Analysis & Comment

Opinion | American Academia: The Traditional and the Upstarts

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To the Editor:

In “Why We Need New Colleges” (column, Nov. 11), Ross Douthat indulges in some of the usual caricatures of “elite academia,” with loose talk of “rapacious business dealings,” “hedge-fund habits,” “administrative bloat” and “self-inflicted McCarthyism.” So it’s not surprising that he wants the uber-wealthy to fund alternatives to traditional higher education.

In considering his arguments, it’s worth remembering three things.

First, U.S. higher education already includes a vast array of very different institutions, including vocational institutes, community colleges, religious institutions, competency-based programs and online universities. If elite institutions continue to dominate the public imagination, it is because they have converged around standards of excellence in teaching and research that continue to make American higher education the envy of the world.

Second, any competitive threat to elite institutions is likely to come from new models that leverage technology in ways not yet apparent, not from recent entrants seeking to replicate the elite model with a different ideological orientation.

Finally, American colleges and universities remain committed to free speech and academic freedom, and many are working to address issues of political conformism through programs like Hamilton’s Common Ground, which seek to model respectful discourse across political boundaries.

Supporting such efforts seems likely to do far more good than quixotic efforts at launching underfunded new versions of the University of Austin.

David Wippman
Clinton, N.Y.
The writer is the president of Hamilton College.

To the Editor:

It’s hard to see why we need to create new universities when we so grossly underfund public institutions like SUNY and CUNY, where I teach. These affordable schools are engines of mobility that provide valuable degrees at bargain prices, but they haven’t been able to hire steadily or upgrade facilities or provide support to students eager to make their way in the world.

Even more than private donors we need commitments on the part of state governments to protect education, something as basic a human right as air, shelter, food and water. Access, and not “decadence” (to use Ross Douthat’s word), is the real issue here.

Elizabeth Mazzola
Metuchen, N.J.
The writer is a professor of English at The City College of New York.

To the Editor:

Ross Douthat calls for novelty and new experiments in higher ed. He’s right that this sector needs change. Start-up universities are not the only answer. It’s getting colleges to think and act boldly.

Small colleges have the unique opportunity to succeed precisely because they are small. Unfortunately, that is not often the case. A recent study by Higher Ed Dive has identified at least 70 small colleges that have closed their doors or merged into a larger institution since 2016, or plan to do so. Small colleges are the laboratories of reinvention that can change the economic destiny of students and industry.

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