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One of the commercials broadcast during the NBC Monday Night  Movie on the evening of September 7, 1964 was a one-minute campaign ad for President Lyndon Johnson.  It began innocently enough with a child picking daisies and ended in the horrifying nuclear catastrophe that would be the inevitable result of electing Johnson’s Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater.  Johnson’s voice intoned: “These are the stakes!”

The Daisy Ad was broadcast only once, but it was in the view of many historians the decisive factor in Johnson’s landslide victory. Goldwater was at the time a sitting two-term United State senator and the rock-solid leader of American conservatives.  He was a fierce opponent of Roosevelt-era programs,which he considered financially irresponsible, but he was by all accounts anything but excitable.  Nevertheless, the Daisy Ad defined Barry Goldwater as the man who would recklessly plunge the nation into nuclear war. It was a dramatic illustration of the ruination awaiting public figures who allow their opponents to define them.

The number of “These are the stakes!” portents of disaster for American Universities is on the rise. Everything from tenure to the economic benefits of a university degree seems to be under assault.  Richard Vetter, Director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP),says that an economic nuclear wasteland is the price of ignoring the recklessness of American higher education:

The pell-mell investment in sheepskins is beginning to look an awful lot like something our economy has seen in real estate: a debt-fueled asset bubble. It might end just as badly.

How do American universities respond? Meekly. As reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education, university leadership has been slow to recognize the direction and force of prevailing winds.  A common mistake in business and politics is to focus on the feel-good stuff that is ultimately valueless, and universities are making the same mistake.  The Chronicle reports that former MIT vice president John Curry told a gathering of heads of public universities to stop clinging to “worn out myths about campus strengths.” Curry told the group, “We like our stories more than the truth.” That leaves a vacuum for others to tell their versions of the truth.  It was devastating to Goldwater and it will be devastating to higher education.

The CCAP has in recent months published a series of highly critical studies of cost and value in American higher education.  I have mentioned some of them here. CCAP themes have gone viral in communities that are to all appearances unfriendly to the overall goals of higher education, among them the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation.

It is no secret that conservative groups are increasingly cool to the idea of an academic meritocracy, preferring to view the inevitable hub-and-spoke network of influencers within the academic community as unfair to arguments and causes that would draw relatively few advocates on their own merits–a “liberal tilt” they call it. Now CCAP’s Matthew Denhart has published a study for the Heritage Foundation that argues for less federal involvement in higher education.

You see where this is going. Taking themes that are deeply troubling to the future of universities, like the overreaching of accreditation agencies, and constructing a “Picking Daisies” story about the politicization of higher education, the silence of university leadership becomes the Goldwater response to the doomsday ad. Here’s an example of the disconnect. On my campus, as on many others, there is still serious debate about the use of online education.  We cling to the worn out myths about the value of classroom attendance when overall enrollments are growing at a paltry 2%. The most recent Sloan Survey of Online Education reports that during that same period online enrollments surged by 21%.  I did not drop a decimate point. That’s a factor of ten difference. It sounds to me a little like debating the desirability of damp weather as a tsunami is approaching.

Among the Sloan findings: class differences caused by increasing selectivity and rising costs in traditional public universities are driving a new generation of students toward online learning in unprecedented numbers. The unresponsiveness of public institutions to obvious trends like these clears the way for anyone who wants to define higher ed. What are traditional universities doing in the meanwhile?  We argue about the effectiveness of increasingly baroque systems of ranking our own hubris-driven reputations, we fight tooth-and-nail against a level playing field for traditional and for-profit universities, we are able to argue with a straight face that college costs that have rise at twice the rate of health care costs are not really out of control.

The general public does not care about any of this.  It’s no wonder that they have tuned out pleas for more funding and are willing to turn their backs on a great engine of wealth creation in favor of just about any story that makes sense to them. Richard Vetter’s story is that traditional higher education is the Goldwater who threatens the innocent daisy-picking American public.  It doesn’t make much sense, but it’s better than the story that we tell.