America's universities need to fix themselves while they are still on top
THE evidence from the world's campuses and common rooms could not be much clearer. America rules the academic roost. It boasts 17 of the world's top 20 universities, employs 70% of the world's Nobel prize winners and attracts the best and the brightest from just about everywhere.
Are American universities in this position because they are so good, or because their competition is so bad? The evidence, overwhelmingly, is that the latter is the case—especially when you look at Europe. Who for instance could fail to lure talent away from French universities where all the teachers are civil servants? But no American dean should bet on this lasting for ever. Oxford and Cambridge are getting their acts together, Switzerland is attracting some academic stars and China is ploughing money into higher education.
From this perspective, America's universities bear some uncomfortable resemblances to Detroit's big three carmakers in the 1950s: General Motors, Ford and Chrysler also presumed they would always rule the roost. Shorn of international competition, America's universities are run for the convenience of producers rather than their customers. The cost of tuition at public universities is soaring. Students have successfully sued the University of California for raising their fees.
Now the Corporation of Harvard has inadvertently challenged this smugness. Ever since the university's ruling body surrendered to pressure from the faculty and ousted Larry Summers from the presidency of Harvard at the end of last month, American newspapers have buzzed with questions about academia. Are the universities as good as they think they are? Are they upholding the standards of free speech and intellectual vigour? Are they training enough scientists and engineers? Are they encouraging social mobility?
Mr Summers enraged people in all sorts of ways: questioning the rigour of some of the newer “ologies”, getting ensnared in an economist friend's conflict-of-interest case, wondering rather too pointedly why so few women reached the top of the sciences. Both combative and thin-skinned, Mr Summers is not an easy man to defend on every count. But his ouster points to two great weaknesses in American academia.
Political correctness has changed from a subject of widespread mirth to a genuine worry about freedom of speech. The depressing thing about the women-in-science controversy was not the number of academics who disagreed with Mr Summers but the number who thought he had no right to raise the issue. Universities bristle with speech codes and absurd rules: until the Supreme Court intervened this week the army was prevented from recruiting on some campuses.
The other weakness, producer power, gets less attention, but it was at the heart of the war at Harvard. Put simply, many American universities treat their undergraduates shabbily. Harvard's core curriculum has gone unreformed for ages. Star professors fob their students off with graduate students who dole out inflated grades in order to keep them happy.
Mr Summers's solution to this was to try to reinforce the power of the president—the only person who can weigh the interests of the faculty against the interests of students. An even better way would be to abolish tenure, which guarantees academics jobs for life. At least an argument has started—but there is a long way to go. This week, Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences held its first meeting since ridding itself of its enemy; it was described as a “love fest” by one of its leaders.
Monday, March 27, 2006
You need to be a subscriber to The Economist, but here is the full text warning about what PC madness is doing to our best and brightest institutions - and this is beyond the Yale Taliban madness.