Readers’ toughest questions for university presidents

Contending with higher education in America

A photo illustration of a student walking up the steps of Harvard University
Adam Glanzman / The New York Times / Redux

Welcome to Up for Debate. Each week, Conor Friedersdorf rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Last week, I asked: If you could question leaders of academic institutions like a member of Congress, forcing them to contend with any aspect of higher education, what would you ask them?

Replies have been edited for length and clarity.

Kay kept it short:

Given your massive endowments, why do you continue to serve such a limited number of students?

David posed three pointed questions:

  1. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told the nation, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Do you believe that people derive any part of their inherent self-worth, positively or negatively, from their race, ethnicity, national origin, affiliation, or any other innate characteristic that they cannot change or should not be expected to change? Should being a member of such a group entitle a person to any special privileges or burden them with any special disadvantages or responsibilities?
  2. There have been a number of instances in recent years, on campus and off, in which people have been accused of committing an offense called “cultural appropriation” or of defending students or others who practice cultural appropriation. If a cultural artifact or practice is not protected by laws, such as patent or copyright law, that are intended to benefit its original individual creators, is there any reason why it should not be available to anyone in the world who wants to adopt it or adapt it or otherwise make use of it, and if so, why?
  3. The accomplishments of humanity, past and present, are sometimes divided up by “culture,” which is usually associated with a particular ethnicity and/or geographical area or time period. For example, we can talk broadly about European culture or Chinese culture, each of which covers a huge range, spatially and temporally, or we could speak about the culture of Italy during the Renaissance, or post–World War II Japanese culture. My question is, in the undergraduate education provided by colleges and universities in the United States today, is there any specific culture or cultures that all students should learn more about than they know when they arrive? And if there is, can you please tell us the boundary lines that define that specific culture or cultures as separate from all the rest of human experience and tell us why what is within those boundary lines is more worthy of study by undergraduates than what lies outside them?

M. D. asked:

Why is college-tuition inflation so persistently high?

Leonard writes:

I would ask how academics can thrive when their school leaders regularly abandon institutional neutrality.

Jaleelah, who applied the question to her country, focused on extracurricular activities:

I would question Canadian university administrators on their lack of tangible commitment to university debate societies …If I were allowed to question my own university’s administrators, I would ask for precise figures detailing how much they earn from room-booking fees and what that money goes toward. Students whose interests range from robotics to debate to film find it cruel that the school charges clubs to use rooms that would otherwise sit empty. Universities in Canada have clearly crossed the line between improving efficiency and killing off student involvement via unnecessary stinginess. Debate clubs (but also all clubs) are crucial for helping students form their critical-thinking skills and ambitions. Universities clearly don’t care about that anymore, and they shouldn’t be allowed to pretend that they do.

Martin asked about financial matters:

Do you believe the federalization of student borrowing contributed to tuition rising faster than inflation? If a student has debt forgiven or waived, should the school they went to pay a portion of the forgiveness?

Kat inquires, “Should tenured professors and administrators take a pay cut so new Ph.D.s and teaching fellows can pay their bills? What is best for the students, a few highly paid professors, or smaller class sizes with more instructors?”

Dwight’s question: “Define ‘education’ and its value to society in terms an uneducated person can understand.” He explains:

I am a doctor. My clinical time is spent trying to translate medical consensus into language a patient can absorb. Some patients bring more to that discussion than others, and I try to adjust without condescending. I fear I fail a lot. I suspect academic leaders spend a lot less time with people from all walks of life than most of us family docs. Do those who inhabit the ivory towers get outside enough to speak to the man on the street?

A student at a selective college writes:

With all the talk about diversity and inclusion on campus, how would you increase viewpoint diversity, specifically beyond the dominant liberal voices? We lack a Campus Republicans group, and, from my experience, liberal ideas are so dominant on campus that sometimes, they are incorporated into the official campus language. I have also never seen the College’s actions on DEI be challenged by anyone on campus.  

Nancy believes that “standards like accuracy, proficiency, and academic integrity aren’t just being ignored. These standards are being attacked.” So she asks:

How does your university expect to maintain American excellence—airplanes that don’t drop from the sky, buildings that don’t collapse, surgeries that don’t kill patients? How can you preserve these high levels of excellence when your university’s rhetoric and actions are destroying the time-tested standards that made the U.S. first among nations?

Errol denigrates his degree:

If there was something I would ask leaders of academic institutions it would be this: Why are you all so hellbent on wasting money, resources, and time on unnecessary degrees?

I went to film school, and it was a waste of $150,000, a waste of years of my life, and a waste of time that I could have spent working from the ground up by just moving to an entertainment city and finding low-level gigs. I joke with the people I met in college that I paid $150k to be their friend. Why do colleges focus so heavily on meaningless degrees that needlessly put young people in extreme debt and take away potentially valuable learning years?

Robert asks, “Is the concept of relying on merit for admission and hiring in higher education racist?”

Earl believes that “many liberal-arts institutions seem skittish, defensive, and afraid when it comes to teaching the core values of Western Civilization.” In his telling, “The Greek and Roman classics, the writers and philosophers who shaped Western thought, are passé. Columbus gets bashed as an evil, invading ogre rather than explained as a function of European history.” He asks: “Are institutions afraid to embrace and promulgate the accomplishments and contributions of Western Civilization because of the ugly and brutal parts of its history?”

Jim inquires, “Regardless of major or specialization, what are the top five specific skills and/or knowledge areas that a graduating student should have mastered at your institution?”

Laura asks:

Have you ever admitted students with less-than-stellar ACT/SAT scores, a below-average high-school GPA, and overall lack of direction and character, due to family wealth and “influence”?

And Mark demands, “Why haven’t you invested a portion of your huge endowments to help the students of lower socioeconomic backgrounds succeed at the primary-education level rather than lowering your standards under the guise of equity?”

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