Kevin Carey isn’t Alone in Exploiting the Word ‘University,’ Either

Kevin Carey thinks most universities in the United States are no better than Trump University.

That is the upshot of his piece in today’s New York Times, which also appeared on its Upshot blog. I won’t give it the ad revenue of linking to it; if you won’t take my word for it, you probably know how to google.

Carey’s argument is not that Trump University was bad. That is universally acknowledged by just about everyone who does not share its name; Carey notes that the New York Attorney General forced it to stop calling itself a university.

The problem, Carey says, is “the practice of applying the term ‘university’ to organizations that are not universities or only slightly resemble them.” This, Carey wants us to think, is a “tried-and-true American hustle.” Somehow this creates “exploitable confusion” among college students who, “hav[ing] been taught by schooling and popular culture to trust any place called a university,” somehow believe that they are attending the University of California.

That’s asinine. Most students don’t know the difference between a research university and a teaching one to begin with, nor do they care. They are looking for a place that will teach them well, prepare them for whatever comes after graduation, and let them have a good time in the process. Carey’s argument that applying the word “university” to an institution that lacks “multiple schools and departments with a heavy focus on research, scholarship, and training new Ph.Ds” is misleading assumes students are simultaneously incredibly naive and strongly elitist. Carey’s problem, then, isn’t really misleading students.

Utah Valley University—the largest institution in the Utah System of Higher Education—is the stand-in for inflated state school names. “Even two-year schools are getting into the act,” he writes, as if an institution that has awarded bachelor’s degrees for nearly than a quarter century is still a two-year school; in fact, he is at pains to point out that UVU began as a vocational school.

UVU’s evolution from vocational school to University reflects dramatic changes in its region. Utah County’s population doubled between 1990 and 2010, and will nearly triple again over the next 50 years. That kind of growth presents a need to expand educational opportunities in the region, and the state has chosen to meet those needs by expanding existing institutions rather than build additional ones—not an unreasonable course. Unless you live in Carey’s world, in which for some unknown reason an institution’s status at its creation must remain fixed for eternity.

UVU’s guilt by association with Trump University, its “exploitable confusion” flowing from the seemingly trivial sin of using the word “university” when Kevin Carey thinks it doesn’t deserve to, doesn’t even come with Carey getting his facts right. Trump University is “not accredited, it did not grant traditional diplomas, its credits did not transfer, and students could not pay for it with financial aid.” These are serious issues, to be sure, which somehow put UVU but a step removed from strip-mall for-profit universities that students can’t differentiate from the august George Washington University.

UVU is guilty of none of these charges. It is accredited by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, one of six regional accreditors that represent the highest form of accreditation in the United States; its programs hold accreditation from 14 different specialized accreditors. UVU offers 141 degrees and emphases at the bachelor’s level alone; indeed while Carey is deeply concerned with the number of associate’s and master’s degrees UVU awarded (which he in fact gets wrong), he neglects to mention that the majority of degrees awarded—2,825 of 5,157 in 2013-14— are bachelor’s degrees. UVU educated more students receiving Pell Grants, nearly 12,000, than any other institution in Utah. Carey’s problem, then, isn’t really accreditation, degrees, and financial aid.

Carey’s problem with UVU extends to any “public university with a compass point or city designation in its name.” Schools that evolved from teacher-training oriented “normal schools” are systematically to be denied designation as a university—schools that Carey is clear to note were designed “to train women to become public schoolteachers.” Women, and especially women who will be teachers, must certainly not be allowed to attend Carey University!

Indeed, here we start to see Carey’s problem. This piece (you can decide what it is a piece of) is about what constitutes a “real” university. And any attempt to stratify on legitimacy should immediately raise deep concerns, as they are usually about protecting someone’s privilege. The pity Carey has for those who can’t tell the difference between George Washington University and Argosy University rings hollow when he says that primary and secondary education programs saw name inflation just by being called teachers colleges rather than normal schools. That’s a profession that just doesn’t deserve to be at a university. Neither, apparently, do associate’s degrees, which aren’t real degrees at Carey University.

Who might benefit from such a restrictive definition of universities? Who is harmed by calling Cal State Fullerton a university rather than Fullerton State Normal School? Interestingly, it isn’t students who think they are attending a research university. In his recent book The End of College Carey is quite supportive of other non-university universities: The University of Everywhere is his touchstone in the book precisely because it is not a traditional research university. But it does serve an emerging elite, students that Tressie McMillan Cottom has rightly called “roving autodidacts.” Those students are apparently not confused by the name.

So the non-university university is a problem when it is appropriated by institutions serving the masses but when elite-serving institutions do that it is innovation. I think we now know what Kevin Carey’s problem is. It isn’t a word. It is a class.