Sarbanes-Oxley for Universities?

I’ve been saying for years that a University education is a scam. That’s because for the most part these days, it is. Even laying aside the fact that they’re just about the most male-hostile environment in America (although they certainly are that), the benefits they offer are wildly out of proportion to what they cost. Government exacerbated the problem by buying into the notion that college education=economic performance, but bugger the “blame government” mentality: if we hadn’t had a society-wide delusion that you need a college degree to prove you’re smart, capable, and worthy, government would never have pressed for that nonsense in the first place. When we all bought into the notion that a university is the only way to get an education and that this sort of education is the only thing that makes you a worthwhile or productive human being, we gave them the go-ahead to push millions of people into University who didn’t need to be there and got little or nothing out of it, and diluted the value there was to University in the process.

In the meantime, the notion that Universities are different somehow from other human institutions and thus immune to venality, petty and not-so-petty corruption, conflicts of interest, and politics was never questioned. As a result of this huge infusion of cash, we corrupted not just education, we corrupted the sciences as well, which is a big part of why these days you can’t trust even half of what you read in scientific journals. Researchers have every incentive to publish drivel and very little disincentive to outright fabricate except the worry that they’ll get caught and not be able to bullshit their way out of it. If anyone thinks researchers won’t behave the same way the Bernie Madoffs and his cronies did, they’re putting educators and researchers on a pedestal.

Professor Glenn Reynolds points to one potential argument: imposing Sarbanes-Oxley style rules on Universities. I’m all for it–and it’s one of the reasons why I never believe the “smaller gubmint will cure everything!” people anymore. If you’re going to have these massive institutions recognized under law, then those institutions must have accountability under the law. And that requires the dreaded “R” word: “regulation.”

Although I will agree with the “smaller government” folks in this respect: moving toward a system whereby we put less emphasis on, and more skepticism, toward the idea that a person with a college degree is of greater worth than a person without, would be wise. But that too, requires not just social attitudes, but government attitudes changing. You know, that dread thing called “social engineering,” which conservatives often claim to be against except when they want to socially engineer things toward their own ideals. We as an entire society (which includes, you know, our own govenrment) need to look carefully at what we think an education is for exactly, and what it should cost, and how it should be governed. “The market” will not fix it all by itself.

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  • roylofquist

    Eisenhower’s Farewell Address is remembered mostly for his warning about the military-industrial complex. Immediately following is this:

    “Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades.

    In this revolution, research has become central, it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.

    Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.

    The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present – and is gravely to be regarded.

    Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.”

  • fche

    “If you’re going to have these massive institutions recognized under law, then those institutions must have accountability under the law.”

    What kind of “recognition” are you talking about? State-owned universities? Wouldn’t those be subject to FOIA etc. already?

    In fact, you might find that “smaller government” folks would advise against governments owning such businesses, and likely the other sorts of “recognition” you are referring to.