We Need A “95 Theses” For Higher Education

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Robert Oscar Lopez Author, Colorful Conservative
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Exactly 500 years ago a professor named Martin Luther felt increasingly alarmed about corruption in the Roman Catholic Church. In October 1517, Luther authored his famous 95 theses challenging the Vatican’s management of Christendom, beginning with the assertion that God “willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” While Luther did not want to tear apart the church, his actions did spur the Protestant Reformation.

Many Protestants, especially evangelicals like me, remain grateful and indebted to Martin Luther. I cannot imagine how much worse my life would be if my faith lay in the hands of unsavory church bureaucrats like the ones who hated Luther. Sometimes piecemeal reforms are not enough. Societies must radically change their  way of life.

Americans in 2017 need to think like Martin Luther.

The Higher Education Act is up for reauthorization soon in Congress. It is not surprising, therefore, that a host of proposals have surfaced from conservatives about how to amend the act to push college education toward positive change.

The number one conservative concern seems to be free speech on campus. Concerns about price-gouging and poor training in marketable skills follow as a close second. Because most self-described conservatives have an allergy to big government, it is not surprising that broader maneuvers targeting subject matter, tax exemptions, labor practices, and campus management do not figure prominently.

I have signed on to one proposal. It was the best I have seen yet, because it acknowledges that change must be radical and there must be ongoing systems of accountability.

Nevertheless, conservatives have not yet become as bold as they need to be. As I lay out in my book, Wackos Thugs & Perverts, higher education is not merely in a state of internal crisis (indeed, if you read academia’s trade journals it has always believed itself in a crisis of some sort.) The problems have spilled beyond the campus boundaries and now jeopardize many of our republic’s democratic functions. Its managerial misdeeds hamstring a large chunk of the nation’s economy and transfer wealth from poor and middle-class families to an entrenched but corrupted aristocracy. The latter holds citizens hostage through student debt and credentialing.

President Trump should veto any reauthorization of the Higher Education Act that does not force radical, comprehensive change on colleges and universities, to include not only the First Amendment and the public good, but also labor practices, conflicts of interest, and lack of accountability. In my book I specify these six  measures:

  1. Compel universities to shift resources to two-year trade degrees and away from four-year degrees, emphasizing the associate’s and master’s degrees rather than bachelor’s or doctoral degrees,
  2. Incentivize abolition of tenure or abolition of dual-track instructional employment—to wit, adjuncts teaching most classes and tenure-track faculty enjoying unwarranted privileges,
  3. Weight federal funding to discourage campuses from funding disciplines that are overtly partisan and of dubious value, such as ethnic studies or gender studies,
  4. Set firm thresholds for tuition and endowment size, beyond which colleges would have to pay taxes on their holdings like any rich corporation and not qualify for federal funding,
  5. Create a RICO [racketeering, influencing, and corrupt-organizations] unit in Washington, specifically to investigate conflicts of interest in university governance. Unethical collusion between the Democrats and bureaucrats in college hierarchies, for instance, should be investigated and followed up with penalties if political pressures taint research, personnel, or instructional decisions. While this may sound bizarre, in fact universities have enormous financial holdings and many troublesome connections to organizations that undermine the concept of the “public good.” And,
  6. Create a fairness investigation unit in the Department of Education, not focused like the Office of Civil Rights on “protected groups,” but rather on general “best practices” for running a large, high-stakes industry. Nepotism, insider deals, and bad faith in credentialing, hiring, promotion, tenure, and publication decisions should be investigated by a neutral office in Washington, one not entangled with a governor’s office or state legislature. Colleges that retaliate against political dissenters by abusing provisions like Title IX should be heavily sanctioned.

The creepy big-government tone of these proposals must be understood in context. The federal government is utterly enmeshed in both public and private higher education because of grants, loans, and tax exemptions. It is not feasible to be a small-government advocate when thousands of colleges are milking the federal government in a very big way.

Robert Oscar Lopez can be followed at English Manif, Twitter, or CogWatch.