For the last 70 years, American higher education was assumed to be the pathway to upper-mobility and a rich shared-learning experience.
Young Americans for four years took a common core of classes, learned to look at the world dispassionately, and gained the concrete knowledge to make informed arguments logically.
The result was a more skilled workforce and a competent democratic citizenry. That ideal may still be true at our flagship universities, with their enormous endowments and stellar world rankings.
Yet most elsewhere, something went terribly wrong with that model. Almost all the old campus protocols are now tragically outdated or antithetical to their original mission.
Tenure -- virtual lifelong job security for full-time faculty after six years -- was supposed to protect free speech on campus. How, then, did campus ideology become more monotonous than diverse, more intolerant of politically unpopular views than open-minded?
Universities have so little job flexibility that campuses cannot fire the incompetent tenured or hire full-time competent newcomers.
The university is often a critic of private enterprise for its supposed absence of fairness and equality. The contemporary campus, however, is far more exploitative. It pays part-time faculty with the same degrees far less for the same work than it pays an aristocratic class of fully tenured professors.
The four-year campus experience is simply vanishing. At the California State University system, the largest university complex in the world, well under 20 percent of students graduate in four years despite massive student aid. Fewer than half graduate in six years.
Administrators used to come from among top faculty, who rotated a few years from teaching and scholarship to do the unenviable nuts-and-bolts work of running the university. Now, administrators rarely, if ever, teach. Instead, they became part of a high-paid, careerist professional caste -- one that has grown exponentially. In the CSU system, their numbers have exploded in recent years -- a 221 percent increase from 1975 to 2008. There are now more administrators in that system than full-time faculty.
College acceptance was supposed to be a reward for hard work and proven excellence in high school, not a guaranteed entitlement of open admission. Yet more than half of incoming first-year students require remediation in math and English during, rather than before attending, college. That may explain why six years and hundreds of million dollars later, about the same number never graduate.