Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Elite Institutions and Qualified Students

Responding to The Failure of Critical Thinking by John V. Lombardi

It is disappointing and more than a little disturbing to see a professor write with such little regard for his opposition but also for the principles of reason he lauds so misleadingly in his article.

To his opposition he should at least show the courtesy of accurate representation. The deemed emphasis on elite universities is entirely imagined, and moreover, it is not argued that elite universities should admit every needy undergraduate that exists.

Indeed, he seems very misinformed on just what it is that is supposed to make these institutions elite. In this article, it seems that they are elite because they charge more tuition. However, what is intended to make them elite is that they have the highest standards and admit the very best students

This - and not the straw man excuse offered by the author - is why elite universities should offer scholarships and other supports for needy students. Even though they have had to cope with disadvantages, students who are very needy can be as qualified as students who are very rich.

The possibility that universities might be concerned about the academic capabilities of their new students, and that they might operate using some sort of merit-based screening, does not appear to occur to the author. This lapse is startling. Is he not aware of the SATs and other evaluation mechanisms? Is he not aware of the admissions process at his own institution?

Instead, we are treated to the ridiculous parody of an argument, to the effect that "The elite status of an institution comes from its ability to spend more money than institutions deemed 'non-elite'"” and that the "amenities define elite status for undergraduates."

Even were the poor subsidized, argues the author, "that doesn’t really work" because if the poor students are admitted, then some qualified students from higher income groups would be pushed out. "There are not enough spots in what we call elite institutions to accommodate all the deserving students of all income levels."

One wonders where he dug up this ridiculous bit of logic. Were selection performed based solely on merit, then the number of qualified students equals the number of spaces, since if there are x number of spaces, then to 'qualify' is by definition to be in the top x number of students.

The author's definition of 'qualified' appears to be somewhat different, however. Exactly what it is, he doesn't tell us, but it appears to be some selection process that excludes poor people, so he can make up the fantasy of evicting qualified higher income students were those poor students admitted.

While it is true that for each poor student admitted a richer student much instead attend some other institution, it is a fallacy to say that this richer student was qualified. Only if you suppose that academic ability plays no part in the selection - the absurd premise underlying the entire article - does the statement become true.

The fact is, when elite institutions preferentially admit the rich, they fail not only society but themselves as well. To spend additional money providing preferential treatment to people who are already wealthy is a poor use of community resources. And it robs the institutions of students worthy of their status.

Perhaps the author should spend some time reflecting on the purpose of academic institutions, rather than wasting his effort defending the rich from imagined slights and unfair treatment from an ungrateful society.


  1. Whether elite universities matter in 2006 is very much an open question. You seem to just admit that "elite universities offer a better eduction". This is an hypothesis, Stephen, and one that I think is false. But whether you agree with me or not, you have to still consider it as an unproven hypothesis.

    To me, elite universities are more akin to a country club. And I wish the governments would stop funding them.

    As evidence for my argument, I've written on the fact that elite universities no longer offer an edge


    The truth is that, on the web, I can hang out with incredibly smart people (say, you) without having to attend Stanford.

    Would I meet smarter people in Stanford. Maybe. Maybe not. You'd be amazed how many smart people are only an email away.

    With things like skype, where videoconference with anyone in the world becomes free, there is no longer any obstacle to totally wild and exciting collaborations.

    Why, oh! why! do you insist on claiming that poor kids should go to a country club in order to get ahead?

    Can you prove that it matters? I submit to you that there are much cheaper ways to get ahead for poor kids.

    And more importantly, the government should not be funding country clubs.

  2. I agree, the government should not be funding country clubs.

    That said, I do not consider the proposition "elite universities offer a better eduction" to be essential to my argument.

    My reasoning is based on the presumption that the purpose of elite institutions is to attract and teach, in a common environment, the best students.

    If pressed, I would say that they should function in a manner akin to the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, or the speed skating program in Calgary, where there is a high-level focus in particular disciplines.

    And, moreover, it's not simply a matter of withdrawing funding from these institutions, especially in the U.S., because they exist, they have huge endowments, and thus they can continue without government funding.

    But even though they can continue without funding, they will continue to impact the public system, by draining resources and by insisting that public educations must needs be second class. In order to preserve these elite institutions' competitive advantage.

    It is for this reason that the premise of open access should be applied even to private institutions. No educational institution exists in a vacuum; all are part of the overall system, and consequently, in order to ensure that poorer people do in fact get access, all institutions must be governed under the same set of rules.

  3. Stephen,

    I agree, Lombardi's argument is tortuous at best. He's not only a professor, he's the chancellor, (i.e., president) of UMass/Amherst! In his former life, he was president of my institution (Univ. of Florida), which considers itself the "flagship" university of the state (not that there's much academic competition down here). His predecessor got us elected into the Association of American Universities which gave our institution somewhat of an "elite" status in that we have a strong research focus -- much to the detriment of our teaching and outreach missions.... heavy sigh.

    Misinformed is a good way to characterize Lombardi. In my limited view, what makes a university elite is the professors it employs -- i.e., their work and output. Are they bringing in large grants? Do they have a strong and influential research agenda? Is their work recognized by their peers? Are they leaders in their field? Do they hold numerous patents? etc. If the professorate is bringing in the research funding, they are providing money for facilities and infrastructure, and they are attracting bright graduate students.

    Undergraduate education has become the step child of many large public universities. The reason: undergraduates cost a lot to support and they produce little value for the university.

    Rich or poor, undergraduates generate a basic level of funding in public universities that does not match the cost to teach them. That's why most general education undergraduate courses are held in auditoriums of 200 - 500 students. (Talk a about a piss poor education....)

    Too oversimplify, rich students have rich parents, and publics will always find some way to accommodate them to get at the parents' wallets.

    Where state institutions have the chance to equal out is in their graduate programs (assuming they have strong research agendas). Rich and poor have a relatively equal opportunity for admission (again, with richer students' parents being courted by the university's endowment and foundation offices).

    It's a messy situation universities find themselves in (I have not begun to discuss state interests and legislative politics associated with funding, disbursements, etc.) and it's often brought about by a legacy of bad leadership.

    I like your final two paragraphs and agree with you whole heartedly. John Lombardi is a bit slippery and like many politicians, tends to lose mission focus as he talks out of both sides of his mouth. Our institution only benefited from Lombardi's decision to hire a football coach whose team won us a national championship, and boy did the applications and bucks start flowing then....


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