BARACK OBAMA invited a puzzling group of people into the White House on December 5th: university presidents. What should one make of these strange creatures? Are they chief executives or labour leaders? Heads of pre-industrial guilds or champions of one of America’s most successful industries? Defenders of civilisation or merciless rack-renters?
Whatever they might be, they are at the heart of a political firestorm. Anger about the cost of college extends from the preppiest of parents to the grungiest of Occupiers. Mr Obama is trying to channel the anger, to avoid being sideswiped by it. The White House invitation complained that costs have trebled in the past three decades. Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, has urged universities to address costs with “much greater urgency”.
A sense of urgency is justified: ex-students have debts approaching $1 trillion. But calm reflection is needed too. America’s universities suffer from many maladies besides cost. And rising costs are often symptoms of much deeper problems: problems that were irritating during the years of affluence but which are cancerous in an age of austerity.
The first problem is the inability to say “no”. For decades American universities have been offering more of everything—more courses for undergraduates, more research students for professors and more rock walls for everybody—on the merry assumption that there would always be more money to pay for it all. The second is Ivy League envy. The vast majority of American universities are obsessed by rising up the academic hierarchy, becoming a bit less like Yokel-U and a bit more like Yale.
Ivy League envy leads to an obsession with research. This can be a problem even in the best universities: students feel short-changed by professors fixated on crawling along the frontiers of knowledge with a magnifying glass. At lower-level universities it causes dysfunction. American professors of literature crank out 70,000 scholarly publications a year, compared with 13,757 in 1959. Most of these simply moulder: Mark Bauerlein of Emory University points out that, of the 16 research papers produced in 2004 by the University of Vermont’s literature department, a fairly representative institution, 11 have since received between zero and two citations. The time wasted writing articles that will never be read cannot be spent teaching. In “Academically Adrift” Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa argue that over a third of America’s students show no improvement in critical thinking or analytical reasoning after four years in college.