The University of Texas at Arlington consists primarily of large parking lots, brown patches of grass and rectangular buildings capable of holding thousands of students. When I was a tenure-track assistant history professor there, for four years in the mid-2010s, it was staffed mainly by underpaid adjuncts and overstuffed with unmotivated students biding time that would have been better spent in community college, or in some apprenticeship programme. All of us were overseen by a university president who was later forced to resign when revelations surfaced of his cosy financial relationship with Academic Partnerships, the private company that ran the school’s ever-expanding online programme, which was essentially a diploma mill intended to generate cash.

When I wasn’t giving attendance-optional history lectures to hundreds of undergraduates — who’d sit there watching the latest episode of Breaking Bad — I was inveighing against the university’s debased standards: writing in The Atlantic and going on National Public Radio to explain that I didn’t even bother to grade most of these sad, ill-informed consumers who were going into debt for a degree worth less than the paper on which it was printed. By the time I departed in 2016, I was arguing that this mediocre school, and other lesser universities like it, should be taken apart brick by brick. UT-Arlington was doing a disservice to most of its students and defrauding taxpayers along the way.

Now, Republican politicians around the country are taking aim at state higher education institutions. But their reasons differ greatly from my own: they seek control of what is being taught, rather than an overhaul of the system. Most notably, Florida Governor and hopeful Presidential nominee Ron DeSantis has made it his mission to defund diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programmes at all state-subsidised universities overseen by his administration. He is also advocating for governor-appointed trustees to have the power to eliminate majors in certain subjects.

In January, DeSantis replaced six of the 13 members on the New College of Florida’s board with trusted supporters, including Christopher Rufo, who has spearheaded the nationwide push to restrict critical race theory (CRT) in public-school curricula. Other big-state GOP governors are making similar moves in their states, with Greg Abbott of Texas going after CRT, and Glenn Youngkin of Virginia appointing conservative trustees at the Virginia Military Institute.

DeSantis’s stated reason for taking over New College was that it was no longer serving the students of the state, citing an enrolment decline of 27% between 2016 and 2021, which he attributed to the school’s emphasis on race and gender theory (while conveniently omitting the fact that the incoming class for fall 2022 was the largest in New College’s history). New College doesn’t grade its students, but rather encourages them to explore a variety of liberal arts subjects — though its faculty, student body and course offerings lean far to the Left. The Florida Governor appears to be proposing to turn an offbeat hippie college into an offbeat “Great Books”-inspired college. Critics of DeSantis argue that he is attempting to turn New College into “Hillsdale South” — referencing the influential Right-affiliated college in Michigan where a number of eminent conservative thinkers have taught or been educated.

Behind DeSantis’s focus on this tiny school — which currently has a total of 700 students — is a bigger project: his move is supposedly the first in a series, per Chris Rufo, that will allow conservatives to effect their own “long march” to reclaim these institutions.

But while his rhetoric is grabbing headlines, DeSantis’s battle for ideological control of curricula is merely a distraction from the much greater crisis in education — the one that troubled me during my own time in academia. Instead of kvetching about CRT and bathroom access, our governors ought to be completely restructuring the country’s lower-tier state universities, which, aside from one or two flagships per state, are generally third-rate operations. Nationwide college enrolment has declined by 9.4% in the past two years, and these schools have been hit especially hard. State-funded universities are having their budgets slashed and adjuncts are even more overworked and underpaid; there is more focus on ineffective online classes, and worse learning outcomes for students who have been paying to watch ill-run Zoom courses in their cramped dorm rooms.

DeSantis’s own state is a textbook example of academic bloat. The State University System of Florida consists of 12 public universities, with 341,000 enrolled students, of which only four are engaged in what the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education refers to as “very high research activity”. The rest of these institutions, such as the enormous Florida Atlantic University, are vast and shabby post-secondary “student warehouses”, similar to UT-Arlington.

It is these universities, not the tiny New College of Florida, that constitute the real threat to public education — and not because they are “woke”, but because their retention and graduation rates are horrific. They are enrolling students, taking their federally-subsidised student loans, and barely graduating around 50% of them. The students, mostly commuters unsure of what to do with themselves but unable or unwilling to enter the workforce after high school, drift in and either drop out immediately, pocketing their first helping of financial aid, or linger forever, accumulating vast amounts of debt for a degree in a vague, meaningless subject like “Communications” or, as at UT-Arlington, “University Studies”.

The more complicated the system becomes, the more difficult it will be to reform it. America’s public post-secondary education depends on a welter of separate and sometimes overlapping budgets, but to be eligible to get a cut of the all-important $235 billion pool of federal financial aid, colleges have to meet Kafkaesque accreditation standards. Each state works with a cartel-like private accreditor, subjecting all universities to its review, regardless of the ambitions or capabilities of their student bodies. Typically, the result is a report that numbers hundreds of pages with innumerable recommendations, which creates absurd amounts of work for administrators and often drives excessive spending increases in order to meet supposed shortfalls in facility or faculty quality.

DeSantis, like other Republican governors, has little to say about this vast system that serves almost no one and does nearly nothing. He just wants to turn a silly boutique Left-wing school into a silly boutique Right-wing school. If he had genuine vision, befitting a potential president, he’d look to scupper the ageing hulks in his university fleet, sinking the likes of Florida Atlantic University to the bottom of that ocean, and starting from the ground up. Not every university needs to be a research-driven “multiversity” intended to be a “prime instrument of national purpose”, of the sort envisioned by former University of California president Clark Kerr in 1963. What the nation needs more of are small, single-subject institutes of the sort that propelled American higher education forward in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The single-building Litchfield Law School founded by Tapping Reeve in 1774, set the standard for American legal education, educating everyone from Vice President Aaron Burr to Supreme Court Justice Henry Baldwin, before closing in 1833. Dropsie College for Hebrew and Cognate Learning, also confined to a single building, was the centre of Jewish Studies in America, training luminaries such as Benjamin Netanyahu’s father Benzion until its closure in 1986.

In other words, DeSantis — indeed, governors of all stripes — should be figuring out how to radically shrink higher education. College must be more than an open-to-all holding cell for twenty-somethings. Community colleges, consistently the best value throughout the US when it comes to technical certifications, can pick up the pre-professional slack, as can trade union training centres and apprenticeships. And focused, single-subject institutes will offer far better training for those with specialised skills. Law school should no longer require a degree for admission — an onerous and stupid prerequisite that sets the US apart from other Anglophone countries — and should also accept far fewer students overall, in order to increase the wages and job opportunities of those who graduate. (At the moment America, a nation of 332 million people, has 1.3 million lawyers.) Meanwhile, American students with talent in specific areas, such as computer science or drama, could be directed to small state institutes that offer rigorous, focused training.

That’s not to say all flagships should be eliminated. Students seeking a wider curriculum, and the attendant rah-rah sporting events and beer-saturated Greek life, should be catered for. The same goes for students who prefer institutions with a certain ideology. There is nothing inherently wrong with a college having a political leaning, as long as it’s not the only option. Left-leaning states such as California should open their own state-subsidised far-Left version of the Hillsdale model. What harm would that cause, provided the state supports a few institutes representative of the Right’s vision of liberal arts?

The structure of American higher education has been deeply informed by politics for centuries, but it has not been informed by much, if any, innovation since Clark Kerr outlined his grand, all-encompassing vision for the “multiversity” five decades ago. Ron DeSantis has awkwardly stumbled upon a solution, but he and his team can’t see the wood for the trees: they want to win votes and donations for a single political slap fight over a 700-student college, at a time when the fate of higher education — and the accompanying $1.75 trillion debt load carried by current and former students — hangs in the balance. The solution, to borrow a phrase of Kafka’s, is nothing short of a “guillotine, just as heavy, just as light”. A courageous politician would let the guillotine drop, taking as many of the higher-ed hydra’s heads with it as it possibly can.

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