On Fearmongering in Higher Ed

As a professor-blogger whose single most popular post was an open letter, written about one year ago, warning of a “crisis” in one particular sector of higher education, I appreciate being indirectly chastened by two college presidents, Barry Glassner (Lewis & Clark) and Morton Schapiro (Northwestern Univ.), in their Oct. 6 op-ed in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Morton Schapiro
Morton Schapiro – Northwestern University

We are not sure which is more disappointing: that these higher-education scares come and go, leaving mass confusion, or that their lessons are never learned by would-be prognosticators. While history suggests that those who forecast trends in income growth and distribution, technology, and health care tend to be overly optimistic about the course of change, “education experts” lean toward unjustified pessimism.

I think they have bigger fish than me to fry. Truly, there’s a cottage industry authors, speakers, consultants, venture capitalists, politicians, “innovative disruptors,” and other “education pundits” who want to convince families, voters, investors, and, above all, fearful college administrators and trustees that higher education as we know it about to implode. For example: the claims that assorted online revolutions will inevitably replace supposedly ineffective face-to-face pedagogy with more “student-centered” learning, or that a looming debt crisis will burst the speculative bubble that is high-priced private college education.

Schapiro and Glassner’s arguments are far from unassailable, and they might not be the right people to make them. Commenters rightly wondered whether the presidents of a major research university and an elite private liberal arts college were really in good positions to understand or address the financial situations facing less elite, less well-endowed schools (as someone who works for a very different kind of institution, I stand by my concern about declining support from churches and denominations for tuition-dependent, poorly-endowed religious colleges and universities), or why they left completely unaddressed one cost-savings strategy increasingly employed by administrators: to shift the expensive work of college teaching to poorly paid, benefits-ineligible adjunct professors.

But I appreciate that Glassner and Schapiro not only tried to counter the most suspect of claims about higher ed “crisis” (especially on debt vs. “return on investment”) but called out the manipulative strategies employed by the worst of the alarmists:

Glassner, The Culture of Fear
Glassner’s book on fearmongering, The Culture of Fear, was featured in Michael Moore’s documentary film, Bowling for Columbine

Threats to higher education get blown out of proportion by similar categories of actors, with similar motives and tactics, as in other scares. Individuals and organizations who stand to profit financially or politically promote them—in large measure, the same way that discount stores make their profit—through volume. Repeat something often enough, and it begins to seem true.

But volume alone doesn’t explain how scares are sold. It is important to understand, as well, the narrative techniques deployed by fear-mongers—the two most ubiquitous being the christening of isolated incidents as trends, and misdirection.

Schapiro and Glassner are social scientists, not historians, but I was also grateful that they tried to stretch out our perspective on higher ed, and point out that the imminence of collapse or disruption has long been a feature of higher ed discourse:

For more than a century, there have been predictions about the impending demise of higher education; they have all proved wrong. Around 1900, David Starr Jordan, founding president of Stanford University, predicted that liberal-arts colleges were not long for this world. The Depression sparked warnings that higher education was headed toward financial ruin. Many of us today applaud the GI Bill’s democratization of a college education, but at the time, that development was seen by some critics as a death knell for excellence. The doom prophets of that era were followed by the proclaimers of demographic devastation wrought by the large baby-boom generation, and then by the baby bust.

We are falling into a historical fallacy, they contend, that tempts every generation:

…to think it is alive at the single most pivotal time in history. Surely we sit at a precipice, with the fate of everything, including higher education, in our hands in a way unknown to previous generations. Right? Doubtful, history suggests. A healthy skepticism about a world always on the verge of major change might be a useful antidote against panic.

Nevertheless, “Unfounded predictions of doom can become self-fulfilling prophecies if taken seriously and acted upon.” So like Glassner and Schapiro, I encourage our decision makers to “apply some of our vaunted critical thinking to the claims of self-interested scare-mongers all too eager to get us to adopt new models.”

What do you think: Are claims of higher ed crisis overblown? Have you experienced the “fearmongering” that Glassner and Schapiro describe? Or are they taking too lightly the problems of cost and debt, or undervaluing the potential benefits of a disruptive innovation like MOOCs?


3 thoughts on “On Fearmongering in Higher Ed

  1. As I recall, Chris, you focused your warnings on small liberal arts colleges without significant endowments. In other words, small colleges (mostly church related) that depend almost entirely on tuition. I don’t think you were fear-mongering in that. My own “take” on the situation is that there are now too many such colleges (and many of them call themselves universities now). Their numbers have increased dramatically over the past years. Almost every evangelist (whether called that or not) starts his own college or seminary. The competition for students is fierce. There is an inevitable tendency to attempt retention of current students by passing them and pleasing them (viz., treating them as “customers”). Back when I attended college, seminary and university I considered myself fortunate to be admitted even though I had excellent grades at every stage of education. When colleges that are nearly identical in ethos compete with each other for students something is amiss.

  2. I agree with Roger’s comments above (Hi Roger!) in terms of the vulnerability of small-ish Christian institutions to economic disruption, especially those without endowment. But I have a slightly different take. For most of our history, Christian colleges could simply ASSUME their reason for being — whether that was fear of secular institutions or the need for positive affirming community. But in an era of increased costs with competition that has escalated even faster, that’s insufficient. Add to that the fearmongers who write silly “Is College Worth It?” posts (YES) and the self-interested entrepreneurs who want to explain what the next new tool is, and we are forever reacting to the latest stories in the Chronicle or IHE. What we need is for Christian liberal arts institutions to examine their real raison d’etre: academic growth within a faith community intended to shape the world over the next generation. This is why I’ve been arguing that Christian institutions need to be Fearless — such a stance actually addresses market vulnerability more than playing it safe does.

    1. Thanks, Roger and John. I do suspect that there’s going to be a winnowing of religious colleges (not just “Christian” but “church-related”), but I totally agree with John’s closing point: if no one else is fearless in this environment, it ought to be institutions and communities centered on a Messiah who often encouraged us his followers to be unafraid.

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