3 Negatives About How Colleges Are Behaving

This blogger has become cynical about the way the higher-education world operates.

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One of the hazards of being a journalist is that it makes you cynical.

Having covered issues in the higher-ed world for a few years now, I too have become cynical about the way the higher-education world operates.

I see a lot of wonderful things happening in higher ed, but I also am dismayed by the ugly side. Today I'm going to share three things that disturb me about how colleges and universities are behaving:

1. Mindless devotion to research. At universities, research papers help professors get jobs and earn tenure, but do universities need to be so fixated on research? Beyond advancing careers, much of this research doesn't seem to accomplish anything else.

A pugnacious paper co-written by Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University, argues that the "amount of redundant, inconsequential, and outright poor research has swelled in recent decades, filling countless pages in journals and monographs." Here's one of the statistics that he cites: Only 40.6 percent of articles published in top science and social-science journals were cited between 2002 and 2006.

Rather than writing papers that no one bothers to read, much less cite, wouldn't it be lovely if researchers became reacquainted with the classroom?

2. Too busy to teach. We all know that lots of university professors don't like teaching undergraduates. Teaching loads for full-time faculty has been declining for more than half a century. According to an essay written in Inside Higher Ed, Richard Vedder, an economics professor and director for the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, says it's rare for a senior professor at a research university to teach more than four courses annually.

Vedder's observations reminded me of a paper that I read not long ago on the history of the University of California. I was blown away by this factoid: Back in the 1960s, professors at the university routinely taught during the week and devoted much of their research time to the weekends.

Of course, now many professors devote their work week to research and never talk to an undergraduate.

3. Resistance to transparency. Universities and colleges aren't consumer friendly when it comes to evaluating the sort of learning that takes place at their institutions. Kevin Carey, the policy director at the Education Sector, wrote a provocative essay, The Old College Lie, decrying this reality earlier this year. I'd urge you to read it.

One of the many points that Carey made in the piece was that colleges and universities are not transparent. Student don't know how well their school will prepare them for careers and life after college. Schools and the professional organizations that represent them largely prefer to keep students in the dark.

In this age of rapid IT advances, however, there is no reason why institutions couldn't be measured on their strengths and weaknesses. There are massive amounts of data available already. Some states, for instance, already use data systems to assemble employment outcomes for every public university in their states, including earnings and sectors of employment.

Once a system was in place, Carey suggests that institutions receiving federal money would need to "regularly report teaching, learning and long-term employment results."

He compares a possible reporting system to the Securities & Exchange Commission that requires financial firms to detail their financial performance. This reporting system would hardly mean that the federal government would dictate how colleges how to operate.

"The feds don't tell companies how to make money, just as they shouldn't tell colleges how to teach calculus. They just require firms to report their results," Carey wrote.

This sounds like an idea aggressively worth pursuing.