Dr. Paul C. Vitz has taught psychology at New York University since 1965 and has written four books. His work focuses on the relationship between psychology and Christianity. He is presently working on the psychology of atheism, the Christian theory of personality, and the psychology of hatred and forgiveness. Vitz and wife Evelyn, who is professor of French and comparative literature at New York University, have six children.
That a general state of nervousness permeates today's university community is widely acknowledged. This nervousness comes from a variety of well-known factors, but it will be useful briefly to recall them. The most obvious of these is the enormous cost both to the student and to the social institutions which support education.
In the United States it is now becoming common for a year at a private university to cost almost $30,000 (this includes tuition, room and board and modest travel and living expenses). Even so, private universities claim that this does not come near to paying the actual costs and the shortfall is made up by infusions from endowments and various forms of government funding. State universities cost less to the student but the difference is made up in tax monies which are rapidly becoming hard to justify to state legislatures, as well as to federal politicians.
Perhaps all of this enormous cost would be justified if the quality of the education itself were generally understood to be high and getting better. The opposite is the case. Professors complain increasingly about student ignorance, apathy, and even about students' incompetence at the basic skills of reading and writing. Meanwhile, the students justifiably complain that classes are getting larger and that more and more of the teachers are graduate students (not uncommonly, foreign graduate students with serious language difficulties). Students are also disillusioned to discover how little a BA is worth on the job market, and how long it takes to pay off their college loans.
The professors themselves continue to disengage from teaching and from allegiance to their own university. They see themselves as part of a national or international community of scholars, and, much like today's professional athletes, they are available to the highest bidder and often eager to move. (Perhaps university administrators should get together and agree on a "salary cap" for academic stars.)
Institutional loyalty among students is also declining as evidenced by the increasing number of students who do not finish their BA or who transfer to one or more schools before they complete their degree. Even for the better students, undergraduate education is regarded as "prep school" for later graduate or professional education. In these graduate programs, students commonly identify with their professor or their career-not the university.
Anxious administrators are increasingly aware of the demographic problem, i.e., that the sheer number of available students (especially from the higher quality pool) is in long-term decline. Other graduate programs at our universities today are made up predominantly of foreign students. Since many of these will return to their native country, it is hard to justify the considerable tax money used to support them. But rather than cut down, much less shut down graduate programs (horror of horrors!), departments continue with these students as their central support.
Another disturbing indicator of the university "malaise" is the absence of major university leaders. Today's university presidents are primarily fund-raisers and public relations experts trying to shore up the institutions and put out as many brush fires of bad publicity as they can. Indeed, it is increasingly difficult to recruit presidents for universities, and the pressures on presidents are exemplified by the recent leave of absence taken by the relatively new president of Harvard University--a leave precipitated by the stress of his job.
Meanwhile, the well-documented politicization of the universities has added a further serious liability. The political correctness movement and the significant impact of feminism and other ideologies have undermined the objectivity of many scholars and have alienated many faculty members and much of the tax-paying public.
In simple language, the morale and self-confidence of American universities has been in decline for years, probably beginning sometime in the late l960s. During this time, the massive growth of the universities in terms of programs and buildings has made them increasingly vulnerable to any serious withdrawal of public or financial support. Today's university community has all the signs of a complex, over-developed system waiting for catastrophe.
Stepping back and taking something of a historical perspective, we can interpret today's universities as modern institutions moving into a post-modern period in which traditional supports are slowly withering. Universities, of course, date back to the Middle Ages, but in their modern form--sometimes called the "multiversity"--they are only 100 to 150 years old. They are a form of academic industrialism, created by the same forces that produced the factory, the modern city, the modern bureaucratic state, and many other highly concentrated economic and political entities. In a simplified way, the modern university is the last surviving example of the l9th century factory.
These institutions are huge assemblages of centralized buildings. Besides the cost of faculty and staff, the major budget category is building maintenance. These academic factories have certain buildings set aside for the workers to live in (student dormitories), other buildings for the factory activity (libraries, classrooms, labs) and still others for the managers (administrative offices, faculty offices, and housing).
Such dense and increasingly inefficient systems are on a collision course with the new and emerging technology, and it is likely that when the new technology is fully in place, the university crisis will become concrete and dramatic. Downsizing has been difficult enough for major corporations, but when it hits the universities, the screams of pain may be deafening.
Unfortunately for the universities, many outstanding intellectuals will be deaf to their problems because so many powerful minds have already left the academic world. This point deserves some development. In the United States, intellectual life has already substantially moved out of the universities and into "think tanks" or independent institutes which are sometimes nominally in the university but function more or less autonomously. The rapid development of think tanks and similar institutions in the past 30 years has not been recognized as the real intellectual revolution that it is.
The bureaucratization of the university is well known to all those in it: the endless meetings, new forms to fill out, complicated social issues to address--or avoid. All these have greatly reduced the amount of time that can be profitably spent for what really matters to most academics: research and teaching (with motivated and well-prepared students).
Think tanks finesse all these problems; they have no athletic teams to deal with; no Chemistry 101 class to be staffed; no remedial writing courses to create controversy over political correctness; no students, other than post-doctoral interns; and hardly any government funding (and the problems that generates) to worry about. Essentially, think tanks provide ideal environments for the life of the mind, without anxieties about academic programs. What is surprising is how little money it really takes to fund a think tank--in comparison with a university budget.
In the sciences, establishing think tanks is more difficult because of research costs, but even so, independent institutes for doing high-level research have been spun off from the normal academic structures on most, and probably all, major university campuses. Perhaps professor Irving Kristol, formerly at my university (New York University) is a good example of the rising appeal of the think tanks. Given a choice between his professorship at NYU and an appointment at the American Enterprise Institute, he chose the latter--and no doubt wisely.
In other words, when the university ceases to provide a decent environment for its original major functions, other institutions come along to replace them. The result is the development of a large intellectual community which no longer has any vested interest in the universities.
Let us return to the issue of the possible impact of our new technology. The world of the personal computer, of the Internet, and the FAX has already begun a major social transformation with which many people are familiar. The functioning of business has been especially affected. The major consequence of this new technology is the decentralization of economic activity. More and more people need to be in close touch only via their computers but not in terms of physical space. For financial transactions, being in New York City or other economic centers becomes less and less important as the years go by. Likewise, one can anticipate that the new technology will decentralize education, including the university level.
At another level, we already see this in the United States with the emergence of large numbers of American children who are home-schooled. Typically these children and their families are supported by computer communications and contemporary technology, such as video-based instruction. When interactive television and interactive computer-based learning are more regularly in place, the stage will be set for an end run around the university system. For example, as the chairman of a major department of mathematics told me in a private conversation, "Why should we pay professors to teach the same course in Calculus I year after year? A top-rate video introduction to calculus, combined with tutorial support, would make it easy to abolish many faculty lines." Every fall, there are thousands of rather mediocre Introductory Psychology courses offered throughout the country. Most of these classes have hundreds of students in them, and there is almost no interaction with the professor. Far more efficient would be an excellent well-edited video presentation given by one of the half-dozen best psychology lecturers in the country (combined of course with tutorials). Indeed, one of the things that is becoming clear is that it would no longer be necessary for the student to be physically on the campus. This instruction can take place anywhere a computer can go.
As more and more parents worry about the campus environment, in terms of the pressures there that encourage everything from binge drinking to drug use to sexual promiscuity of all kinds, campus life has already lost much of its charm--especially for those who pay for it. In fact, a university could develop to take advantage of the new worldwide communication network that had no physical campus at all. Such a new university would be defined not by its expensive halls of ivy but by its efficient use of cyberspace.
Finally, what might all this have to do with Christian academics? First, I believe it means that new institutes and think tanks should be seen as the most efficient way for Christians to have an impact on the intellectual world, especially the world that is now emerging. Second, Christians should also be innovators in the use of the new technology for communicating and for developing educational programs. In fact, I believe that they are doing both of the above two things. Meanwhile, in the traditional universities, Christian professors should do their best to show personal commitment and concern for their students, and serve as beacons of enduring truth and meaning in an environment increasingly given over to post-modern ideology, bureaucratic indifference, and shallow careerism.