Their prices are going up while most prices are stable or going down. Their record in providing opportunities and advancement for women is appalling -- and some of them even admit it. They generously reward their superstars but provide miserly pay for the low-level help. And they're unexcelled in professing goodness and social responsibility.
The sole match for this roguish profile is higher education. The listed characteristics are not present in all 3,600 of the nation's colleges and universities. But they're prevalent in many schools, particularly some of the better-known ones. And the wonder of it is that the traits endure as though these institutions are independent of the society that supports them. Snug behind the ramparts of tenure, academic freedom, non-profit status and self-governance, they are largely independent.
The consumer price index rose by 1.6 percent over the past year. But tuition, room and board at private colleges and universities are headed for increases of 3 to 4 percent, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. At Harvard, Dartmouth and Brown universities, the ticket for next year will rise to about $32,000.
Price resistance has resulted in some students turning to state universities, which are far lower in price, though also rising. But the well-known private schools could fill their classes at even higher charges. They insist that the sky-high tuition actually fails to cover the cost of education. Invoking a Robin Hood defense, they say the rich pay full charges and thereby subsidize lower tuition for needy students. Clearly, there's little incentive for price restraint. The apologists for academe have not explained away suspicions that in the opaque finances of higher education, undergraduates are gouged to subsidize graduate studies and research programs, which provide career advancement and the most fun for professors, plus institutional glory.
Women's slow progress in academic careers, especially in the sciences, has traditionally been attributed to detours for child-bearing and other family tasks. So it seemed at MIT, where, in 1994, the tenured faculty numbered 194 men and 15 women. After a survey found that the women lagged in pay, office space and research support, a further study concluded that they were the victims of a variety of subtle forms of discrimination in status and recognition. In accepting the findings, MIT President Charles Vest conceded that gender discrimination was a serious reality, rather than a mere perception, on the MIT campus.
Failure to get ahead on campus has ramifications in the broader world of science. For example, in recent years, the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, which draws most of its members from universities, has elected only at most a dozen women in its annual intake of 60 members -- presumably the cream of American science. In a total academy membership of some 1,800, women number about 110. The alibi in the old boys' club is that election is purely on the basis of scientific merit and few women measure up.
For the superstars of academe, virtually all males, these are golden days as universities compete for their services. The salaries, in the low six figures, are piddling by sports, business and entertainment standards. But in professorial ranks, the pay is astronomical, as are such lures as funds for research, assistants and graduate students -- and light, if any, teaching loads.
However, in the lower ranks on campus, rebellion has been festering. At Harvard and several other universities, students have demonstrated in support of the poorly paid menial workers who keep the place clean and functioning. Graduate students and post-doctoral fellows, the stoop labor of modern science, are joining unions to improve their own situation. The warnings of a PhD shortage have now yielded to the reality of large numbers of young scientists for whom suitable employment does not exist. Many of them are in holding patterns on short-term appointments in universities, where their skills can be had for low wages, few if any benefits and no commitment.
Universities claim to be sources of enlightenment and progress. Of course, they are. But in important respects, they're also retrograde institutions, detached from a society that's increasingly resentful about their ways.
Daniel S. Greenberg is a science writer.