Arnold Kling  

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Steven Roy Goodman writes,

Colleges have long been hotbeds of political agitation, of course. But where it was once students who did the acting out, as they spread their intellectual and philosophical wings, now the professors and administrators are more likely to be playing politics -- and more and more Americans with college-age kids are getting fed up with it. In 18 years of in-the-trenches experience counseling kids on their college choices, I've never seen the unhappiness as widespread as it is today. If colleges don't tone down the politics, and figure out how to control ballooning costs, they run the risk of turning off enough American consumers that many campuses could marginalize themselves right out of existence.

That's why I think that the time is ripe for a Martin Luther of higher education. But I find it difficult to believe that the political stuff has as much impact on students and parents as Goodman suggests.

For Discussion. What first-hand evidence do you have of politics having an effect on campus life?

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COMMENTS (9 to date)
Eva Wolfberg writes:

I think university politics does student's happiness on campus. For example my university, university of mary washington, went through a name change from mary washington college, a top 5 public liberal art school, to a third teir university that spends a lot of money touting its name everywhere. Not that expanding a university is bad, it becomes problematic when they cut funds for clubs and sports on campus to fund programs trying to force diversity on campus or make a more presitgious college ranking wise. Also, I think the glossy images universities sell to high schools and through their website make it difficult for a student to decide whether or not that school is right for them.

Bernard Yomtov writes:

Please let me know when applications to the Ivies and other prestigious schools drop off. Until then, this is nothing but empty grumbling about matters that are of peripheral concern to the vast majority of students.

sd writes:


Fair enough point. But I have noticed a couple of effects anecdotally:

1) Prospective students who know they are going to go to graduate school and who have the grades to gain admittance to Ivies are starting to bypass the private Eastern "name" schools to do their undergrad work at U. Illinois, Penn St. and the like. They figure that the value of an Ivy lies not in the education but in the name only - and thus if they are going to pick up the name in law school or a Ph.D. program, etc. then they might as well save their money now. Some families are already starting to realize that the Ivies are currently selling a paper credential and not much else.

2) Prestigious employers, including my firm, that used to hire extensively (almost exclusively) at the Ivies are starting to hire more and more from state universities and regional liberal arts colleges. We figure that while the average Harvard student is still far far brighter than the average Illinois student, we only hire at the top of the class anyway and the top of the class at Illinois is just as good as the top of the class at Harvard. When families start realizing that their 1550 SAT son or daughter will end up with a great job regardless of whether their diploma says "Veritas" or "The State Legislature of Michigan confers..." then they will stop being so willing to pay the incremental $20,000 a year for the Ivy nameplate.

winterspeak writes:

I'm with Bernard.

Harvard had the highest number of applications ever this year. The value of the name, in the eyes of parents, far outweighed whatever personal beef they might have with the raging insanity that actually goes on inside it. Same thing with the value the university provides as a screening device for employers.

Until I see applications drop, or acceptance rates go up, or some actual concrete non-anecdotal measure of people actually going to less crazy schools, I won't believe it.

William Newman writes:

It's not clear to me that sd's position and Bernard's position are as inconsistent as they sound. If your market is growing and you are willing to limit the volume on your prestige product, then you can see demand for your product rise quite a lot even if there's not much general agreement about the actual performance of your product.

If Harvard were aggressively expanding its market share at the same time as the increased applications were going on, then most people would tend to agree that it looks like the familiar pattern of a technically superior product steamrollering other brands, more or less like the perception of Honda and Toyota automobiles, e.g. But as long as Harvard is limiting its supply, there is room for ambiguity about whether it is more like various prestige brands of auto (like Jaguar, Mercedes, or Rolls Royce at various times) where it is less obvious that simple technical superiority of the product is what is being sold.

Mark Horn writes:

The public university that I went to provided a lab for undergraduate Computer Science majors. The lab was lit with flourescent lights that flickered at 60Hz. When I graduated (1992) most of the computer screens had a fixed refresh rate of 60Hz also. This frequently resulted in headaches as the 60Hz lights flickered slightly out of sync with the 60Hz monitors.

So a bunch of us decided that we'd buy a some strings of Christmas lights and use them instead of the overhead flourescent lights. Christmas lights were perfect because they provided a small amount of light that was well dispersed throughout the room and they were really cheap (especially right after winter break). This created a firestorm of controversy because several of the faculty felt that we were elevating Christmas by using Christmas lights. We eventually replaced them with 2-3 incandescent lamps. But they weren't as effective because they rendered the terminals close to them more or less unusable. There was too much light next to them creating glare on the screens as well as generating heat, which can be a significant problem in a computer lab. In the end we just kept the lights off - the guaranteed headaches were much worse than the potential ankle sprains.

IMHO, this was stupid and mindless adherance to a doctrine espousing that all religion (and especially Christianity - the traditional "amereican" religion) is bad. But this was veiled by the "seperation of church and state". None of us did this for religous purposes. And the only religous person that I knew of in the lab had no part in purchasing or deploying the lights.

Had I understood the politics better at the time, a more effective tactic than actually solving the problem would have been to organize a protest against the damaging health effects of flourescent lights. That would have used the controversy to our advantage. It probably wouldn't have actually solved the problem - because all that took was $2 worth of small lights on strings - but at least we'd have been on the right side of the politcally correct line.

Brad Hutchings writes:


That is a hilarious story! When I was an undergrad and grad student at UC Irvine (go Anteaters!, er Banana Slugs, no that's Santa Cruz right? no, go Anteaters!), the popular thing to do was have a hunger strike. Want to see a Chicano Latino Studies Department? Have a hunger strike for it. You get the idea. So one day, I saw the hunger strikers giving someone a bad time because he was taking a salad through the hunger strike area -- the main walkway between the food court and everywhere else. So my friend Ted and I decided to have a BBQ to protest something. We got called into a Vice Chancellor's office and told we weren't going to have a BBQ because it would incite violence.

Honestly, we just wanted to have a BBQ to celebrate the great weather here in SoCal and protest for more sections of totally overcrowded science and math classes, but no, it would incite violence, so no, we couldn't do it.

I guess if I had college to do all over again, I'd do it in my mid-30s. Instead of hunger strikes, I'd just diet for whatever cause I needed to support. Like we could do a 3 week Atkins diet to protest meat. Or something like that.

The Real Bill writes:

One friend of mine went to a prestigious private university. Another skipped college and went right to work. I went to State U. The private school grad makes about $25,000 per year. I make about $75,000 per year. The one that skipped college is now a multi-millionaire. Go figure?

My hope is that university degrees will become less important, not more. Almost nothing that is learned in a U can't be learned elsewhere. I have a M.S., but I'd happily trade it for a system of testing for jobs. College is the lazy way of getting educated. I learned more on my own than I ever learned in formal schooling.

People that pay for Ivy League schools either have money to burn, are too lazy to get a job on their merits, or too stupid not to waste so much damn money. A smart parent would send their child to State U. and use the extra cash to purchase them a home. After four years, imagine the money saved on rent alone!

Galvesto writes:

I agree with Bernard. I went to Harvard and floundered the first 2 years- I hated the rich preppies and the New England culture, I didn’t have that much contact with professors (it’s worse today) but when I found a major that I really liked, things changed. I learned more from my classmates during and after school than from any professor. I let my kids choose where to go to college, 2/3 chose Harvard which was painfully expensive but worth it because they truly got something out of it. Would they have done as well elsewhere? Maybe, but only if was their choice. With several professors in the family, they heard a lot of discussion about schools and a lot of criticism of all Universities. I’m putting money into 527 accounts for my grandchildren; I hope that they choose rather than their parents or grandparents. A significant number of kids flounder at any college you name. If a college or hospital needs to advertise, better avoid it. Those with the big reps are far from perfect.

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