A review of Cracks in the Ivory Tower: The Moral Mess of Higher Education, by Jason Brennan and Phillip Magness.

There is a field of economics called Public Choice Theory (PCT) whose best-known advocates are James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock. Public Choice aims to show how the incentives to which bureaucrats are subject, the things that their status, perks, and salaries really depend on, frequently push them in directions incompatible with their assigned mission. PCT highlights the purely economic forces that often underlie apparently moral decisions.

Cracks in the Ivory Tower (CIT) is in the PCT tradition. The two authors are economists and philosophers. They ask tough questions about higher education as a business and a bureaucracy. They point out that the misalignment of actual incentives with stated goals also poses moral problems.

The eleven chapters of the book cover a range of topics, from the way that colleges promote themselves, the curious practice of student evaluations of professors, the meaning of grades, the real reason for general education courses, student cheating, to the supposed underpayment of adjunct faculty and the overproduction of PhDs.

CIT makes many excellent points, but, as I will argue later, it also misses an essential feature of higher education.

College Propaganda

The authors don’t pull their punches. Chapter 3 is “Why Most Academic Advertising is Immoral Bullshit.”  They are concerned that most colleges promise what they can’t deliver, indeed, can’t even define. In other words, they lie, or at least are guilty of “negligent advertising.”

One source of corruption is the U.S. News and World Report rankings, which are supposed to measure the quality of the college product. Even elite colleges seem to set store by these rankings. Not everything can be measured, of course, especially a multi-dimensional ‘product’ like a college or university. But applicants must make a choice, so some kind of college ranking is inevitable, though it will likely — should — be different for different individuals, with different interests, abilities, incomes, and living in different places. Objective information — facts — about the qualifications and career success of graduates, costs, curricula, living arrangements, and the like, is what potential students really need.

But the U.S. News ranking promises much more while delivering much less: a ranking of the actual quality —merit (prestige?)—of each institution. The ranking reveals the “Best Colleges” in America!

How are these numbers derived? Unfortunately, they are put together largely from inputs rather than outputs — things like faculty and athletic resources, freshman SAT scores and acceptance rate — rather than the gains achieved by graduating students or even the quality of the instruction they receive. This bass-ackwards scoring method leads to predictable mistakes and perverse incentives for college administrators. Why not spend money on that frilly climbing wall or an over-staffed “wellness center,” not to mention proliferating diversity apparatchiks, if the amount you spend on health, inclusion, and athletic facilities will add to your U.S. News score?  Why worry about cost if tuition fees don’t count?

A low acceptance rate gives a college rating points, which encourages elite schools to intentionally game the system, working to attract underqualified applicants just to jack up their rejection rate (not to mention income from the application charge):

“They want to trick… students into applying, so they can reject them, thus ensuring that the schools maintain a lower acceptance rate. Harvard’s undergraduate admissions office declares, ‘You belong here.  Wherever your life may have started, and whatever its destination, there is a place for you at Harvard.’”

Brennan and Magness add, “Well, maybe there’s a place for you as a janitor, but almost certainly not as a student.”

The book provides many other examples of colleges promising what they can’t deliver:

“[Colleges] promise (or at least strongly insinuate) that they will transform students, teach them to think, and turn them into leaders. The problem, we’ll argue, is that little evidence exists that universities succeed in doing any of these things. Thus, universities engage in, if not quite false advertising, what we might instead call negligent advertising… not exactly lying, but selling snake oil.”

The dominant theme of all this advertising is self-improvement: we will make you smarter, more skilled, richer, more socially aware. The study of philosophy, in particular, yields enormous personal benefits (really!):

“Philosophy students learn how to write clearly, and to read closely, with a critical eye; they are taught to spot bad reasoning, and how to avoid it in their writing and in their work. It is therefore not surprising that philosophy students have historically scored more highly on tests like the LSAT and GRE, on average, than almost any other discipline. [University of Washington]”

The book gives many other examples of content-lite, instrumental, feel-good-speak. The prospective applicant learns up-front that the chief concern of higher education is his or her happiness and future prosperity.

There are two problems with these and many other higher-ed claims documented in the book. The first is that they are textbook examples of what is called selection bias: Output quite often resembles input. Question: Why are philosophy/Harvard/Caltech students smarter than average when they graduate? Answer: Because they were smarter (for the most part) when they matriculated. Philosophy students tend to be smarter than average, both before and after they complete the course, an obvious confound ignored by the publicists at the University of Washington and other college PR departments.

The second point is one Brennan and Magness do not emphasize but should: higher education, as advertised in the U.S., is apparently all about you. As many colleges present it, higher education is a combination of job training and Dale Carnegie (or perhaps Goop for the younger generation). It is purely instrumental: it is good because of what it can get you.

There are at least two problems with this  First, few will agree that philosophy (say) is better (not to say cheaper) than a course in accounting or on-the-job experience as preparation for a lucrative career in finance or business.  To justify philosophy as some kind of job training misses the point, and makes a college that defends disciplines in that way look sloppy if not dishonest.  Even if the promised benefits exist, they are incidental.

Second, by emphasizing personal benefit over the intrinsic value of the subjects they teach, colleges devalue themselves. They turn students into consumers and invite doubt about the real value of what they do. Knowing something, even a little, about Plato, Aristotle, and David Hume — knowing and understanding these three and many other philosophers — has value even if it never earns the student a dime. If faculty and administration do not believe that what they do has value in and of itself, the academy will, and will deserve to, die.

Viewing higher education as nothing more than an aid to self-improvement has indeed led universities to perceive students not as students but as consumers. The consumer is “always right”; hence colleges’ reluctance to discipline disruptors and their willingness to cave to unreasonable demands ranging from social justice activism to new, academically suspect social sciences and all those “XYZ Studies” programs, for example.

Students Grade Teachers?

The transformation of students into consumers has paralleled the evolution of course/faculty evaluations by students:

 “Most universities and colleges in the United States ask students to complete course evaluations at the end of each semester. They ask students how much they think they’ve learned, how much they studied, whether the instructor seemed well-prepared, and how valuable the class was overall.”

Harvard’s history is typical:

“The history of course evaluation at Harvard College dates back to 1925 when The Crimson first solicited student responses regarding some of the largest courses. Originally this compilation was known as the Confidential Guide of College Courses, later popularly known as the Confi Guide. In 1973 the Committee on Undergraduate Education began to formalize the process of course evaluations. In 1975 the CUE published their first course guide, popularly known as the CUE Guide.”

Notice the shift: the Confi Guide was student-run (by The Crimson); the CUE Guide (now Q Guide) is run by the administration. Brennan and Magness ask: Why the change? Why have so many colleges thought it necessary to relieve the students of the burden of running their own course evaluations, especially now, with the availability of free websites like https://www.ratemyprofessors.com/?

The obvious justification, that an administration-sponsored course-evaluation system will be more accurate than a student-run one, is in fact false:

“Student course evaluations do not track teacher effectiveness…teaching evaluations are largely invalid” and “The best available research shows that student evaluations are not valid measures of student learning but are heavily influenced by an instructor’s personality.”

Either way, the evaluations fail.

So why the shift from student-run to administration-enforced?  And why did faculty agree to give these mandated evaluations to their students? Faculty acquiescence — naiveté — is relatively easy to understand. Who can object to more information? Who can object to a new, formal system that is bound to be more accurate than any informal student-run one? And besides, for most faculty at elite schools, research, not teaching, is the driver. Faculty often just care less about teaching; some may even regard it as a chore.

The incentives for college administrations are much clearer. Informal, student-run evaluations are assumed to be unreliable, hence cannot be used to evaluate faculty for tenure and promotion. But once the process is formalized, mandatory, and supposedly valid, it becomes a useful disciplinary tool, a way for administrators to control faculty, especially junior and untenured faculty.

Good for the administration, then. But not so good for teaching. The book contends that mandated course evaluations have had generally ill effects on teaching, have reduced the status of faculty relative to students, and have vastly increased the power of academic administrators over faculty. In other words, all the incentives favor administrative promotion of student course evaluations (the authors list six reasons) even though their educational effect is zero to negative. So, these intrusive and invalid evaluations persist.

General Education and the Purpose of the University

Most colleges require first-year students to take a largely mandatory set of general education courses, a “core curriculum.” Typical are survey courses in the humanities (English literature, art, and perhaps music), science (“physics for poets,” math, biology, chemistry), social science (history, psychology, economics, sociology/anthropology).

The list varies from institution to institution, and many colleges have abolished the core altogether. One reason is that as academic disciplines have split and split again, fields have lost the unity they once possessed, and fewer faculty have the competence, never mind the interest, in teaching broad general courses. This same fissiparousness has made it harder and harder for faculty to agree on what should be taught, on what a core ought to be, or even whether the concept is viable at all.

So why do gen ed courses persist?  Brennan and Magness offer an explanation along familiar lines:

“We have good reason to believe that many, perhaps even most, general education requirements for undergraduates are a form of academic rent-seeking. Their purpose is not really to give students breadth, make them well rounded, or introduce them to new areas of research. Their real purpose is to line professors’ pockets at students’ expense.”

In other words, gen ed is a cash cow for colleges. In this, as in all the other cases the authors examine, the real driver of an apparently academic practice is its cash value.

The problem with this point of view is that it provides no reason for higher education to exist at all. If cash value is all that matters, we can dispense with most of what colleges do. Philosophy is inadequate as job training; history is poor preparation for a position with Goldman Sachs, and English literature is little help for a career in advertising. Only STEM, and perhaps economics, might survive as viable college topics.

The point that the book misses is that college core topics are of value in themselves. If colleges don’t believe that, then yes, they have no reason to exist — even if, for a variety of historical reasons, they remain more or less profitable. The fact that gen ed serves an economic function for colleges (the CIT case is only partially convincing) is no reason either to keep or abolish it.

The economic factors so well dissected by Brenan and Magness are important. They show how the proper purpose of academe has often been perverted, and its costs elevated for irrelevant reasons. Richard Vedder has made a similar case in several books and articles. But higher education does not exist for economic reasons. It exists (in the famous words of Matthew Arnold) to transmit “the best that has been thought and said,” in other words the ‘high culture’ of our civilization. Job-related, practical training is not unimportant. Universities, and much else of society, could not exist without a functioning economy. But — and this point is increasingly ignored on the modern campus and by the authors of CIT — these things are not the purpose, the telos if you like, of a university.

Will that telos be lost? Can it be restored? A telos may return, but it may well be the wrong one. Harvard and Yale, with mottoes of veritas (truth) and lux et veritas, at least have it right. But Princeton has begun to slide (informal motto: “In the Nation’s Service and the Service of Humanity”), and Duke’s recent list of Core Values is “Teamwork, Integrity, Diversity, Excellence, Safety”. Truth seems to be disappearing from universities’ missions. It is being replaced by social justice.

Mottoes are one thing, action another. Here the prospect is grim.  A recent article in the Wall Street Journal by a U. C. Davis mathematician described a kind of  “Inquisitorial Manual” now used for vetting prospective University of California faculty. As she points out, the Berkeley manual requires a sort of “loyalty oath,” like the one that disgraced the university during the McCarthy era.  The Berkeley Manual resembles the “39 Articles” of the Church of England, although admittedly shorter (1100 words, to 4000 or so) and with a more questionable pedigree.

This unpleasant document, an inquisition for admission to the insidious religion of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), asks questions about a candidate’s Knowledge about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; Track Record in Advancing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; and Plans for Advancing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Unsatisfactory answers include: “Seems uncomfortable discussing diversity-related issues. May state that he or she ‘just hasn’t had much of a chance to think about these issues yet,’” “Participated in no specific activities, or only one or two limited activities (limited in terms of time, investment or role),” and “Vague or no statements about what they would do at Berkeley if hired. May even feel doing so would be the responsibility of someone else.”

These questions are even more intrusive than the 39 Articles in that they require not just belief but action, by prospective faculty whose proper interests should be elsewhere, in teaching and their field.

* * *

Cracks in the Ivory Tower usefully emphasizes the economic costs and benefits of university practices. But absent from the book is any consideration of the intrinsic value of the academic endeavor. Remaining is a vacuum that is filled by two things: the university as a business; and the university as a social activist.  Both are destructive of the proper purpose of a university. Unless our institutions of higher education can restore belief in the value of what they do, real scholarship will decline, and a divisive and profit-conscious new identitarian religion will arise in its place: Vox universitas, vox DEI!


Brennan, Jason & Magness, Phillip (2019). Cracks in the Ivory Tower: The Moral Mess of Higher Education. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.