Todd Zywicki, George Mason University Foundation Professor of Law, Roger Meiners, Professor of Economics at University of Texas–Arlington, Benjamin Ginsberg, Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University, and Lee Fritschler, Professor Emeritus, Schar School of Policy and Government, George Mason University, joined the Cato Institute on February 12 to discuss the problems plaguing higher education today.
Professor Todd Zywicki discussed the problem of bureaucratic growth within universities. Instead of faculty members controlling the universities as they did in the past, “…there’s this sort of odd form of shared governance between faculty and the administration which don’t [sic] so much seem to be checks and balances as a sort of a form of collusion almost.” He pointed out that bureaucrats are to blame for the university attacks on free speech. He said: “Most people think…it’s those crazy communist professors. It’s not. It’s some minion in the Student Life office, it’s some person who nobody knows who they are, who does not come from a scholarly background but they’re basically there to make life good for kids.” An example Zywicki gave to demonstrate this point was that at his university, George Mason, a speech code was implemented by the Vice President of Student Life and the faculty had nothing to do with it. Now, how did bureaucratic dominance come about? Zywicki’s theory is that “…bureaucrats are basically empire builders in a world in which profit and loss signals are absent. Bureaucrats within universities tend to just want to build their empires and to have more people work for them because that gives them promotions, more money, more perks, and all those sorts of things.” For the most part, faculty members are not challenging administrators. This is because administrators carry out functions such as career counseling that the faculty does not want to do, administrators intimidate the faculty and can threaten their job positions, and finally administrators possess more information than they and thus are able to delay or block requests, he points out.
Professor Roger Meiners spoke about the problem of tenure in our universities today. Tenure used to be a means of ensuring high quality for the people hired but has since transformed into a safeguard for professors in nonsensical fields such as gender studies. It is not illegal to fire a tenured professor, but Meiners explained that “It doesn’t happen because of the defective nature of the structure of higher education—that they are non-profit institutions…whether they are private or state institutions, incentives of the people running these institutions is much the same.” He quoted American economist Armen Alchian to explain the economic justification underlying tenure: “…No matter what form of organization you have, there are always rent[s]on the table, and tenure is one of those forms of rent, and then we engage in the seeking of rent within universities trying to capture benefits for ourselves and we engage in this structural organization where you leave us alone and we’ll leave you alone, we’ve all got our own little share of the pie…” Finally, it is difficult to dismantle the current structures of universities because state legislatures often protect them.
Professor Benjamin Ginsberg agreed that bureaucracies within universities are a problem but differed with Professor Meiners by presenting a positive view of tenure. He would prefer that faculty members run the administrations in universities, and he said: “…there’s been a change in the character of administrators in recent years…Administrators used to be drawn from the faculty—often they were part-timers. And these faculty administrators weren’t imperialistic because they expected to go back to the faculty. They had no stake in the administration.” The problem with current administrators is that many are more focused on the bureaucratic apparatus than on academic improvement. Unlike Meiners,Ginsberg argued that tenure could be a solution to our problems rather than a hindrance. He said: “…without faculty tenure, administrators are fully in charge. The only thing that prevents administrative bloat from taking full and complete charge of the university is tenured faculty.” Even though administrations have grown strong, tenure offers some opportunity for faculties to exert influence in their universities. Tenure helps facilitate the free exchange of ideas as well. Ginsberg said: “…tenure is critical to academic freedom. Untenured faculty generally keep quiet, and if not, they’re fired”.
Professor Lee Fritschler opposes what he calls ‘universal higher education.’ This term refers to the fact that many more Americans are going to university today than in the past, and the result is that universities are less concerned about quality education and more so with the number of students. Although universities may take pride in the fact that their graduation rates have grown, Fritschler does not. He said: “…it seems to me that to raise the graduation rate for higher education today would mean a reduction in quality.” He also criticized high university funding in our current day and explained the causes of this problem. Endowments, while a good concept in theory, are too restrictive in where and when they can be used. Also, salaries for university presidents is too high, with salaries for administrators under the president having increased as well. Fritschler said: “We really have fallen for the corporate model of CEO funding and it doesn’t fit very well in higher education and of course can be very costly.”Finally, financial aid is a problem because many parents lie about their income on the financial aid form and the Department of the Treasury will not release income tax information to the universities.