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A Bad Report Card on Illinois Colleges

By John K. Wilson

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), in conjunction with the Illinois Policy Institute. issued an “report card” in October 2009 for public colleges in Illinois. ACTA, a prominent conservative advocacy group, gave Illinois straight “F” grades, but it's the ACTA report itself that deserves a failing mark.
ACTA gives Illinois an “F” on general education. But ACTA never studies the quality of general education. It simply counts the number of general education requirements (and then ignores many of them if “narrow courses” can fulfill the requirements). ACTA's narrow-minded prejudice against anything but survey courses has no scientific basis; there is no evidence that survey courses invariably provide a superior education, but ACTA simply dismisses them without talking to any students or faculty about what is actually taught and what students learn.

On Intellectual Diversity, ACTA gives the state of llinois another “F” and declares, “While students at major Illinois universities generally feel free to speak their minds outside the classroom, they do not report an atmosphere conducive to a robust exchange of ideas inside the classroom.” ACTA reaches this sweeping conclusion based on a misleading survey of 621 students at only two universities, UIUC and SIUC.
Anne Neal writes in the report, “intellectual diversity means the free exchange of ideas. And according to a scientific survey of students we commissioned, it is in trouble in Illinois....Students unambiguously report violations of professional standards.” In reality, there is nothing but ambiguity in the ACTA survey. Rather than asking students about their experiences, ACTA tried to push students to answer the way ACTA wanted with vague questions such as, “On my campus, some courses have readings that present only one side of a controversial issue” (61.0 percent agreed) and “On my campus, some panel discussions and public presentations on social or political issues seem totally one-sided” (50.2 percent agreed). There are nearly 3,000 faculty at the University of Illinois, so it would hardly be surprising to find “some professors” who do almost anything. More importantly, there is absolutely nothing wrong with having “one-sided” public presentations (almost all individual speakers are inevitably one-sided). Nor is there anything wrong with one-sided courses (such as biology classes which teach evolution but not creationism).

It is notable that when ACTA asked a more specific question, students indicated few problems with intellectual diversity and freedom to speak. When asked to respond to the statement, “On my campus, students feel free to state their social and political views outside the classroom without getting in trouble,” only 9.1 percent disagreed (and only 1% strongly disagreed).

Some of ACTA's questions are both bizarre and disturbing: “Do you know the procedure on your campus for lodging a complaint about social, political, or religious bias by a professor?” 87.0 percent said no. That's probably because there is no such procedure, and it would be unconstitutional for any public college to create such a chilling effect on academic freedom. The fact is that all professors have biases on social, political, or religious issues, and it is perfectly legitimate for professors to express their views. If a professor violates the rights of students by discriminating against them in grading and similar ways, then students are certainly able to complain about that. But it's fundamentally different from merely having a bias, and the fact that ACTA doesn't see any difference reveals a shocking indifference to intellectual freedom.

ACTA gives SIU and University of Illinois trustees an F on “Governance” for “transparency and accountability issues.” Criticism of the University of Illinois Board of Trustees is hardly unique in the wake of the admissions scandal. But ACTA is purely obsessed with trustees exercising more power over colleges, and shows no concern about the fate of shared governance and the essential role of faculty (and other campus constituencies) in running a college. In fact, ACTA attacks the University of Illinois and SIU Boards for relying too much on a campus committee to recommend the previous president rather than making a unilateral decision.

ACTA also gives colleges failing grades for establishing new programs. According to ACTA, “If a university established twice as many or more programs than it closed, it received a Failing grade.” There is absolutely no consideration given to whether a new program is worthwhile, or whether existing programs ought to be closed.

ACTA arbitrarily sets 64% as its graduation “pass” rate and declares that since most Illinois colleges have a lower graduation rate than this number, the state is a failure. SIUC gets a failing grade even though it improved its six-year graduation rate dramatically, from 38.6% in the 1996 cohort to 45.7% in 2001.

ACTA's criticism often misses the point, such as their complaint about rising tuition: “The cost of a college education in Illinois is spiraling out of control, with no end in sight. Data reported to the federal government show massive increases in tuition and fees in recent years, outstripping inflation by over 50 percent. Tuition and fees are also increasing much more quickly than families’ incomes. And as the preceding paragraphs make clear, the state is not getting more for all of that money.”

All of that money? Tuition is going up primarily because the state is investing far less money in higher education. Illinois contributed 48% of the U of I budget in 1990; today, it's only 16%.

A report by the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois, “The Illinois Report 2008 - Higher Education and Illinois' Future,” co-authored by Stanley Ikenberry, noted that state funding for public universities in Illinois dropped 17.9% in real dollars from 1998 to 2008. That report offered a serious analysis of affordability and financing of higher education in Illinois. Unfortunately, ACTA's report is both superficial and misleading.
Illinois public colleges certain deserve plenty of criticism. But higher education in Illinois is far better than ACTA presents in this report full of misleading statistics and misguided attacks.