The lows in higher education

Marty Rochester


Summer break is a good time to pause and reflect on America’s schools. Our K-12 institutions have come in for constant criticism as inferior to schools in many other countries. In contrast, American higher education generally has been considered the best in the world. 

Yet recent trends throw into question the quality of U.S. colleges and universities. Let’s examine three areas that should raise concern: the declining integrity of the admissions process; growing restrictions on free speech and civil liberties; and the weakening of academic rigor and expectations. 

The college admissions process has never been entirely based on merit, grounded totally in academic achievement. It has always been understood that well-placed connections, particularly “legacy” alumni ties, provide advantage, as do some other background factors. 

Recent media coverage of actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin and others who paid millions of dollars to facilitate the entrance of their children into Stanford, the University of Southern California and other elite colleges through various cheating schemes exposed just how corrupt the admissions process has become at many institutions. 

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What is less commonly noted is that well-intentioned affirmative action programs and other reforms aimed at increasing fairness and diversity have only added to the problem in further diminishing the role of merit in determining who gets into a school. 

Take the recent announcement that the College Board plans to assign students an “adversity score” on their SAT admission exams that will factor in variables such as a student’s neighborhood crime rate, housing values and poverty. What if parents of lower middle-class children sacrifice to send their kids to private schools or become house-poor buying homes in suburban districts with better public schools? Do their kids get penalized for being privileged? 

As a May 17 Wall Street Journal editorial notes,“most colleges, especially the higher-ranked, already discount student privilege and handicap for race and socioeconomic status. In 2009, a Princeton sociologist studied 10 highly selective colleges and found that white applicants would have to score 310 points higher than blacks and 130 points higher than Hispanics to have the same odds of admission. 

Similarly, in a lawsuit brought by Students for Fair Admissions protesting discrimination against Asian applicants at Harvard, Dean of Admissions William Fitzsimmons admitted that race-based criteria were used that required Asians to meet a higher standard for acceptance. He acknowledged that “Harvard sends recruitment letters to African-American, Native American and Hispanic high schoolers with mid-range SAT scores, around 1100,” whereas “Asian-Americans only receive a recruitment letter if they score at least 250 points higher” (New York Post, Oct. 17, 2018). 

It is bad enough that at many schools, diversity (group identity) is allowed to trump merit (individual achievement) as the value driving admissions decisions. Worse, even though the official rationale here is that students benefit from exposure to multiculturalism, the obsession with identity politics often results in universities accommodating ethnic separatism or some other types of enclaves. 

Instead of inclusion, we get exclusion; instead of integration, balkanization and tribalism. 

A new book by Peter Wood and Dion Pierre, “Separate But Equal, Again: Neo-Segregation in American Higher Education,”found that in a survey of 173 colleges and universities, 58 percent segregate student orientation programs, 50 percent segregate residential arrangements and 79 percent segregate graduate ceremonies.

For example, Washington University last year listed on its calendar of events recognition ceremonies for “Asian-Pacific Islanders,” “Black Senior Alliance,” “Latinx” and “Lavender” (LGBTQ) graduates, among others. 

It is fine to celebrate difference. However, we risk stereotyping students when we presume there is a distinctive black or Hispanic or other group viewpoint that needs to be represented on campus. Actually, as Harvard’s Steven Pinker has observed, the one type of diversity that is missing on campus these days is that which is most central to the mission of the university —intellectual diversity — as the idea of diversity that most university administrators have is to create a student body composed of students who “look different but think alike,” that is, who have bought into the dominant liberal ideology that prevails in academia. 

There is no need here to regurgitate the well-documented data on the liberal hegemony of the professoriate in the humanities, social sciences, law schools, education schools and many other academic departments across America. Suffice it to say, conservatives are about as likely to be found in ivory tower faculty offices as, say, in the pews at Central Reform Congregation. The liberal bias is bad enough in terms of limiting inquiry and debate. But liberalism itself is becoming increasingly illiberal.

A recent survey conducted by the Knight Foundation found a shocking decline of support for the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment on campus, as nearly half of all students believe “hate speech” should not be protected, and over half believe that shouting down speakers is “always” or “sometimes” acceptable; several liberal constituencies value “inclusivity” over free speech (Campus Reform, May 20). 

These findings echo many other surveys showing millennials favoring restrictions on speech that is not just hateful but hurtful or disagreeable and offends one’s right to a “safe space.” (See, for example, “A Chilling Study Shows How Hostile College Students Are Toward Free Speech” by columnist Catherine Rampell, Washington Post, Sept. 18, 2017). 

Today’s students seem not only hostile to the First Amendment but also the Sixth Amendment, which states that “in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to … have the assistance of Counsel for his defense.” 

Recall that professor Ronald Sullivan of Harvard Law School was removed, along with his wife, an instructor at the law school, as dean of the Winthrop House student residence at Harvard in May because students found it “deeply trauma-inducing” that Sullivan had agreed to help represent Harvey Weinstein in his sexual harassment litigation. A “climate review” of Winthrop done by the university suggested other problems as well, but getting caught in the crosshairs of the #MeToo movement proved decisive in Sullivan’s termination. 

Sullivan had violated the “safe space” of some students, compelling PC-obsessed administrators to take action. Sullivan had a history of representing high-profile controversial clients, such as Aaron Hernandez, the former New England Patriots tight end who was convicted of a gruesome murder in 2017. As one commentator put it, “no one at Harvard batted an eye to learn that Sullivan has represented an actual murderer” (New York Post, May 18). Then again, these days murder is considered more defensible on campus than sexual harassment.

What may also be evidenced here is gross ignorance. Whether due to lax standards created by “equity and diversity” pressures in the admissions process or merely the inadequacies of K-12 education, today’s students arrive on campus poorly prepared to engage in serious discussions of free speech, due process or most other topics. A 2018 headline read “ACT Shows Decline in College Readiness” (Wall Street Journal, Oct. 18). 

Grade inflation is pervasive, beginning in kindergarten and ending in graduate school. A study conducted by a researcher with the College Board and a University of Georgia doctoral student found that“47 percent of high school students graduated with an A average in 2016, up from 39 percent in 1998.” 

Meanwhile, last year at Harvard, Johns Hopkins and universities across the country, more students graduated with Latin honors than didn’t (“You Graduated Cum Laude? So Did Everyone Else,” Wall Street Journal, July 3, 2018).

Merit has become a four-letter word in our contemporary culture, so perhaps none of this is surprising. However, one might hope that higher education would try to set an example of excellent behavior we should all aspire to. I hope I have not offended in suggesting such.

J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Teaching Professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is author of 10 books on international and American politics, including his latest: “New Warfare: Rethinking Rules for An Unruly World.”