On Improving Trinity: Friedman’s Adam Smith U

Daniel Nesbitt ’22

Opinion Editor

Over the past few weeks a number of different organizations have published their official College rankings for the 2019/20 academic year. How did Trinity fare this year? Not very well at all.
First, let’s examine the less-important rankings. By the standards of Forbes, we fell from 89th to 109th among all colleges. However, per Niche.com’s rankings of the best colleges in America, we drastically fell to 221st. Compare that with our 2014/15 ranking of 85th and one can see there is cause for concern.
While Forbes and Niche are of relatively little importance, the two rankings that are most oft paid attention to are the Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education and the US News and World Report. Although the former saw us rise from 111th in 2019 to 87th this year among all colleges, the latter saw us remain 46th among all liberal arts colleges for the second consecutive year, tied for last in the NESCAC with Connecticut College.
Though it is true that these rankings and their methodologies have shortcomings and may fail to capture the true relative excellence of Trinity, the importance of rankings cannot be ignored. In searching for colleges, students and college counselors often consult rankings like these as a preliminary filtering method. If the school’s ranking is above a given “threshold,” it will remain in consideration, however, if it falls below this value, the school will be immediately excluded from all future consideration. As a result, many potential high-caliber students, upon seeing our declining ranking and extremely bloated cost of tuition, promptly rule us out. These failing rankings need to be fixed, and frankly, the Administration has not done enough to address this problem. If, somehow, action has been taken behind the scenes, then it has clearly been a failed attempt.
What can be done to address our declining rankings and other various problems? The answer is two-fold: better marketing/branding and large structural change.
From a marketing standpoint, Trinity needs to do a better job promoting our unique and creative academic programs – the prime example that comes to mind is the Formal Organizations department. Funded by the Shelby Cullom Davis endowment, the largest endowment for the study of entrepreneurship and economic enterprise in the country, the Formal Orgs. department is home to superlative professors and fascinating, unique courses. For some reason, despite it being the largest minor available, and despite the truly unique nature of the program, Trinity fails to market this program effectively. Trinity should showcase Formal Orgs. in their marketing and promotional materials to prospective students. In addition, Trinity should adopt the Chicago Statement on free expression and market itself as a bastion of open inquiry and debate. Shifting the focus of Trinity’s branding in this manner will have positive reputational effects and will almost certainly aid in improving the overall quality of the applicant pool.
Trinity would also benefit from significant structural change. Ideally, this would consist of, as economist David Friedman writes in The Machinery of Freedom, “replac[ing] the corporate university by institutions with an economic rather than political structure, a market instead of a hierarchy.” What would this look like? The current structure would be replaced by a series of decentralized, individual organizations, acting in a manner similar to normal marketplace processes. Dubbed “Adam Smith U” by its creator, Friedman, this would presumably include businesses renting classrooms to professors, and professors charging students to take their course at a mutually agreed price. In addition, there would also be other coexisting organizations that, for example, do nothing except give examinations and grant degrees, or perhaps other companies providing private dorms. “The essential characteristic of this scheme is that, like any market system,” describes Friedman, “it produces what the consumer wants.” This guarantees that it is the preferences of the students themselves that dictates what teachers are employed, rather than the interest of the university itself. Ever increasingly, students consistently feel that administrators act against or without regard to student preferences. A decentralized, market-based organization would provide students with increased power as consumers.
While these described structural changes are purely speculative and theoretical, there are approaches that Trinity could experiment with. For example, Trinity could introduce a tuition diversion plan. As Friedman describes it, “This arrangement would allow students, while purchasing most of their education from the university, to arrange some courses taught by instructors of their own choice.” One key benefit of this idea is that it does not have to be a massive and immediate structural overhaul, but rather a small-scale educational experiment. As the program develops over time, it would provide an alternative career path to many young academics, allowing capable teachers to acquire large salaries by attracting lots of students to their courses. Under this system, the students would take on great responsibility in structuring their education, but other schools in the educational market would develop to meet the needs of those not prepared for this responsibility.
All around, Trinity is facing difficult challenges in competing with other NESCAC schools as well as other similar institutions. Is a tuition diversion plan the best solution for Trinity? Possibly, possibly not, but at least it is a new idea. Creative solutions must be found to solve these problems –or maybe personnel change is needed. Either way, something significant must be attempted. Will Trinity become Friedman’s Adam Smith U? Probably not (though one can hope), but hopefully significant changes shall be made.