When J. Robert Oppenheimer went to grad school in the 1920s, the brightest American physics students had to go to Europe to get topnotch training. Oppenheimer took his Ph.D. under Max Born at the University of Göttingen. In the 1930s Oppenheimer and E.O. Lawrence, inventor of the cyclotron, turned the University of California at Berkeley into one of the world’s top schools for physics. Other universities followed suit and the United States could soon boast several top graduate programs in physics. QS World University Rankings currently lists six U.S. universities as being among the top ten in physics and astronomy worldwide. Of Nobel Prizes in Physics, Japan has six winners, Russia has ten, France has twelve, Germany has twenty four, the United Kingdom has twenty four, and the United States has eighty five.
Obstacles for the future
How, over a few decades, did the U.S. go from mediocrity to dominance in physics? By making the necessary commitments and by providing the resources to back up those commitments. The American dedication to science, and to higher education in general, produced remarkable results, and not just in the sciences. In my own field of philosophy, unquestionably many of the top philosophers of the Twentieth Century were Americans, e.g. W.V.O. Quine, Nelson Goodman, Saul Kripke, John Rawls, David Lewis, Martha Nussbaum, Daniel Dennett, Sidney Hook, and Thomas Kuhn. Top American graduate programs in philosophy also rank among the world’s best. Again, the achievement of such excellence required a major commitment at many levels of American society. Legislators, policymakers, and university administrators prioritized academic excellence and welcomed to American universities talented scientists and scholars from around the world.
Yes, American higher education has a great past. Will it have a great future? No doubt Harvard, M.I.T. and such schools will continue to produce excellence and attract top students from everywhere. However, many American universities and their students now face obstacles that severely jeopardize the future of American higher education, particularly public higher education. Just in the past few years, tuition at many public institutions has ballooned, often by hundreds of percent. Along with their diplomas many university students also get an albatross around the neck, a burden of tens of thousands of dollars in student loan repayments. Meanwhile, state government funding for public higher education has declined precipitously. According to the American Council on Education, Colorado has reduced its support for higher education by 69%; South Carolina by 68%; Rhode Island by 62%; Arizona by 62%; Oregon by 62%; Minnesota by 56%; Virginia by 54%; and Vermont by 52%. Extrapolating from the rate of reduction of support since 1980, state support of higher education should reach zero by 2059.
But the bleak funding picture is just part of the story, and not the most insidious aspect. We are now seeing subtle and not-so-subtle efforts to undermine the very nature and culture of higher education. Fewer credit hours are now taught by full-time tenured and tenure-track professors than by adjuncts and other contracted instructors. Facing much tighter budgets, public university administrators now focus far more on costs than on academic quality. Since adjuncts are paid little and given no benefits, they are a penny-pinching administrator’s dream, far cheaper than tenured faculty, who have to be paid a living wage and receive expensive benefits like health insurance.
The upshot is that capable young people seeking academic careers will no longer have a realistic prospect of a tenured position. Most who persevere will face years of teaching many sections of large, low-level survey classes for poor pay and with no job security or benefits. Needless to say, bright young people will seek more rewarding employment elsewhere. Consequently, at public colleges and universities, students will increasingly be funneled into overcrowded classes and taught by poorly paid and less qualified adjuncts with low morale and little motivation. In short, students at public institutions of higher education will be paying a lot more and getting a lot less.
The dirty little secret
Why? Public universities have been a big part of the success story of American higher education. Why is success punished? The dirty little secret is that there are now influential factions that have an ideological interest in harming public higher education. These groups want far fewer faculty in public institutions, and those who remain are to be given more classes with more students and strongly discouraged from pursuing research unless it brings in grant money. Right-wing activists now advocate radically restructuring public higher education along the lines of a “business” model. On this model, universities are in the business of manufacturing degrees, students are customers, and faculty are evaluated by the revenue they generate. Not long ago, the far-right higher education reformers enlisted the support of then Texas governor Rick Perry. As governor, Perry ordered the state’s leading universities, Texas A & M and the University of Texas, to conform to the proposed “business model.” When the University of Texas president courageously resisted these changes, Perry bullied and harassed him through an appointee to the Board of Regents.
At a deeper level, the attack on public higher education reflects sinister changes in American society and culture. There has always been a strain of anti-intellectualism in American culture and a propensity to disparage expertise as “elitism.” Dormant for years, anti-intellectualism has lately come roaring back. Its manifestations include “scientific creationism,” the dogmatic denial of climate science, and, most recently, the widespread resistance to vaccinations for common communicable diseases. Blatant anti-science now fills the airwaves on conservative talk shows and stalks the halls of the U.S. Congress. Being opposed to climate science is now a litmus test of conservative credentials. How did this happen in the nation that put humans on the moon? That is too complex a story to tell here, but it did happen, and it is frightening and dangerous, and something had better be done about it.