Pretending to teach, pretending to learn

Jerry Pournelle reflects on the failure of the California State College system:

Back about 1970 I was involved with the Council that was to draw up
the Master Plan for the University of California system. The program was
very structured: the University System would have a limited number of
campuses, and would do all the graduate school education. There would be
a limited number of undergraduates at each of those campuses, and they
would be the elite applicants. Tuition would be low for state residents,
and very high for out of state and foreign students. This would be the
University system, and it would be for the best and the brightest.
Salaries would be high for an elite faculty.

In addition, there would be the California State Colleges, which
would not be permitted to award graduate degrees. They would do
undergraduate education, and send their best and brightest to compete
for places in the University system graduate schools. Their primary
purpose was teaching, and it was on their ability to teach that faculty
members would be chosen and retained: no publish or perish, because
their purpose was to teach, not to do “research”. They were not to
discover knowledge, but to convey it to most of the undergraduates in
the state. A small number would go to the University undergraduate
system, but about 90% of all undergraduates enrolled in state higher
education would be in the California State Colleges. This would include
colleges of education and teacher. Again the focus would not be on
‘research’ or anything else other than producing great teachers for the
California schools.

Of course as soon as the Master Plan was adopted and funded, the
California State Colleges began a political campaign to be turned into
universities, with salaries comparable to the Universities, and graduate
schools with research, and publish or perish, and all the rest of it;
and instead of being teaching institutions they would become second rate
copies of the Universities, with a faculty neglecting teaching in order
to gather prestige in research and publication, or, perhaps, at least
to look as if they were. In any event the California State Colleges
became California State Universities, their commitment to actual
undergraduate education was tempered to make room for the graduate
schools, budgets were higher, costs were higher, and tuition, which had
been designed to be very low, began to climb.

Everyone always wants elite status without being required to provide elite performance or assume elite responsibility. Unless your system specifically accounts for and prepares for the inevitable push to degrade status, it is doomed to fall in precisely the same way the California State College system did.

The irony, of course, is that by democratizing the elite status, it is destroyed. That is why university degrees, and increasingly, advanced degrees, are literally worthless these days. Once everyone has the credential, it ceases to mean anything anymore.