There's a disturbing trend in U.S. universities. It began about forty years ago, when there was a shift in public consciousness to the point of view that a university education should help graduates find a job. Before that time, most jobs had been in manufacturing, and what jobs were in management were primarily filled with those who rose through the ranks of workers. In the early 1970s, studies found that college-educated people tended to earn more, and the emphasis began to be on getting a job after graduation, rather than education for education's sake.

And little by little, universities responded to public pressure. Soon, instead of Latin, universities began requiring speech, communication, or computer science. Universities slowly transformed themselves, semester by semester, into glorified trade schools, all the while struggling to maintain the "aura" of education, without actually requiring its graduates to obtain one. Young persons who were not suited for it by temperament or talent were pushed into university education, and in order to maintain their graduation rates, courses were simplified so that most could pass them; grading systems were altered; and the result is the college graduates you see on "Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?" who cannot answer second-grade arithmetic questions.

The public responded to that in predictable fashion, by then devaluing the university education it had once esteemed. Universities, who had been largely self-supporting in the past, had to raise rates to accomodate the huge increase in students. Students demanded costs in proportion with the increase in salaries they expected to earn. Services were slashed, and budget cuts eliminated all the courses except those the public perceived as leading to better employment. And, somewhere along the way, the concept of research dropped off the map.


University libraries were among those whose services were most heavily affected. Their subscriptions to academic periodicals lapsed, and alumni, who used to carry on their academic careers long after graduation, gradually began to lose their library and research privileges. Without access to published research, alumni have become less likely to write books or carry on their own research. Although theoretically with the Internet access to academic resources should have become trivial, most alumni have no library privileges whatsoever, and certainly not off-campus.

What is the solution? First, universities need to establish programs regardless of cultural pressure. Those programs should ensure that every person who graduates has a reasonable amount of human capital (the skills to do things) and social capital (general knowledge to enable one to get along in society, such as knowing "Who wrote Dickens' A Christmas Carol?"--and believe me, some people won't get it, even if you ask it in exactly those words). Not everyone is suited for university education, or even wants one; those people should be encouraged to try trade schools or apprenticeships, or another solution that makes sense for them.

Second, universities should re-establish alumni privileges for research. Today, most research is done by professors, part of the "publish or perish" ethic cultivated in universities. But sometimes the most original research is done by those who have gotten their education, been out in the "real world," have seen problems that need to be solved, and have then decided to put in the research to solve those problems.

Third, universities should establish reciprocal privileges, so that graduates from one university who now live in another part of the world can access university libraries either locally or through the Internet. 

I ran head-on into these problems when I was doing research for a forthcoming book—despite the fact that I had graduated with a B.A. from one university, and a Master's degree from another, neither university would allow me library privileges, even on-campus. In order to get access to materials, I had to turn to a friend at a major public library and get her to pull strings in order to get me resources that should have been available to me through alumni privileges (and were, up until thirty years ago, available to all alumni). 

No-one is asking universities to turn back the clock. But universities must adapt to change, and must see that without research efforts coming from those graduates who are not ivory-tower eggheads, but those who have real-world experience, soon universities will become irrelevant. Without research and academics, you may as well go to a truck-driving school--you'll get a job more quickly and earn more money. If universities are to survive, they must abandon the trade-school path and re-establish a universal education model. And that, first and foremost, must include real research opportunities given to the ranks, and especially to the alumni, not just to the professors.

A Scholarly Discussion of Open Access