An Interview with Jane Shaw : About the Pope Center

Michael F. Shaughnessy Senior Columnist
Eastern New Mexico University

Jane S. Shaw is Executive Vice President of the J.W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, located at 200 W. Morgan Street in Raleigh North Carolina. The web site for the Pope Center is and her phone is 919-532-3600
In this interview, she responds to questions about the Center and higher education in general.
1) What is your exact title and what exactly do you do at the Pope Center?

I am the executive vice president of the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy ( That means that I direct the organization on a day-to-day basis. The president is Arch T. Allen, who is also chairman, and who serves without pay. George C. Leef is the vice president for research.

2) Who funds the Pope Center and when did it begin?

The organization is primarily funded by the John William Pope Foundation, which is a grant-making foundation started by the late John William Pope. The center was started in 1996 as a project of the John Locke Foundation, but it became an independent organization in 2003. John William Pope was frustrated by the leftward and "politically correct" tilt on campuses, especially the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
3) What is your "mission" if you will?

Our goal is to reform higher education especially in North Carolina but also the nation. We are concerned about the declining quality of undergraduate education and about poor governance of universities, and we feel that it is important to explore issues such as the role of the research university, academic freedom, etc.

4) A recent paper by George Leef indicates that  "
higher education has been oversold to the public" He indicated that "many students who are not really interested in academic pursuits are spending a lot of time and money to get a credential that is much less valuable than they suppose." What is your take on this? Should we be encouraging students to study carpentry, plumbing, become electricians, and computer programmers?

Each student should do what is best for him or her! The point of George's paper is that there is an expectation in this country today that everyone ought to go to college — that everyone needs to have 16 years of study instead of just 12. He argues that this is not a good idea. Today (as many professors will confirm) many students in college really shouldn't be there. They aren't interested in learning or studying, but have enrolled because college is fun or their parents except them to attend, and they believe that without a degree their lives will be miserable.
Many of these students fail to graduate — the national rate of graduation is only about 56 per cent (and that's over six years!)

Many universities are accommodating these "disengaged" students (probably because they bring money to the university) by letting them off lightly; they don't have to take rigorous courses. This means, however, that college degrees don't signify the achievement they once did, and it also means that a lot of students are wasting their time.

There are alternatives, and they aren't necessarily carpentry or plumbing (although where I used to live, in Bozeman, Montana, carpentry was a much-desired skill, an art really, and many young people were avidly pursuing it). I don't mean to be too anecdotal, but a cousin of mine became an auto mechanic instead of going to college (something that dismayed his parents deeply) but then learned to fly, became an airplane mechanic and also pilot; he took wealthy executives in Lear jets around the country. Not bad for someone who didn't go to college (obviously, he picked up a lot of learning along the way).

Students are beginning to realize that they have choices other than college. They can get a Microsoft or Cisco certification without going to college — but they are getting an education that will lead to a good job.

There's a new concept, by the way, that may fit in here: life-long learning.  Young people who just want to get a job when they are 18 may well discover an interest in learning later. Did you know that Martin Sheen (of the West Wing) never went to college? But he is doing so now.
5) Margaret Spellings has recently indicated her concerns about higher education. What do you see as the problems and concerns facing higher education?

Higher education costs too much, partly because schools aren't run very efficiently. Students are not getting a solid education because they can slide by with courses that aren't very academically demanding. Some are just frivolous while others are more political indoctrination than serious education. There is a bias against free markets and capitalism on most campuses and students don't know much about the history of ideas that led to the American republic or why the United States is unusual in world history (it is unusual because of its commitment to freedom and limited government). The "shared governance" of universities means that it is difficult to innovate (for example, most students must sit and listen to lectures when that may not be the best way to teach).

6) I have doubts about certain degrees in higher education. I am not sure a Bachelor's degree in Philosophy or American Literature is going to guarantee students a job post graduation. Should college students be told about the worth and value of their major or minor?

Yes! Better information is essential. That's one of the Pope Center's goals — to inform students, parents, administrators, trustees, and alumni about what is going on in higher education and how it could be better. You've hit on one of the biggest problems — there aren't good measures of how a particular school is doing in teaching its students. The schools that are considered the "best" are usually listed high up in the U.S. News and World Report ranking, but that ranking is heavily weighted by the academic quality of the students going in (inputs not outputs!) and by the reputation that the school has in the minds of other administrators.

On the other hand, the chief reason to go to college should not be to guarantee a job. As I suggested above, there are other ways to get the knowledge for a job. College has traditionally been a place where students spend time and effort absorbing knowledge — literature, science, mathematics, history — that has accumulated over the years. This knowledge may not be directly job-related. On the other hand, employers say that language skills are among the most important skills for new entrants to the job market. Studies in the liberal arts are beneficial in developing these skills.

7) A perennial issue is the fact that some students go part time to college and others pursue their degree full time. Should we mandate full time attendance, or simply allow the part time pursuit of a degree?

I don't see a problem with students going part-time. The problem comes if their tuition is being supported by taxpayers and they don't graduate. There should be a limit on how much the taxpayer will subsidize.

8) Another issue is the length of time that some people take to finish their degree. While most are on the four year plan, when students change majors or minors they are apt to be spending six, or seven years at college. Is there anything that can be done or should be done about this?

Sometimes this is because students cannot meet all their requirements — because their schools don't offer enough essential classes. Faculty want students to take many required courses in their major because those are the courses that faculty like to teach — but that makes it hard for students to graduate on time. Also, faculty often resist teaching basic courses for non-majors, and this makes it hard for students to meet their distribution requirements. University administrations should address these problems.

But another reason for the delay may be that some students (when they are young and not always savvy) get started on college and really don't want to go through with it. Instead of dropping out, however, they become the "disengaged" students referred to above. They take some courses but never get turned on by academic learning and often they don't graduate.

9) What are some of the main educational and accountability issues facing higher education today?

Here are some:

  • How do we find out whether the thousands of dollars spent on four years of education are worth spending?

  • Too many students graduate without learning a lot. Many others waste their time and money and taxpayers’ money, and don’t graduate.

  • “Shared governance” (with tenure) gives faculty more power than they should have and too often they use it to promote narrow-minded ideas and block innovations.

  • Universities are inefficient.

  • Trustees are often uninformed and weak.

  • Financial aid may be driving up the cost of tuition.

  • Research may be driving out teaching.

10) There seem to be more and more students with learning disabilities, exceptionalities, attention deficit disorders and various other health and medical concerns across campus. Faculty are often at a loss as to how to make accommodations and modifications, while still maintaining academic integrity. Any words of advice?

I’ve just begun reading about this.  Certainly accommodations can be made — for example, deaf students normally have interpreters in classes — but students with attention deficit disorders may not be suited to college. Learning disabilities should be largely overcome by the time a student gets to college. If they are not, then perhaps the students should not be in college.
It may sound a bit harsh but certainly it is not the role of faculty to coddle students.

11)  There also seems to be more and more of these web based or Internet classes. How can an employer be assured of standards and academic integrity when they see a multitude of these on line classes on one's transcript?

That’s a good question — but it’s the same question that employers are asking with any college graduate today. The evidence indicates that the competence of college graduates (in the ability to write, for example) has gone down compared with fifteen or twenty years ago. Some “real” classes are jokes, and I’ve been told that some Internet courses are excellent. Perhaps some skepticism about Internet courses is warranted, but this is true of other courses as well.

12) I am concerned about the "college experience" if you will. I believe that college should expose students to the arts, to the humanities, theatre, music and various cultural events. Yet many students are taking all of their classes on line and not interacting with other human beings. Do you see anything wrong with this scenario?

You are probably right. Something would be missing with an entirely Web-based college career. Each person is different, however, and many students won’t take advantage of the theatre and music on campus, even if they are there for four years.  

We should also keep in mind that many students are “non-traditional” -- that is, older — and they may not be looking for the same things from college that 18-  to 22-year-olds are. They may be focused on the ways that college can help them professionally.

It may be that we are really talking about two different purposes of education  — one that focuses on absorbing the accumulated learning from art, history, and science, and one that  focuses on job preparation. Students can have both and they can occur in the same place — on a university campus that has both liberal arts and engineering, for example. Or, they can occur in different places — one student may study art and history in a more traditional university and another may concentrate on more practical education in a for-profit, heavily online university such as Phoenix.

The key thing is that potential students (and their parents) know the differences and choose what they think is best for themselves . Today, that kind of information does not seem readily available — or, in some cases, it is drowned out by the desire to attend a “prestige” school.  

13) What question have I neglected to ask?

I don’t know that you have neglected anything important, but I do want to say that in spite of all the criticisms I have made (which I think are well deserved), the system of higher education in the United States is still successful. That is because there is competition. There is no state-dictated course of instruction; schools are free to try out different ideas and approaches, and they do. We want that competition; it is necessary for a healthy system.

The chief weakness of the system is that it is composed overwhelmingly of non-profit organizations and governmental organizations. Neither of these has a built-in incentive to be efficient (because there is no “bottom line”). What we need is more and better information about schools and their performance so that students can make wiser choices and trustees and administrators can act more effectively. That is what Margaret Spellings is getting at when she talks about the need for a database that shows how much students learn at different colleges. The last thing I want is government intrusion (I am not a fan of “No Child Left Behind,” so I am not happy about this proposal). But private sources of such information need to be developed. The PopeCenter intends to help provide that information.


January 8th, 2007

Michael F. Shaughnessy

Senior Columnist

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