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Taking on 'sacred cows' in higher education

Few would argue that American higher education is a formidable presence in the world. But to James Carlin, it's on the brink of crisis. It's time, he says, to stand up and say "enough is enough" to soaring tuition, unproductive professors, and lower standards.

A successful businessman and self-styled Paul Revere-with-an-attitude, Mr. Carlin stepped down last month after four years as chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education. But that doesn't mean his voice will go silent. He plans to keep asking the tough questions that frequently cause a tempest inside the ivory towers. He's even in the process of organizing a loose national confederation of business people to take his reform message around the United States.

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Carlin's central concern: Soaring tuitions are causing rising indebtedness of students and parents. Tuition at four-year institutions has risen more than 100 percent since 1980. Median family income has grown just 12 percent in the same period. He predicts that unless costs are brought under control, a year at a private college will cost $50,000 a decade from now. Even state colleges and universities will be $15,000-$20,000 "unless we turn the trend around."

That's simply unacceptable, Carlin says, since college is considered a necessary ticket to a better life, and nearly two-thirds of high school graduates go on to college today compared with just a few percent of the public at the turn of the century.

"Tuitions and fees have gone crazy - off the Richter scale," he says. "Why are the costs of delivering higher education so high? Why are admissions standards so low? Why is it so easy to graduate?"

In an interview in his Natick, Mass., office, Carlin is blunt about what he doesn't like - and how things should be fixed.

"Colleges and universities, in general, are grossly inefficient and ineffective in terms of how they manage their enterprises," he says. "But if somebody makes a suggestion that maybe you shouldn't have four Egyptian history professors on a campus where only 10 kids are majoring in Egyptian history - and maybe you ought to let three of those professors go - you've got a [faculty] revolution on your hands."

Such statements make critics cringe. Carlin, they say, oversimplifies complex problems and poses business solutions to something that's not a business.

It's clear that Carlin takes cues from the free market. He adamantly denies that he wants to remodel higher education as a business. But in the next breath, he points out that the 3,600 colleges and universities nationwide are a $200 billion-a-year industry -and businesslike efficiencies must be adopted to contain costs.

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"You've got underutilization of the physical plant - you've got tenure - which basically ties your hands on how you can manage your work force," he says. "You have irrelevant research. You've got extremely low teaching loads for tenured and untenured full-time faculty."

The solution? Give college and university presidents more power to clean house; end lifetime tenure for professors (substituting multiyear contracts instead); chop "soft" academic research at public colleges; dramatically raise the number of hours a professor is required to teach - and slash tuition and fees.

To accomplish these ends, Carlin wields words like a blow torch. In the case of Massachusetts, higher education is "managerially dysfunctional" and "devoid of accountability," as he declared in a November 1997 speech before a gathering of Boston business leaders.

Professors and unions fought back, saying that slashing tenure would impede freedom of faculty to speak out and erode their institutions' intellectual viability.

In a letter last year to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Harvey Green, a professor of history at Northeastern University, called Carlin "a skilled demagogue" who taps "strains of anti-intellectualism that run deep in American culture."

But it's been hard to resist Carlin's initiatives. For good or ill, he has changed public higher education in Massachusetts.

When state college and university students return this fall, tuitions will be 25 percent lower than four years ago. State universities and colleges have twice raised admission standards. Remedial education has been slashed. Dozens of academic programs with few students have been dropped. State community colleges are now nearly free for low-income students.

Another change: Later this month, unions representing professors at Massachusetts' public colleges and universities will attempt to negotiate a new labor contract. While tenure - which Carlin declared "an absolute scam" - is not expected to be abolished, it is on the table.

Carlin, who has made millions in insurance and real estate, has been a point man for several Massachusetts governors. He was appointed by former Republican Gov. William Weld in 1995 to get a grip on higher education. But he was not a neophyte before diving into the top job, having been a trustee of the University of Massachusetts for nearly a decade.

"From the first day, he ... set out on an agenda that would take on some of the sacred cows," says Stanley Koplik, chancellor of the state board of higher education.

To Carlin, the battle is a needed one. "If you had said 25 years ago, 'hey, we've got a real serious problem in K-12,' nobody would have believed you," he says. "A lot of people understand what's happening today. Only a few of us are willing to stand up and tell the truth."

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