More big ideas for reforming higher ed
It’s time for some big experiments
Last week I published a piece in the National Review with suggestions for donors to help reform higher education in the direction of freedom of speech, academic freedom, political neutrality/institutional restraint, and genuine intellectual diversity. These included demanding dramatic de-bureaucratization on campus; dumping political litmus tests for professors, students, and administrators; and making donor support contingent upon a school’s commitment to free speech and academic freedom.
Most urgently, I recommended an insistence that students and administrators alike are aware that shout-downs, disruptions of events, and mob censorship will not be tolerated. Every time there is a shout-down, a de-platforming, or a canceling on campus, the school needs to do an investigation asking two questions: Did administrators do anything to stop it? Did administrators do anything to encourage it? Failing at the first should get an administrator in trouble. Failing at the second should get them fired. Donors, with their immense power and influence, can do a lot on these fronts.
My list was primarily focused on legacy institutions. Even though I think the world would probably be a better place if our ruling class (yes, I use that term) was drawn more from big state schools than from the Ivy League, I am under no illusion that elite higher education is going anywhere. After all, if you have a $50 billion endowment (Harvard, which ranked last in FIRE’s Campus Free Speech Rankings this year) as your rainy day fund, in all likelihood you’ll still be around in 50 to 100 years.
So, simply, we can’t afford to ignore these institutions and must try to reform them.
And perhaps most importantly, donors should give to other institutions that may do a better job, like the University of Austin or Minerva University. These new experiments in the higher education space create competition for elite colleges, keeping them from monopolizing student choice and allowing market pressure to help move them toward much-needed reform. In fact, I pointed out, supporting alternative higher ed start-ups may be the only action that really gets elite colleges’ attention. When a journalist recently asked me if I thought UATX could fix higher ed, I responded “No, not ‘a’ UATX. We need 100 -1000 more experiments like it.”
Still, I don’t think those suggestions went far enough. Here are a few more ideas. (To be clear these are MY ideas. Not official FIRE policy recommendations.)
Fund independent surveys to review university performance
First, we should assess whether most universities are even good at their job of educating students or developing critical thinking skills. “Academically Adrift,” a study published in 2011, found that in an “analysis of more than 2,300 undergraduates at twenty-four institutions, 45 percent of these students demonstrate no significant improvement in a range of skills—including critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing—during their first two years of college.”
I’m willing to bet that a control group of 18-22 year olds working regular jobs rather than attending college would have shown greater improvement in their critical thinking. Funding a study to find out and communicating the results to the public could expose a scandal: We are paying billions of dollars to universities with little to no improvement in the fundamental thing they are supposed to offer. And even if it did end up showing that some schools were good at improving critical thinking skills, it’s doubtless that some would be far better than others and we could learn what the good schools are doing right and what the bad schools are doing wrong.
Another possibility is a large-scale experiment in which students take the SATs, or any number of achievement tests, both before and after college so we can measure any improvement in critical thinking versus a control group working a regular job.
And while these realizations would likely be dispiriting for many who have invested fortunes — not to mention time they won’t get back — into higher education, they would also set the stage for major improvements. If people feel fed up, skeptical, and like they are getting ripped off, it will be easier to push for change.
Hold academic research accountable through outside evaluation
One idea, which I call “Salomon’s House” (a Francis Bacon’s “New Atlantis” reference that maybe two people will get), would be an independent, private, but possibly state or federally funded institution of politically-balanced scholars dedicated to replicating studies and otherwise kicking the tires on research produced in colleges and universities. The idea would be to evaluate the quality of these schools’ research and will likely show that vast amounts of current research is baseless or does not replicate.
It would be ideal if all the scholars involved in Salomon’s House were known to the public, but that the authorship of each individual report be anonymous. This way, the research remains untainted by either explicit or implicit social pressures.
People are desperate for an authority that they can trust, and have largely (and understandably) lost faith in our existing institutions. In my new book “The Canceling of the American Mind,” which I co-authored with Gen-Z journalist Rikki Schlott, we argue that one of Cancel Culture’s most pernicious effects is that it has rightly undermined faith in expertise. After all, how can we trust people to be honest and forthright if we know that there is a climate of fear silencing dissent and enforcing conformity?
Given this environment, the first entity to take up the mantle and produce consistently reliable work will do a lot to save our culture from collapse. Whether it’s the University of Austin, Minerva, or some new institution that’s yet to arise, I’m confident that a realignment around new and trustworthy institutions is inevitable and would do us a lot of good.
Insist on First Amendment standards across the board
Although none of these are FIRE positions, I’d like to stress that this one in particular is not a FIRE recommendation. I have slowly come around to the institution of a national “Leonard Law,” which would apply First Amendment standards at all non-sectarian schools in the country the way it currently does in the state of California.
This would break us away from our long-standing practice of pretending that private universities are in any meaningful sense “private” anymore. Too many people have been having their cake and eating it too, using federal regulation as an excuse to limit what can be taught and said on campus without being beholden to the First Amendment standards that protect academic freedom. That is a corrupt dynamic, and an official establishment of First Amendment standards is the perfect bulwark against eroding free speech and academic freedom on campus.
Now, I get the libertarian argument that excessive federal legislation is part of the problem. However, if the federal government continues to hold a definition of Title IX that actively harms free speech, the least we can do is counter that harm with free speech protections that are just as tied to federal funds.
You’re probably wondering how that sort of thing could be enforced without bias inevitably creeping in. When you empower someone — a kind of “free speech ombudsman” — to protect free expression on campus, file complaints, and decide on matters of academic freedom, the question, “who watches the watchmen?” is a good one. The solution would be to have this person recommended to the school by a respected, off-campus, academic freedom advocate — or a committee of advocates, including FIRE — to ensure checks and balances. The idea is to use bureaucracy to battle bureaucracy, and with universities being bloated with administrators it’d be great to put at least one or two to good use.
And speaking of administrators, another way to limit bloat is to define an ideal ratio between full-time professors and non-teaching staff or administrators, and to clearly reflect this desired balance in proposed budgets.
The bottom line: We must think big
This is just a small sampling. Rikki and I make even more suggestions in “The Canceling of the American Mind”, and I will continue to play with potential reforms on this Substack. But I believe that 2023 may be remembered as the year when society lost faith in higher education's ability to serve as a marketplace of ideas, reliably produce knowledge, and educate young people in the norms of a free society. We must think big about reforms. We must experiment, and we must consider rethinking, perhaps from scratch, how we educate people from kindergarten to PhDs and beyond. However, if we miss this opportunity, the lumbering hulk of our dysfunctional trillion-dollar education industry will grow more costly and less effective with each passing year.