takes place, too often supported by overly broad generalizations.

The book is also short on reform ideas, having spent most of its energy to describe academe’s problems and review general trends in globalization and information technology. It calls for greater efficiency, for example, but says little about what new models are needed. It offers a generalized call for universities to be more market-focused and competitive, but does not acknowledge the considerable competitive pressures already felt by private institutions and by most universities in urban settings. For such institutions, competitive strategies are already a fact of life, with their influence penetrating to individual academic departments and programs. Are there insights from their experiences that should be pursued more widely? Comparisons to new initiatives in China and India might raise eyebrows but don’t point to any specific reform options.

Despite the book’s shortcomings, a patient reader will find that it raises some worthwhile questions. I agree with Leontiades, for example, that the university community should ask probing questions, including whether the type of research currently rewarded within academe justifies its cost, and whether all types of research are equally valuable (p. 32). As in all policy reform, however, asking good questions is only a start.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 25, 2008
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15238, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 6:31:46 AM

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About the Author
  • Elaine El-Khawas
    George Washington University
    E-mail Author
    ELAINE EL-KHAWAS is Professor of Education Policy at George Washington University. Her research centers on issues of accountability and quality assurance in higher education, and she recently developed and taught a graduate seminar on accountability in education.
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