Higher education is headed in the wrong direction – Twin Cities

The various “political correctness” scandals on college campuses, such as a group at Stanford recommending against the use of the words “American” and “immigrant,” get a lot of headlines. But there are more gradual, less visible changes that also contribute to the declining status of the US system of higher education.

One issue is the increased emphasis, in terms of both student majors and faculty slots, toward computer science and engineering. That is an entirely appropriate development, motivated by changing labor markets, and institutions of higher education are right to make this shift.

That said, it is unlikely that these fields can bring as much status to universities as the social sciences and humanities have. Remarkable achievements in fields such as artificial intelligence tend to be associated with the private sector, even when universities do some of the underlying research. The neural net innovator Geoffrey Hinton of the University of Toronto, for example, despite being extremely important, is not a public figure or recognizable in the same way as, say, Paul Krugman.

Another problem is the ongoing mental health crisis among America’s youth. This is not the fault of universities, to be clear, but a lot of unhappy students make for a less enjoyable college experience. The warm glow that so many baby boomers associate with their college years may not be reproduced by the current generation. They might instead look back on a quite troubled time, and in turn have less school loyalty.

I have also observed (as have many of my colleagues) that students seem to have more absences, excuses and missed assignments. No matter what the causes of those developments, they make it harder to run an effective university.

In fact, many of the smartest young people I know are deciding against a career in academia, even if that was their initial intent. They see too much bureaucracy and not enough time for the academic work itself. Students in the biosciences, at least the ones I talk to, seem to be an exception, perhaps because the opportunities to change the world are so obvious.

In my own field, economics, the prospect of having to do a “pre-doc” and then six years for a Ph.D. is driving away creative talent. On the research side, there is an obsession with finding the correct empirical techniques for causal inference. Initially a merited and beneficial development, this approach is becoming an intellectual straitjacket. There are too many papers focusing on a suitably narrow topic to make the causal inference defensible, rather than trying to answer broader, more useful but also more difficult questions.

I also am hearing more academics — especially women — question whether they should be in the academy at all. They feel poorly treated, and the tenure clock remains in conflict with the biological clock. As committee obligations, paperwork and referee reports accumulate, the idea that academia allows you to be in charge of your own time seems ever more distant. Bureaucratization is eating away at the free time of professors. Much of the glamor of the job is gone, and my fear is that the system increasingly attracts conformists.

Many of these variables do not change much in a single year, nor do they make for clickable headlines. But in the longer run they may pose a greater danger to the health and influence of the US system of higher education.

There are also big differences within universities. I have been a professor for more than three decades and speak often at other campuses. My impression is that presidents, provosts and deans are relatively sane, if only because they face real trade-offs as they draw up budgets, raise money and make payroll. University staff or student groups, on the other hand, often have no sense of the underlying constraints, and so advocate for ideas and practices that lead to some ridiculous stories. The actual decision makers are frequently not strong enough to push back, so they accept the demands as a way to survive or even advance.

Over time, the faculty are losing bargaining power, even though they are a big part of what makes a university special. Erosion of talent is again a likely consequence.

Yes, American academy is in crisis. But the headlines don’t give a sense of the depth of that crisis.

Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the Marginal Revolution blog. He is coauthor of “Talent: How to Identify Energizers, Creatives, and Winners Around the World.”

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