US universities: troubles? They've got 'em

The headline crises are just the start, observes Alan Ryan

March 26, 2015

“Crisis? What crisis?” Jim Callaghan is reported to have said on returning to a cold, strike-bound Britain after a trip to the West Indies in the winter of 1979. It is said, almost certainly wrongly, to have been one of the things that cost him the general election later that year and ushered in 18 years of the Iron Lady and John Major. For American universities, though, it’s less a matter of “what crisis?” than “which crisis?”

We can take our pick. The sexual-assault crisis has gone quiet in the past few weeks, but universities are still having a rough time, and things may get rougher quite soon. The Department of Justice, which has rather little standing in the matter, has opened investigations into more than a hundred colleges and universities that have allegedly failed to follow guidelines for reporting and dealing with cases of sexual assault. Contrary to what critics of universities say, there is no “epidemic” of sexual assault on the nation’s campuses, and students are, by and large, safer than their peers who are not in higher education. But even one incident is too much, and there are a great many more than that. A documentary about campus sexual assault, The Hunting Ground, which aired at the Sundance documentary festival in January, is about to get wide release. The makers were also responsible for The Invisible War, which chronicled sexual assault in the military and caused a shake-up of how the armed services handle the issue. It seems very likely that The Hunting Ground will stir things up in higher education.

US university presidents making a million or so dollars a year look at their head coaches making five times as much, and know where power lies in the university, who has an in with the legislature

One reason is the issue’s connection to another of the current crises: the role of fraternities, especially in large public universities. Earlier this month, the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at the University of Oklahoma was peremptorily thrown off the campus and shut down by the national organisation, while two of its members were expelled – apparently on the spontaneous initiative of the university’s president, David Boren. It’s hard to imagine these events not leading to an interesting court case in the near future. The fraternity’s offence was to sing racist songs and then to pile stupidity on top of bigotry by videoing the performance and posting it on the web.

But the fraternity’s racist antics are the tip of the iceberg. If The Hunting Ground is to be credited, fraternities are at the heart of higher education’s problems with sexual assaults. One view is that many assaults really aren’t quite assaults, that both parties had too much to drink and did things that one party regretted the next day. The Hunting Ground account, as garnered from victims of sexual assaults at a slew of places, is that most assaults are the work of serial predators who pick out their victims, get them drunk or otherwise incapacitated and then rape them. And where they do it is in fraternity houses. Universities, for obvious reasons, feel uncomfortable about publicising the presence of sexual predators on their campuses and hesitate to throw the offenders into the street as they ought. More than one university is now on the wrong end of lawsuits from young women who think their cases were mishandled.

The third crisis is perennial, and is connected with the first two. The place of athletics in big US universities, especially in the southern states, is extraordinary. In every state that possesses a large state university with a substantial sports programme, the highest paid public official in the state is the head coach of the university’s football or basketball team. Readers of Times Higher Education might think that UK vice-chancellors are absurdly overpaid; UK vice-chancellors might look at their US opposite numbers and echo Sir Warren Hastings’ cry: “By God, Sir, I am amazed at my own moderation.” US university presidents making a million or so dollars a year look at their head coaches making five times as much, and know where power lies in the university, who has an in with the legislature, whom the alumni would back in any attempt to reform the athletics programme. A few days ago, the NCAA – the National Collegiate Athletics Association, which supposedly ensures that scholar athletes really are academically fit to be in higher education – hit Syracuse University with painful penalties: it erased wins for the basketball team, suspended the coach for nine games, and so on, for a series of infringements that included an assistant coach writing a student’s term paper and professors being leaned on to change a student’s grade so that he could play an important game.

Unsurprisingly, there’s a ready market for books on the crisis in higher education, usually replete with the announcement that the end is nigh unless everyone follows the author’s favourite nostrums. These tend to include technological fixes such as online courses for all; the abandonment of residential colleges; the elimination of “useless” research (always easy to identify if you know nothing about a subject); and turning overpaid professors who spend their time doing useless research into diligent classroom teachers, or at least diligent suppliers of Moocs. Janet Napolitano, formerly in charge of the Department of Homeland Security, and now in command of the University of California, recently wrote a wonderful demolition of all the nonsense. The serious public universities go on doing what they have done so well for a very long time; they cost students more only because states have reduced their funding (which sounds familiar); they have done well on educating a diverse population, and they struggle to keep the less well-off in school.

Still, it’s hard not to think that if they are not “in crisis”, they certainly face “a crisis”: the short-sightedness of a tax-averse electorate and the preference of too many politicians for their own self-interest over the long-run well-being of the people they are supposed to represent. Those are real causes for alarm.

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