A critical new report on higher education charges that the curriculum of U.S. colleges has "decayed," and that, as a result, universities are producing graduates who can't think critically, write plainly or communicate adequately.

In a rare admission for a study sponsored by a college group, the report places the blame mostly on tenured college professors, who it says are more concerned with conducting research and becoming "scholars" than in teaching students basic skills and subjects.

The report, released this week by a study group of the Association of American Colleges, follows two other critical reports on the quality of U.S. universities. An Education Department report on college dropouts, and a study by William J. Bennett, then chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and now Education secretary, on the decline of humanities studies on campuses, have blamed the colleges and students, but never the professors, or at least never so bluntly.

"Central to the troubles, and to the solution, are the professors, for the development that overwhelmed the old curriculum and changed the entire nature of higher education was the transformation of the professors from teachers concerned with the characters and minds of their students to professionals, scholars with PhD degrees with an allegiance to academic disciplines stronger than their commitment to teaching," the new report says.

The problem, the report says, has become endemic to universities, which evaluate professors on the basis of their research instead of the quality of their teaching.

The authors of the latest report say they hope it will launch the kind of educational renewal for colleges that a presidential commission sparked in the nation's high schools with its report, "A Nation at Risk."

In general, the new report says the interest in "democratizing" U.S. colleges after World War II led to a bloating of the course offerings and a loss of control over the curriculum by the institutions.

To remedy the problem, the report urges a return to minimum standards in a core of courses, centered around literacy, critical thinking, numerical data, history, art and an appreciation for other cultures.