How Higher Ed Is Failing Faculty and Students

by Reed Fawell III

Higher education is corrupt. Each year the rot degrades the system’s ability to educate our kids. The problem is not criminal activity, malfeasance, or bad intentions. Rather, the system is losing focus on its core mission.

Last month I suggested on this blog that higher education needs a total overhaul, especially in elite undergraduate institutions. Here, and in posts to follow, I will explain why this overhaul is critically needed.

My intent is not to blame particular individuals, groups or institutions, but to highlight how a once-great system of elite higher education is failing its students and undermining all that it touches. The ramifications extend to students, parents, faculty and administrators, as well as the outside interests (public and private) that feed off the system or unduly influence it.

Even as the sector grows into a massive commercial enterprise accounting for an ever-larger share of the nation’s economy, the capacity of higher ed to fulfill its historic mission of educating undergraduate students is crumbling. Nowhere is the problem more evident than at the nation’s foremost colleges and universities once led the world in teaching liberal arts, sciences and humanities upon which Western Civilization depends.

While the threat is real, there are heroes in this story. A dwindling minority of students, faculty, and administrators fight the debilitating system every day. Too often, though, they labor at great cost to themselves and their careers. Their battles usually take place outside the public view. Yet more of them are going public, describing their struggles in books and articles. Even a few institutions are fighting the tide by focusing sharply on the mission to educating their students in an efficient, cost-effective way.

But we are losing ground overall. All too often the career and work of Col. John Boyd, a preeminent military strategist, theorist and educator in last decades of the 20th century, typifies how today’s real “educators” wage lonely, uphill battles. Boyd wrote how those caught in dysfunctional institutions are forced to do “counter productive work” instead of the real and transformation work. Higher education needs far more John Boyds. (See Robert Coram’s biography Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War.)

Each year teaching and learning get harder. Leadership failures and destructive cultural forces are overwhelming undergraduate programs at an alarming pace. Higher education inflicts pervasive, long-lasting, and often devastating harm upon many of its undergraduate students. As the corruption spreads into families and communities, it poisons everyone’s future. Elite institutions, which educate a disproportionate share of the nation’s leaders, can most do the most harm.

William Deresiewicz’s 2014 book, “Excellent Sheep, the Mis-education of the American Elite,” tells of “toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation” experienced by large and growing numbers of undergraduates at elite schools. He describes how undergraduates are too often the left overs from “stressed out, over-pressured high school student(s)” that elite institutions now demand.

The American Psychological Association summarized a recent survey under the headline The Crisis on Campus: “Nearly half of college students reported feelings of hopelessness while almost a third spoke of feeling “so depressed that it was difficult to function during the past twelve months.”

Excellent Sheep also reports that college counseling services are being overwhelmed. Nearly of half of students seeking help now suffer from “severe psychological problems,” triple the number two decades ago. A Stanford Provost who convened a task force on student mental health in 2006 wrote: “Increasingly we are seeing students struggling with mental health concerns ranging from depression, anxiety, eating disorders, self-mutilation behaviors, schizophrenia and suicidal behaviors.” A college president wrote: “We appear to have an epidemic of depression among young people.”

Many pathologies arise in high school among students striving to meet the admission requirements of elite colleges.  Many are overwhelmed when they get there. Many never recover. Said one student: “For many students, rising to the top means being consumed by the system.”

Why? Why is the mental, emotional, and physical health of so many of America’s elite students in apparent collapse? Why is this phenomenon so under-reported?

Professors and instructors tasked to mentor these undergraduates in college often suffer the same maladies as their students. Evidence mounts that today’s higher education system inflicts emotional, professional and financial harm, and related injustices, upon the tenured and non-tenured faculty teaching at America’s most prestigious institutions. Here, too, we find toxic levels of fear, anxiety, depression, emptiness, aimlessness and isolation, particularly among those most vulnerable: the graduate and post graduate instructors, non-tenured track professors, and younger professors seeking tenure.

When those who do the bulk of teaching and mentoring of undergraduate students experience undue stress, dysfunction, obsessive-compulsive behavior, hysteria, and depression, something is terribly wrong. The next few articles will delve into the central drivers of this dysfunction within America’s elite educational system and how they combine with cultural forces to threaten to collapse not only our elite undergraduate education but our society that depends on well educated citizens.

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11 responses to “How Higher Ed Is Failing Faculty and Students

  1. I read the Boyd book and am a loss how his experience explains the so-called failures of elite colleges. Boyd was an Air Force maverick officer and pilot more akin to the era before Vietnam and before. Relevance? The post does not offer any evidence of the troubles it posits on campus.

    Sure more kids want counseling. The need was probably always there, just not recognized.

    This post pines for a better, distant time. I doubt seriously it was better. What’s the point? To lambast “liberalism” at college campuses? The fact that many professors (now retiring) grew out of that experience?

    I am the father of two children who finished college not that long ago. I can’t say they faced anything worse than what I did in the early 1970s (except that some of my male colleagues faced being sent off to a pointless war).

  2. I looking forward to more on this subject now that you’ve taken up guest-hosting, and now that BR has undertaken a relationship with the source of so much revealing data on higher ed.

    Some observations: I read “Excellent Sheep” at the time of publication and I remember the splash it made on the Yale campus (its author’s laboratory, after all). One review of the book sticks in my mind: from the NYT:

    “Above all, many students suffer from the relentless anxiety, the sense of exhaustion and anomie, that their hyperactivity generates and that Deresiewicz powerfully evokes. No wonder, then, that when he sketched this indictment in an essay in The American Scholar, his text went viral. Many students have contacted him to confirm his diagnosis. Some of my students tell me that they still remember exactly where they were when they read his sharp words. Anyone who cares about American higher education should ponder this book.”

    But there was more: that review, by a Princeton history professor, concluded:

    “When Deresiewicz looks at the universities, he sees Heartbreak House: a crumbling Gothic mansion, inhabited by polite young shadows, limp and exhausted. When I look at them, I see the Grand Budapest Hotel: stately, if fragile, structures, where youth and energy can find love and knowledge and guidance — places that welcome students who make creative fun of their teachers and other authorities, and help them go on having creative fun in later life.”

    I can’t say it as well as Prof. Grafton did — but perhaps we agree, the same coin has two sides. One student’s invitation to debate is another’s intimidation; one’s exercise of free speech is a “micro-aggression” to another. My sympathies are squarely with debate and free speech, by the way, but those virtues do not thrive on campus without quite a few “limp and exhausted” casualties along the way. Like Peter. G, I can’t say my children faced anything worse than I did, in my case at Yale in the 60s.

    You ask, “Why? Why is the mental, emotional, and physical health of so many of America’s elite students in apparent collapse? Why is this phenomenon so under-reported?” I look forward to learning what phenomenon you refer to. Are you asking about the current state of “publish or perish” and the decline of the teaching component of American professorship? Or about the wave of political correctness in American higher education today, with “trigger warnings” and “safe rooms” where nary a contentious (if thoughtful) word shall be spoken? Or about the duplicity practiced by our institutions of higher education when it comes to finding sources of income to sustain their “reputations,” with students the casualties? There is much that’s worth commenting on, here.

    It’s perfectly true, the teaching routinely offered in smaller liberal arts colleges today may be better than what’s readily available to undergraduates at Yale. How pay for it all? Those small colleges are expensive, but financially transparent when compared with the big research universities and their student fees and government/business funded ventures and their professors who don’t teach but keep the grant and patent revenues coming in. My children all went to smaller colleges (four different ones). I can vouch for the “expensive” aspect of small liberal arts, but I think they received what I paid for: a good education. And they also experienced a mind-boggling social life, and all the usual temptations and stresses of young-adulthood. And, I’m happy to report, they did not suffer any collapse of mental, emotional or physical health; perhaps they would have, had they gone to one of the Ivies, but they were not exceptional sheep and did not (of their own volition) apply there.

    It seems to me, it is parental pressure which so often turns our brightest children into E S specimens long before college, and I hope you will acknowledge the parental role in creating the institutions that cater to their driven offspring.

    • Thanks for yet another thoughtful post. Yale benefited you for sure.

      So yes, as you suggest, “perhaps we agree, the same coin has two sides.” I do agree.

      I am also coming to think that this coin we call our Institutions of Higher Education have always for all generations had two sides, roughly as you and Professor Grafton describe.

      If this be so, if institutions invariably inflict harm and good, irony and paradox, chance and fortune, on all its students at the same time, then each school must be best focused to give the largest number of its student, each and every one, the best chance to find and achieve his or her own unique future. Otherwise I suggest that the school too often does the reverse. It undermines too many of its students, stripping them of the best chance they have to examine their lives and realize their unique gifts.

      If this be so, then our institutions of higher institution quite literally hold in their hands the lives and the futures of their students. And if those institution fail their obligations to “educate their students”, they tend strongly to destroy or deeply harm and impart their students’ lives and future. So the operation of this institutions of higher education the interests of the students must in all cases be paramount. Not the faculty, or their research, or their interests beyond educating their students. Not the school administrators or their power. Not the board members or their interests. Not the schools’ business partners or their interests. Not the government. Not the school’s “prestige, or its horded riches or its football team, or it alumni.” These people do not matter, beyond what they contribute by proven performance to the proper education of the institutions students.

      However novel or fresh today, I suggest this rule and obligation is obvious.

      Nothing should take precedence over the education of each college student (an ancillary rights of parents paying the bills). I also suggest the corollary that those who teach real students in the school are the most important people in the school by far and should be treated as such because they earn it. Everybody else having something to do with the institution, those who do not teach, are baggage, excess baggage unless proven otherwise.

      As you also suggest Acbar, these obvious facts get complicated and controversial very quickly today.

    • Let me follow up on why things can get so complicated and muddled quick when an outsider tries to get a firm grip on “what is right and wrong” with today’s Institutions of Higher Education, and the system running them.

      (But first for clarity, as my dyslexia clicked in, let me correct the 2nd & 3rd sentences of the 5th paragraph of my earlier comment immediately above:

      “And if those institution fail their obligations to “educate their students,” they tend strongly to destroy or deeply harm OR IMPAIR their students’ lives and futures. So in the operation of these Institutions of Higher Education, the interests of the students must in all cases be paramount.” )

      Now, back to the subject at hand, why is it so hard to figure out what is going on with college students in America today?

      Our universities (and increasingly now independent colleges) are by nature sprawling and ill-disciplined, and woolly and baggy and ill tempered monsters. Such monsters are highly prone to bloat and dysfunction.

      Such Monsters are driven typically by opaque and Byzantine operations. Ones that far too often are plagued by an array of noisy and meddlesome, ill-informed and poorly managed special interests. The kind that too often are neurotic or under supervised or unaccountable special interests that should have better or most productive and accountable things to do.

      Most likely this is why schools, even the best, have always been, or at the least have always tended to be this way, and often rightly so. But things can quickly get out of hand, unless forcefully corrected from time to time. That is because what should be bizarre activity in most other corporate entities are too often standard operating procedure in the modern university, unless a strong and responsible leader or Board is in charge and exercises selfless responsibility.

      Today, and for some time, those university leaders have been in very short supply. Indeed, in these modern times with virtual reality, rampant 24/7 politics, and cultural warfare, Higher Education appears to be running out of any semblance rational control, whether as to costs, education, or civil norms of lifestyle and conduct.

      For example:

      In the late 1980s, a professor or journalist or government worker concluded that one out of five women attending US colleges were raped on US campuses before they graduated. This “study” lay largely dormant for two decades until it exploded on campuses throughout the nation around 2011.

      Hysteria ensued. What was going on?

      We (the public) still know relatively little. Aren’t college campuses among the safest places in America. Otherwise why we would send our daughters there, right? Well, not really. Although criminal rapes (as traditionally defined) on campus are rare, other risks, real risks, are surely on the rise. So say many who are in a good position to know and be trusted.

      But, still, one has to dig through disinformation, charge and counter charge, to even begin to understand what was and is going on with this “rape epidemic”, and what has been and is still driving this hysteria on today’s campuses. And what all this costs our students and all of use as well. Even today some six years after this rape epidemic hysteria started, few know how and why it started. Or what it is costing us, and for how long. Why? Is it because so few of us want to talk about what happened and why. Yet still we send our daughters happily off to college like nothing happened. Is anyone accountable for any of this? Are we that cynical or disinterested?

      Given this rape example, how can we judge something more subjective, the value of today’s undergraduate education for most our students? And why that education cost so much, irrespective of whether it be good or bad? And why and how and when will all those LOST costs and benefits, if any, come back to haunt all those lost students and all of us, and our collective futures?

  3. Geeze – such a pessimistic view of things! It sure ain’t Nirvana but it sure ain’t burning in hell – either!

    Compared to many parts of the world – and the human condition of so many, many inhabitants, – we live in the lap of luxury and yet we are never satisfied and we pedantically dwell on “things are bad and we’re all gonna die” .. inexplicably … while others in the world pray for the miracle of opportunity to come here and join our herd of sheep!

    I marvel at the sheer numbers and diversity of foreign surnames of our doctors, scientists, tech companies and yes our higher ed… while we continue take so much inward pessimistic pity on ourselves.. geeze.

  4. We’re getting what we asked for: got away from morals, values, allowed kids to have their way. This is what we get.
    For starters …

  5. each school must be best focused to give the largest number of its student, each and every one, the best chance to find and achieve his or her own unique future. Otherwise I suggest that the school too often does the reverse. It undermines too many of its students, stripping them of the best chance they have to examine their lives and realize their unique gifts.

    Reed, you offer no evidence, no examples, no data. Zippo!

    How am I supposed to believe you?

  6. This blog post is one big flaw: it assumes that the unhappiness of students is because higher education has become morally corrupt.

    I would think the real reason is that students’ mental health issues are no longer being swept under the rug. Kids are diagnosed with anxiety, ADD, bipolarity and so on. They are getting help for it: before they were told that if they showed symptoms of psychiatric problems, it might hurt their chances in the job market.

    And despite all you read, drug abuse is likely less than it was when I was in college. I knew people who were tripping on LSD, thought they were birds and ran off dorm roofs to their deaths.

  7. “The system was created for the work force we needed 100 years ago,” Ms. Powell Jobs said in an interview here Friday. “Things are not working the way we want it to be working. We’ve seen a lot of incremental changes over the last several years, but we’re saying, ‘Start from scratch.’ ”

    Laurene Powell Jobs, XQ: The Super School Project

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