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Higher Education in America

reviewed by David M. Brown & John Thelin - July 10, 2014

coverTitle: Higher Education in America
Author(s): Derek Bok
Publisher: Princeton University Press, Princeton
ISBN: 0691159149, Pages: 496, Year: 2013
Search for book at Amazon.com

Derek Bok’s compelling book demonstrates what is most difficult for those who wish to understand and/or reform higher education in America: it is an enterprise that is diverse, sprawling, and complex. That also happens to be one of its strengths. A former president of Harvard, Bok is the right author to tackle the task; too few presidents capably tap the unique perspectives their positions afford to attempt the sort of holistic analysis Bok offers here. His book is balanced, fair, and comprehensive. Yet even as thoughtful and experienced an analyst as Bok runs into problems, as the need for generalizations often means that the sharp edges and distinctions among types of institutions are muted or obscured. One consequence is that Bok’s commentaries will make the most sense and have the most accuracy for the established, prestigious research universities that also have academically selective undergraduate admissions. To paraphrase an interesting, recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Bok’s book will be more insightful about Stanford University than about neighboring San Jose State. Or, for regional balance, one might see Bok’s Harvard as center stage, whereas nearby University of Massachusetts (whether Amherst or Boston) is in the wings.  

With a background thin on close experience with regional comprehensives, non-selective institutions, and community colleges, Bok keys in on top-tier universities and programs—to the detriment of a more inclusive analysis. These blind spots become evident when he focuses on a topic such as professional schools. He gives primacy to the prominent, predictable fields of law, business, and medicine—especially those housed at the most prestigious universities—but makes little, if any, mention of schools of education or engineering as being of comparable importance. Bok discusses colleges of medicine (and the education of MDs) with little reference to or analysis of the huge proliferation of health-related professional degree programs like nursing, physical therapy, or pharmacy, which have individually and collectively surged in their presence in the prototypical AMC (Academic Medical Center).

The lack of inclusion of schools of education is a missed opportunity. Given the number of higher education scholars likely to be among the book’s audience, it is disappointing that Bok does not include them in his analysis. A footnote in the book’s closing pages acknowledges that such schools and their attendant problems are potentially an issue of national importance, though in that same note Bok consigns them to a realm beyond the scope of his book. What is curious is that this fails to square with Bok’s identification of students entering higher education lacking the full complement of skills needed to perform college-level work as a substantial issue with which institutions must contend. In that light, the schools of education that prepare the bulk of the nation’s teachers fall squarely in the purview of a book of this type.  

Many of the situations and tensions Bok critically examines probably are best understood as perennial relationships whose problems have no solutions, only resolutions. He is on the mark when he discusses the most prestigious professions and their graduate professional schools and urges a new generation of students and aspiring professionals to rethink income as the standard of professional achievement. Bok’s call to appreciate the growth of one’s mind rather than one’s bank account is laudable. However, that standard might be a tough sell in a nation with over a trillion dollars in outstanding student loan debt. Unfortunately, the luxury of judging an education in terms other than its return on investment is one that many students literally and figuratively cannot afford.

Readers with an interest in shared governance may bristle at some of Bok’s characterizations about the nature of such governance and faculty members’ roles therein. Simply put, Bok misreads the pitfalls of faculty senates. It is not, as he implies, that they get preoccupied with such peripheral distractions as parking or intercollegiate sports; to the contrary, they usually are prohibited by institutional regulations and statutes from much decision making or oversight in these areas. A serious problem is that their jurisdiction shrinks smaller and smaller within curricular and educational policy matters, and even these are sometimes sabotaged and cut by administration and budgetary control. An intriguing inference from Bok’s analysis is to conclude that it is too bad that faculty are NOT more involved in college sports—see the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Sports and their study of the failure of presidents and trustees to oversee this allegedly “extracurricular” activity. In particular, crises at Penn State and the University of Virginia in recent years show how the absence of faculty involvement can hurt a university—and, at U.Va., how informal yet principled faculty involvement can save a university (and an excellent president) from a wrong-headed Board of Visitors.

Those accustomed to books on education that lay out specific ills and answer them with specific solutions will find no easy path through Higher Education in America. In attempting to stake out the bounds of sizable problems that invite careful scrutiny, Bok is thorough in parsing his subject matter. It is this thoroughness, particularly in the potential remedies he proposes, that some readers may find confounding; the words “may,” “might,” and “could” are so generously peppered throughout the text that one is occasionally prodded to reread passages to find the shift from observation to speculation. Yet it would be a mistake to simply dismiss this as one of the book’s weakness; on the contrary, provocative writing often invites readers to abandon cursory review in favor of deeper contemplation.  

In a domain as expansive as American higher education, where sacred cows have multiplied into full-fledged herds, change is seldom easy or inexpensive. One need look no further than the Department of Education’s ongoing efforts to craft a “gainful employment” rule for vocational and for-profit programs for evidence of how difficult change can be. By his own admission, some of Bok’s proposed measures are impractical or antithetical to the interests of already-entrenched stakeholders. But higher education is populated by individuals for whom the status quo is a point of departure rather than a destination, and Bok’s book offers them significant challenges and creative remedies to ponder. Ambitious and thought-provoking, Higher Education in America represents an informed and informative addition to ongoing debates at the national, state, and institutional levels about the aims higher education ought to aspire to and how best to achieve them.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 10, 2014
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17592, Date Accessed: 10/20/2021 3:22:08 AM

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About the Author
  • David Brown
    University of Kentucky
    E-mail Author
    DAVID M. BROWN is a Ph.D. candidate and teaching assistant in the Department of Educational Policy Studies and Evaluation at the University of Kentucky. His research focuses on the history of higher education, with a particular emphasis on student life.
  • John Thelin
    University of Kentucky
    E-mail Author
    JOHN R. THELIN is a Professor of Higher Education & Public Policy at the University of Kentucky. He is author of A History of American Higher Education (2004, 2011) and Essential Documents in the History of American Higher Education (2014) – both published by The Johns Hopkins University Press.
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