“Stop Destroying Our Diploma Value!”

College of William and Mary Board of Visitors.

I’ve long been astonished by the apathy of Virginia university alumni about the policies pursued by their alma mater’s boards of trustees. Once someone graduates, I suppose they lose interest in tuition, fees, room, and board — expenses they don’t have to pay anymore. (At least they don’t worry about them until they have to send their own kids to college.)

But judging from this petition on Change.org, it turns out that alumni do care about something — their university’s reputation. Insofar as the institution’s prestige influences their job prospects, they are enthralled when colleges climb in the U.S. News & World-Report rankings and distressed when they fall.

The petition is hardly a sign of rebellion. It’s more like a plaintive cry in the wilderness. But I have not seen the likes of it before.

An anonymous poster identifying him(her)self only as “Concerned Citizen” addressed the following complaint to the College of William & Mary Board of Visitors:

We fell another 6 points in the latest (2018-19) US News College Rankings (from #32 to #38). Provost Halleran came out and made the usual excuses (he’s conveniently leaving and so are a lot of other employees).  The USN&WR rankings are the “gold standard” of college rankings.  Because of your negligence and low standards, student applications will drop next year and job placement will be negatively affected (there is a proven correlation between this ranking, applications and placement).

While I lament the focus on college rankings, I am heartened to see Concerned Citizen making some substantive arguments regarding academic quality, administrative bloat, board composition, faculty productivity, and the lack of an independent alumni association. The most damning charge focuses on the new curriculum:

The new COLL curriculum is a debasement of the former GER requirements.  Also, there are more than 20 “studies” programs that undermine our academic quality.  We are not preparing our students for the real world like we used to.  Why would we saddle our students with debt if their degrees are unmarketable?

The petitioner’s observation about the alumni association is an indictment of higher education I hadn’t heard before:

The ‘W&M Alumni Association’ is controlled by the Administration and is now a branch of the Development Office. In other words, the College wants your money but not your opinion. The College does everything possible to control the narrative and squelch criticism.

The criticism rings true. Alumni associations of the three institutions where I earned degrees function as propaganda arms of the administration rather than independent stakeholders in a system with institutional checks and balances. Alumni associations function to neuter the alumni as a constituency to be reckoned with.

One aspect of the petition bothers me. By citing William & Mary’s tumble in the U.S. News & World-Report Top Colleges ranking, the petition will only encourage university officials to redouble their fixation on rankings, skewing priorities and resource allocation in order to improve standings. As has been amply demonstrated on this blog, the ratings chase and limitless search for prestige are a big part of what ails higher education today.

Still, I applaud any critical analysis by Virginia alumni. Only nine individuals have signed the petition to date, so Concerned Citizen may be speaking mainly for himself. On the other hand, one can hope that the petition is a sign of a quiet but growing restiveness. Time will tell.

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23 responses to ““Stop Destroying Our Diploma Value!”

  1. Dear Jim,

    They’re not only depreciating the value of diplomas, these “tenured radicals,” as Roger Kimball has called them, but they have destroyed the disciplines that they purport to teach. For when you have obliterated the love of learning and the enjoyment of art and beauty and replaced it with loathing, then you have killed the spirits of the students. The reduced institutional prestige is far less significant than this. While I do not agree with the late Allan Bloom’s political philosophy, Straussian NeoConservatism, I share his lament for the loss of longing and joy for literature and Great Books. My own philistinism as a boy and youth, spared me some of the influence of these malignants. Happily, that philisinism is lifting bit by bit in my middle age, to the mutual benefit of my children, with whom I now share “belated discoveries” in our family readings.

    Sincerely,

    Andrew

  2. I went there but I couldn’t sign that petition. Just a rant, not critical analysis. I too was greatly disappointed by Gene Nichol but that is ancient history, and there is no point in harping on it. I have no idea what the school “ranked” in 1976 because that is meaningless. I created and own any value; nobody else can squander it. All of the state boards are dominated by big political donors and have been for a long, long time. The spoils system. I know how I got on SCHEV.

    • I think you are wrong about this, Steve. I certainly hope you are.

      I have long been amazed at the blase attitude of Alumni from Virginia, about Virginia. Why would otherwise intelligent, serious, accomplished graduates not care enough about the University to take the effort for figure out for themselves what is going on there, much less in all higher education today.

      I frequently have UVA graduate house guests here who value their time at UVA greatly – including last week a graduate who was a long time adjunct professor at the law school. I never fail to engage them on my beliefs and concerns. The discussion takes a while, often over a few days, a weekend, but if I do it right the process goes like this – dismissive, disbelieving, attentive listening to things however unpleasant, to genuine concern.

      So, however simplistic these initial rising concerns are, now at last they are being expressed publicly with actions taken. I think, and hope, they are the beginnings of movements all over the country where Alumni right this wonderful ship again – what we call higher education of our children.

      • I look at the Alumni movements as akin to citizens and faithful all over this nation taking back the corrupt institutions of their country. The most dramatic examples of these institutions include the Catholic Church in America.

        At long last the seriously devoted laity of the Catholic Church are coming to realize that the leaders of their Church are for a variety of reasons unable to restore the Church to its legitimate mission, and function. The Church leaders in place and control now are too compromised and too invested in the corruption to achieve the cleansing the Church needs to remedy its own grievous failings. The laity must insure by its own actions that this cleansing takes place. Or it never will. Many Catholics are coming to realize this.

        The Alumni of many of our schools of higher education are uniquely positioned to enforce this change from top to bottom, too. Its a big task but one that must be done. Education of our kids is too important not to. And the spirally failure now threaten us all, and cannot be ignored.

  3. My undergraduate degree was from W&M, so I try to follow what is going on. Admittedly, I am too reliant on stories put out by college-controlled sources (news and alumni publications), but I think that would also be the case with alums of other schools too. Like Steve, I don’t sense widespread dissatisfaction at all. In fact, I’d say alumni support and involvement has been on the rise and is very high for a public university. The college touts having the highest alumni giving rate among public national universities, which is probably a point of propaganda as noted earlier, but it also isn’t something that is achievable if alumni widely hate the school.

    Steve commented on a couple of the points in the petition, but I’ll focus on the underlying one, which is the USNWR ranking. Although I’m admittedly susceptible to propaganda, I do like to dig away at the context of “facts” and the foundation of received wisdom if I have the time, so I’ll pick one point here.

    The petition cites W&M’s fall from a high of 22, which occurred in 1988, to 38 in the most recent ranking, (decline of 16). That doesn’t sound good, certainly, but if you look at the context, it is more or less par for the course for public universities. In the same general time frame, UVA went from 15 to 25 (-10), UNC from 9 to 30 (-21), Berkeley from 5 to 22 (-17), Michigan from 7 to 27 (-20). USNWR ranking history is largely a story of private schools with more resources and “levers to pull” rising relative to public schools. The USNWR criteria has shifted to resources and not efficiency or “doing more with less”.

    W&M dropped in position from last year’s assessment, but it looks like that is largely for a reason completely unrelated to any cited in the petition. USNWR changed its criteria to include social mobility. This measurement is in fact completely based off of Pell Grant award rates and Pell Grant recipient graduation rates. University of California schools have about 40% of their enrolled undergraduates getting Pell Grants and the graduation rate is pretty good, so they rose along with other schools. Top Virginia schools tend to be much lower. W&M has about 12% Pell Grant recipients, UVA 13%, and VT and JMU about 16% (UR notably has a higher percentage of Pell Grant recipients than any of these pubic schools). Only when you get to a more urban school like ODU does the Virginia system get to a comparable rate to the UC System. According to SCHEV, W&M (and UVA) have very high Pell Graduation rates (about 89% in 6 years), but it is off of that low base. Given the focus on rankings, I’m sure these schools will now be trying to raise Pell Grant rates.

    Perhaps it would be a worthy topic on a future post to address whether Pell/Income diversity is a worthy target and whether the tuition cost shifting by income level that is most prominently done in Virginia by W&M and UVA has merit.

  4. Your comment as usual is excellent, but my central question is does it cover all the bases of quality, performance and cost. And if not, does it miss the forest for the trees.

    Here I speak generally given my lack of knowledge on W&M. Another way of expressing my concern is what do ratings miss altogether, thus miss the major elements of the fair bargain – a very good assured education of your kid at a reasonable price.

    Another words, if I am a paying parent:

    1/ How much of what I pay goes to directly educate my child, and how much is spend on costs irrelevant and/or harmful to my child and his or her education.

    2/ What is the quality of my child’s education, the quality of the courses, the quality of the teachers, the habits and culture they are taught and learn by example. Such as: If you don’t work or study, hence don’t learn, you funk out.

    Another words, beyond the two primary questions, what do other statistics matter? And why?

    With that in mind, I asked on an earlier post:

    “How do you do a cost benefit analysis of a system that is totally broken? Where all but a few learn nothing or close to nothing in undergraduate school. See books Academically Adrift. A system where most research is driven not by a quest for truth but an affirmation of tenured professors ideology and/or self interest and/or angst. Where peer review punishes any views different from rigidity held ideology. A system where costs per student and per activity are hidden from public view and misstated to force benefits and other peoples money into some parts of the curriculum while punishing and blowing up altogether other peoples education, including many disciplines of former study that now no longer educate, but instead entertain or promote grievance or political advantage. (Such Studies Departments driven by post modernism, and Identity and Grievance Politics.)

    A system that produces little or no education at all so there is a great shortage of qualified people in most fields of employment. A system of learning with no standards of performance, or coherence at all, save that of keeping students tied into their seats long enough to suck up their money while diverting most of that money away from that students education and shoving it instead towards feeding the voracious needs of tenured faculty and university administrators who refuse to teach students, only use them.

    And of course why do we see what is right in front of our noses?

    For example, The WSJ recently reported that well educated humanities students were most valued by first class high paying employers if any such well educated humanities students could be found. But finding them was increasingly rare. Thence they were precious commodities wherever found as the shortage of honest to goodness educated college and university graduates of any sort was reaching critical proportions, now indeed a national emergency.

    All this said, … At lease you can test an alleged engineer or computer scientist and their ilk. Only God knows about everyone else since they all get at least Straight A (and Bs) …”

    https://www.baconsrebellion.com/wp/business-and-computer-science-majors-are-the-biggest-bargain-in-higher-ed/#comments

    • There is another very important factor at work here.

      If the child’s parents are affluent and operate within the private networks of a very supportive local society, and if those parents have historically looked after their child, insuring that he or she has had and will have all the benefits of that support network, then in such a case it is likely that the child’s chances of success are high, despite the lack of good education in college.

      This likely is particularly so in schools like W&M and W&L and UVA. For example, who your child can meet and become a social peer with in college, is worth its weight in gold in the eyes of many, and rightfully so. That is a primary reason why such schools are so highly prized, and rankings considered important, however irrelevant they be to a truly good education.

      However I suspect that the Pell grant kids, and many others who are the first in their family to go to college, have a far harder time in and after college due to their lack of a real education there, the big debt it cost, and lack of inside and outside support, psychological and otherwise. Herein lies the greatest tragedy, how these kids with so much promise, and so much money spend and wasted, are lost. These many tragedies, however, are largely invisible to the elite class of parents and their kids, and to the colleges themselves.

      I believe a majority of college kids today fall into the lost category, whether or not they graduated. I know quite a few.

  5. If I left the impression I’m satisfied with the status quo at W&M on all points, or other state schools or the whole industry, that is not the case – and comments on this blog have been pointed. But I don’t give a rat’s patootie about the rankings and since that is what had the ANONYMOUS whiner worked up, that’s two strikes going in. I’ve now met the new Prez, she’s saying good things, and look forward to seeing what she does.

    • Steve –

      I missed altogether the ANONYMOUS aspect of the petition. Now, I own you a second apology in a single day. Let’s hope you get a petition or its ilk going where real people with real names stand up to express themselves and be counted.

      Regarding W&M outgoing President, I know nothing about that pedagogue save for my watching his “grave persona and performance” on a panel with Empress Teresa on Slavery at UVA. I am glad you’re favorable inclined to the new lady Prez at W&M, and to know she is installed.

      “a rat’s patootie’, what a wonderful characterization. I’ve heard it only once before, from Larry Arnn. Its the sure sign of great learning, and of a learned man.

      • Re: rat’s patootie. If I could award points on this site for descriptive excellence, I would have awarded to Steve for the reference to Monty Woolley’s Sherry glass. Obscure but effective.

      • I haven’t met the new W&M president, but I am encouraged that appears to have a liberal arts perspective. I thought Teresa Sullivan was brought in to UVA to try to replicate the research structure and the medical-educational complex of the University of Michigan.

        • Yes, Izzo, and I’m totally on board with your earlier comment about W&L and VMI (and W&M and others) holding special places for the future of good education in Virginia’s future. I’ll touch on your ideas tomorrow.

  6. My impression is that the vast majority are “ok” with these institutions not withstanding concerns about costs and rankings.

    There are others – that I perceive to be a distinct minority who are not happy and in the internet age – able to make sure others know of their views.

    If there was a significant number of people who were unhappy- it would be felt … and it would cause changes.

    It’s not to say that those with complaints don’t have some validity but in the bigger scheme of things – it’s like a lot of other things where people weigh the plus and minus and don’t feel the need to be activists.

    Some of these complaints here – if you applied them to most all Colleges in Virginia -you’d think the end of civilization as we know it is nigh upon us!!

    It may well be – but a crap load of people did not get that memo!

  7. I wasn’t trying to cover the forest. In my prior post, I just focused on the context of a couple of the foundational facts “ANONYMOUS” used in his/her argument. (ANONYMOUS is getting around — he/she just wrote a piece on the Trump White House in the New York Times.) It wasn’t intended to be anything other than that. I just hate misrepresentation of fact. I’ve written on many of the broader topics Reed touched on, particularly about how resources are being siphoned away from actual teaching, and will probably weigh in again when I have more time.

    In particular, I tried to explain how and the extent to which research is subsidized by tuition and other sources (but still termed instruction) but I can’t say that that has gone anywhere. . .

  8. “If there was a significant number of people who were unhappy- it would be felt … and it would cause changes.”

    That sounds right, but the reality seems to be that we are plagued by a number of issues we talk about for years with no resolution. Examples are health care cost and quality, higher education cost and quality, gun laws, entitlements, etc. It seems to me that we must lack the will, the framework to make rational decisions, or have systemic issues that hold us back, or some combination of those.

    • I could not agree more. The great majority of educated people in these country are afraid to speak up and say what they think. It is a great plague. Why has this happened? How can we fix it? The free are no longer free. The educated cower. The beasts run amuck among them now.

      William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

      THE SECOND COMING

      Turning and turning in the widening gyre
      The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
      Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
      Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
      The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
      The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
      The best lack all conviction, while the worst
      Are full of passionate intensity.

      Surely some revelation is at hand;
      Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
      The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
      When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
      Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
      A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
      A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
      Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
      Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

      The darkness drops again but now I know
      That twenty centuries of stony sleep
      Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
      And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
      Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

    • This is taken from The Stream, “Great Republics, and How They Fall, a la Cicero, by Joshua Charles, Sept. 11, 2018′”

      ‘Has any Republic in history ever gone as insane as ours, and survived? The answer is: no.

      Whether it be the nonsense in the Kavanaugh hearings, the moves to erase gender, elevate race, or the coarsening of our private and public life, it is clear that the American Republic is gravely ill.

      The Republic of Rome –

      The greatest Republic prior to the United States was the Republic of Rome. However, the Roman Republic was not the later Roman Empire. The Republic fell into ruin and dictatorship several decades before the birth of Christ. One of the great witnesses to this destruction was the Roman Senator Cicero, who was widely read by the Founders.

      Cicero was one of the first “conservatives” in history. He wrote extensively on the nature of government, the “good life” (virtue), the importance of the rule law, etc.

      The great statesman lived when the Roman Republic was on the brink of chaos. Out of this chaos would emerge the Roman Empire (Star Wars didn’t come out of nowhere). While he opposed Julius Caesar, he was not involved in the plot to assassinate him. He would later be killed at the behest of the second Triumvirate, whose policies he opposed, as they further undermined Rome’s republican institutions.

      Cicero would go down in history as one of the great champions of human freedom and virtue, as well as one of the earliest expositors of what would later become the Western tradition of rule of law. It is no wonder that Cicero was so widely read by the Founders.

      Thus, the American Republic should heed his warnings to the degenerate Roman Republic very, very seriously.

      The Foundations of a Republic, and Their Destruction, by Cicero – In Book 5 of his work, The Republic, Cicero describes the state of the Roman Republic at its end as follows:

      “On ancient customs and old-fashioned men, the state of Rome stands firm.”

      The compactness and truth of that line are such that the poet who uttered it must, I think, have been prompted by an oracle. For neither the men on their own (in a state which lacked such a moral tradition) nor the state on its own (without such men in charge) could have founded or long maintained so great and wide-ranging an empire.

      Long before living memory, our ancestral way of life produced outstanding men, and those excellent men preserved the old way of life and the institutions of their forefathers.

      Our generation, however, after inheriting our political organization like a magnificent picture now fading with age, not only neglected to restore its original colors, but did not even bother to ensure that it retained its basic form and, as it were, its faintest outlines.

      What remains of those ancient customs on which he said the state of Rome stood firm? We see them so ruined by neglect that not only do they go unobserved, they are no longer known. And what shall I say of the men? It is the lack of such men that has led to the disappearance of those customs.

      Of this great tragedy we are not only bound to give a description; we must somehow defend ourselves as if we were arraigned on a capital charge. For it is not by some accident — no, it is because of our own moral failings — that we are left with the name of the Republic, having long since lost its substance.

      Sound familiar?
      2,000-Year-Old Headlines

      Earlier in this same work (Book 1), Cicero provided a description of how the Roman Republic had degenerated, and the characteristics of that degeneration. I’ve divided each of his points into separate bullets:

      “Every private household is devoid of authority…Father fears son, son ignores father, respect is completely absent.”

      In other words, the destruction of the Roman family. The patriarchal structure of that family is not at issue here — only the fact that the family as conceived in the Republic was falling apart.

      “In the interest of universal freedom, there is no distinction between citizen and foreigner.”

      No further explanation is required, given the open advocacy of amnesty and borders in the Democratic party, and even by some Republicans.

      “A teacher is afraid of his pupils and truckles to them; they treat their teachers with contempt.”

      Again, no explanation required.

      “Youngsters assume the authority of older men; the latter lower themselves to take part in youngsters’ amusements for fear of becoming unpopular and disliked.”

      Especially since the 1960’s, American society has been consumed with an insane idolatry of youth. The word of children is often taken over that of adults. Think of students vs. teachers, or children vs. parents, particularly with regard to gender, etc. All “culture” has essentially become youth culture.

      “Citizens become so tender and hypersensitive that at the slightest hint of authority they are enraged and cannot bear it.”

      Again, is any explanation required? Clearly the politically correct attitude, and the desire for “safe spaces” is not a uniquely 21st century phenomenon, but one common to societies that are degenerating.

      These words of Cicero were written just over 2,000 years ago—and he describes our situation today with stunning accuracy. They are 2,000-year-old headlines.

      We Should Be Wary

      The Roman Republic lasted for nearly 500 years. America has yet to reach half that length. And yet, is exhibiting the worst traits of the Roman Republic at its downfall.

      We should be wary before extolling ourselves too much.

      “We make ourselves popular,” wrote John Adams in 1814, “by telling our fellow-citizens that we have made discoveries, conceived inventions, and made improvements. We may boast that we are the chosen people; we may even thank God that we are not like other men; but, after all, it will be but flattery, and the delusion, the self-deceit of the Pharisee.”

      If we’re to preserve the American Republic, we must recover the historical and moral sobriety of its Founders. There is zero historical precedent for any society remaining free while abandoning this sobriety. None.

      Therefore, we Americans should read the 2,000-year-old “headlines” of Cicero and others, rather than the endless stream of irrelevancies that fill our present.

      Our very freedom depends on it.”

      SEE THE STREAM, GREAT REPUBLICS, AND HOW THEY FALL, a La Cicero.

  9. We have problems – no question .. .whether it is K-12, or health care or immigration or more – and they are complex and they are symptoms of a society and culture that is changing…..

    but I still remain a half-glass full guy where we also have a lot of good things and we don’t blow everything up to start over but rather work to fix the problems.

    It’s not very satisfying especially for those who see the problems as direct and imminent threats…but still…

    I look at the bigger world also. Is Higher Ed going to hell in a handbasket on a world-wide basis? Is Higher Ed in Canada self-destructing also?

    I just don’t see it.

    And I don’t think most people see it.

    Again – it’s not that we don’t have problems.. even serious ones – but if we do not have an optimistic view of going forward – we’re actually are doomed.

    The funny thing here is that our problems are caused by US – it’s a reflection of our own human flaws – that all of us have… and contribute to the issues.

    We have what is know in the vernacular – “liberty” in this country. No, it’s not unlimited and yes there are restrictions but on a worldwide basis – this country is better than most.

    I refuse to hold a dark vision … it’s not justified and it’s counter-productive to seeking change. Having said that – any of us have to associate with others to get that change or else we just become disgruntled individuals who hate life.

    Not me.

    • “I look at the bigger world also. Is Higher Ed going to hell in a handbasket on a world-wide basis? Is Higher Ed in Canada self-destructing also? I just don’t see it. And I don’t think most people see it.”

      This site is primarily about Virginia with U.S. trends for context. Talking about the world or Canada is relevant only for comparison and best practice purposes. The cost of higher education have gone up faster in the U.S. than any other industry over the last 40 years and it is the highest in the world. In that time, college graduation rates have gone from first in the world to middle of the pack. College loan debt now exceeds consumer credit debt and is now at $1.5T and some projections have default rates reaching 40% by 2024 with loans guaranteed by taxpayers. There is a problem and the focus should be what are we doing about it in Virginia.

  10. I don’t think Virginia is outside the norms for the USA.. it’s not issues that are central to how Virginia Higher Ed works. Instead, it’s reflective of national trends.

    The reason I also try to keep a world context is for folks who say that Virginia or the US is terrible – why not bring up countries where they are “better” and don’t have our problems?

    Otherwise – the complaints are not objective.. they’re are purely subjective – and part of the proof of that is that most folks in the USA and Virginia do NOT have the complaints we hear here in BR… They do NOT believe that Virginia Higher Ed is going to hell in a handbasket. Yes.. it’s gotten expensive but no more than a thousand other colleges in the US and in fact in a USA-context UVA is considered one of the best and most affordable yet if you come to BR – you get an entirely different viewpoint from some of the complainers here.. And it’s a viewpoint that is not shared by most including the Alumni for higher ed which continues to strongly support Virginia Colleges.

    If Virginia Higher Ed was clearly overpriced and under performing compared to other USA or World colleges – a valid point could be made. But they are not and so the criticisms are from folks who have laundry lists of complaints about Higher Ed – it’s like Virginia Higher Ed is a massive failure but thousands of students and their parents apparently do not agree… and they do plop down their money, go into debt, etc.. and one would think if there were actually better alternatives – that they would be pursued…

    In the end, Higher Ed is a market also.. there are LOTS of choices with a wide range of academics and prices… people make choices and if some of the competitors are inferior – people choose others.. The market is what enforces what people want – not individuals who want the govt to intervene.

    So .. we make the round robins on the blog subjects here on BR and when it cycles back to Higher Ed – we get the same dark vision dialogue over and over and my view is that Virginia Higher Ed is not that bad – and that USA Higher Ed is not that bad – .. there is no shortage of “customers” and that includes folks from other countries wanting to go here.

    • Wow. Larry get a participation award for that comment. So long as Virginia’s higher ed is better than average everybody should pipe down. Forget the falling rankings, look the other way at declining affordability …

      Wahoo wahoo wah
      Sinking in Virginia

    • Larry, I’ll grant you that Virginia’s system of public higher ed is better than most — for now at least. The question is, is that good enough?

      I frame the issue differently from you. I regard the entire U.S. higher education system as a mess. I focus on Virginia’s because… drum roll… this is a Virginia blog. My job is to continually ask what we can do better.

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