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Friday Interview: Kenneth Starr Tackles Higher Ed Challenges

Baylor president, former special counsel addresses core college issues

As tuition costs climb, student loan debts accumulate, and recent graduates struggle to find jobs, more people are questioning whether the American system of higher education is working as well as it could. Kenneth Starr, president of Baylor University and well-known independent counsel for federal government investigations from 1994 to 1999, visited North Carolina recently to discuss whether higher education is “working hard or hardly working.” While in Raleigh, Starr discussed higher education’s challenges during an interview with Mitch Kokai for Carolina Journal Radio. (Click here to find a station near you or to learn about the weekly CJ Radio podcast.)

Kokai: I understand that the topic [of your presentation] is based on this idea of looking into the notion of whether colleges are really doing now what they were designed to do. Is that a major concern?

Starr: I think it’s a legitimate concern. In some instances, it should be a major concern. It should be a concern for faculty, as well as administrators. It should also be a concern for alumni, for trustees, and perhaps most of all for parents and the students themselves. Some of the studies are showing that students in higher education generally — and I am painting with a broad brush here — are studying considerably less than those who went to college in my generation.

What used to be a 40-hour study week has, at least according to the polls I’ve seen, become more of a 23-hour study week. Well, if anything, one would think that the numbers are going up, even with the efficiencies brought in by the Internet and other wonderful technical aids to learning.

So I think we need to be introspective. We need to take the criticisms. We in higher education need to take the criticisms that are being leveled at higher education very seriously and really look at what is it that we are doing. What is it that we’re seeking to accomplish?

Kokai: Beyond just the number of hours spent, are the types of things that students are studying the right things for a college environment?

Starr: I think that’s another serious question that each institution needs to ask itself. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, ACTA, by name, came together five or six years ago … based in Washington, D.C. And it’s been very helpful in analyzing the rigor of the curriculum of over 1,000 colleges and universities.

The results of that were, I think, somewhat distressing for much of higher education. Now, some will quarrel with the standards and the categories employed by ACTA, but I take those categories seriously. I hasten to note that the university that I’m privileged and blessed to head up did receive an A. That’s the highest grade. There are no A-pluses.

But only 23 — this last go-round — colleges and universities received an A from ACTA for the rigor of the curriculum. What is it that you’re requiring those students to do? And the illustration that I like to use is our illustrious graduate student-athlete, [Heisman trophy winner and current Washington Redskins quarterback] Robert Griffin III. I know this is not Redskins country, but you have listeners everywhere. And Robert Griffin was the true student-athlete.

Because he was and is interested in law school, he had to take a foreign language, like the other Baylor students, but what did he choose? He chose Latin. And I’m free to say, even though privacy laws prevent certain kinds of disclosures, this is in the public domain, he got an A in both Latin I and Latin II.

That is the ideal. We want students to really be, from the Baylor perspective, transformed, to see and read the great works. We want them to be transformed in their perspective, to grow in maturity, to ask those existential questions. What is life all about? What is human? What does it mean to now be in the United States in the 21st century, a global century? Those big questions that I’m fearful all too frequently we, in higher education, are not calling on our students to ask.

Kokai: Some people approach college as, “This is the stepping stone on the way to the job. You should go into college, get the skills that help you get a job.” Is that the wrong way of looking at the college experience?

Starr: I think it’s an imbalanced way. One should be mindful of preparation for life itself, including being a productive citizen. For the students of this generation, I hope they’re taking a very careful look at being entrepreneurial, and finding the joy that comes from creating. But people may not have that particular gift or that particular sense of calling. But yes, I think there needs to be an awareness of it and careful planning. At the same time, education should not be simply an instrumentalist way to achieve a high-paying or relatively high-paying job.

One of the programs that I love at Baylor University is called the Business Fellows program. So yes, one has training as an undergraduate in business, but one also reads widely, including in the classics. So the idea is to educate for citizenship, for service to the country, to the world, one’s own community, and a much more broad sense of what it is to be an educated — college-educated — person, especially in the 21st century. Mindful of jobs, but not driven by that as the summum bonum.

Kokai: Some people will consider what you’re saying and think to themselves, “I can’t see how reading Plato or Cicero is going to help my kid who’s heading to college in the long run.” What’s the response to people who just don’t get that viewpoint?

Starr: It’s a fair question, but the answer, in short, is one is developing one’s analytical skills of thinking and communication, thinking rigorously, thinking analytically, and then hoping that one has the opportunity to have the sort of mentorship that we do honor at Baylor so that one needs an editor to be able to analyze, to write, to communicate, and to have someone tell you, “Excuse me, but your verbal communication needs to be improved. Why don’t we begin by eliminating the use of the word ‘like’ every third word?” Those kinds of mentorships that we all need … to develop the mind.

[Former President Franklin Roosevelt], it is said — I don’t think this is apocryphal — called on then-ancient Justice [Oliver Wendell] Holmes in his 90s as a courtesy call, and the justice had recently retired. He found the justice blind, as he was in his great, late age, having Plato’s Republic read to him. And when the president-elect said, “Mr. Justice, why are you reading Plato?” Holmes replied, “Well, Mr. President, to improve my mind.”

So … even if we’re entirely instrumentalist, you will be a more effective human being if you have had the discipline and the opportunity to read the great works and to read them rigorously, and then to have the opportunity to discuss those works and to write about those works.

Kokai: If people who are interested in improving the college experience want to take a first step away from where we are now, to the point we need to be to have a good college education for most students, what should they do?

Starr: I think first is to look at what are the actual requirements for graduation at their alma mater or the institution that is drawing them. And then, secondly, do a rigorous analysis of that. And has the curriculum been watered down, as it were? Now, that’s subjective. But there are those like ACTA … that can be a guide and give one benchmarks as to whether, in fact, the college is doing that that it should do to help train and to empower young people to be truly effective citizens in the classical sense.