What's Wrong With the American University System


Holt/Times Books

Andrew Hacker, who is professor emeritus at Queens College in New York, recalls the day a young political scientist walked into his department to interview for a job. Everything about the man's resume made him an ideal candidate. He was finishing his dissertation at a top university. His mentors had written effusive recommendations. But when the young superstar sat down with the department chair, he seemed to have only one goal: to land a tenure-track position that involved as many sabbaticals and as little teaching as possible. He was not invited back for a second interview.

Hacker and his coauthor, New York Times writer Claudia Dreifus, use this cautionary tale to launch their new book, a fierce critique of modern academia called Higher Education? "The question mark in our title," they write, "is the key to this book." To their minds, little of what takes place on college campuses today can be considered either "higher" or "education." They blame a system that favors research over teaching and vocational training over liberal arts. Tenure, they argue, does anything but protect intellectual freedom. And they'd like to see graduates worrying less about their careers, even if it means spending a year behind the cash register at Old Navy.

I spoke with Hacker about how American students are being neglected by celebrity professors, shortchanged by rising tuitions, and led astray by college football.

This book has a sense of urgency about it. What were you and Claudia seeing around you that compelled you to blow the whistle?

I've been teaching for a long time—I won't say how long. In the past 10 or 15 years, I've seen a tremendous over-professionalization of the academic world. Professors are identifying with their arcane disciplines, the minutiae, the esoteric research. Schools get status by bringing on professors who are star researchers, star scholars. That's all we really know about Caltech or MIT or Stanford. We don't really know about the quality of undergraduate teaching at any of these places. And it's the students who suffer.

But those star faculty members do attract students to the campuses you named. So there's a reason universities keep hiring them.

Well, there are two ways to pick a college. One is to go to a prestigious college, and when you graduate the world will know you went to Princeton or Stanford. It doesn't matter what happened in the classroom as long as you have that brand behind you. Claudia and I were up at Harvard talking to students, and they said they get nothing from their classes, but that doesn't matter. They're smart already—they can breeze through college. The point is that they're going to be Harvard people when they come out.

The second reason to go to college is get a good liberal arts education. We argue that you can get a better education at second or third tier colleges. Have you ever heard of Linfield College? It's in a little town called McMinnville, Oregon. We were very impressed with the campus. The professors care. They spend time with the students. The same is true in a place called Hendrix College in Arkansas, or Earlham College in Indiana. They provide a good education because they don't expect professors to do research.

That's a strong theme in the book: professors spend their time doing research and teaching relatively few classes, and students end up footing the bill. Are you against the idea of faculty research altogether, or do you think some research deserves to be funded by universities?

The problem is that there are just too many publications and too many people publishing. This is true even in the hard sciences. If there's a research project on genetics in a lab, they will take certain findings and break them into eight different articles just so each researcher can get more stuff on his or her resume.

And many of the publications are too long. A book on Virginia Woolf could be a 30-page article. Somebody did a count of how many publications had been written on Virginia Woolf in the past 15 years. The answer is several thousand. Really? Who needs this? But it's awfully difficult to say, "Here's knowledge we don't need!" It sounds like book burning, doesn't it? What we'd say is that on the scale of priorities, we find undergraduate teaching to be more important than all the research being done.

But what about lifesaving research—for example, finding a cure for cancer?

How much really valuable research is being done on cancer? When I was at Cornell, Congress announced that they were going to pour a lot of money into cancer research. So a memo went out to the Cornell professors—not just in the sciences, mind you—saying, "Can you take your current research and cancerize it?" There's a lot of that going on. So sociology professors decided to research cancer communications, and so on.

And then there's the whole issue of sabbaticals. Right now, about half a million academics—assistant, associate, and full professors—are eligible for sabbaticals. At Harvard and Yale, senior professors get every third year off, not every seventh. This coming year—are you ready for this?—20 of the 48 professors in Harvard's history department will be on leave. They're expected to take that time away and have a publication come out of it. Even if a professor goes off to Tuscany, he says, "I'm taking my manuscript with me and revising it there." We don't need that many new publications. We absolutely don't.

James Fallows: "Admissions Racket"
Caitlin Flanagan: "College Prep"
David Brooks: "America's Future Elite"
Megan McArdle: "Questioning Tenure"
Professor X: "Unready for College"

A lot of the pressure to publish is tied in with the pressure to earn tenure. You argue that tenure actually doesn't do what it's supposed to do—it doesn't preserve academic freedom.

Here's what happens. Academics typically don't get tenured until the age of 40. This means that from their years as graduate students and then assistant professors, from age 25 through 38 or 39, they have to toe the line. They have to do things in the accepted way that their elders and superiors require. They can't be controversial and all the rest. So tenure is, in fact, the enemy of spontaneity, the enemy of intellectual freedom. We've seen this again and again. And even people who get tenure really don't change. They keep on following the disciplinary mode they've been trained to follow.

What bothers us, too, is that over 300,000 professors have it. That's a tremendous number. What that means is these people never leave. There's hardly any turnover in the senior ranks—not just at Harvard, Yale, and Stanford but at small colleges in Kentucky, everywhere. You go to a campus and over two thirds of the faculty have been there at least 25 years. They begin to stagnate. In many ways, they become infantilized, embroiled in ideological issues like faculty parking.

Why do you think it is that tenure decisions depend so much on research instead of being based mainly on a professor's teaching ability?

It's a very important question. Good teaching can't be quantified at the college level. There are excellent teachers on campuses, but they don't have national reputations. So if there's a great chemistry teacher at UC Berkeley, there's no way the University of Chicago is going to hire that person away. The University of Chicago only cares what that person has published. I'm not even sure how many reputable scholars are really known for being good teachers. Many don't want to teach; they don't have the personality for it.

Some academics have been famous for their ability to speak to the general public—people like Carl Sagan and Margaret Mead. Do you think it would be better for campus culture if more professors were encouraged to connect with the outside world?

Definitely, yes. Those people were teachers, in the true sense of the word. They were just as knowledgeable about their fields as anyone, but they had playful, imaginative minds. They could go on TV—Carl Sagan could talk about science, John Kenneth Galbraith could talk about economics. They weren't dumbing down their subjects. In fact, they were actually using their brains. The more you rely on lingo—"regressive discourses," "performativity"—the less you have to really think. You can just throw terms around and say, "Look, Ma, I'm a theorist!"

One of your more controversial points is the idea that every student should major in liberal arts. You're not fans of majors like engineering or business that try to set a student up for a career right after college.

There are two ways to look at it. First of all, freshmen come in at age 18. Let's suppose they've decided to major in sports management. What's an 18-year-old going to do in a freshman course in sports management? I've attended some undergraduate business courses. The students are young; they don't have business experience. Really very little is imparted.

The second way to look at it is that liberal arts, properly conceived, means wrestling with issues and ideas, putting the mind to work in a way these young people will only be able to do for these four years. And we'd like this for everyone. They can always learn vocational things later, on the job. They can even get an engineering degree later—by the way, in two years rather than four.


Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus

Doesn't this play into the stereotype of the college graduate coming out with no practical skills and moving back in with his mom and dad? In fact, you even suggest that graduates should work at Old Navy for a year and ruminate on their lives.

In our economy, they're not really ready for you until you're 28 or so. They want you to have a number of years behind you. So when somebody comes out of college at 22 with a bachelor's degree, what can that person really offer Goldman Sachs or General Electric or the Department of the Interior? Besides, young people today are going to live to be 90. There's no rush. That's why I say they should take a year to work at Costco, at Barnes & Noble, whatever, a year away from studying, and think about what they really want to do.

But not all college graduates have the luxury of working at Costco for a year, especially during a recession. They feel a pressure to get their careers started right away so they can be eligible for promotions and raises.

Well, yes, you're quite right. I wish more people could do the Old Navy thing, though. And I do want to say that a major culprit here is the heavy debts most students are graduating with. Even undergraduates are racking up loans as high as six figures. This is very distressing—and this is new. Tuitions now are twice what they were 25 years ago, even though the typical family income hasn't gone up nearly that much.

The other reason the loans are so high is that most students move away from home. That's where the expense adds up. Living expenses often end up costing more than tuition at the end of four years, especially at state colleges. So when students come out with those kinds of loans, sure they want a good job. But even then, there's a ceiling as to what any employer will pay a 22-year-old college graduate.

Another controversial point is your suggestion that universities should stop funding big sports teams. You don't seem to buy the argument that college football bolsters school spirit.

Let's take a college like Bates up in Maine. It has 1,700 or 1,800 students and 30 intercollegiate teams. All of these teams have salaried coaches, athletic facilities, custom-made jerseys, all at tremendous cost to the college. That's being paid for by the students' tuition.

And then you look at the so-called big-revenue teams—football and basketball. Those are the powerhouses where there's a lot of recruiting, a lot of it underhanded. Yet if you look at all those powerhouse programs across the country, only seven or eight actually rake in money. All the rest of them lose money.

At a college like Ohio State, the team makes money. The undergraduates pour into the stadium for the big Ohio-Michigan game. They paint their faces red and blue and all the rest. But what are they cheering for? Victory in a football game. Michigan is actually a much better university than Ohio State—its reputation, its medical school, its law school, and so on. It makes you wonder whether Ohio is putting so much into its sports teams because its academics really aren't so great.

Some of the things you're talking about are deeply entrenched in our culture. You and Claudia spend the book envisioning an alternative academic universe. But how do you propose actually getting there?

That's a fair question. We're idealistic of course. But in our closing chapter, we point out that there are places that are already doing this. For instance, Evergreen College, a sweet little state school in Olympia, Washington. We spent three days there and it was fantastic. They don't give grades, and they don't have academic departments. There are no faculty rankings. Almost all the classes we saw were taught by two professors—say, one from philosophy and one from psychology, teaching jointly on Henry and William James. Even though they don't give grades, the professors write out long evaluations for students. And the students have no problem getting into graduate schools.

But a school like Evergreen has a reputation for being very cool. Having Evergreen on a resume marks a graduate as an independent thinker or iconoclast.

Yes, that's true.

The same can't be said for some of the lesser-known colleges you mention in the book. Compared with a place like Florida Gulf Coast University, it seems that Harvard and Duke do set graduates up with a major advantage. Here at The Atlantic, a disproportionate number of the editors graduated from those elite schools.

Look, it's not easy. In the book, we did a little exercise on which students Harvard Law School takes. What we discovered was that they play it safe. If you've gone to Brown or Dartmouth or Princeton, you can walk into Harvard Law School. Almost half their incoming students are from what we call the Golden Dozen colleges. The other half are taken from all over the place: Transylvania in Kentucky, Linfield in Oregon. Harvard likes to let in people who are already, shall we say, "one of us." But it also gives people a second chance. An applicant may have started at Missouri Western State, but they want some people from Missouri Western State.

Still, graduates of Missouri Western State have to work extra hard to sell themselves. They don't have that Ivy League seal of approval that allows them to waltz through doors for the rest of their lives.

Absolutely. They have to stand out. But I like Missouri Western State. It's a third-tier university, but the faculty realize they're going to stay there, they're not going to get hired away by other colleges, so they pitch in and take teaching seriously. At a school like that, you have a decent chance of finding a mentor who will write you a strong recommendation, better than you would at Harvard.

Talk a little bit about your view of college admissions. You say in the book, "We're frequently tempted to suggest—close all the admissions offices and draw names from a bowl."

In Holland, which is a sweet little country, everybody was getting convulsed about medical school admissions. In the end, they decided, who cares? They started making the decision by giving each applicant a number and pulling numbers out of a bowl. Apparently, Holland's health care and medical system are as good as they ever were.

We believe the current criteria for admissions—particularly the SAT—are just so out of whack. It's like No Child Left Behind. It really is. It's one of the biggest crimes that's ever been perpetrated. I mean, you took the SAT! It's multiple choice, a minute and quarter per question. What does it really test? It tests how good you are at taking tests! At a big university like Berkeley, where there are going to be 30,000 applications, here's what they do. On top of each folder, without even reading through it, they write your SAT score. That's the first winnowing. So the 1600s get looked at first, and then down from there.

We had a provocative article in The Atlantic a few years back, written by an author who went by the pseudonym Professor X. He argued that some students just aren't ready for college. What's your view on that?

Our view is that the primary obligation belongs to the teacher. Good teaching is not just imparting knowledge, like pouring milk into a jug. It's the job of the teacher to get students interested and turned on no matter what the subject is. Every student can be turned on if teachers really engage in this way. We saw it at Evergreen and other places that have this emphasis.

I teach at a city college in New York, where we come very close to allowing virtually anybody who applies to walk in. I say, "This is the hand I was dealt this semester. This is my job." Some people say to me, "Your students at Queens, are they any good?" I say, "I make them good." Every student is capable of college. I know some people have had difficult high school educations. But if you have good teachers who really care, it's remarkable how you can make up the difference.