Gone for Good: Tales of University Life After the Golden Age

Stuart Rojstaczer
New York: Oxford University Press, 1999
187 pages, $22.00 hc

Paul Trout

In Gone for Good, Rojstaczer, a hydrologist at Duke, argues that the munificent government support for research in the sciences and engineering that flowed onto campuses after Sputnik was like a growth hormone, stimulating universities to add new disciplines, research centers, administration, staff, faculty members, and buildings to contain the greater numbers of students headed to college thanks to government-backed student loans. This was the "Golden Age" of higher education. The '90s, however, signaled the end to this halcyon time.

But perhaps the end of this Golden Age is a good thing. According to Rojstaczer, during the Golden Age the government gave the universities too much money, seducing them into growing too fast, too much, and in the wrong directions. It encouraged state institutions over private ones, research over teaching, and government-favored research over independent initiatives.

The Golden Age had a particularly disastrous impact on undergraduate instruction. Thanks to federal grants, research became the coin of the realm while the task of teaching lowly undergraduates was devalued. New faculty members were hired for their research potential, not teaching skills, with research becoming the most important consideration in tenure and promotion decisions. The quality of undergraduate instruction deteriorated almost beyond repair. To compensate students for poor instruction, universities provided them with beer and circuses at daunting prices. Even now, after the Golden Age, "teaching of undergraduates gets short shrift in the American research university." For one thing, undergraduates continue to come and pay their money regardless of the quality of teaching they receive. For another, now that federal largess is drying up, professors are under even more pressure to spend more time doing excellent research and writing excellent grants, impairing undergraduate teaching even more (66).

The Golden Age also undermined the importance of the humanities, once the heart and soul of the university. In 1938, research expenditures in higher education were made to the physical sciences, social sciences, and humanities in the proportion of roughly 40/30/30. In 1985-86, this proportion had radically changed to 90/5/5 (Rojstaczer does not cite these figures). Moreover, by the end of the Golden Age less than one-seventh of all undergraduates were majoring in the humanities. Those in the humanities lost their sense of purpose and embraced, in an almost suicidal fit, an assortment of "theories" that either insisted on the logical emptiness of their enterprise or made goofy claims that writing arcane twaddle on fifth rate "cultural productions" amounted to dangerous "interventions" on behalf of the oppressed of the world (132).

While Rojstaczer is thankful that he experienced the bounty of the Golden Age, he also realizes that it lasted "far too long." Now that it's over, he hopes that a new model for higher education emerges for these new times. "We have to create a university that is more community minded and less obsessed with the glory of the accomplishments of individual faculty members. In this different kind of university, careful teaching and interactions with students in general would be more than just encouraged. Promotions and raises in salaries would take into consideration significant involvement with students."

But Rojstaczer has no illusions about today's students. After teaching his first course, he learned from the evaluations that students deeply resented his tough grading and high expectations (5), and did not want to write, solve problems, or take essay exams. These students, he quickly found, spent a maximum of 5 hours a week studying for his class. So many spent their evenings drinking that it was almost impossible "to maintain significant standards in the classroom" (43). "My expectations of student performance...were too hard nosed for the students of 1991."

When fewer students enrolled in his classes, Rojstaczer, like a good hydrologist, went with the flow by lowering his standards (24) to appease "the large number of slackers I had to teach" (17). "I would now largely ignore detail, focus almost entirely on the big picture, reduce the workload, and grade easier. In upper-division courses, I would give up the notion of training students for jobs or research in science. In introductory science courses, I would drop homework assignments and material that assumed knowledge of high school science and math" (24). He increased the number of A's to 30 percent, reduced the workload by 50 percent, and lowered the amount of material covered by about 30 percent (relative to his earlier classes). Needless to say, students responded "enthusiastic[ally]" and his evaluation numbers soared. "I was now much more in line with other classes." To his credit, he admits that he "abrogated" his responsibility to train students to do science (24), and wonders if, by not fully challenging his students, he is "earning an honest living" (179).

Rojstaczer realizes that many other faculty members have also dumbed down their classes. Many universities, he notes, have "eliminated or weakened their science requirements," and many "professors [have] felt compelled to make classes easier in order to maintain reasonable enrollments" (15). When enrollment in Duke's Classics Department tanked, the department, with faculty approval, instituted a new Classical Studies major that did not even require students "to learn any Latin or Greek." Across the country, courses are easier "in terms of workload, intellectual expectation, and grading." Overall, "given that we have both reduced class hours and lowered our standards of student performance, students here today are working significantly less than the students of the 1960s."

All professors must do to improve undergraduate education is to challenge students (26). If standards were raised throughout the university, students would do the work because they wouldn't be able to find safe havens. "They might be able to enjoy a well-taught class that required them to work hard because that class would represent the expectation of the university at large. This would not be a novel approach. We expected more of our students in the recent past" (26).

Rojstaczer's treatment of campus politics is refreshing honest but hardly insightful. Though a liberal, he believes that the leftist political bias in the humanities and social sciences (especially) is not good for the university or for undergraduate instruction. Thanks to the comfortable groupthink that prevails on most research campuses, academics blithely approve highly ideological courses and programs without considering how they may appear to those outside the academy. "Our actions, like the development of [Duke's] student program in Cuba, sometimes appear ridiculous to the outside world" (131). "Universities are in the education and research business. They are supposed to try their damnedest to leave their political biases out of both of these tasks. At stake is more than just the possibility of looking foolish. When universities mix teaching and research with political advocacy, they damage their credibility as institutions of responsible education and research" (130-31).

Gone for Good is supposedly written for "parents and students," but for the life of me I don't understand what they are going to find useful here. Sure, a few beans are spilled, but this is hardly a tell-all indictment of higher education, nor is it a guide about how to choose a college or negotiate undergraduate education. And certainly educators aren't going to find much here that they don't already know.

The main problem with the book is that sweeping generalizations are not supported by evidence. Rojstaczer claims that women are discriminated against in higher education, but cites no data other than the fact that their numbers in the sciences are lower, a brute fact that certainly can be interpreted as a reflection of choice and interest rather than male chauvinism. He even admits as much when he says that his male-dominated department is willing to hire more women "if they would apply for the jobs that we have to offer." All kinds of claims here need to be supported.

Although the book is engagingly written, it has its share of verbal blunders. At one point Rojstaczer writes "least publishable units" when he surely means "smallest publishable units." He says that his "colleagues were largely nonplussed with the extra workload," when he means "overwhelmed." He did not "abrogate" his responsibility but "shirked" or "neglected" it. He redundantly writes, "As he approached closer," confuses "obtuse" with "obscure," and misuses "befell" as a transitive verb equivalent to "underwent." Such gaffes do not reflect well on his Oxford Press editor either. Despite these reservations, I enjoyed seeing the campus through the clear-sighted if not deeply penetrating eyes of this hydrologist.

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