What Makes a University Great?

Reprinted from Law & Liberty

If anyone had doubts, the book, Becoming Great Universities: Small Steps for Sustained Excellence, should entirely confirm that the complete corporatization of the American university is concluded. Today in our educational landscape, students are treated as consumers, and teaching outcomes must be quantified. Professors spend their time writing reports nobody reads and attending mandatory workshops that only HR understands. In spite of their Latin mottos and test-marketed mission statements, universities have essentially transformed themselves into for-profit entities. They are obsessed with their U.S. News & World Report rankings and the Department of Education’s “college scorecard,” which highlights a college’s graduation rate, annual cost, and alumni’s salaries.

In their book, the authors, Richard J. Light and Allison Jegla, highlight what they perceive are the core challenges that all universities face and offer steps that administrators should take to enhance student life and learning. Light is a Professor of Teaching and Learning at Harvard; Jegla a nonprofit leader and higher education strategist. While the authors adopt management-speak to describe the problems confronting universities—how to facilitate constructive interactions among students of diverse backgrounds, how to create opportunities for lifelong learning—the subtext is fairly clear and corporate. What matters is whether a university can enroll students, increase endowments, secure external funding, and elevate its brand. The goal is to be a financial success. To survive in today’s college marketplace, it’s not enough for a university to be good; it must be great.

One might expect a great school to introduce students to an intellectual and cultural tradition that forms them into reflective and moral citizens. Or, it could create a community of scholars where academic civility and freedom reign, so that ideas can be discussed in the hope it leads to knowledge. According to the authors of this book, anyone who expects that would be mistaken. What makes a university great is a customer who is happy with his product. The titles of some of the chapters of the book reinforce this view: “Acting on Students’ Opinions, Ideas, and Advice” or “How Do We Attract and Support Students Who May Not Be Considering Our Institution?” Universities try to find out what the customer wants, so they can supply it.

Not that you can blame colleges for trying. With the looming demographic cliff approaching, schools are scrambling to survive, adopting all sorts of strategies to stay afloat. Like the seventeenth-century British East India Company, the authors advise today’s universities to voyage to new markets for more students. What’s interesting is the authors don’t look overseas, which most universities do to recruit new students, but at home. To our elites, the authors make the lands of rural America, poor America, and alumni America as exotic as the Far East.

For rural America, the authors propose taking the natives to the home country in pre-college summer programs to show that high school students can “make it” there. For poor America, the authors suggest sending faculty and staff out to proselytize prospective students and help them with admission exams and other college entry requirements. And for alumni America, the authors want to leverage a university’s colonial outposts by having alumni recruit potential students. By taking these “small steps,” universities can plant their flag in these new lands and begin on the path towards greatness.

Consumers, Not Moral Creatures

Like any business, a university must safeguard its brand so it stays “great.” This requires not only effective marketing but also ensuring the final product is set to impress. And what’s the product that prospective students and their parents want? Forget liberal educationengaged citizenship, or contemplation of the divine. Instead, it’s what you find in every university’s strategic plan: diversity, employability, and global awareness. It should come as no surprise that the authors offer these very same things. After all, the customer is always right.

In one of their more preposterous chapters, the authors claim “For many students . . . They want their values to be challenged; they want to be sharpened by their peers. They are excited to sit in classes where debates will erupt, where students with different views will speak up, where steel sharpens steel.” Really? Please let me know where I can find those students in this age of cancel culture. The Bipartisan Policy Center’s November 2021 report, “Campus Free Speech: A New Roadmap,” suggests that students routinely censor themselves, avoiding controversial topics so they do not find themselves exiled from campus life. There also have been reported multiple cases of free speech controversies at American universities where certain views are censored or prescribed statements are compelled. The academic culture has eroded to such a low point that new organizations, like the Academic Freedom Alliance, have formed to protect the freedom of thought, inquiry, discussion, and expression at our universities.

Most of these controversies center around the issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). To avoid these disagreements, the authors advocate policies where every student is welcomed (but not challenged), unique perspectives invited in the classroom (but not contested), and curricula enhanced by soliciting from students what should be read in the course (except dead, white male authors). For example, the authors recommend Teachly, an online tool where students are to complete their profile, inputting as much information as they want in “self-defining” themselves. The professor then adjusts his or her teaching accordingly not to examine students’ self-identities or question their values but to encourage them to share their views with the class so everyone is exposed to a diversity of perspectives.

It’s not clear how the authors reconcile these prescriptions with their belief that students “want their values to be challenged.” In my own experience, today’s students want to be challenged only if the professor strengthens their predetermined ideas: “Tell me the problems with my position so next time I talk my weaknesses won’t be exposed.” Instead of being open to the joint pursuit of truth—and in the process exposing themselves to the possibility of being wrong about their preconceived views—students see their relationship with their teachers as one of sophistry and ideology: How can I make my weaker argument stronger?

Again, this should come as no surprise since the student is seen as a customer rather than a citizen or moral creature. If the university needs new students to ensure its financial success, then it must cater to them rather than have students conform to it. Cultural and intellectual standards need to be jettisoned for therapeutic notions of identity like DEI so the customer feels comfortable. And those who challenge the customer’s comfort zone will be censored or compelled to say otherwise.

A Joyless Experience

If anything justifies pushing students out of their solipsist place, it is the quest for employability. For the authors, students need to “invest” and “harvest” while at college, with staff and faculty supporting these endeavors. Investing is taking a risk at trying something new, such as enrolling in a course outside one’s major. Harvesting is continuing to hone the skills and knowledge in an area one already excels in. The importance of investing and harvesting is to make students “creative thinkers.” Although the authors never define creativity, it is clear the purpose of investing and harvesting is to make students only employable rather than productive workers, good citizens, or moral creatures. For the authors, the only value that matters for creativity is employment. Therefore, universities should do what they can to make students both investors and harvesters.

Universities should encourage students to build a “diversified portfolio” not of ideas but of courses and extracurricular activities that make them employable for an array of jobs. Networking, alumni connections, and using a university’s career services are critical for investing and harvesting. The university should set up platforms for students to make “connections across different ideas and topics” to become better investors and harvesters. By integrating their coursework and extracurricular activities, students will become more marketable when seeking employment.

On the one hand, I am sympathetic to this endeavor. Students are motivated by fear, anxious of being left behind in this globalized competitive economy. Formed by a childhood of constant test-taking, scheduled activities, and technological surveillance, students respond to this fear by accumulating achievement after achievement, to steel themselves against the uncertainty of the future. To be left behind is to be one of life’s losers. Hence, the need and efforts of external affirmation in investing and harvesting to validate one’s choices in career, friends, and marriage.

On the other hand, such a calculative approach to college squeezes the joy of wonder and the serendipity of learning from students’ souls. I suspect all of us at one time or another have experienced insight in an unexpected moment that had no utilitarian value and thereby made us free from the constraints of career and citizenship. It made us and the world in which we live both familiar and strange, asking us existential questions of who we are and why we exist. These may not be the type of questions that make your students the “creative thinkers” that the authors want—it may not even make your university “great”—yet they are essential to who we are human beings.

The Assessment Regime

Unfortunately for the authors, such Platonic experiencesAristotelian practices, or Thomistic illuminations cannot be effectively assessed. Assessment, of course, is the key component of effective university branding. By demonstrating to prospective students, accreditors, and the government that students are actually learning, the university can validate the product it had promised to deliver.

The authors reiterate the importance of assessment and lay out a typical template of it, e.g., measuring student learning over time. Professors are encouraged to experiment with their teaching if it conforms to their university’s template of assessment. In other words, try whatever you want in the classroom but at the end of the day, it must be measured.

To be clear, they are not simply endorsing the teacher evaluations that students complete for each course at the end of the semester. This is an additional assessment that adopts quantifiable metrics to see what students have learned in the course—sometimes embedded in the student grade, sometimes in addition to it, often tied with a faculty’s yearly evaluation. They evaluate meta-cognitive skills like critical thinking, effective communication, and knowledge of diversity. Very little of the assessment, if any, relates to the actual content of the subject students are studying.

Most faculty and students approach it like doing their taxes: necessary but not needed. I understand why the authors believe a robust assessment regime will make a university “great”—evidence of its product’s value. While required for accreditors and the state, I’m skeptical whether this actually works in attracting students to a given school. Students are interested in what a school specifically offers, such as Political Science or Nursing programs, rather than what meta-cognitive skill they have been promised to acquire. I have yet to attract a student into my course on the lure of assessment.

Cui Bono?

Finally, inspiring students to “think globally” is the last component of a university’s brand. The authors recommend the incorporation of international perspectives into all classes, support study abroad, and linking world language requirements with world culture courses. The authors’ rationale for these initiatives is that “students really do care about the world beyond their specific contexts,” although no evidence is furnished to support this claim. It is notable that the authors fail to mention citizenship or civics education as part of a university’s brand. Apparently what matters is students should become cosmopolitan citizens, rather than ones of their own country—concerned about climate change, refugee crises, and free Wifi more than the people who live in West Virginia, Ohio, and Michigan.

Given its content, the audience for Becoming Great Universities is, I think, telling: It is for administrators, helping to consolidate their rule over faculty, staff, and students for the maximum of profit. In their introduction, the authors speak about “collegial collaboration” and “shared responsibility” which in the world of academia translates into “do not dissent.” It is revealing that none of the chapters are addressed to students, staff, or faculty except from a managerial point of view. They are merely fodder for administrators to mold and shape to make their universities “great.”

The core of the university should not be the picturesque campus, the marketing platitudes, or arbitrary media rankings. The core should be the relationship between the professor and student in an endeavor to discover truth about themselves, society, and the world. This was the original purpose of the university when it was first formed, and it was evident in Plato’s Academy, the University of Bologna, or Harvard. The authors think otherwise with administrators leading universities to attract more students and make their graduates embrace diversity, employability, and global awareness. While the authors think this is certainly the way to enroll more students, enhance student learning, and make schools profitable, one questions whether these things make a university “great.”

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This article, What Makes a University Great?, was originally published by the American Institute for Economic Research and appears here with permission. Please support their efforts.

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