The modern university is in the midst of a crisis. While few will disagree with that statement, identifying the exact nature of the crisis is much more of a problem. Warren Treadgold’s The University We Need: Reforming American Higher Education promises not only to diagnose the problems facing modern universities, but also to provide a cure.
“By now, even many professors are distressed by what they [intolerant leftists and anti-intellectual conservatives] have done to American higher education, without having clear ideas of how to repair the damage. Here I shall try to explain that damage in more detail and to suggest how we might start to repair it.” (15)
Treadgold identifies several problems with modern universities, including:
- Rising costs and student debt
- Expanding use of underpaid adjuncts, often without proper credentials
- Competition from cheaper online courses
- Decline in public support for higher ed
- Collapse in the internal sense of purpose of universities, even as higher education is culturally believed to be more necessary
- Decline in good teaching, often facilitated by the fact that no one can really identify what makes teaching “good” in the first place (though we do know that student reviews are potentially the worst possible standard to use)
- Decline in good research, combined with an inability to understand what “good” research is in the first place (as opposed to research which is merely “acceptable” to the powers that be in topic, tone, and conclusion)
- The increasingly dominant stranglehold of “Leftism” (an amorphous combination/alliance of socialism, Marxism, and postmodernism) on university campuses
The University We Need offers practical solutions to each of these problems. As just one example, he provides criteria for how to judge research:
“I would suggest five main criteria for scholarly excellent… First, the work should be new: it should say something that nobody has said before, at least in quite the same way. Second, the work should be important: it should make a significant (though perhaps small) difference in our understanding of its subject. Third, the work should be accurate: it should not be based on glaring factual errors that invalidate its conclusions. Fourth, the work should be rigorous, which is not precisely the same thing as being factually accurate: it should not be based on clear misinterpretations of the factual evidence. Fifth, the work should be intelligible, even if abstruse: at a minimum, a qualified specialist must be able to tell whether something new, important, accurate, and rigorous is buried in there somewhere. Good scholarship cannot utterly fail any of these five tests, and excellent scholarship should pass all five comfortably, if not always to the same extent.” (94-95)
And yet, these specific responses to the problems listed above are in some ways subsidiary to the larger point of the book. Treadgold’s purpose is to cure the ills of universities as a whole, not merely to tackle single symptoms of the larger disease. Specifically, he outlines two main categories of proposals that he believes, if accepted, will put higher education back on the right track. He calls for:
- National legislation intended to create two new boards. The first would review and judge the quality of dissertations. The second would review and adjudicate claims of academic dishonesty in academic publications.
- The founding of a “new” university, with the “guiding aims… to offer students the best possible education, to hire the best available professors, and to do the best possible research.” (121) It would be methodologically traditional (“but not specifically ‘conservative’ in politics”; pg 122); non-religious; ‘principled’ but not ‘missional’ [my terms, not his—but I stand by them]; located near—but not in—a major metropolitan center (why not the DC-area? pg 124); without ‘distribution requirements’; and focused on the Western tradition. (pgs 119-126)
These proposals, worked at faithfully and consistently, will lay the groundwork for a Renaissance of higher education. “A moment’s reflection should confirm how strange it is that no leading university has been founded in the United States since Stanford in 1891.” This despite the fact that “since then American education has expanded exponentially.” (120) Treadgold argues that the moribund system we’ve got now will be revived if only we are willing to work at it according to the process laid out in The University We Need.
Much of Treadgold’s analysis of the problems contemporary universities face is spot-on. While admittedly I’ve spent the last decade primarily involved in small private and religious institutions, what he is describing certainly sounds like what we hear coming out of larger/public schools. There is a crisis in higher education that goes beyond—but is not completely separate from—mere declining numbers. And I think that Treadgold has properly identified key causes for the crises in higher education. That said, this correct identification will also be a weakness of the book. After all, I’m not the person he needs to convince. I already believe that the dominance of leftist ideology and right-wing anti-intellectualism is damaging to higher education. And I already believe that excising both (especially the former) is critical for the future of universities in the Western world. More on this below. Here it just needs to be noted that Treadgold has given a sound overview of what universities are going through in the early 21st century.
Even better, Treadgold is a solid writer. While I don’t necessarily agree with all of his solutions (see below), at no point is this book poorly written. I certainly plan to pick up some of his other books—his Byzantine histories look especially interesting.
Finally, his proposals are at the very least interesting and unique. There have certainly been calls for top-down reform before, even at the national level. But Treadgold’s proposals for wide-ranging intervention in the substantive… stuff, for lack of a better word… of what universities do is, to the best of my knowledge, unique and worth poking at. I’m not convinced that his specific proposals will work, but if he’s calling for reform not just of the curriculum and not just of the standards, but even of the way we think about the curriculum and of the people who set the standards, well, that’s worth having a long and thorough conversation about.
The language. As much as I appreciate brusque language, it doesn’t really win any converts. Preaching to the choir is satisfying and cathartic. But the choir is already on your side.* Treadgold is surely right that conservatives (and increasingly even classical liberals) are shut out from academia in favor of (at best) progressives, if not even of more extreme perspectives. But no progressive, especially one working in academia, is going to read this book and be swayed by its language. For example:
“The absence of reasoned argument is in fact one of campus leftism’s sources of strength. Refusing to supply ideological definitions leaves the impression of a viewpoint that depends not on arguments (which could theoretically be refuted) but is instead so obvious to every decent person that it needs no support from logic or reason. The implication is that campus leftists favor a set of principles that transcend ideology, for which the appropriate name is imply ‘social justice.’ Campus leftism is much more a matter of feeling than of thought and is based much more on passion or outrage than on reasoning. Thus rational counterarguments are often shouted down on the ground that they offend or discriminate against favored members of the campus community, while disfavored members of the community are allowed no sympathy if they claim to be offended or discriminated against.” (44)
I happen to think that most of this is true. But I also think that it’s not going to sway anyone who doesn’t already agree. No doubt this passage was deeply fulfilling to write (heck, I enjoy cutting loose against the Leftists at times), but it is not going to win any friends among the vast majority of professors and administrators who are needed if meaningful university reform is to take place. I realize that rational discourse between the polarized camps in American life is increasingly a thing of the past, but I like to think that a book calling for university reform is one place where this kind of discourse can and should still be attempted.
This, in turn, raises the question of just who the target audience of this book is in the first place. At times, Treadgold writes as if he were assuming the reader is a Professor or administrator at an R-1 institution. Yet, I suspect the vast majority of sympathetic readers (or even just ‘readers’) will come not from Harvard, Stanford, or the major state schools, but rather from small liberal arts colleges and private religious institutions. To be sure these Universities have their problems as well, but they are often not exactly the problems outlined in The University We Need.
But beyond the language being utterly unconcerned with appealing to others, the practical suggestions themselves are… problematic, at best.
The Proposals. Specifically, I find it difficult to imagine that more federal/national involvement will improve the health of universities overall, even in such limited capacities as dissertation/plagiarism review. Federal involvement certainly hasn’t done any favors to primary and secondary education around the country, and the places where it is involved in universities now (the Higher Education Act, as just one example) are hardly bastions of academic reform, whatever the value of their social and cultural effects.
What’s more, I don’t see how any such panels for review as Treadgold calls for will be anything other than dominant-culture-affirming boards at best, or an active agents of oppression at worst. I mean, I shudder to think how my own dissertation (involving the double-trigger warning of a crypto-Puritan theologian and traditional conservative thinkers) would have been judged by a panel of contemporary experts drawn from Departments at major institutions. Or, for that matter, how those of my inclination would judge the revisionist dissertation seeking to re-imagine the genderqueer interpretation of the sources we would have had from Ancient Rome if they people hadn’t living under the brutal oppression of the 1%.** Assuming that such a panel will be able to maintain any kind of useful neutrality is far too optimistic.
In terms of establishing a new institution, I would just point out that such things have been attempted repeatedly. Legions of state, private, and religious institutions all aiming to be the next Harvard have been founded. (Many today would settle for being the next Brown.) Why has this repeatedly failed? Frankly, I don’t know. Maybe the establishment of new colleges, institutes, and honors programs within existing universities has filled this particular need? Maybe Americans have democratized themselves out of high caliber institutions? Maybe we’ve hit our quota? I mean, we have a lot of really, really good universities (even accounting for the current problems of higher education). How many should a nation our size really expect to have anyway? And even if we answer all of those questions and figure out the way to start a new high-quality institution that rivals the great universities of the world, we still won’t have solved the problems of higher education in America. Simply dropping another university into the country—even a truly great one—won’t rescue the thousands of others in slow free-fall.
So in sum, The University We Need is a book that should be read by those interested in reforming higher education, but which I suspect is not very likely to actually result in the university we need.
*Actually, that’s a terrible idiom. Sermons should be primarily aimed at the believing members of the church in the congregation, which would of course include the choir. There needs to be a more accurate phrase for this…
**I haven’t kept up with PC lingo, so if you were triggered by the word “genderqueer” because it has moved from “legitimate” to the category of “hate speech,” I should probably apologize… But I’m not going to. Get over it hippie. And again, that’s evidence that I should not be on such a review panel.
Dr. Coyle Neal is co-host of the City of Man Podcast and an Associate Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO