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The Numbers Game in America's Education Casino


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The axis on which U.S. higher education turns is enrollment growth. It is a numbers game akin to Wall Street's casino.

Hence the statistic in the North Coast Journal's "Ground Breaker" cover story last week, "Enrollment went up 78 percent."

If you are a university president and you miss your enrollment targets, the chancellor will soon have you draped over the fiscal ropes. Budget cuts flow from enrollment shortfalls. This is the industry's numbers game.

To win it, university presidents, like CEOs, national politicians and partners at big law firms, have every incentive to devote at least 50 percent of their time to fundraising (which universities euphemistically call "Advancement.") That means chasing and courting the infamous 1 percent and its Wall Street coterie. Enrollment growth and fundraising are symbiotic.

Dependence on corporate, donor and alumni dollars, as well as on state and federal largesse, leaves education executives ethically and intellectually gelded. One dare not dispute, challenge or criticize one's benefactors. To paraphrase Alexander Hamilton, power over a man's purse is power over his will. Corporate power's control of collegiate purse strings is exponentially greater, allied as it is with leviathan government.  

The U.S. education-industrial complex is a giant combine of degree mills and money machines, a corporate behemoth. The late auto industry supremo, Alfred P. Sloan, who built General Motors into the biggest corporation in the world in the mid-20th century, declared famously (or infamously), "The business of business is business." 

The business of the 21st century university is business. This makes for a narrow, conformist and meretricious academic culture, which necessarily has a corrosive effect society-wide. Novelist Joyce Carol Oates observed, "The truest thing about the American soul is that it is shallow, the same way a comic strip is shallow." 

The digital onslaught accentuates this condition. The academy, which should be alleviating the shallowness, is deepening it. "The philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next," declared Abraham Lincoln.   

U.S. education's management philosophy takes it for granted that corporate decisions require the hiring of college presidents-alias-CEOs. They now command salaries well more than a million dollars a year, writes David Bromwich, Sterling Professor of English at Yale, in the summer issue of The New York Review of Books.

In comparison, Humboldt State University President Lisa Rossbacher's annual salary of $297,870, plus a $50,000 housing allowance, seems paltry. Unless you happen to be a single mother living on $12,500 a year in Humboldt County, where almost 25 percent of the children fall below the poverty line. To that poor mother, $350,000 is unimaginable.

But that is not a university leader's perspective. CEOs and Wall Streeters reap millions and billions. Why should any college president have to settle for a trifling $350,000?

Then again, how might a middle-class family react? In March, unpaid student debt nationally topped one trillion dollars. There is no sign of university presidents or faculty unions banding together nationwide and organizing broad corrective action to stanch the hemorrhage. Parents are aghast.

Why is education so expensive?

Corporate decision-making entails an administrative balcony of corporate heft, Bromwich points out. "Obedient to the same assumption, the administrative bureaucracy of universities has grown at a rate that far outpaces the growth of faculties."     

Faculty are waspish in their envy of ballooning administrator salaries. They are notably disinclined to remedy the costly abuses of unions and tenure, another Ivory Tower disgrace. So is the NCAA.

I had a capable and caustic professor who admonished students, "We would never want academics to interfere with extracurricular activities."

Bromwich cites one example: Auburn University recently spent $72 million on a Recreation and Wellness Center. This is the campus as luxury resort.

These are the kinds of extravagant extracurricular assets that enrollment vice presidents and their marketing minions tout in student recruitment drives. "The model seems to be the elite club," notes Bromwich.   

Correspondingly, libraries are equipped with fancy cafés and digital technology, encouraging students to play with their electronic entertainment toys instead of attending to their books. Silent study is transmuted into social babble.

Universities are as besotted as America with the naïve belief that high technology is a haven. The results are howling contradictions: Marketing philistines extol knowing one's professors in person in the same breath that they peddle anonymous online education.  

Campus marketing treats prospective students as customers and consumers, a la the library cabaret. Most obvious is the Orwellian ratings system anchored by U.S. News & World Report and such counterparts as the Princeton Review, whose very name is a con, a clever piece of marketing sophistry. (It has nothing to do with Princeton University.)

The rankings are helium. It is the rare student or parent who foolishly chooses a school based on such rankings. But enrollment vp's, marketing execs and admissions officers thrive on cheerleading these bogus numbers in front of high school seniors. What a racket.

Cheerleading endears you to your president and provost, who are also addicted to another batch of numbers, "outcome" measurements of student success. This numerical legerdemain, known as rationalization, allegedly shows how much enlightenment is instilled per student. The "outcomes" game is aimed at quantifying the unquantifiable. It is designed to convince accreditation auditors that the campus is doing its job.

Max Weber, the social theorist, divined the dehumanizing impact of this exercise in 1909. "Imagine the consequences of that comprehensive bureaucratization and rationalization which already today we see approaching," he said. It forges the individual into a little cog in the machine. He or she has a single preoccupation, "to become a bigger cog," as Weber put it.

Henry Adams wrote in 1906 in The Education of Henry Adams, "The chief wonder of education is that it does not ruin everybody concerned in it, teachers and taught." This insight is dismissed as hyperbole, but it is the raw truth Weber grasped.

That higher education loses all sense of what it is supposed to be and do is a very old story. "In truth, the care and expense of our fathers aims only at furnishing our heads with knowledge," Montaigne lamented in the French Renaissance of the 1500s: "Of judgment and virtue, little news."    

Writing in Liberal Education in 2001, John Bennett of Quinnipiac University, called attention to the "horrible" teaching and learning metaphor which reifies education as a production line to convert "raw materials into a finished product." 

Bennett, like English philosopher Michael Oakeshott, said the bedrock of education is the work of becoming human. Society sets up institutions of higher learning, not as cogs, casinos and degree mills, but "as special places where the work of becoming human can take place."

We should dwell, Bennett added, "in the rich heritage of our culture and civilization — a world of meanings, not of things."

The tragic fact about university presidents is that they are hostage, like their students, to irredeemably patriarchal, hierarchical, rank-obsessed, self-infatuated corporate bureaucracies and marketing enterprises.

Only radical reforms could dismantle this megalith. But America is decidedly an unradical country.

Paul Mann, a 20-year White House correspondent who studied presidential decision-making at Harvard, was a news officer for a decade at Humboldt State University until his retirement last spring.

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