It is virtually axiomatic in higher education circles that the more money spent on the educational enterprise the better the results. Although just what “better results” might mean is often left unclear, the nexus between money and quality education is rarely subject to challenge. The word most deplored by academics and administrators is “retrenchment,” a term that inspires fear and loathing.
While it is of course true that educational enterprises require money, there is something odd about the assumption that infusion of additional funds to the academic operation will necessarily result in improved education. After years of constructing budgets, I have found very little evidence to support the claim that money buys sound education. In fact, at the risk of facing an auto-da-fe organized by my colleagues, I would argue that retrenchment has its virtues.
Very often a college faculty, forced to cut its budget, must consider what is truly indispensable in the curriculum. In my opinion, this is a much-needed exercise. In past flush periods for higher education spending, new programs and courses were often added without much consideration or debate. As long as money was available, curricular innovations easily found their way into the college catalogue. As a consequence, whatever might have existed of a carefully crafted, philosophically coherent curriculum gave way to an academic smorgasbord, or what some analysts have called the “academic supermarket.”
There is a dubious link between genuine scholarship and such fashionable courses as peace studies, feminist literature, seminars in social activism, consciousness raising, semiotics, and a host of other current preoccupations. But since the argument could be made that these courses fall into the realm of “curriculum enrichment,” and since taxpayers and unwary parents appeared willing to pay for them, there was little resistance to their approval and implementation. But now the financial well is running dry, and a number of formerly sacred cows are coming under careful scrutiny.
A recent book, The National Review College Guide, lists what its editors, Charles Sykes and Brad Miner, consider the nation's “fifty best liberal arts colleges.” While the schools vary widely, they hold a number of things in common. Most of them—Columbia College is a notable exception—are small and without large endowments. All are private institutions unable to count on the beneficence of annual government subventions. And all of them have a well-developed philosophy of education manifest in a clearly defined curriculum.
Conspicuously avoided in these colleges is the Chinese-menu approach to education. These institutions know what is worth teaching and scrupulously resist the idea of having undergraduates determine their own programs. Rarely have I encountered a seventeen-year-old who upon entering the academy has a firm grasp of what to read and study. The philosophy of the curriculum is a reflection of the collective wisdom of the faculty. Where you have a curriculum without a clear philosophy, you have either a faculty without wisdom or one that has abdicated one of its fundamental responsibilities.
Aside from offering the opportunity to bring coherence to the curriculum, retrenchment also has the virtue of capturing faculty attention, somewhat in the manner of a hangman's noose. As Robert Iosue, president at York College, has pointed out most persuasively, faculty members aren't very productive—assuming, that is, that productivity is related to the number of teaching hours in a week. During the 1960s and 1970s, it became customary for faculty members to teach no more than eight to twelve hours a week. Before that period, teaching normally involved somewhere between sixteen and twenty hours a week. If one were to assume time for preparation of lectures, grading of papers, and office hours, the typical professor today works something like a twenty-hour teaching week. The defense of this limited teaching schedule is that scholars are using the rest of their time to explore the frontiers of knowledge. Yet as most surveys indicate, only a small percentage of faculty members engage in research and writing and an even smaller number publish.
It therefore may be fair to suggest that budgetary reductions can encourage a renewed interest in teaching, an interest that has atrophied in recent years. A resurgent interest in teaching may have a beneficial effect on students, even though the relationship between teaching and learning is often ambiguous.
While the relationship between spending and educational achievement is wrapped in a fog of uncertainty, there is no reason to assume that educational cuts will adversely affect academic achievement. It is instructive to note that in the last eight years New York State has increased educational spending by 102 percent in real terms, i.e., after accounting for inflation. During this same period median SAT scores of New York State students declined by seven points. By focusing the attention of faculty members now accustomed to routine spending increases, cuts in funding may have the unintended effect of improving the situation of teaching and learning about which a concerned public is justifiably upset.
Herbert London is Dean of the Gallatin Division at New York University and a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute.