January/February 2012

Squeezing the Ivory Tower

The larger purpose of higher education is to broaden both the minds and the skills of students. But with college sticker prices reaching new stratospheric highs, the question remains: Is the Ivory Tower achieving these goals? At a Cato Institute Conference held in November, a number of national experts gathered to examine how well our higher education system is working. One key topic that emerged was how to assess the productivity of faculty members, including the groundbreaking — and highly controversial — efforts recently undertaken in Texas.

Richard Vedder, founder of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, and author of a provocative report that uncovers astounding levels of inefficiency at the University of Texas (UT), defended his analysis. He responded to various criticisms of his data, noting that they "had a very modest, almost no effect, on the conclusions." Vedder emphasized that the purpose of the report was to bring productivity into the higher education debate, not to disparage UT or other postsecondary institutions.

Neal McCluskey, associate director of the Cato Institute's Center for Educational Freedom, focused on a somewhat different aspect of the debate. "While I think measuring faculty output is probably a good thing, it will never be allowed to carry meaningful consequences if most funding for education comes from third parties," he said. The burden of financing postsecondary education, McCluskey noted, "has grown ever heavier" on the backs of taxpaying citizens. "We need to change that before we can expect anything else to really improve," he said.

In his keynote address, Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, president emeritus of George Washington University, presented his vision for making postsecondary institutions more accountable. As it stands, he argued, colleges are beholden to an array of external influences — noting, for example, that "the most influential person in higher education" is likely Robert Morse, director of data and research for U.S. News & World Report. "To an unsound degree," Trachtenberg said, "universities too often allow themselves to be pushed around by the rankings." He concluded with his "modest proposals" for reforming the system, which included lowering the number of administrative staff by 20 percent and increasing faculty productivity.

In the end, the conference sparked thought-provoking — and sometimes heated — discussions, and ultimately brought innovative policy proposals to the table. "They were an attempt to bring a more results-oriented, student-friendly focus to education," entrepreneur Jeff Sandefer said of his reforms, known as the Seven Solutions. "Now, they've gotten a life of their own."