Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Reforming Academia

The Wall Street Journal's John Fund wrote yesterday about bringing "intellectual diversity" to America's campi. He cites the study by Klein and Stern, the concept of academia's problem of groupthink, (both previously mentioned here and here, respectively) as well as David Horowitz's work. Fund believes a promising reform idea would be in the use of tuition vouchers, which is being tried in Colorado (a target state of Horowitz and his Academic Bill of Rights)
Starting next year, the state will start shifting its higher-ed dollars from direct payments to universities to vouchers that will go directly to students. The idea is hardly radical. It is taken from the GI Bill of Rights, which is widely credited with giving returning veterans a chance at college through a program that won universal acclaim.

Debating such reforms is perfectly legitimate given that about half of the budget of public university systems come from taxpayers. Private universities derive about 35% of their budgets from public money, largely research grants. In addition, much of the student loan and grant money used to pay college tuition flows from taxpayer sources.

Richard Vedder, an economist at Ohio University, argues that its time to scale back taxpayer subsidies to universities and move towards a voucher plan so that schools would have to compete for students as paying customers. That might also end the punishing double-digit tuition increases many schools have been imposing. Our colleges and universities would benefit not only from some intellectual diversity, but also some diversity and competition in how they pay their bills and how students and taxpayers hold them to account.
Obviously, the expected result would be students choosing schools that offer intellectual diversity. There is a chance that this could lead to a sort of academic polarization (swing students, anyone?), but I expect that quality of education would still override any desire to slip comfortably into an ideological cocoon. This plan does have appeal and it should come as no surprise that those at the Wall Street Journal would favor such a market-based proposal. As I've said before, I don't have much confidence that the academy can reform itself. Perhaps it is time to hit them where it hurts to spur on such internal soul-searching.

Meanwhile, there are some movements within the grounds of the academy to reform the system. First are the Horowitz-supported Students for Academic Freedom and the independent National Association of Scholars, two organizations that strive for more of Fund's intellectual diversity. For example, Students at Columbia have had enough of persistent anti-Israel polemics on campus and are fighting back (though the offending professors won't go quietly). Finally, conservative campus newspapers are popping up everywhere...even at Brown!

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