Harvard Business School professor recently predicted that up to half of all American colleges and universities will go bankrupt in the next ten to 15 years. While this may be a worst-case scenario, universities have for years been offering an increasingly inferior product at unsustainably high prices to an ever-more skeptical group of prospective students. Many institutions below the top tier are scrambling to respond to the collapse of the higher-education bubble by jettisoning the liberal arts and pumping up the practical ones: health care, computer science, business, and other technical fields that promise to yield jobs immediately after graduation. This approach has been employed in a particularly crude and short-sighted manner at the University of Tulsa, where a new administration has turned a once-vibrant academic institution with a $1.1 billion endowment and a national reputation in core liberal arts subjects into a glorified trade school with a social-justice agenda. Our story is worth telling, because we have been hit by a perfect storm of trends currently tearing through the American academy: the confident ignorance of administrators, the infantilization of students, the policing of faculty, the replacement of thinking with ideological jargon, and the corporatization of education.
I arrived at TU in 1988, the same year Thomas Staley left to head the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas. As TU’s provost, Staley had aggressively recruited serious scholars in the humanities and social sciences. Programs in English, history, and politics were particularly robust; Harvard’s Department of Government devoted a regular column in its newsletter to the activities of our political theorists. Professors critiqued their colleagues’ work, audited one another’s courses, and hosted informal lectures on subjects like pre-Raphaelite painting, medieval monasticism, and the economy of the Italian city-states. Faculty reading groups—some with 15 or more participants, including members of the wider Tulsa community—studied Heidegger’s Being and Time, Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws, Montaigne’s Essays, and Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. Undergraduates in our Honors Program studied literary, philosophical, religious, and historical classics from ancient Greece to the twentieth century and capped off their education with serious, substantial senior theses. My first decades at TU were a time of intellectual ferment and growth for faculty and students alike.
But it became clear some years ago that TU was in financial trouble. Faculty have had no raises since 2015. That same year, President Steadman Upham (whose compensation in 2014 exceeded $1.2 million) informed the campus community that the university was providing athletics with a $9 million annual subsidy. The total deficit in 2016 was $26 million. For nine months in 2016–2017, the university ceased to contribute to faculty retirement accounts—effectively, a 9 percent cut in pay. In September 2017, 5 percent of the nonfaculty workforce was laid off. In December 2017, Moody’s downgraded $89 million of TU’s parity revenue bonds and $57 million of student-housing revenue bonds. Around the same time, it was revealed that TU had for years been running a structural deficit of about $16 million. Athletics accounted for most of the total loss; TU’s law school and Tulsa’s Gilcrease Museum, which the university has managed since 2008, made up much of the rest.