Problems of the American university

One problem that has received plenty of attention is the astronomical rise in the cost of higher education that is either preventing some from thinking of college at all or resulting in them graduating with crippling debt that strongly inhibits their career choices and lives. A graduate with large student loans is more likely to be tempted by a soul-killing but high-paying job than one who is free and clear. The rise in college costs has far outstripped inflation.

Noam Chomsky gave a talk on The Death of American Universities where he discussed this and other issues that is worth reading.

Take me: I went to college in 1945 at an Ivy League university, University of Pennsylvania, and tuition was $100. That would be maybe $800 in today’s dollars. And it was very easy to get a scholarship, so you could live at home, work, and go to school and it didn’t cost you anything. Now it’s outrageous. I have grandchildren in college, who have to pay for their tuition and work and it’s almost impossible.

These days, the average annual cost of tuition and fees for attending a private university is about $27,000 (and can easily run into $40,000 for more elite ones) while even attending a public university with in-state tuition and fees averages around $9,000. Room and board can add another $15,000.

So why is this? Chomsky looks at the causes and one is the corporatization of the university structure and the rapid growth of a very highly paid bureaucracy, something that I myself have witnessed first-hand at my own university.

In the past thirty or forty years, there’s been a very sharp increase in the proportion of administrators to faculty and students; faculty and students levels have stayed fairly level relative to one another, but the proportion of administrators have gone way up.

Another factor is that competition for students has resulted in universities spending a lot on enhanced residential, dining, and recreational facilities, all of which cost a lot to build and maintain.

There are those who claim that the university should be run like a business. We are not exactly like a business though we certainly share certain features. The key differences are (a) tenure, that enables faculty to research controversial areas and take them where the evidence leads, however unpalatable the results, and (b) shared governance that says that major decisions should be arrived at in consultation with at least some sectors of the university. It is these two features that distinguish a university from (say) Exxon, and for good reason. They are deliberately created institutions that enable scholars to discuss major issues and make arguments that may be unpopular but need to be aired.

But these are also the very features that are threatened by the increasing corporatization of universities. In the traditional view of the university, leaders of the universities are primus inter pares, not CEOs of corporations who wield strong executive power. Ideally they should be scholars and colleagues of the faculty who take a few years leave of absence from their departments to be at the helm of the institution and upon completion rejoin the ranks of faculty. This made them sensitive to the needs of the local community.

But what one now sees is the growth of a professional administrator class who float around in their own world. One symptom is the explosion of highly-paid, high-level administrators who seem to see themselves as corporate executives and entitled to all the perks and privileges that go with it, including the right to unilaterally speak for the institution. This attitude also sees shared governance as a nuisance and is what lies behind the calls to end tenure. While overt calls to end tenure are sometimes espoused, especially by university governing boards that tend to be stocked with corporate types, a more subtle way that is being achieved is by shrinking the fraction of tenure track faculty and replacing them with contingent faculty who can be more easily cowed and controlled because they can be summarily dismissed.

Chomsky says that the rise of faculty who are adjuncts who have few rights, are not part of the decision-making processes, and have no security, has made it easier for this bloated administration to control faculty more easily. And this corporate model adopted by the universities from the for-profit sector is all about control, so that workers are fearful of saying or doing anything that might risk losing their jobs.

This idea is sometimes made quite overt. So when Alan Greenspan was testifying before Congress in 1997 on the marvels of the economy he was running, he said straight out that one of the bases for its economic success was imposing what he called “greater worker insecurity.” If workers are more insecure, that’s very “healthy” for the society, because if workers are insecure they won’t ask for wages, they won’t go on strike, they won’t call for benefits; they’ll serve the masters gladly and passively. And that’s optimal for corporations; economic health.

This is not to say that there was ever a golden age for universities in the past. In some ways, there has been progress with increased diversity at all levels and with student voices now being more involved in governance, though the staff are still largely excluded. But the issue of a growing bureaucracy and the increased numbers of temporary and insecure faculty is a real problem.

One good sign in that with the rise in the numbers of temporary faculty, there is a growing recognition that the system has to be modified so that, while not necessarily giving them tenure, provides them with much greater security and status than they have now and also integrates them into the life and decision-making processes that are a major part of faculty life. These discussions have begun around the nation and at my university.


  1. psweet says

    I teach at a local Community College, and I can point out that our community college system adds a layer to that trap. While tuition is much cheaper, as a commuter school (no dorms, every student lives off campus) room and board are not considered as part of the cost for financial aid. So in order to survive, students have to work, often full time, but in order to get financial aid, they have to be full-time students. While many students do manage the combination, it doesn’t seem like the best way to achieve success as a student.

  2. colnago80 says

    One of the problems not mentioned by Prof. Singham relative to public universities is the reduction in state support, which leads to higher tuition rates. Back when I was a freshman at UC Berkeley, the tuition charge was $50/semester, regardless of the number of class hours. Today, it’s getting a little tough to tell the difference between Berkeley and Standford, (or UCLA and USC for that matter) relative to tuition charges. Back then, a middle class family could afford to send their kids to a public university without going deeply into the hole. Not true today. Back then, the state university systems in the US were the envy of the world. Today, it’s being sold down the river in a penny wise and pound foolish environment.

  3. Chiroptera says

    There’s also a problem in addition to the lack of proper state funding for ether student financial aid or to the institutions themselves (who are then forced to raise tuition and fees; clean buildings, heat, electricity, lab and class room equipment, salaries and so forth don’t grow on trees). Namely, our public institutions (at least the smaller regional schools) are under tremendous pressure to admit even more students who are under prepared for college (and, due to poor advising from parents and teachers, are often talked into college despite not having the talent for or the interest in academic studies). So we are forced to spend more time and resources to try to educate larger numbers of students who require attention and years in school), all with less money.

  4. ollie says

    It isn’t just the administrators with their salaries but also the offices that support them.

    And adding to the administrative costs is the cost of “unfunded mandates” (e. g. learning assistance centers which support students with various “learning disabilities” and handicaps).

  5. justsomeguy says

    I’m curious as to the effect Moore’s Law (and the rapid advance of technology in general) is having on these numbers. Universities, especially the technical ones, need to have access to the best available technology in order to stay competitive and relevant. This is everything from desktop computers and supercomputers to, say, medical equipment and wifi support. It all costs money, and it all becomes obsolete quickly – thus necessitating replacement.

  6. JPS says

    Three decades ago I joined the staff of a top-rated small liberal arts college to handle the audio-visual responsibilities, along with a part time secretary (that was the job title then). Over the years responsibilities grew and shifted among departments. When I retired last year there were about six people taking care of this area while one major component had been shifted to the College library. And an outside contractor was hired to take over some of what had been my specific tasks.


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