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The ‘moral mess’ of higher ed

There are a number of diagnoses of the problems that ail higher education today—financial, academic, social—but what if the problem is also, if not mostly, a moral one?

In their book Cracks in the Ivory Tower: The Moral Mess of Higher Education, the authors Jason Brennan and Phillip Magness—two academics themselves—discuss the moral issues plaguing the various sectors of higher education. The writers recently expanded on their thesis in an interview with Inside Higher Ed.

Noting that “most [campus] administrators…care about their jobs and the purpose they serve,” the authors note that those same administrators are nevertheless “normal people,” and “like most people, they are predominantly if not entirely selfish.”

“For any given administrator, the easiest ways to justify a salary increase, a promotion and/or increased status for yourself is to a) add additional staff beneath you, b) expand the kinds of things you and your office work on, and c) try to be as busy as possible. The same goes for entire units, which have an incentive to maximize their discretionary budget,” the writers posit.

This leads to a predictable outcome: “[E]very administrator and every unit has a selfish incentive to add people, activities and work. Since others pay the costs, they have little incentive to engage in cost-benefit analysis — that is, to ask whether the marginal value of what they do is higher than the marginal value of the resources they consume to do it.”

The writers also touch on the problem of “general education” in higher ed:

We believe that all college graduates should have a wide range of skills and knowledge not captured by any one major. But, unfortunately, empirical work shows gen eds don’t deliver the promised skills or knowledge. Most students do not gain any significant increase in their soft skills such as critical thinking or writing ability from gen eds — and they generally become worse at mathematics unless they actively study it in their majors. Students forget most of what they learn outside of the narrow areas of their majors. Students don’t learn how to transfer their knowledge. College education falls far short of what most academics, including we, want it to achieve.

If faculty were genuinely interested in educating students, they’d pay great attention to work in educational psychology. They’d want to test to see what works and what doesn’t, and they’d modify their methods accordingly. But most don’t do that. They just do the same old thing everyone’s done since the dawn of time, and they either yawn or get mad when you show them the scary studies saying it fails.

The authors make a startling claim in the course of their interview: Apart from a few notable exceptions, “we can’t think of any institutions that are in general well run. Every institution we can think of makes the same basic mistakes and has the same failings.”

Read the interview here.

IMAGE: Happy Stock Photo / Shutterstock.com

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