Well, Penn State finally won a football game, and this is likely to reinforce the football-is-all culture around here. The Sandusky scandal has led mainly to the university implementing bureaucratic and public-relations reactions, and widespread denial-based criticism from alumni and other 'intellectuals' with some connection, even if it's only that they like tailgate parties by the stadium.
This week's NY Times Magazine has a story about the attempt to fire the University of Virginia's President, how protests reversed that decision, and how UVA seems to be going, if more slowly, in the direction the trustees wanted anyway.
At least UVA has only 10,000 students, while places like Penn State have 45,000 or so. Public universities being run as businesses are oxymoronic, and are frantically trying to respond to the loss of the social contract by which they had received public support. They are encouraging out of state students to come--for the deeply intellectual reason that they can be milked for higher tuition. They are all going to me-too their way online, as if there were a legitimate academic reason for it (whatever any actual reasons, and that's unclear, the often unstated motivation is financial).
Of course, the major universities have drifted more and more towards 'research' which is a mix of pressuring faculty members to be sales agents (generating overhead for the administration to play with), glamorizing 'research' (most of which is, when you look carefully, rather narrow, restricted, and trivial) over teaching. External funding, grant money, is often spoken of as if it is about quality, but again it's largely about money/overhead. And in the process, we increase the number of students, contribute heavily to the notion that a college degree is necessary for a successful life, and other business-model spin.
So this all leads to debate about the business model and how it should work, and what is the best strategy in the absence of state funding. Unfortunately, something is being lost in the shuffle. It's called 'education'.
How not to run a railroad
The crisis too often being spoken about when education issues are discussed is the fiscal one, arising from the growth ethic. But the more important crisis in the long run is simple: our expectations and standards have been eroding for decades. Students are entering college knowing less, too many with less basic ability because high schools and earlier aren't doing their jobs, they aren't studying as hard, and they are learning less. They get their degrees from the mill, but even in the good universities, like Penn State, every year many cross the stage to receive their college diploma....barely able to spell 'college diploma'. We are dropping the ball--and we know it!
Only the bold, the best universities, are likely to have the quality and the guts to reinstate higher academic standards. Or, the old line elites will do it, while the wannabees will talk about doing it and pay PR firms to say we're doing it--and remain in the subordinate social and economic class. Or, nobody will really belly up to the problem until China, Brazil, India, Europe, and so on make it clear that we've fallen so far behind that we can't compete any more and our standard of living erodes materially.
This may seem like a panicky kind of over-reaction. After all, we do have some very good students, some of whom can read and write and do math and who actually work hard at learning. Many are even academically honest! Maybe, even if the average has sunk, that's because there are too many here who weren't in college in days past, not because high achievers have become less numerous. But when study after study shows decline, we should at least think hard about doing something about it.
Relevance to you
This is a rant of sorts, of course, but it is relevant to many MT readers who are academics themselves, and it's also relevant to others, because this country depends on the skills of its people and they depend on skills for jobs. Not all people need college degrees, even if everyone should learn to read and communicate and calculate and so on for many of our daily activities, for many trades and professions, to be good citizens wise enough to see through political baloney, and to have enriched life experiences.
But some do or should have formal college-level education, and for them--and for the high tuition being demanded--we in the business should have an obligation to provide it. Undergraduates become graduate students, but we know they (too often, unless they come from other countries with higher college standards) enter graduate programs short of breadth of knowledge and often short of basic technical skills. Of course also, this begins with K-12, which may be the most serious issue we face--and our schools of education are perhaps especially culpable, and need to do something about it! It seems, however, that nobody has the will to confront these issues head-on.
There is even a foundation that is paying entrepreneurs to drop out and get to real work--following the Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and others' model of success. Meanwhile, if you want someone to fix something, like a leaky roof or refrigerator or computer, good luck! They've all gone off to get a college degree....