Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Money Talks in Higher Ed; Do We Have to Listen?

A few days ago, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article about the National Association of Scholars, an academically conservative organization that seeks to advance a particular vision of higher education. For the record, I'm sympathetic to some of the NAS' ideas, although I don't know how universal they are and I don't always agree with how they go about advancing their agenda. Nevertheless, what I think doesn't matter much. The article painted a portrait of an organization in decline, struggling for both relevance and financial survival.

Into that context comes yesterday's Chronicle piece about a bit of "research" conducted by the NAS, specifically targeting Bowdoin College in Maine. The NAS has apparently put together a report of Bowdoin's "curriculum, student activities, and campus values". The report itself isn't slated to be released until April, but already the outlines are becoming clear from a recent NAS conference, which included a panel discussing the project. It appears that, as the Chronicle put it, "the private Maine college has been teed up for the verbal equivalent of a beating with a nine iron".

Under the First Amendment, the NAS is welcome to do whatever research it wants and say whatever it likes, provided it isn't libelous or otherwise actionable. But outside critiques of colleges based on particular ideologies are rare precisely because very few people will take them seriously.

Those folks who agree with the NAS' claims about what higher education "should" be will cheer it on, but based on the earlier article there aren't very many of those folks left. The rest of the country will pretty much ignore the "report"; even within the higher education community, it likely won't have much impact. If you agree with the NAS' point of view, you would already be working to make your own institution look like what they want; if you don't, them browbeating another college with the same stick isn't going to change your mind.

What's particularly troublesome here, however, is the business model underpinning the "research", which was apparently bankrolled by a wealthy investor who happens to share the NAS' ideology. This is a classic example of "money speaking loudly", if crudely - the fellow went off and found an organization desperate for funds and brought them in as his "hired guns" to criticize an institution he wanted to criticize. The fact that the guy in question is apparently a Williams College graduate only makes me sad - although it's also evidence that a liberal arts education is no antidote for hubris and arrogance.

In the broader view, this is a pissing contest in a teapot. The liberal arts colleges that both this fellow and the NAS want to criticize enroll a tiny fraction of the nation's college students. Some of those colleges, like Bowdoin and Williams, do "punch above their weight" by enrolling some of the nation's wealthy elite, folks who will go on to positions of influence. But while I am a champion of the liberal arts education, and a fervent support of my own alma mater, we must admit that the overall impact of these institutions on either the economy or society as a whole is not huge.

If the NAS wants to drive itself further into irrelevance, hiring itself out as hit man to rich, disaffected businessmen with axes to grind is a great way to do it. Bowdoin won't like the negative press it gets for a while - but I would guess that, in the end, they won't change much either. Wall Street controls many things, but their money doesn't buy respect in academia - or make it any more likely that people will listen to them.

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