Foundation President, Professor and “America’s Best Social Critic” on Higher Ed and the State of Intellectual Life: A NEJHE Q&A with Andrew Delbanco

“It’s time, as the phrase goes, to ‘take control of the narrative,’ or at least tell our story better than we have been doing—to convey how hard most faculty work, how modestly most are paid, how little job security they enjoy, and, most broadly, that higher education remains an indispensable public good in a democratic society.”

Andrew Delbanco is a professor of American Studies at Columbia University, author of several books, including 2012’s College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, and president of the Teagle Foundation. His latest book, The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War, will come out in paperback in November. In the following Q&A, NEJHE Executive Editor John O. Harney asks Delbanco about the state of higher education and intellectual life today.

Harney: Among your many honors, Time Magazine several years ago called you “America’s Best Social Critic.” Are “social critic” and other kinds of “public intellectual” occupations missing from what we urge today’s college students to include among their aspirations?

Delbanco: I’ve been very lucky to be able to make a living by doing what I love—teaching, writing, speaking on issues that matter to me. I’m afraid that opportunities for all of the above are shrinking as academia, publishing and journalism are all going through severe economic turbulence. Still, there will always be young people determined to follow their passions. We need their voices more than ever, so let us hope they will find ways to be heard—in both traditional venues and through new media.

Harney: You’ve said the college classroom is a “rehearsal space” for democracy. Colleges should allow you to walk in with one point of view and walk out with another. How best to enhance that quality in an age of political correctness and backlashes against it?

Delbanco: I believe more than ever that under the guidance of sensitive teachers who know how to combine intellectual rigor with open inquiry, the classroom is more likely than social media or a public rally to foster civil discourse about charged issues. My guess is that relatively few classrooms fit the description promulgated by those who think academia is rife with intolerance and “political correctness.” The method practiced by good teachers since the beginning of time still works: Show passion for the material you are teaching and respect for the students to whom you are teaching it, and good things will follow—including civil debate about controversial questions to which there are no easy answers.

Harney: Teagle has supported NEBHE’s work to develop affordable options for community college students to attend an independent institution, develop and promote liberal arts transfer opportunities at independent colleges for community college graduates, and increase the number of community college transfer students who earn a bachelor’s degree at an independent institution. How does this fit with your worldview?

Delbanco: America’s community colleges are immensely important institutions. They are gateways for millions of first-generation, minority and “nontraditional” (that is, older students seeking marketable skills in a rapidly changing economy), who represent the future of our country. Yet community colleges are woefully underfunded, and often underappreciated by people for whom college means the pastoral residential campus offering amenities of which most community college students can only dream. Community colleges serve many constituencies who bring many different aspirations to their studies. Students who come out of community college with an associate degree are well-served by these institutions, as are others who attend not necessarily to obtain a degree but in order to gain a specific skill or perhaps a certificate signifying completion of a course or program. Still others hope to move on to a four-year institution to earn a bachelor’s degree. We owe it to them to support, encourage and help them realize their hopes by building bridges from two-year public to four-year private institutions. This will require improved advising, clearly articulated pathways, more rational portability of credits and generally better coordination among institutions with different structures and cultures. The Teagle Foundation wants to support these efforts, which are gaining momentum not only in New England but throughout the nation—in part because independent colleges, especially those that are less selective, are seeking new pipelines to fill seats in their classrooms.

Harney: What do you see as the future of collaboration between public and independent higher education institutions?

Delbanco: The future must include the kind of cooperation I just spoke about between two-year publics and four-year privates. But that is only one dimension of this question. For example, research universities (both private and public) must do a better job of preparing graduate students for teaching careers in public open-access institutions as well as in independent liberal arts colleges. We are in the midst of a full-fledged crisis of employment for Ph.D.’s, especially in the humanities, who are often unprepared for, and even unaware of, opportunities outside the kind of research universities that have trained them. In general, colleges and universities also must become more responsive to the needs of their local communities. I often find myself saying that there is really no such thing as a private college or university—in the sense that all institutions benefit from public subsidies in the form of tax exemption, tax-deductible donations and other forms of philanthropic support, as well as federal support for research and tuition-paying students. In short, taxpayers have a right to expect that the local college or university—whether public or “private”—will find ways to serve them as well as their own students, by engaging constructively with the public schools, for example. In this respect, community colleges are among the leaders of the higher education sector, while some of the best-endowed private universities are among the laggards.

Harney: You talked a bit about what used to be a cross subsidy from students who could afford college to those who couldn’t. Is that a reasonable system?

Delbanco: Well, I’ve suggested that the discounting system used by some institutions—those with “need-based” financial aid programs—might be thought of as a dash of socialism mixed into our capitalist system. By this I mean that differential pricing determined by the ability of families to pay is an outlier in a consumer society that generally sets prices by calculating what price the market will bear. Of course this analogy does not mean that discount pricing is always motivated by a “Robin Hood” impulse to take from the relatively rich in order to give to the relatively poor. For most private institutions, even those that are relatively well-endowed, discounting is necessary not only for reasons of equity or for the educational value of enrolling a class with some socioeconomic diversity, but also for the practical imperative of recruiting enough students who bring at least some tuition dollars with them. This complex system—where for one reason or another, the “sticker” price exceeds what many students actually pay—is under increasing stress and seems likely at some point to give way to something different. But I doubt that we will see fundamental change until and unless the federal government takes a larger role in financing higher education. Perhaps the current talk of universal “free” college—in some respects a regressive idea because it would increase subsidies without means-testing the beneficiaries—marks the start of a more serious discussion.

Harney: Public disinvestment is often viewed as a chief reason for rising college prices. Why is it so hard to argue for higher education funding?

Delbanco: Another complex question. Part of the answer is that the growing disparity between public resources and public obligations has squeezed the ability of state governments to maintain the subsidies on which public higher education depends (the left would cite such factors as the tax revolt that began in California in the 1970s and the privatization of services previously regarded as a public responsibility; the right would cite putatively excessive benefits granted to unionized public workers and the rising cost of Medicaid). But the distribution of resources is also partly a function of who makes the better arguments—and there is no doubt that public confidence in higher education has declined (even though competition has never been as fierce as it is now to gain admission to the most prestigious institutions). Unfortunately, we live in an age of sound-bites and platitudes disseminated by talk-show hosts and spread on social media—so while there are certainly ways in which higher education should strive to educate students better at lower cost, it’s hard to combat the perception that we are a wasteful, inefficient “industry” with little accountability. Much of this is a grotesque distortion. But overpaid presidents and coaches, admissions bribery scandals and stories of dissolute students don’t help. It’s time, as the phrase goes, to “take control of the narrative,” or at least tell our story better than we have been doing—to convey how hard most faculty work, how modestly most are paid, how little job security they enjoy, and, most broadly, that higher education remains an indispensable public good in a democratic society.

Harney: You’ve quoted Melville’s claim that a whale ship was his Yale and Harvard. What’s the application of that today?

Delbanco: Despite all our challenges, I still believe that college can be a place where students widen their horizons, learn to appreciate the wonder of the natural world and the complexity of the social world, and grow into a sense of human interconnectedness. Those are among the things that Melville learned by going to sea and opening himself to experiences he had never dreamt of on land.

Harney: You’ve mentioned the importance of “diversity.” How does the momentum toward online distance learning accommodate that?

Delbanco: I’m a “distance learning” skeptic—by which I don’t mean that there is no value in the efficient and economical delivery of information to students who cannot be personally present in a traditional classroom or who have reached a certain level of learning proficiency so they can make good use of online resources. But I worry that the new digital technologies may become another force for stratification: i.e., poor kids will be led toward the “virtual” classroom while rich kids will get the real deal. Of course it’s not that simple—and we should continue to experiment with new pedagogies and test their effectiveness, equity and potential value for cost control. But for now the evidence seems to suggest that the most vulnerable students, sometimes described as “unconfident learners,” need all the personal human attention they can get.



One Response to “Foundation President, Professor and “America’s Best Social Critic” on Higher Ed and the State of Intellectual Life: A NEJHE Q&A with Andrew Delbanco”

  1. alan smith

    This is an excellent interview. The interviewer touched on many important issues, and professor Delbanco offered judicious, if circumspect, responses.
    For me, the moral of the story is: As long as money buys good health care, and money buys good education, those with less of it will receive less.

    Thanks for a fine piece!


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