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Lessons for Higher Education Reform

Commentary

I'm privileged today to assume the post of Director at the Center for Higher Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. The higher education crisis is truly one of the most compelling issues facing American families today. Tuition inflation has reached truly absurd levels, with the average price of an undergraduate degree up 202 percent since 1981. (By comparison, the Consumer Price Index has risen only 80 percent in that period.) The average graduate's student-loan debt is around $24,000. That huge figure isn't just borne by graduates: parents and families often co-sign for their students, and so bear this burden of debt themselves. In the case of public colleges and universities, taxpayers too pay for the largesse of academic institutions that are too often unaccountable to those who assume their costs.

All this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the issues driving the higher education reform effort. But there's one issue in particular I'd like to talk about here: the issue of academic culture.

I have, if I may modestly say so, a long record in academia. I won't say how many years ago it was that I received my PhD from the University of Chicago, but I will say that in the interim I've taught political science at the University of Northern Iowa, served as provost at the University of Dallas, served as provost and executive vice president at Seton Hall University, served as Director of the National Endowment for the Humanities' We the People initiative, and served as president of Shimer College in Chicago, Illinois.

At Shimer, where I was president from January 2009 through April 2010, I learned a valuable lesson in academic culture.

Shimer is a "Great Books" college, which means its curriculum is centered upon the study of the Western canon. The Great Books program, first introduced in the early years of the 20th century and adopted in colleges across America, is a wonderful and time-tested means of introducing our best young minds to the foundational values of our nation and our culture. "As a Shimer student," reads the Shimer admissions website even today, "you will become part of a community whose very purpose is to explore the great works of the Western intellectual tradition …. By studying texts that are widely thought of as 'classics,' you will take part in the Great Conversation about ideas that have shaped our world." That's an outstanding mission -- one I endorsed then, and now.

When Shimer engaged me as its president, I sought to extend and deepen the college's longstanding commitment to this tradition. That's why, in March 2010, the college's Board of Trustees voted to approve a new collegiate mission statement. I reprint it here in full, as a worthy expression of what an American college ought to aspire to:

 

Founded in 1853, Shimer College, The Great Books College of Chicago, is an independent, nonsectarian institution whose mission is liberal education. The word “liberal” in “liberal education” has the same root as the word “liberty.” Liberal education at Shimer is an education for and through liberty. Agreeing with Socrates that the “unexamined life is not worth living,” Shimer finds the highest liberty to consist in the freedom of the mind; that is, in freedom from unexamined assumptions, for example, swings in intellectual fashion, partisan politics, and ideology. Liberty at its peak is thus identical with the pursuit of truth. To this end, Shimer students and faculty engage in close study of the Great Books of Western Civilization conducted through the Socratic Method. By the term, Great Books, Shimer refers to those works of world-historical significance in the natural and social sciences as well as the humanities. Included in the Core Curriculum are the seminal works of Plato, Aristotle, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Francis Bacon, Sir Isaac Newton, William Shakespeare, John Locke, Adam Smith, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Alexis de Tocqueville, Karl Marx, and Albert Einstein, among many others.

The Shimer community recognizes that the intellectual liberty it pursues depends on its being situated in a system of political liberty. That is, Shimer’s cultivation of free minds simultaneously transcends and depends on the political freedom enshrined in the American Constitution. This dependence, along with the College’s commitment to enhancing its students’ self-knowledge, leads it to require of all students the serious study of the Founding documents—the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and The Federalist—as well as the other original sources that both informed the Founding and reacted to it.

The reaction to this revised mission statement was intense. What was intended as an affirmation of basic principles was perceived by the Shimer faculty, and many of its students and alumni, as an attempt to impose conservative or libertarian political ideology upon the school. The Shimer Assembly, a unique entity in academia that gives the broad college community a voice in the institution's governance, expressed its stalwart opposition. And in the end, fifteen months after my arrival, I was departing Shimer College.

My intent in recounting these events -- full of intense passion and debate -- is not to re-fight that battle. Shimer College has moved on, and so have I. But I do take some lessons from it that inform my work now.

 

  • First, higher education entities are peerless at institutional self-defense.
  • Second, no reform is possible without the full engagement of all stakeholders -- even those who may disagree.
  • Third and most important: reform is essential.

It is in this light that I begin my work at the Texas Public Policy Foundation today. The many fine and storied institutions of higher education in Texas are not Shimer College. But many of the issues, especially for reform-minded individuals, are the same. At a moment in history when the nation is increasingly looking to Texas and the Texas Model for examples on how to get America moving again, higher education reform can and must be part of that. Making our colleges and universities truly accountable to students, parents and taxpayers isn't just a benefit to Texas -- it sets the agenda for the nation.

With the help of allies from all corners of Texas, academia, and the policy spectrum, we will get it done.