In 1986, Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev announced two new policies: glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring). Five years later, Communism’s 74-year-long domination of Russia came to an end. Like the Soviet Union in 1986, America’s higher education system is careening toward a crisis, as costs spiral upward and measurable results slide inexorably downward. We need to apply the lessons of glasnost and perestroika to our college and universities, which are the world’s last bastion of Stalinist central planning.
Traditionally, conservatives have ignored higher education, focusing instead on K-12 education, or on narrowly economic issues. There are three reasons for this neglect:
- They assume that higher education doesn’t matter, since most students are unaffected by their four years under crazy left-wing professors.
- They minimize how bad things are, assuming that reports of left-wing dominance on campus are exaggerated.
- They assume that nothing can be done, that the leftward bias of academia is an inexorable law of nature.
The conventional conservative wisdom is wrong on all three points. Higher education does matter. Take California, for example. It voted twice for Ronald Reagan and for George H. W. Bush in 1988. However, the influence of left-leaning universities has made California a bastion of progressivism for at least the last twenty years. In 2016 in Texas, Hillary received majority support from voters in the 18-25 year-old segment. If nothing is done about the Leftist monopoly on campus, conservatism in America is doomed within a generation.
The dominance of the Left is destroying higher education. Costs spiral out of control, while benefits to students and to society approach zero, thanks to grade inflation, curricular chaos, and the replacement of instruction by indoctrination. The system generates tens of millions of man-hours of useless research in articles and books that are never read. Millions of talented young people waste nearly a decade of their prime in graduate schools, preparing for academic jobs that don’t exist.
The situation on campus is far worse even than most conservatives imagine. Universities have become expert in disguising to the general public how total is the domination of cultural Marxism, with its devotion to multiculturalism, anti-Americanism, anti-Westernism, anti-Christianism, and anti-capitalism.
However, fatalistic resignation is the wrong response. Nothing about the social domain is inevitable or unchangeable. There are no social laws of nature beyond the influence of human choice. All it takes to effect profound and lasting change is a combination of intelligence and resolution, firmness of mind and will.
Academics are the most malleable of people: the “herd of independent minds,” to use Kingsley Amis’s memorable phrase. Once they perceive it to be in their long-run professional self-interest, 80 percent of academics and 100 percent of administrators will flip overnight from Left to Right. Campus leftism is pervasive now but spiritually and intellectually shallow, just as Marxist ideology was in pre-1990 Soviet Union. Marxism quickly evaporated in the dawn of glasnost and perestroika, and the same thing can happen on American campuses.
What is required is deep institutional change. That requires two things: a fundamental shift in the incentive structure (for both students and teachers), and the creation of effective freedom of choice, the empowering of new alternatives to existing institutions. In effect, we need glasnost and perestroika in American higher education.
Change must be both rapid and sustainable over the long run. We have only eight years to effect a transformation, and, for the transformation to work, it must be perceived by the participants (especially administrators and faculty) to be a permanent change, irreversible by future administrations. We must create a new system so obviously superior to the old one that students, parents, and prospective employers will insist on its continuation.
A direct assault on higher education, seeking simply to de-fund it, will never succeed. The American people think highly of the potential value of education. In addition, if we simply get federal government out of higher education, we will leave unaddressed the dominance of our universities by the cultural Left, which was put in power by past federal policies. Trumpist conservatives should instead emphasize how much we care about higher education, and how much we value its potential. We should be willing to invest more resources in a new and reformed version of our higher education system.
Glasnost: Open Information about Student Learning
In any large, complex social system, we get what we reward, and we reward what we can measure. So, in order to re-orient the system from indoctrination to teaching, we must measure student learning and reward effective teachers.
The present incentive structure is one of peer validation. Individual professors are evaluated solely on the basis of what their peers in their field think about their published research. Whole departments and universities are similarly judged only on the basis of the opinions of peer institutions. This dominance of peer evaluation is what has enabled cultural Leftism, following the prescriptions of Antonio Gramsci, to take over one field after another. Once the Left is in control, its position is unassailable, since Leftists simply validate each other’s professional qualification and excellence and disqualify all critics. This is beginning to happen even in the hard sciences: global climate change and other forms of ecological extremism are becoming entrenched.
A system of pure peer evaluation constitutes a situation of collective irresponsibility, and irresponsibility breeds ideology, fads, and shared forms of madness and hysteria.
We must effect a shift from peer validation to validation by measurable results. We can’t use long-term results (income, employment) or nebulous goals (happiness, virtue): these effects are too far removed from the practice of teaching and too unpredictable. Glasnost must take the form of entrance and exit examinations for students. We must learn from the mistakes made in K-12 testing: the tests must involve low stakes for students and incorporate high standards. Their primary purpose is to evaluate the quality of teachers, not to provide a barrier for students.
This will involve a two-pronged approach: mandatory local tests, and optional national tests.
Mandatory local tests:
- They should be graded in a double-blind fashion, in which graders don’t know the identity of students (nor the identities of the students’ teachers), and students don’t know the identities of graders.
- The tests should be transparent: curricular standards and grading rubrics must be made available to the public and must be periodically approved by recorded vote of the trustees. In addition, past questions and random samples of graded answers (without names of students) must be posted online.
- Tests should be used to evaluate (in a value-added approach, using entrance exams as baselines) the effectiveness of individual programs, instructors, courses, and instructor-course combinations. All of this information should be made available to the public.
- Test results (including percentile ranking) should be included in official student transcripts.
- Tests can be created and graded on statewide basis, on system-wide basis (for state universities with sufficiently large multi-campus systems), or on the basis of consortia of colleges, with at least ten participants. Relative rank (both absolutely and on a value-added basis) of each department on each campus should be made public.
- Colleges should also be required to have random samples of students take national standardized tests, like the Collegiate Learning Assessment (which measures skills in reading, writing, and argumentation) and the GRE, for the sake of calibrating the results of local exams.
Optional national tests:
- National honors exams in the masterworks of Western civilization, with optional specializations in literature, history, philosophy, classical and modern languages, and political, economic, and social theory. The curriculum and standards defined by a national board of eminent scholars, hand-picked by the President.
- Rich rewards for high scores, including (especially) automatic admission to the professional or graduate school of one’s choice, cash prizes, student-debt relief.
- Rewards for teachers of student prize-winners. Most importantly, having a specified number of students win first-class honors would become a prerequisite for receiving any federal grants, including NSF, NEH, NEA, and NIH. This would break the peer-approval cartel in scientific and scholarly research, rewarding instead teachers with proven record of student success in mastering a traditional, classical curriculum.
- Recognition for colleges and universities that excel, both absolutely and in terms of value added, in preparing students for the exams. This would include non-traditional colleges, including online, for-profit, and associations of independent scholars and tutors.
- Establishment of a private, non-profit foundation for creating and administering the tests, with self-perpetuating board of directors, and with the aim of depending entirely on private donations and student fees. In this way, it will become independent of national politics, self-sustaining.
Perestroika: Competition Among Autonomous Departments
Well over 80 percent of American college students attend four-year public universities. Any meaningful reform must target these institutions, which at present form a self-protective cartel, maintained by the actions of the accrediting bodies and campus-wide faculty curriculum committees. We need to abolish accreditation entirely, and require large universities receiving federal aid of any kind to decentralize power and budgeting, creating autonomous departments and academic divisions, and permitting the further creation of “charter departments,” bringing real competition to each large campus.
Each department would have four essential powers: (1) to set its own tuition and fees, (2) to define its own curriculum for the bachelor’s degree, (3) to hire, promote, fire, and determine the salaries for all of its instructors, and (4) to admit its own undergraduate students (so long as they meet some common standard). The department will have to pay the salaries of and rent office for its members and employees from some set ratio of tuition and fees received, without subsidy from the central administration.
This would enable large universities to eliminate the middle management of deans and colleges, and to shrink the role of the central administration to the providing of essential services and the physical plant (including classrooms and laboratories).
More importantly, this also would put departments in competition with each other for student dollars. It will also mean the effective abolition of tenure. Faculty within each department will have a strong incentive to fire the dead wood within the department, since under-performing colleagues will come at a very high cost to their own incomes.
Merely abolishing tenure in the present system might make conservatives feel good, but it would be entirely ineffective, since both faculty and administrators have every incentive in the present system to maintain tenure. Tenure is a relatively cheap way of attracting big names, well-known scholars who will raise the peer-determined reputation of the university.
In addition, all tenure-track professors have a vested interest in maintaining foolproof tenure, since it increases their own security and no cost to themselves. Eliminating tenure from the top down would be politically costly, eliciting impassioned defenses of academic freedom and freedom of inquiry from external threats. It is far better to create a system in which the faculty members themselves demand an end to tenure for their own enrichment.
This new structure would also enable legislators and trustees to permit the creation of “charter departments,” new and independent academic units formed by maverick professors or conservative think tanks or colleges, able to bring real intellectual diversity to the major campuses. Imagine Hillsdale sponsoring a charter department at the University of Michigan. Existing university administrations can be required to supply such charter department with access to campus classrooms, offices, and course schedules, on an equal footing with traditional departments.
By eliminating the stranglehold on curriculum maintained by the accrediting bodies and by campus-wide faculty committees, and by providing students, parents, and prospective employers with reliable information about which departments on which campuses are most successful in educating students, we can bring about real competition between autonomous academic units on each campus. This will make both politically correct hiring and classroom indoctrination costly to an intolerable degree and would create an environment that is friendly to conservative and moderate students and scholars. Students will be happy to vote with their feet and their tuition dollars for programs that help them to master a curriculum that is life-affirming and wholesome, in place of the alienating, hectoring, and soul-destroying indoctrination of the Left.
Even if the curriculum and standards for the mandatory local tests turn out to be semi-Marxist in some places, the simple introduction of real accountability for student learning would necessarily improve matters. Conservative teachers and students could flourish under such a system (given double-blind grading), since it is easier to understand falsehood from the perspective of truth than to understand truth from the perspective of falsehood.
Once conservatives begin to infiltrate the fields, they can change the curriculum. In addition, optional national tests would set the agenda in a more conservative direction, and real competition (the perestroika component) will force departments to compete on the basis of broad and substantial content. Transparency of content would also provide pressure for reform. And forcing disciplines to define any common content necessarily moves them in the direction of classic texts.