COUNTERPOINT: To stop corruption scandals, strip universities of elitism

It would be fair to ask “How do we stop this from continually happening?” Short of finding a way to fundamentally transform human nature, I’m not sure it’s possible. Wherever there are great concentrations of wealth, power and prestige —whether in governments, corporations, universities, churches or other institutions — there will always be tantalizing opportunities for abuse. And people, being as they are, will take them.

The corruption of academic administrators, a phenomenon USC has become all too familiar with in recent months, points to a bigger issue than simply poor character among individuals. It also highlights the endless growth of the modern university’s wealth, power and prestige, and the consolidation of its position atop American society, in its role as the primary determinant of middle-and upper-class status. Just as consolidation and dominance has led to corruption and decadence in other institutions — note the high-level scandals in California’s government over the last decade, or the near-criminal activities that caused the 2008 financial crisis — academia’s domination of its own sector has measurable moral consequences as well.

How do we fix this? The most obvious answers, to take a page out of the progressive playbook of the early 20th century, are regulation and competition. Back then, when confronted with the great industrial, transportation and energy monopolies of the day, progressive reformers divided into two factions with different answers. Some argued that the empowering of government institutions to regulate and balance the great trusts and consolidated corporations would keep those institutions operating efficiently and in the public interest. Others argued that the great trusts, banks and businesses would need to be fully broken up, with competition restored to the formerly consolidated sectors. Ultimately, these approaches would be combined into the New Deal in the 1930s, when large banks were indeed broken up, while most industries were regulated by new bureaucracies.

In the 21st century’s “gilded age” of higher education, it seems to me that some elements of both approaches would be useful.

For better or for worse, the university system isn’t going anywhere, and it won’t be opened up to any significant competition that can truly offer the same services any time soon. There are many reasons for this, but the chief one is that higher education is a guild rather than a business. Its practice and teaching requires years or even decades of experience and cultivation, and is not easily tradeable or purchasable. (For this reason, the notions that we could “fix” higher educational inequity either by opening it to a free market or by universal provision by the government have a limited view of what education really is.)

But the university system does hold a monopoly in at least one way that it need not — and that is that, in the current post-GI Bill context, a university education is the only sure ticket to the kinds of high-skill or high-pay jobs that allow middle-class living, and which correspondingly grant one middle-class social status or higher. So more and more students who otherwise might not consider four-year university educations get them anyway, and continue to feed the higher education beast with more and more dollars every year.

There are very clear alternatives to this universal university model. Trade and technical schools and community colleges have been popular among lower-income Americans for a long time, and might be attractive for even more if they weren’t associated with lower prestige than the university system. So the development of a political economy with multiple, non-university paths to middle-class status and prestige, where apprenticeships, community colleges, trade schools and national service programs stood alongside university education in affording wealth and dignity to more and more Americans across the income spectrum — this would be the best way to undercut the monopoly of the university system in America today.

This, coupled with better management from the U.S. Department of Education, the state-level education bureaus and various national accrediting associations, could probably help to streamline the reforms of higher education to make it nimbler for the 21st century and remove its more parasitic and predatory aspects in the American social system.

This is all only indirectly related to the topic at hand, the corruption within academia. But as long as the modern university stands unchallenged at the top of the American social system, the opportunities for administrative bloat and individual corruption will go unchecked. Cutting the university down a notch might humble it.

Luke Phillips is a senior majoring in policy, planning and development. “Point/Counterpoint” runs Wednesdays.