Monday, April 13, 2015

Are American universities Crystal Cathedrals?

The documentary The Ivory Tower is worth watching.
It gives a broad balanced overview of the major challenges facing undergraduate education in the USA. The particular focus in on the sky-rocketing cost of tuition and student debt [now greater than $1 trillion]. It is alarming that since the 1970’s tuition has increased at a greater rate than any other “commodity”, even health care!

The documentary highlights that major contributions to the increasing cost are increasing number of administrators, many of excessive salaries, and fancy buildings [gyms, swimming pools, cafes, luxury apartments, …. all with lots of glass and open space] designed to lure students.
Rankings and status have played a perverse role leading to an unsustainable “arms race”.

But it is not all about affordability; attention is given to the other two vertices of the iron triangle [although that term is not used]: quality and access.
The hype and limited potential of MOOC’s is discussed.
They are no substitute for personal interaction, illustrated by “office hours” for the massive CS150 course at Harvard.

Andrew Delbanco features several times, emphasing the importance of quality, the intrinsic value of education [not just its monetary or utilitarian value], its role in personal transformation, specifically a broad liberal arts education, particularly in a  healthy democracy. Yet, he is no naive idealist, discussing the extreme pressures, contradictions, and instabilities of the current system.

The fascinating story of The Cooper Union is interspersed through the documentary, featuring the 60 day student occupation of the President's office.
It has now started charging tuition, contrary to the stated wishes of its founder, and its mission statement.
This dramatic change has been forced by financial mismanagement.
Cooper took out hundreds of millions dollar in loans to pay for a very fancy new building and to invest in hedge funds that lost a lot of money in the 2008 crash. The president is paid $700K per year plus a free multi-story apartment in New York City; just to lead an institution with 1000 students!

I am not sure “The Ivory Tower” is the appropriate title or metaphor.
To me  it may be The Crystal Cathedral: ostentatious, expensive, full of debt, and a perversion of what it should be?

I thank Stewart Gill for lending me a copy of the DVD. It is a pity the documentary is not available for free. But, that is a sign of how big the problem is. People are willing to pay money to watch a documentary about a depressing subject.


  1. Another part of the story for public schools is that States provide less and less funds for their (!) public universities.
    As a result, these state universities are forced to raise tuition; it has to come from somewhere.
    (And then there are states without income tax, meaning their revenue is purely based on sales tax, which fluctuates a lot more with the economic climate - and with the last few years, and the often republican control of state House and Senate in the "no income tax"-states, this has been particularly brutal.

    1. pcs,

      This is a good point. It is discussed in the documentary.

    2. There is this very recent opinion piece in the NYT that argues that cut in public funding is not the reason for tuition increase

    3. Thanks for pointing that out; maybe I should have a more (critical) scientific mind when reading on societal issues.

      I'm not sure though their reasoning is entirely adequate - but it was good to see an opposing opinion.

      [Though I also believe that the increased funding this opinion piece refers to, may have a feedback effect on increased tuition; getting more money means spending more money, which means it's easy to show you need to money - a key requirement to make a case to raise tuition.]

  2. I suggest editing to hyperlink MOOCs to other posts with this acronymn (which you may not expand earlier than its first appearance here). Your opinion on these is reasonable, in my humble opinion (IMHO). IMHO, hyperlinking is likely to lead to a better informed readership.

    1. Thanks Seth,
      I added a hyperlink to a previous post on MOOCs.