The Corruption of Higher Education

April 2023

We commonly associate corruption with wrongful financial gain but the word has a broader connotation. It is derived from the Latin words “cor” meaning “altogether” and “rumpere” meaning “to break”. The widespread corruption of higher education by an increasingly influential group of professors consists in the deliberate subversion of the various system controls designed to ensure the promotion of excellence in the service of the university’s core mission—to advance learning and the production of knowledge. We are seeing this corruption in teaching, in decisions pertaining to hiring and the awarding of tenure and promotion, and in service and research. Insofar as it has been recognized at all, it has been miscast as being essentially political in nature. It is instead mainly due to the incompetence and poor professional standards and ethics of the faculty in question.

Recently at a large meeting at my institution, mainly attended by faculty, I asked our president, who was seeking input to shape our new academic plan, whether he was concerned about the low professional standards and poor ethics of the faculty responsible for the alarming grade inflation that plagues us. He diplomatically sidestepped my worry by suggesting that there are likely many contributing explanations for the data. Although he is right about this, the role played by faculty is undeniable, and one explanation is especially concerning. One might think that the problem with grade inflation is that it frustrates the identification of comparative ranking among students, especially when half of them receive “A” and 75% “A” or “B”. Perhaps this does explain some of the data, but a more disturbing possibility is that the practice is intentional, based in a deeper rejection of not just the notion of comparative excellence but excellence simpliciter as well.

The idea that we cannot make merit-based discriminations in the quality of our students’ work is, of course, nonsense, but it is consistent with the bad relativist and cynical thinking that characterizes the postmodernist’s commitment to cultural constructivism, the view that judgments about merit and excellence are disconnected from objective reality and are instead merely cultural weapons wielded by those in power to perpetuate the dominant social order. However, since on that view this order wrongly oppresses those not favored by it, the task of those who practice (bad) critical theory is to subvert that order by refusing to apply standards of comparative worth in the awarding of grades.

Whether motivated by fear of student backlash, laziness, or ideology, inflating one’s students’ grades evidences low professional standards and poor professional ethics. The responsibility for this mainly lies with individual teachers but it is also a failing in institutional oversight. In response, some insist that grade inflation is evidence of excellent teaching, leaving one to wonder what would count against their theory. For these people will be just as likely to interpret grade deflation as proof of excellent teaching (“Shows our high standards”) as they similarly interpret grade inflation. In other words, such interpretations exhibit confirmation bias and thereby puts the lie to the notion that their theory that faculty promote excellence through teaching is empirical in nature rather than the self-serving, lazy, pseudo-scientific thinking that it actually is.

This leads us to a second aspect of the professional failings of these faculty – their incompetence. This failing produces bad scholarship and research and it is due to the simple fact that many of these people are bad at thinking critically and are lacking in various intellectual virtues. Being bad at critical thinking is a fundamental professional failing for academics, like accountants who do not understand simple arithmetic or physicians who do not know the basic parts and system functions of the body. However, an obvious shortcoming in these analogies is that whereas there are plenty of academics who are bad at thinking, there are no accountants who do not understand simple arithmetic and no physicians who do not know the basic parts and system functions of the body. These disanalogies speak to a failing in the system of oversight that should have prevented these people from being hired into their positions.

The realization that the extremist critical-theory turn among a sizable number of professors masks the decline of competency in academia hit home with me last summer. Two years ago, I served as a referee for one of the worst articles I have ever read. I carefully refuted the author’s main claims but to no avail. A largely unchanged version of the article was published by the journal last summer. This publication will help advance the author’s career and add to their status and standing. This story illustrates the point that once one has a critical mass of like-minded and incompetent collaborators, the checks and balances inherent in a system designed to ensure quality and excellence, such as with the blind peer-review system, are easily gamed, at least in the liberal arts.

It may seem that I am making this assertion on the basis of a single anecdote but I am proposing a hypothesis, not proving it. To further test it, I have in recent months undertaken a project to read the published work of many of my colleagues. Over the past few years I have become increasingly dismayed by the bad thinking displayed by many of my colleagues at the various events and meetings that we attend. Would this incompetence feature in their publications? After reading over a dozen articles, book chapters, and other published essays unfortunately the answer is an emphatic “yes”. That this work was published further evidences the corruption of academia.

I appreciate that this is a small and non-random sample, but the fact remains that this bad work has been published. It is also troubling that many of these faculty enjoy enhanced professional status, honours, and privileges deriving from these “academic outputs”. Considering this, I am skeptical that our new academic plan will focus on the pressing need to rehabilitate these professors and provide the essential resources for their remedial education. I also doubt that there is the necessary institutional will and means to require them to take critical thinking courses, instruction in the basic principles of the scientific method, complete programs of more well-rounded reading and study, including to read works that challenge their beliefs, to learn even some fundamentals of economics, to learn the basic elements of academic professionalism and ethics, and on and on goes the list.

I want to conclude by examining some of the common themes and practices that run through this dreadful work.

1. Useful research is marked by its narrow focus. To contribute to knowledge, one must specialize. In contrast, the authors I have been reading make sweeping and vague claims (“The history of the modern state teaches us X”; “The capitalist thinks Y”; “Western colonizing researchers believe Z”, and so on). Their use of ambiguous jargon is not only an audience-limitation technique, but it also provides them with a facile inoculation against refutation. If someone were to question their conclusions, they can always claim that they have been misinterpreted or identify anecdotal evidence that supports their view. Of course, by this method one can cite examples of lottery winners who invested their winnings wisely to prove that investing in lottery tickets is a sound retirement-planning strategy.

2. Useful scholarly work is marked by intellectual courage. To contribute to knowledge, one must explain and refute the views of other scholars who have published research that one is looking to question or displace with one’s conflicting work. In doing so one runs the risk that these experts may challenge and criticize one’s work and expose its flaws and limitations. In contrast, the authors that I have been reading, despite presenting themselves as heroic underdogs and brave guerilla warriors, never contest the published work of serious scholars and researchers. Instead, they all take issue with straw men and vaguely identified (and usually bad intentioned) nameless, powerful opponents: evil capitalists, reactionary politicians, privileged special interest groups, and various other nefarious “neoliberal” agents. Not only are such critiques worthless; they are also cowardly.

3. Almost all these authors emphatically oppose “neoliberalism” – a term that they never carefully define but which apparently is a pejorative denoting the surprisingly pervasive, evil, but mostly hidden effects of “late capitalism”. A problem with opposing neoliberals is that there are no such persons. As Joseph Heath has argued, “neoliberalism” is

just a word that Foucault popularized, to talk about economic ideas that he didn’t really understand. There is no group of people out there who actually describe themselves as neoliberals. Because of this, there are no constraints on what it can refer to, and there is no one to answer any of the criticisms that are made of it.

How does the refutation of a straw man advance the pursuit of knowledge? Anyone who criticizes “neoliberalism” thereby evidences their incompetence.

4. Useful scholarly work is nuanced because the world we are trying to understand is complex. In contrast, the authors I have been reading tend to divide the world into two groups: the good people and the bad people.

5. Useful scholarly work helps us better understand other people and the wider world around us. In contrast, much of the research I have been reading is self-indulgent and to one degree or another a version of “me” studies. Apart from being another audience-limitation technique – who can challenge your claims of this or that aspect of your personal journey of self-discovery? – it is also resistant to dissent. The deliberate limitation of one’s audience and the suppression of dissent are both symptoms of bad scholarly work.

6. Useful scholarly work is not just hard; it is also good. In contrast, although the authors I have read seem to have applied themselves, at least judging by their extensive bibliographies, they cite the thoughts of others neither to adduce further support for their claims, nor to raise serious criticisms of them. Instead, they all frequently and fallaciously appeal to authority. They all try to argue for their views by appealing to some thinker they admire who has gained anointed status in their club and who has, they claim, already settled the issue in question. However, when one checks these references, they typically consist of more vague, ambiguous, and poorly reasoned claims. A skeptic might argue that instead of evidencing their hard work, the construction of these elaborate bibliographies is just another audience-limitation technique.

7. Many of these authors both profess expertise in, and a complete disdain for, both business and economics yet none of them seem to have ever actually studied either subject.

8. Useful scholarly work welcomes and responds to searching criticism but there is a telling lack of dissent and awareness of obvious criticisms and objections to many of their claims. This is the echo-chamber effect: the predictable outcome when one preaches to the choir and only reads the works of other choir members and masters. This practice is more evidence of professional incompetence.

9. Much of this work reads more like religion than research. This is true not only for clearly faith-based assertions about faith-based matters, including beliefs professing support for vitalism and the wisdom of alternative ways of knowing, but also regarding the making of unfalsifiable claims in subjects that should be studied empirically. That these faith-based claims and unfalsifiable assertions are regarded as credible research speaks to both the incompetence of the researchers and the gaming of the system acknowledging and crediting it as such.