Maximizing Higher Education Reform

American universities are in crisis. So contend three foundations concerned about a higher education system that often stifles free inquiry, undermines high standards, and devalues aspects of American economic life, history, and culture that have made the United States an intellectually vibrant and materially prosperous nation.

For decades, philanthropists have made valiant efforts to combat the academy’s increasingly parochial mindset. They have endowed professorships. They have established alternative programs and created new courses of study. But all too often their intentions have been ultimately disregarded by the university. And the problems have only gotten worse.

Stepping into the picture are the Marcus Foundation, the John Templeton Foundation, and the John William Pope Foundation. A few years ago, these foundations began having discussions—facilitated by Adam Meyerson of The Philanthropy Roundtable and Gary Tobin of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research—about what it would take to effect higher education reform. The result of their deliberations officially opened its doors on September 18 in the form of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education.

According to its director, Frederic Fransen, this center will help philanthropists “maximize the returns on their higher education investments. We will do so by providing both advice and assistance, helping donors identify colleges and universities and specific programs at colleges and universities that are effectively preparing students for productive citizenship, helping donors design their gifts, and monitoring the way in which their money is used after it is received.”

Fransen has worked in the arena of higher education philanthropy for more than ten years, most recently as director of higher education programs for The Philanthropy Roundtable. “There isn’t a like-minded professor or organization that Fred isn’t knowledgeable about,” says Michael Leven, vice chairman of the Marcus Foundation. “And as a Ph.D. with an intellectually diverse background, he can more than hold his own in the academic community.”

The center is currently working with about ten donors who want to contribute a total of $40 million to $50 million toward higher education. “Our role in these projects varies from helping with a grant agreement to identifying reform-minded faculty, developing a program with faculty, and packaging that program for the university as well as for the donor,” says Fransen. “In one instance, we’re working for a donor who wants to have matching or even multiple matching funds, so we’re working on a mechanism that will fully fund this program. In another instance, we introduced a donor to a potential honors program at a university and are helping to craft that program for the donor. We’re also helping donors develop programs ranging in subject matter from Western Civilization to the successes and failures of the American experiment to entrepreneurship.”

Charles Harper, senior vice president at the John Templeton Foundation, argues that the existence of such programs is vital to the intellectual and material well-being of this country. According to Harper, university students should acquire a basic understanding of the “history of the rise of the culture of innovation and wealth creation, which took off around 1820, most intensely in Britain and the United States. If one seeks to understand the history of the modern world and neglects giving very careful and serious attention to the history of this gigantic transformation into the era of mass economic creativity involving the rise of tens of thousands of innovative new business companies, then the result will involve problematically serious ignorance. The lack of substantive undergraduate course offerings in this area is a major flaw in most universities today.”

Other significant flaws that the center intends to address are the college rankings system and accreditation process. “There are between 2,200 and 3,000 accredited higher education institutions, depending on how you count them,” says Fransen. “To do something that affects all of them, you have to look for the choke points or the narrow passages through which all schools have to pass. Right now, we have identified two of those: one is the college rankings system, which establishes a school’s reputation. Schools clearly react to where they are on the rankings, and they change their behavior based on the criteria the rankings system applies, particularly those of U.S. News & World Report. We believe if we can come up with means of ranking schools that are less subjective than the current methods, then we can encourage schools to reform themselves, according to a new standard of rankings.

“The other choke point is accreditation, which is essential for schools that want federal financial aid for their students. Also, most graduate schools require applicants to hold a degree from an accredited institution.

“We’d like to establish a lower bar that meets the minimum standards of accreditation by the Department of Education and allows for much more flexibility. And the model we like is one which imitates the way the Securities and Exchange Commission certifies new initial public offerings (IPOs). If you require a school to engage in the same kind of disclosure that a company going public has to do, we could put up a bond of some kind to guarantee that the school will actually do what it says it’s going to do. Those measures might be sufficient, and at a much lower cost. And it would allow for much more innovation and experimentation. This could be done on a state-by-state basis, but another option we’re exploring would be the creation of a national accrediting body that would apply the IPO model to accreditation. And this would be available to new institutions or existing institutions that are not satisfied with the current accreditation process. It would be much less expensive for the schools, and it would only take a relatively small philanthropic investment to set up a viable alternative.”

Harper emphasizes that the center’s advocacy for such reforms should illustrate that the center does not have “a fundamentally adversarial posture with respect to the academy. This would be a totally incorrect view of the center. It exists to serve students and professors and to help them be more effective and successful.”

Though the center is committed to fighting political bias in the university system, Tobin is quick to point out that “we want universities to be as free as possible from political bias on either side. If a university consisted of people who voted 80 percent Republican and represented only conservative values, that kind of political culture is unhealthy for learning and research. We do not believe in affirmative action for people of various political persuasions. Our goal is to be sure there are no political biases in the way people are recruited, hired, and promoted. For example, we discovered in our recent research that evangelical Christians are significantly underrepresented among faculty. Do universities behave as if evangelical Christians are not as bright or somehow unacceptable as colleagues compared to other religious groups? We also found very high levels of faculty religious intolerance toward evangelicals’ role in American society. It makes one wonder if there are biases in hiring and promotion, which would be extremely unhealthy for the academy. We are also concerned about other possible biases and how they are expressed in teaching, research, and the overall culture of higher education. It is my hope that the center will be able to address those issues.”

David Riggs, vice president of programs and operations for the John William Pope Foundation, hopes that more “donors will become more interested in higher education reform and the important vehicle that the center can provide. It is there as a grantmaking service, and it is designed to perform that service at an incredibly low cost to the donor so that the vast majority of cents per dollar goes toward academic programs and improving higher education as opposed to overhead.”

“The creation of this center,” says Harper, “is a significant step toward improving both the quality and the volume of wise and astute strategic giving in the higher education sector.”

Adds Leven, “We’ve planted a seed in the ground, a seed that will hopefully become a sturdy oak tree.”