The Fall of the Ivory Tower: Government Funding, Corruption, and the Bankrupting of Higher Education

Education Should Not Be a Federal Responsibility

This book picks up where Dinesh D’Souza leaves off. Not only has political correctness reached epidemic proportions in higher education, but so have mismanagement, waste, and corruption. The cause: a long history of expanding government involvement which has created a class of dependents whose lust for easy money is matched only by their irresponsibility. Roche sees the scandal of public higher education becoming the S & L Crisis of the 1990s, and for the same reasons.

The Constitution never mentions education as a federal responsibility. Nevertheless, in 1862 Congress passed the Morrill Act which created the land grant system. A guiding theme of the Progressive era became “education for everyone at public expense.” Government funding, whether through direct support for colleges and universities or student loans or support for faculty research, has grown exponentially ever since.

Roche’s book highlights three consequences of government involvement in education: (1) As federal subsidies increase, decision-making shifts from economic to political terms; (2) every government dollar comes with strings attached; and (3) with protection from the marketplace, quality declines, waste and mismanagement increase, independence is discouraged, and excellence is supplanted by mediocrity.

Roche presents compelling evidence that the deplorable situation cannot go on much longer. Expenditures have gone through the roof; government assistance to students alone costs taxpayers over $22 billion a year. Defaults on student loans are at record highs; $64 billion (out of $93 billion) in student loans between 1965 and 1989 has simply disappeared. The well is now drying up. While government dollars still flow abundantly into university coffers, universities are all having to tighten their belts. Given exposés about campus radicalism, athletic scandals so numerous that new ones are barely newsworthy, academic dishonesty (including plagiarized and faked research as well as cheating by students), and graduates who are behind their counterparts in other advanced nations, the public is starting to rebel. Colleges and universities, even prestigious ones like Harvard, have lost their reputations—to the point where the name Harvard once evoked boos rather than cheers from a group of business and community leaders (p. 250).

Roche suggests three reforms. First, educators need to recover leadership values. The socialist concept of “shared governance” should be scrapped, so that university presidents can make decisions in the best interest of their institutions without being fought at every turn by faculty or forced to be glorified fund raisers. The stifling layers of bureaucracy should be disbanded. Second, educators should discover marketplace values. The tragedy of government funding is that it has protected higher education from the marketplace, thus nurturing mediocrity and irrelevance, not to mention ideologies resolutely hostile to intellectual and economic freedom. Universities should be accountable to students and tuition-paying parents in the way a business is accountable to customers and stockholders who can take their money elsewhere if dissatisfied. Third, higher education must return to academic and moral values. Academe once represented the pinnacle of intellectual achievement in the West. It commanded respect as the transmitter of knowledge, wisdom, and culture to the next generation. Today it is becoming a laughingstock. It is necessary to reject trendy relativism and restore the view that certain ideas have passed the test of time: truth, honesty, morality, the work ethic, economic liberty, limited government. Without reforms in all these areas, the ivory tower will continue to fall.

There are occasional gaps in Roche’s discussion. For example, he says little of the tenure system which protects hundreds of unproductive professors at the expense of their more productive juniors. But this is a minor complaint in the face of what Roche has assembled here. This book, boasting a foreword by Malcolm S. Forbes, Jr., is a major contribution to public discussion of the crisis in higher education today. More comprehensive than either Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind or Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education, this book could have an even greater impact if enough people get to read it. It is worth observing that George Roche, President of Hillsdale College, practices what he preaches. Hillsdale accepts no federal money, direct or indirect, and offers students privately funded alternatives to government loans.

Professor Yates is author of Civil Wrongs: What Went Wrong With Affirmative Action (San Francisco: ICS Press, 1994).

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