Princeton, New Jersey. -- A series of unconnected events has put the ivory tower under siege. The American higher education system, revered abroad as the best in the world, is being shaken right down to its once-solid foundations, and college presidents XTC are ducking for cover.
"I can't recall a constellation of events quite like this," said Harold T. Shapiro, president of Princeton University. "Taken together, they really serve to sap public confidence."
The academic year just completed was marked by:
* Scandals over research funding. Taxpayers were shaking their heads when investigators revealed that top research institutions improperly billed the government for hundreds of thousands of dollars in allegedly research-associated expenses -- including such now-famous examples as Stanford's yacht, antiques and flowers for the president's house, parties, trips and legal fees.
* Fraud in the laboratory. An independent commission concluded that David Baltimore, a Nobel laureate and former head of MIT's Whitehead Institute, now president of Rockefeller University, had staunchly defended a fudged research paper. The incident confirmed suspicions that the university scientific community is unable to police itself.
* Allegations of price-fixing. In May the Justice Department announced that the Ivy League colleges would agree to stop their long-standing practice of sharing notes on the financial-aid needs of prospective students, which the department, after a two-year investigation, interpreted as a violation of antitrust laws. Attorney General Richard L. Thornburgh called the Ivies a "collegiate cartel."
* The long shadow of athletic scandals. Much-publicized tales of bribery, gambling, altered transcripts and special favors for recruited college athletes have spawned broad new regulations. They include a federal law requiring the publication of graduation rates for student athletes and a new plan by a Southern states accrediting agency requiring proof that athletic departments are scandal-free.
* The great "p.c." debate. The alleged existence of a "politically correct" orthodoxy on campus -- the subject of magazine cover stories, Sunday talk shows and books -- makes U.S. colleges seem a racially Balkanized caldron of intellectual intimidation, where free speech is muzzled in the name of multicultural sensitivity.
* The post-'80s financial squeeze. For the first time in a long time, colleges are very worried about money. After double-digit tuition increases and a spurt of expansion in the '80s, a flat economy, flagging enrollments and dwindling government funds have forced institutions to rein in programs and lay off staff and faculty. State colleges and universities face drastic cuts.
The list could go on. After much hand-wringing about better undergraduate teaching, for example, there is little evidence that top faculty have been weaned from spending most of their time on research; criticism of the undergraduate education at the best schools stepped up this year.
Student behavior is also at issue. The federal drug raid at University of Virginia fraternities earlier this year underscored the stubborn presence of drugs on campus; in the fall, Boston-area campus officials reported a new trend of intense, "drink-to-get-drunk" partying, which is linked to student deaths, hospitalizations and sexual assaults.
Call it college as combat zone. At the very least, the cumulative impact of these controversies has stripped the American campus of any sense of being above the fray.
"What they add up to in my view is the conclusion that if anybody thought universities have some sort of political immunity, they're wrong," said Robert Rosenzweig, executive director of the American Association of Universities, which represents the top 60 research institutions in the nation.
Cornered into a defensive posture, colleges and universities seem "just like every other special interest group," said David Breneman, former president of Kalamazoo College in Michigan and now a visiting professor at Harvard's Graduate School of Education.
The most selective institutions of higher learning in the United States have long been the subject of simmering resentment. They seem bastions of privilege, home to aloof intellectuals and, worst of all, places that deny admission to thousands of sons and daughters. Prestigious colleges were targets whose attackers needed only the slightest reason to shoot.
What can the academy do to survive the current onslaught? One clear step, many observers say, might be a dose of humility. The indirect cost scandal raised hackles in part because of the gall factor: MIT billed the government for legal fees incurred defending itself in the government probe of the Baltimore case, for example; Dartmouth billed for expenses associated with the Justice Department probe.
Yet when first confronted with similar abuses at Stanford, President Donald Kennedy insisted -- some say with a touch of arrogance -- that the university had done nothing wrong.
Another step might be a sharpening of priorities, and a clearer articulation of them. Derek Bok, outgoing president of Harvard, said the lack of both leaves universities vulnerable when they are shoved out into the forum of heated public debate.
"There's no consensus of what we want from higher education . . . which creates a vacuum for all sorts of perennial questions and criticisms to filter in," Mr. Bok said.
An equally legitimate course, however, is for colleges and
universities to do nothing at all. These institutions have occupied such a lofty spot in American society for so long, they might easily simply ride out the storm. Like Howard Cosell, they are institutions Americans love to hate.
"In all of this, the word frustration is important -- you don't see people not sending their children to the most selective and expensive schools. They're not saying they won't spend the money," said Dr. William G. Bowen, president of the Mellon Foundation, noting increasing applications to the top schools. "The places being subject to the most aggressive attack are still the places people are trying to send their children to."