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Ivory Tower Blues: A University System in Crisis

Ken Steele reviews the book, Ivory Tower Blues: A University System in Crisis, by James E. Côté and Anton L. Allahar (University of Toronto Press, 2007).


Ivory Tower Blues has garnered a good deal of media attention since it was published earlier this year, perhaps because the media always loves a good “crisis.” In a nutshell, the authors believe that systemic problems are undermining Canada’s universities, arising over the past few decades from a complex interplay of government funding cuts, tuition increases, increasing PSE participation rates, growing class sizes, high school grade inflation, and a labour market glut. Also in for some harsh criticism: the millennial generation and their helicopter parents, professor teaching evaluations, and political correctness. I’ll try to summarize the components of their argument here.

Universal Access to University:

The crisis facing Canadian universities today was created by immense growth throughout the twentieth century. Since 1900, when there were just 6,800 university students in Canada, the system has grown more than 150 times, to accommodate a million students. (In the same time, the population of Canada grew only by a factor of 6.)  Just 30 years ago, only 10% of the baby boom generation attended university, but today 40% of their children do.

The role of universities in society has somehow been transformed from scholarly institutions for research and intellectual exploration into “reluctant gatekeepers of the middle-class.” The authors observe that university is touted in our society as a universal panacea for employment success, and the democratization of educational access has become a politically correct, unquestioned good. Canadians have been too quick to accept that a university education is the best way for young people to experience personal growth, they argue. Maturity can also come from four years spent traveling, or working at a challenging job.

High School Grade Inflation:

Moving from a reality in which 10% of students wanted to attend university, to one in which 40% intend to go, exerted immense social and political pressure on high school grades. At the same time as “social promotion” took hold throughout elementary schools, passing students regardless of competence to avoid inflicting social harm, high schools were pressured to provide 40% of their students with the grades required for admission to university.

The authors provide an overwhelming amount of data to prove that grade inflation is real. In 1968, just 18% of American students earned “A” averages, but now 44% do. Fully 95% of incoming freshmen report A or B averages in high school. (The authors observe that Alberta’s high schools seem to have controlled grade inflation much better than Ontario schools: just 20% of Alberta grads report A averages.)

A fundamental problem is that society has lost its traditional understanding of a normal distribution of grades around a C average. C was the traditional reference point for average or satisfactory. A “gentleman’s C” used to be perfectly acceptable, but today few parents would tolerate it. Somehow, Bs have come to mean satisfactory, while Cs are viewed as punishment.

The authors argue strenuously that the only meaningful way to assign grades is on a normal distribution curve, in a “classic zero-sum arrangement.” Everyone cannot be above average in intelligence; by definition, half of every high school class is below average in intelligence.

Some argue that by some miracle – despite spending less time on homework, spending more time on electronic distractions and in paid employment – today’s crop of young people is more naturally brilliant than former generations, and therefore grades are rising. Of course, plenty of evidence contradicts this argument, and supports grade inflation. (For example, scores on SAT, ACT and GRE tests across the US have all shown stability or decline over time.)

The Mini-Me Generation:

Peg Tyre wrote in Newsweek that as Baby Boomers raise Millennials, “the Me Generation is raising the Mini-Me Generation,” obsessing with their children’s success as a key component of their own. Côté and Allahar disparage the modern “cult of self-esteem,” which sees all students repeatedly awarded gold stars, bolstering their self-esteem but diminishing their work ethic. The “coddling model” infantilizes young people, leading them to seek popularity and to expect to be treated as “special” – “precarious forms of ego-inflation” which result in escalating anger, anxiety and depression among university students. “In the past, when… a C meant ‘average’… very few students came to universities with the (false) assumption that they were outstanding. Most now apparently do.” Many undergraduates, they observe, can come to university as “know-it-alls or unteachables.”

Remedial University:

The authors argue, “as more and more students with inflated grades, but lower levels of academic interest and ability, have entered Canadian universities year after year, many professors have given in by watering down their courses and inflating grades.” Not only that, but universities have responded to freshman classes without competent skills in reading, writing, or mathematics, by establishing “all manner of remedial courses, writing-skills workshops, calls for mentors and private tutors, and assorted learning support centres.” This “spoon-feeding approach to education” has transformed university from an intellectual enterprise into an extension of high school. “The processes of democratization and political correctness have witnessed the wide conferring of college and university credentials on increasingly large numbers of individuals, who are not necessarily academically or intellectually inclined.”

The Evils of Course Evaluations:

The shift to a consumer mentality among undergraduates has been accelerated by widespread adoption of course evaluations, to provide accountability for professor teaching. Although they report glowing evaluations themselves, the authors argue strenuously that the result has been the tail wagging the dog: “the pandering of professors in search of the approval of their students.” A survey found that 70% of professors agree that untenured profs are intimidated by course evaluations.

Course evaluations, say the authors, range “from vitriolic to romanticized” for the same professor, and are highly unreliable. Statistically, course evaluations correlate strongly with the grades given to the students doing the evaluating. Worse, many professors start to “teach to the evaluations: be as nice as possible, teach easy courses, give high grades, use the least possible amount of assessment, and do not require independent work.”

The Disengagement Compact:

The authors argue that the very existence of NSSE (the US-based National Survey of Student Engagement), and the insistence of Ontario’s Rae Review on implementing it at all Ontario universities, is proof of a disengagement epidemic. Disengagement, they argue, stems primarily from the fact that half of all university students simply don’t want to be in university; a generation ago, they would have quit, failed, or been expelled.

George Kuh, the director of NSSE, has coined the phrase “disengagement compact” to describe the politics at play in modern university classrooms. There is an unspoken “mutual non-aggression pact” that leads many professors to take the position, “I won’t make you work too hard… so that I won’t have to grade as many papers or explain why you are not performing well.”

The modern-day university leaves bright students alienated and disappointed, while the majority seeks to “game” the system in order to attain their credential. About 10% cut classes routinely, but far more are “physically present but psychologically absent.” The end justifies the means, as two-thirds admit that they have cheated on a test, and 9 out of 10 have copied someone else’s homework. “The attendance and effort of many university students would get them fired if they were in the labour force.”

The Workforce Glut:

Not only is the situation bleak inside the ivory tower, but the job market awaiting new university grads is also harsh. Canada is quite proud to top the OECD nations, with 41% of our workforce (over age 25) possessing post-secondary education. Authorities regularly announce that two-thirds of new jobs will require at least a university degree – but the authors argue convincingly that this vastly overstates the need for degree credentials in the workforce. They argue that, in the 1990s, Canada graduated twice as many university graduates as the number of jobs created requiring that credential. As supply exceeds demand, the value of the credential diminishes.

Too many Canadians, they say, have accepted “the belief that a university education is superior to all other forms of job preparation,” with the unfortunate result that other forms of training have been stigmatized. (Most professors would recoil from the idea that an undergraduate education is job preparation at all.) We’ve all heard the refrain about university graduates earning a million dollars more over their lifetime – but, point out Côté and Allahar, this statistic is misleading in two ways.  First of all, it’s an average – “about one in four university graduates earns less than the average high-school graduate, and about one in four high school graduates makes more than the average university graduate.” Secondly, it’s not necessarily the university education that is responsible for the increased earning power – it could also quite reasonably be ascribed to social status, family connections, personal work ethic or natural talents.

The authors argue convincingly that high school grade inflation means many students graduate from high school without mastering the basic 4Rs, and that therefore employers have come to regard a university degree as a better indicator of high school success. The result, of course, is that a university degree becomes the ticket to entry-level positions that used to accept high school diplomas as sufficient credential. Rising credentialism has created a generation of young people who are kept dependent on their parents until their late twenties in a “moratorium on adulthood.” They enter the workforce earning low wages and saddled with significant student debt, with little better job training that a solid high school education would have provided a generation ago.

The Problem is Systemic:

Côté and Allahar are careful to emphasize that “the crisis should not be blamed on the hapless students who are caught up in it.” The high school, university and labour market system they have inherited “is in many ways irrational.” They do not claim to have all the answers (although their opinions about grade inflation and course evaluations are very clear), but they hope that Ivory Tower Blues will spark “a public debate… about the reforms necessary to fix a university system in crisis.”

They continue to monitor the crisis on their website,

If the evidence marshaled by the authors of this book were not sufficiently convincing, I am astonished by how closely their arguments are reflected in another book published this year from the student’s-eye perspective, Jeff Rybak’s What’s Wrong with University (see my review of that book).

Please feel free to post your own thoughts and comments here!

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