October 21, 2003


In his latest column at the Chronicle of Higher Ed, Stanley Fish assigns a failing grade to "The College Cost Crisis"[PDF]. This is the document that was recently issued by John A Boehner and Howard P. McKeon, two Republican members of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

"In any college or university in the country," writes Fish,

a student who handed in a report pieced together from out-of-date secondary sources, a report that drew sweeping conclusions from meager and misleading data, a report that substituted random anecdotes for documented evidence, a report that tried (vainly) to hide its skimpiness by filling whole pages with bar graphs and 'bullet points' (a sure sign of the absence of real content) -- well, that student would surely flunk the course.

Really? Well, perhaps a student would flunk the course at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where academic standards must be unusually -- and admirably -- high. Elsewhere in the country, I'm afraid to say, it is now almost impossible to flunk a student on the basis of shoddy work. If a student shows up with a pulse on at least a semi-regular basis and turns in the bulk of the assignments completed at however substandard a level, that student must earn a passing grade in the course. I anticipate that Boehner and McKeon will appeal their grade and, if need be, threaten the school with legal action.

Anyway, I have to agree with Fish's characterization of "The College Cost Crisis" as "a rag-bag mixture of quotes from Newsweek, various newspaper editorials, and interviews with anxious parents." Among its "key findings" (see p. 4) is the assertion that "It's not just the economy, stupid." That's fairly representative of the document's tone, and of its tendency to present its own underlying assumptions as decisive conclusions by offering as "findings" precisely what it seeks to boldly assert.

As Fish notes, one such central assumption is "that colleges and universities should be responsive to what Americans believe, as in 'Americans believe wasteful spending by college and university management is the No. 1 reason for skyrocketing college costs'" (this is also presented as a "key finding" on p. 4). Fish disagrees: "But if what Americans believe is false (as it is in this instance), colleges and universities, rather than taking that falsehood seriously and conforming their actions to it, should labor to remove it; they should engage in education, not pandering." Fair enough. If politicians are spreading what those involved in higher education believe to be misinformation and half-truths about colleges and universities, surely those involved in higher education should enter the fray to present their own analyses and viewpoints. Where Fish takes an unfortunate turn, however, is when he adds the following by way of a sort of concession:

To be sure, the study of what Americans believe is something that advertisers, vendors, and politicians are right to be interested in, and it can even be a proper academic subject, but it should not be what drives the academy's actions.

Now I think this is taking exactly the wrong attitude toward the American public. The response to a shameless pandering to the public should not be to view that same public in the light of a practically irrelevant though potentially theoretically interesting research subject.

A similarly unhelpful elitism informs Fish's objections to the notion that colleges should be more accountable to parents, students and taxpayers:

This too, according to the report, is something Americans believe: 'Americans believe institutions of higher learning are not accountable enough to parents, students, and taxpayers -- the consumers of higher education.' But parents, students, and taxpayers are consumers of higher education only in the sense that they pay for it if they want it; they are not consumers in the sense that should tie the operations of higher education to their desires or judgments.

Here I basically concur with Laura at Apt 11D, whose "Fishism" (permalinks bloggered; scroll to Tuesday, Oct 7) argues that:

Fish's elitism undermines his argument. If you work for a public university and you receive public funds, the public has a right to know where the money is going. We call that democracy. Elected representatives (even if you didn't vote for them) have the right and the duty to ask questions about how public money is used. You can't expect a blank check from the government.

The one point that I would query: as I read it, it's not so much that Fish's elitism undermines his argument as that his argument is underpinned by an elitism that will no longer fly with the public.

And on the matter of accountability, I think Fish does a bit of pandering of his own, invoking the spectre of college curricula determined by popular plebiscite in order to highlight the dangers of running the college as a business that responds to consumer demand: "Should we settle curricular matters -- questions of what subjects should be studied, what courses should be required, how large classes should be -- by surveying student preferences or polling their parents or asking Representatives Boehner and McKeon?" Well, no, of course not. But is anyone out there seriously arguing that we should?

So Fish is having none of this public accountability. Instead, he insists that

If colleges and universities are to be 'accountable' to anyone or anything, it should be to the academic values -- dedicated and responsible teaching, rigorous and honest research -- without which higher education would be little different from the bottom-line enterprise its critics would have it become.

Two points. First, I heartily concur with the idea that colleges and universities should be held accountable to academic rather than corporate values. To this end, I would propose that both "academic values" and "accountability" be taken rather more seriously than they appear to be at present. If accountability to academic values is to mean anything, it must do more than simply provide immunization against the possibly ill-informed and misguided attacks of Republican legislators. It must also ensure not only that those entrusted with policy-making at colleges and universities do indeed work to uphold academic values but also that they are judged and held accountable with reference to that very framework of values. Needless to add, the overarching theme of this weblog concerns one key area in which colleges and universities are failing to uphold such values.

Second, I have to take issue with the "either/or" framework within which Fish places the issue of accountability: either we continue to operate indepedently of public concerns or the whole thing goes to hell in a handbasket. Who could disagree with the contention that college curricula should not be decided by popular poll? But how likely is this as a scenario? And is this really what parents, taxpayers and politicians have in mind when they call for more accountability?

Who pays the piper calls the tune? Yes and no, I think. It's my belief that publicly funded institutions must be relatively autonomous from but ultimately accountable to the public. Relatively autonomous in the sense that the ideals of free inquiry and free speech -- which are no mere empty slogans, but hard-won principles the preservation of which is essential to the continuation of a free society -- require safeguards against the threats that sometimes come from popular preferences and popular pressures. Ultimately accountable in the sense that public institutions must serve, and must be seen to serve, some public mission and/or some idea of the public good. This is tricky to argue, the more so as some members of the broader public would use "accountability" to undermine the very principles on which higher education in a liberal democracy must rest. But the difficulties of presenting the case for relative autonomy are not a good enough reason to ignore the increasing calls for public accountability.

And in pragmatic terms, as a response to the various attacks on the academy -- some of which are grossly unfair, some of which, I believe, are quite well-founded -- Fish's combination of defiant tone and fortress mentality strikes me as inadequate at best, and as potentially damaging to the goal of answering half-truths and misrepresentations with persuasive counterarguments that will indeed fly with the public.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at October 21, 2003 04:14 PM

I haven't yet read the referenced study, but I did read Fish's article on the college-cost topic in The New York Times. Rather than assigning it a grade, let me just say that I've managed a lot of budgets..and if a subordinate manager of mine responded to reasonable questions about his spending level in the same manner and with the same tone as Fish's comments in this article, he wouldn't be in a postition with budgetary responsibility for very long.

A financial fisking of Fish can be read at:


Posted by: David Foster at October 21, 2003 04:19 PM

David: I read your blog, and I concur.

I have previously set forth my back of the envelope estimates on the cost issue. My take on Fish is that he is either dissembling or he does not know what he is talking about. I dislike the man intensely, but I will give him the benefit of the doubt, and assume that he simply does not understand the numbers that the administration waives under his nose.

Of course, everyone has focused on the arrogance and elitism of Fishes argument against consumer sovereignty. I see it a little differently. I agree that his sentiments can be justly criticized on those grounds, but I think that they are also suicidal and just plain stupid.

The customer is always right is not a sentiment, it is a fact. Customers who find out that they are wrong can and do take their custom elsewhere. If Colleges piss off students, parents and taxpayers, they will discover that they do not have the clout in the legislatures to avoid the next round of funding cuts. ("Iím sorry, but we need to put that money into Medicaid to care for the sick poor.") They may start discovering that they are losing their students to the University of Phoenix.

Every failed business has lots of fixed costs. The truth is that all costs are negotiable. If they balloon out of control the enterprise will go bankrupt and the fixed costs will be discharged for pennies on the dollar. Don't believe me, ask someone who retired from Bethlehem Steel about his pension.

Contrary to Fish, the escalation of Colleges costs has gone exponential. Colleges can either get their costs under control, and pronto, or it will be done for them, roughly. The Boehner MeKeon report is not an illusion, it is the ground hurtling up at you.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at October 21, 2003 09:27 PM

Yes David, but Fish isn't your subordinate is he? He's one of the executives of an enterprise in a highly competitive industry. He's just been told by two politicians that while he has had no problem selling his product on the market at current prices some of his customers would be happier if the state were to impose price controls on his industry. They claim that there are lots of cost savings he could make quickly and painlessly, although they never get around to mentioning what they are. What are yours? The stuff that you mention on your blog is awfully unhelpful. Hire a consultant with the magic power to lower utility bills (co-gen is not the panacea you seem to think it is). Don't upgrade computers or labs (For 10 years? 20?.) Blame your predecessors for problems with physical plant. Do you have anything at all solid?

Robert claims that the customer is in fact always right, and that if universities don't stop wasting money customers will walk. This strikes me as silly. Higher Ed. is relentlessly competitive. Students can and do go anywhere. Out of all the zillions of colleges in the country why has not one starting advertising "No luxurious dorms! Prison food! Huge classes! No books in the library!" I'm not sure what you two consider to be wasting money, but if it's like the recent NYT article on college costs most of the things that "waste" money are exactly the things that customers want. The places where tuition has gone up most are the Ivies. Are they hurting for students?

For that matter, does GM have an admissions office who's job it is to determine which of the people who are willing to pay for a car will be allowed to buy one? Fish's larger point is that colleges are not aimed at profits, and that attempts to cut costs will inevitably be made by people with no interest in education and will result in much worse education. Fish is silly talking about voting on curriculum, but he is quite right in saying that the result of what the congressmen suggest will be fewer (customer unfriendly) books in the library and more (customer friendly) alt-rock concerts on campus. If the congressmen would make some serious and useful suggestions Fish would probably listen, and if not I would. Mostly they seem to have complied a long and expensive report of childish whining, and Fish is quite right to treat it with contempt.

Posted by: Ssuma at October 21, 2003 11:52 PM

I find it a little rich for Fish to claim intellectual and academic high ground. Anyone remember the Alan Sokal hoax in Social Text?

Posted by: gerald garvey at October 22, 2003 01:58 AM

Ssuma -- your analogy fails because the state and the customer are one and the same. The customer is whoever provides the money, and in the U.S. today most money at universities, whether gathered by tuition or research overhead, comes from the government.

The right way to think about it is that the university is a cooperative enterprise between laborers, who supply labor and withdraw money, and funders, who supply money. They are co-equal and have the right to bargain over what the university is and does.

So far the government has been a soft touch for the universities, but it need not always be so. And elitism like Fish's may tend to alienate taxpayers and their elected representatives, who may start to drive a harder bargain. I won't hold my breath waiting for it ... but it could happen.

Posted by: pj at October 22, 2003 10:04 AM

SSuma..."some of his customers would be happier if the state were to impose price controls on his industry."

State universities are a creature of the state. The state has an obligation to insure that their funds are spent in a responsible and efficient manner. The fact that some of the costs are recouped via tuition does not change this. "Price controls" are an irrelevant analogy.

Suppose the National Park Service were wasting so much money that the "user fees" (now at force in many parks) were raised by orders of magnitude, and most people couldn't afford to go to the parks any more. Would it be "price control" for the government to insist that NPS manage its budget more responsibly?

Posted by: David Foster at October 22, 2003 10:14 AM

But ssuma's point, David, is, first, that UIC has far more people willing to pay to attend than it could possibly admit (which makes the park analogy moot), and, second, that many things that look like waste are things the putative customer demands.

More generally, it looks like UIC's in-state tuition is under $7000/year, which is an excellent price for a research university located in one of North America's great cities. While there is doubtless some waste--as there is in every complex institutition, public or private, corporate, academic, or governmental--it's hardly clear that cutting such waste would dramatically impact tuition. (This isn't an argument that rampant waste should be tolerated--just that it's not clear that the waste correlates closely with tuition. And, of course, if ssuma is right, and waste is what the customers want, then cutting it to save tuition is only penny wise.)

Posted by: Jason at October 22, 2003 11:29 AM

"UIC has far more people willing to pay to attend than it could possibly admit (which makes the park analogy moot"

I don't think this makes the park analogy moot at all. There are ways to establish selectivity of admission other than price: higher SAT cutoff, for example. A state university is not a for-profit corporation: what is the justification for a philosophy of charging "whatever the traffic will bear?"

I agree that no organization can operate at 100% efficiency, or anything like it. But my experience is that when people react to questions about their budgets with anger and with refusal to consider *even the idea* that they might be able to do things differently and spend less--then their operations usually tend to fall at the low end of the efficiency spectrum.

Posted by: David Foster at October 22, 2003 12:04 PM


State universities are created by the state and controlled by it, but the report Fish is criticizing attacks both public and private schools. Yes, schools can alienate the legislature by being elitist and this will result in lower appropriations, but that is more or less irrelevant. Appropriations for higher ed will probably continue to shrink at the same steady rate for the foreseeable future. The old idea that the state should subsidize as much education as a student should stomach is dying, and I see little chance that it will come back. The real consumers are students, which is what both tuition and appropriations are tied to. As long as students are eager to go to his school Fish is in fine shape and he knows it. Congress is not going to eliminate student loans to get back at leftie professors. Loans are too popular. No matter how good he does at giving students a true liberal education, the yahoos in Springfield are not going to increase his appropriation. They just don’t care.

If schools take the tuition money and spend it on things that do not attract future students they will be in trouble, but I see little sign that that is happening. Schools with fancier dorms and labs and famous (not necessarily good) profs attract students. You seem to be arguing that pretty much all schools in America are wasting massive amounts of money on things that are “wasteful.” I would argue that these are exactly the things that attract students, if you make allowance for a certain amount of waste and silliness. Do you have a way to make schools 100% efficient? Concrete proposals for massive cost cutting that could be done easily and with minimal harm? What are they? More adjuncts maybe?

Posted by: Ssuma at October 22, 2003 01:37 PM


I don't think schools, or any other sort of organization, are going to be 100% efficient or anything near it. But I do think that university efficiency (and effectiveness) is harmed by (a) too much trendiness (as in excess buying of computer hardware, audio-visual toys, b-school courses on this week's favorite management fad, etc), (b) too much money spent on buildings, (c) large and excessively-multilayered admin staffs, (d) too high a proportion of resources and rewards directed toward profs whose interests lie other than in teaching. Most of all, too little focus on "how can we do our job better" vs "how can we get somebody to give us more resources?"

Posted by: David Foster at October 23, 2003 10:36 PM