Looking Out for #1

A troubling attitude seems prevalent today in many professional circles: confusing one’s own self-interest or viewpoint with the public interest. This problem is especially troubling in fields that have historically prided themselves on service.

Take universities and their role in training teachers. In April, the Wisconsin Association of Colleges of Teacher Education — the umbrella group representing 13 UW System campuses and prominent private colleges and universities such as Marquette, Beloit and Alverno — announced that its members would not participate in a U.S. News and World Report survey intended to assess the quality of teaching programs.

According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, this survey would be the “first-ever review of the nation’s roughly 1,400 colleges of education” and a response to a 2006 report issued by Teachers College at Columbia University, which claimed that less qualified students are going into teaching.

Teacher quality is of growing importance for at least two reasons beyond the concern noted by the Columbia report. First, reports continue to show American students falling further behind those of other nations, especially in the vital subjects of math and science. Second, many education schools teach progressive pedagogical theories and methods that critics claim are not rigorous enough to prepare students to master arduous subjects.

Schools are understandably reluctant to be scrutinized by outsiders, but education is a public trust, and its success is crucial to the future of our state and nation.
For its part, WACTE maintains that educational authorities in Wisconsin lacked input into the survey, that the survey’s methodology is problematic, and that the National Council on Teacher Quality (which is conducting the survey with U.S. News) could have a biased agenda. Such concerns are not unreasonable, and we must guard against educational agendas — often ideological — imposed by outsiders who do not fathom the beast they are trying to tame.

Then again, no one to my knowledge has accused U.S. News of being ideologically intolerant of higher education. If anything, education schools and other university programs have spent years genuflecting to the gods of the U.S. News rankings.

Nevertheless, Francine Tompkins, director of educational initiatives for the University of Wisconsin System, was completely dismissive of the survey. The U.S. News/National Council effort “might be titillating,” she told the Journal Sentinel, “but there won’t be anything in there that will help the programs improve.”

That drew a tart rejoinder from a spokeswoman for the National Council on Teacher Quality, who said that teaching programs are often a cash cow for universities: “Do they really have all these objections, or are they worried about what we’re going to find?”

The truth of this matter is complex, and in an interview Tompkins expressed genuine concern about the quality of education. But the circling of the wagons by the teacher colleges in Wisconsin and elsewhere could be symptomatic of a broader trend among professional classes in America: The public trust has been frayed due to distortions of self-interest and other factors. Public trust depends upon two things: a commonly shared sense of citizenship and public responsibility; and public processes that check the power of decision makers. Unfortunately, these factors have been vanishing for some time now.

The problem is not limited to America, as New York Times columnist Frank Bruni wrote recently about Italy. Bruni depicted an Italian (and European) political class and its beneficiaries who enjoy monetary benefits and privileges that greatly exceed what is available to others in society. If you think that this trend is not responsible for much of Europe’s present debt crisis, think again.

For several decades now, sociologists in America have discerned the splintering of the commonweal into a growing number of “clusters” — broad social groupings that share their own world views and networks of communication. (For example, conservatives watch Fox News, liberals MSNBC.) As cluster theorist Michael Weiss remarked, “Today, the country’s new motto should be ‘E pluribus pluriba’: ‘Out of many, many.” In a similar vein, sociologist Richard Sennett decried the “fall of public man” in a major 1974 book of that title.

Simpler historical dynamics are no doubt also at play: The longer an institution hangs around, the more its members begin to believe either that its privileges are entitlements, or that it possesses a monopoly on what the public
interest means in its domain. Meanwhile,  incentives are becoming perverse, compelling many professions to pursue goals that serve their privileges, power or pocketbooks rather than the public interest. Whatever the causes, at some point the self-interest or power of these members becomes indistinguishable from their perception of the public interest.

American history is replete with cases of self-interest trumping the public good. In the past, however, most of these examples arose in the private sector, leading to greater government oversight to check private power. Progressivism and New Deal regulations were but two prominent examples.

Today, however, the problem of excessive self-interest is no longer the preserve of private power. It now affects public institutions as well. Fannie May and Freddie Mac, the mega-mortgage institutions, helped to lead us into financial collapse while their top executives walked away with millions. Fannie and Freddie proceeded on their merry ways with insufficient checking by their congressional guardians, who themselves received campaign contributions from groups who benefitted from the policies of these “government-sponsored enterprises.”

To be sure, our political and economic systems are predicated on the principle that the proper pursuit of self-interest leads to the public good. As Adam Smith famously wrote in The Wealth of Nations, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we can expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” But as Tocqueville wrote in his classic work, Democracy in America, self-interest must be “rightly understood.”

That is, it must be limited by recognition of the rights of others and the legitimate demands of the commonweal. And as James Madison underscored in the Federalist Papers (especially Federalist Nos. 10 and 51), the pursuit of ambition and interest serves the public good only if it is appropriately checked by other institutions. Public interest and private interest must exist in a dynamic balance.

It is this balance that is now out of whack, even if most professionals and public servants genuinely believe they honor only the public interest. For starters, the intense polarization of our political class reflects the dissolution of common ground.

Today we face the great public debt crisis, but, driven by 24-hour media exposure and the intransigence of primary voters, our political leaders wouldn’t be caught dead compromising, lest their bases recoil in horror.

Indeed, the very notions of “public interest,” “disinterest” and “objectivity” have been deconstructed by forces on both the left and right. Think tanks used to aspire to at least the image of disinterest, whereas today we habitually identify them by partisan labels. And then there are our universities, which numerous studies reveal slanting significantly to the left in the humanities, social sciences and such professional schools as education, law and social work.

With more than a little justification, many conservatives consider the University of Wisconsin to be an extended arm of the Democratic and Progressive parties.

On the private side of the ledger, we have seen mortgage and investment bankers turning into gamblers with other peoples’ money and when it was their own, being bailed out by the taxpayers. We saw the major credit rating agencies shirk their responsibilities to investors and to the public to curry favor with banks from which they collected huge fees.

Legal services are so expensive that only a fraction of Americans can afford them, yet the profession clings to restrictive laws that prevent meaningful competition.

For example, lawyers continue to block paralegals from providing such products as simple wills and contracts, even though these services are straightforward and paralegals charge a fraction of what attorneys charge. The legal profession defends the rule as a matter of consumer protection, but critics say the real motivator is economic self-protection. Incentives are at play here, too, as new formulas for ranking law firms are now based on profits, not quality of service.

Even more disconcerting examples can be found in education. One reason teachers unions were formed was to protect good teachers from being fired or mistreated, thereby harming their students. Today, teacher unions often do the opposite, protecting bad teachers and making it more difficult to reward the good.

Joel Klein, former New York City school chancellor, writing in the June issue of The Atlantic, shows in stunning detail how union intransigence has thwarted meaningful reform in a school system that cries out for change. As Klein and Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of the Washington, D.C., school system, found upon assuming their positions: Their school systems existed not to serve the students, but to protect the interests of the adult staffs.

Meanwhile, during the recent standoff over collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin, many teachers skipped work to protest, and some turned in fraudulent excuses filled out by doctors who are supposed to abide by objective medical standards. With some schools abruptly closing, parents were mightily inconvenienced, and the public got stuck with the cost of extra school days to compensate for classes missed.

Higher education suffers from its own version of narrow-sightedness. When the American Association of University Professors was founded in the early 20th century, it declared that academic professionals were the group best suited to make educational policy because of their rigorous training. This policy meant granting tenured professionals the primary power to regulate themselves — a policy that helped to build the most formidable higher education institutions in the world.

Academic freedom, professional autonomy and the protections associated with tenure became rights because they were considered indispensable means to further the public interests of a democratic polity committed to the pursuit of truth. But have we strayed from our obligations over the years?.

In April, The New York Times reported that thousands of law students each year have been losing their $30,000 per annum merit scholarships because their grade point averages have fallen below the ‘B’ level. The reason? Many law schools have not bothered to inform entering students that they enforce a strict curve, which means that a large number of students won’t attain a B average regardless of how hard they work. They will have to pay the full price for the rest of their legal education, throwing many of them into serious debt.

Perverse incentives are again working their mischief. The Times’ David Segal concluded that law schools rely on such scholarships to enhance their U.S. News rankings. Another incentive-based explanation also appears at play: They need students to keep the ship of education afloat. Both explanations reflect self-interest rather than a commitment to service.

Nor have law schools always been forthright about the job market for their graduates. A year ago, fed-up students sued Fordham University, claiming that the school misled them about job prospects. In July 2010, in an effort to compel schools to be more forthcoming, a new organization called Law School Transparency requested that 200 law schools release salary and employment information on their 2010 graduates.

While students accumulate more debt, teaching loads at major law schools are being cut to make them more competitive in the arms race to attract and retain star faculty members. The same is happening in major social science departments as well. A recent study by Christopher Matgouranis, Jonathan Robe and Paul Caron concluded that research universities such as the University of Texas could cut tuition in half by having faculty teach more courses.

Yet we witness higher student costs and debts accompanied by lower teaching loads at many major institutions: Is something wrong with this picture? Not surprisingly, a similar tendency to put self-interest ahead of students is found at many graduate school programs, especially in the humanities and social sciences. In a recent article in Inside Higher Education, Louis Better, a freshly minted Ph.D. in French literature, lamented the dearth of tenure-track positions that greeted him upon receiving his degree after many years of work.

“All this I had to find out for myself — no one at my home institution wanted to level with me about my chances, if they were even aware of them,” Better wrote. “My fervent hope is that in writing this I will spare next year’s Ph.D.s some of the suffering I have endured — suffering which, I believe I can claim with some confidence, I hardly deserved.”

Despite the jobs problem, most graduate programs continue to churn out students as if the world were not changing.

In 2009, average college student debt stood at $24,000, according to The New York Times, a 6% increase over 2008. Overall, costs continue to escalate. Full sticker price at many private institutions is now approaching, and in some cases has surpassed, $50,000 per year. Adding to this burden is the fact that unlike most debts, student loans generally cannot be “forgiven” in bankruptcy proceedings. They follow you to the grave.

At UW-Madison, tuition has risen from $301 in 1967-68 to $7,296 in 2009-10. Full costs — including housing and meals — climbs to about $20,000 per year for in-state students and more than $30,000 for out-of- state students.

As parents can attest, the rise in the cost of higher education has substantially outpaced increases in housing, the Consumer Price Index and even medical care. At a recent reunion I attended at Cornell, my old classmates bemoaned the cost of sending their own children to college, concerns to which college officials paid no heed.

As one alumnus plaintively asked me, “Where does all that money go?”

Academic programs are not the only area in which students get the short end of the stick. In “The Shame of College Sports,” a widely acclaimed October cover story in The Atlantic, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Taylor Branch chronicles in devastating detail how the economics and policies of big time college sports have resulted in a situation in which networks, schools, coaches and athletic directors enjoy plutocratic benefits while “student athletes” — the stars who make the whole system work — often languish economically and medically. Nowhere does higher education compromise its principles more than in big time sports.

In the mid-1980s, American universities were widely viewed as the best in the world. We are still the best, but the fortress is no longer impregnable, and controversy has arisen over costs, quality, bloated bureaucracies, the pandering to expensive student-comfort demands and the ideological bias that has taken hold in many quarters. Meanwhile, overseas universities have become competitive with our better institutions.

Defenders rightly point out that higher education is not the only institution in trouble. Costs are up everywhere, while state funding has dwindled for public universities (it’s much less than 20% of the UW budget) at the same time that states and the federal government have increased costly regulatory burdens.

But one can acknowledge such external facts while also holding higher education accountable for many of its own problems. The lack of candor on the burden of student loans, ideological imbalance in the faculty and the attendant lack of intellectual diversity, and the lowering of teaching loads at leading schools, among other things — points to a failure of public trust and problematic incentives.

In a piece last spring on his American Interest blog, the insightful analyst Walter Russell Mead argued that American universities have become too much like a medieval guilds, mistaking their own interests for those of the public. Creative thinking about America’s present crisis has suffered as a consequence. We need to shake things up in a way that does not throw the baby out with the bathwater, and engaging in less defensive reactions to public concerns is a necessary first step in this process.

Fortunately, more citizens are starting to challenge the costs and practices of higher education as well as the higher costs and inefficiencies of other professions. Our economic predicament is now the lodestar of our political destiny, and it is fomenting a pushback regarding public trust.

Universities still have a lot to offer, and our research provides many benefits to our polity. But like so many other major American institutions in a period of crisis and change, we have been as much part of the problem as the solution.

To fulfill our honorable mission, it is time for us to follow the path initiated by Socrates. His search for truth remains the inspiration for universities and their professors. Socrates called for not just scrutiny of others but also for the scrutiny of oneself.

Donald A. Downs is the Alexander Meiklejohn Professor of Political Science, Law and Journalism at UW-Madison. His books have addressed free speech, academic freedom and American politics. He is co-author of the forthcoming Arms and the University: Military Presence and the Civic Education of Non-Military Students (Cambridge).