Sunday, April 13, 2008

Student Narcissism and University Administrators or The Idiocy of Academic Standards

In early 2007, based on data from the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) collected over the period from 1982 to 2006 at San Diego State University, J.M. Twenge, S. Konrath, J.D. Foster, W.K. Campbell, and B.J. Bushman, reported in “Egos inflating over time: A cross-temporal meta-analysis of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory,” Journal of Personality. ( that “College students today are more narcissistic and self-centered than a generation ago.” Staggeringly, the authors discovered a thirty per cent increase in the number of students with above-average scores on the NPI. (“College Students Think They’re So Special”

The lead author of the study, Jean M. Twenge is also the author of a book entitled, Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled – and More Miserable Than Ever Before (NY: Free Press, 2006). She maintains a website at and has an active speaking schedule discussing the problems of increasing narcissism in students. According to a story on MSNBC, the study, “Egos inflating over time,” indicated “narcissists `are more likely to have romantic relationships that are short-lived, at risk for infidelity, lack emotional warmth, and to exhibit game-playing, dishonesty, and over-controlling and violent behaviors.’” In addition, “narcissists tend to lack empathy, react aggressively to criticism and favor self-promotion over helping others.” (“College Students Think They’re So Special”
However, in an effort to make people feel good about themselves, The Chronicle of Higher Education, under the title of “Students Not So Self-Obsessed After All, Study Finds,” in the 17 January 2008 edition purported to show that there has been no rise in the level of student narcissism since 1982 ( However, Twenge demonstrates the methodological problems with the second study (“New York Times article: The missing important details” In addition, the NPI, according to the following two studies -- Robert Raskin and Howard Terry, “A Principal-Components Analysis of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory and Further Evidence of Its Construct Validity” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 54 (1988): 890-902; and Thomas S. Kubarych, Ian J. Deary, and Elizabeth J. Austin, “The Narcissistic Personality Inventory: factor structure in a non-clinical sample,” Personality and Individual Differences 36 (2004): 857-72 – is a valid study to determine such traits as Exhibitionism, Superiority, Vanity, and Entitlement.
That last trait, Entitlement, is the significant characteristic for understanding current university classroom dynamics.
Anyone who deals with the increasing lack of civility in our daily lives clearly knows that it’s not just students who are narcissistic. Our society encourages narcissism (or, what my mother termed, “pronoid,” that is, the belief that everybody likes you and wishes you well despite all evidence to the contrary). Consumerism encourages immediate self-gratification. The typical American is the guy waiting impatiently for his instant cappuccino to heat up in the microwave.

While Twenge and the authors of the SDSU study discuss the problems with forming lasting relationships as students become more narcissistic, I’m more concerned with the growing problems educating our students, in particular, their sense of Entitlement.
At the university where I teach, we require our students to read two books in addition to their textbooks in Western Civ. Two years ago, we assigned a book with 43 pages of text. It was a beautiful book on the Assyrians. A large number, perhaps more than half, of the students in my class told me they refused to read the book. Rather taken aback, I asked why not. They informed me that they did not want to read the book. That was the extent of their reasoning. They didn’t want to do something, therefore, they weren’t going to do it. I reminded them there was a test on the book. They told me they didn’t care. I pointed out (I swear, I was talking with them this dispassionately, largely, I suspect, out of shock), that, if they did not read the book, they would probably fail the “book test.” They were suitably unimpressed. Over three-quarters of the class failed the test. Most of the tests were blank. This is the most glaring example of this disturbing trend among my students. Furthermore, every year, I calculate a grade-point average for my classes. Typically, my Western Civ sections have a class GPA of 2.6 (reflecting some slight grade inflation). The past two years, however, that GPA has plummeted to 1.6. The tests have remained the same (how many different ways are there to ask, “Tell me about the Agricultural Revolution”?) as has the textbook. The only aspect of the course that has changed has been the students. I’ve spoken to colleagues where I teach and at other institutions who report similar anecdotes. In an earlier post (, I argued that much of the problem rests with No Child Left Behind (NCLB). While I still believe that the sudden downturn in student performance two years ago is the direct result of NCLB and its focus on teaching to the tests rather than teaching kids to think for themselves, I believe the cumulative effects of narcissism (specifically, the notion of their entitlement to grades) as an aspect of student consumerism is also part of the equation of failure. George Cheney, Jill J. McMillan, Roy Schwartzman, “Should We Buy the “Student-As-Consumer” Metaphor,” The Montana Professor 7 (Fall 1997) have admirably described the pitfalls of student consumerism. In addition, as reported in “Student Consumerism and the Ivory Tower,” Independent (The Council of Independent Colleges online newsletter), Roger Martin, the keynote speaker at the 2006 CAO/CSAO Institute, suggested that students’ (and their parents’) expectations of high grades, even for mediocre work, and the administration’s pressure on faculty to retain students, thereby encouraging grade inflation and intellectual deflation, is threatening to drive down the educational experience ( The problem is not just in the US, either. Tina Williamson at Grant MacEwan College in Edmonton, Canada notes the prevalence of student consumerism in “The Evolution of Advising in a Consumer Driven Culture.” Unfortunately, she suggests that academic advisors realize that “The `new and improved’ advisor will continue to be an information provider but may also need to embrace multiple roles as recruiter (salesperson), coach, and mentor.” ( That is, we must surrender to the inevitable destruction of higher education as a place “merely” of learning and reflection. In the UK, Wes Streeting, vice-president of the National Union of Students asserted that since “Higher education is increasingly being `sold’ to students as an investment,” and since “the introduction of the fee regime,” student unions there could easily become “`glorified consumer rights bodies.” (Rebecca Attwood, “Growing Student Consumerism is Inevitable, Says NUS,” Times Higher Education (15 June 2007)
If student consumerism weren’t enough pressure to degrade the education experience, faculty face pressure from university administrations as well.
According to data from the Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics, over 50 per cent of full-time employees at universities (both public and private) in the US were administrators in 2006 That’s right, by 2006 there were more persons in charge of pushing paper around than actually teaching at universities in this country. At my university, we have four vice-presidents. The US needs one, but we need four. More and more, the purpose of a university is to support a football team and provide welfare benefits for some bureaucrats who are too incompetent to find work with the federal government. And it’s not just that college administrations have ballooned faster than my yearly raises; it’s that they keep expecting us to do more and more of their work. They live for the paperwork. Therefore, over the past ten years my paperwork has increased to the point where I sometimes have to spend my office hours filling out forms (it’s a good thing that most of my students can’t be bothered coming to see me for help during my office hours).
The noxious flow that results when narcissism, student consumerism, and bloated administrations come together pressures faculty to “retain” students. We live in a land of euphemisms, and “student retention” often means making courses “easier,” that is, less intellectually stimulating. And now, student retention is the job of faculty. A few years ago, the administration at my university polled the students about their experiences, positive and negative, on campus. Over 90 per cent of the students thought teaching and advising was “good” or better. Meanwhile, administrative areas such as housing and, especially, financial aid, were rated poorly. Naturally, the administration came back and told the faculty that poor retention was our fault and that we really needed to improve our teaching and advising. I put it to you -- can you stand 90 per cent of your family? A 90 per cent approval rating is incredibly high, but not good enough if the administration is looking for a reason to bash the faculty. Another survey a few years ago asked students to rank our university as their first, second, third or lower choice when they made application to attend college. Most of the students answered that we were their third or lower choice (we, apparently, are the college of last resort). The fact that most of these kids came back for their second year, together with the 90 per cent approval rating, proved that the faculty were responsible for retaining far more students than one might expect considering most of the students didn’t want to be there in the first place. The administration quit asking the students to rank what choice our university was for them the same year they quit asking the students how important a football program was in their choice for attending our university when they got a slight negative number (if you’re wedded to bean counting, this meant that the football team actually kept some students from attending our school).
All I want to do is teach. I love teaching. I love interacting with my kids. Most students are such good-hearted individuals that being around them is genuinely fun. Teaching is a vocation. It’s almost a sacred duty to ensure that my students learn to think and that I learn from them (I detest the term “learner” for “student.” Learner implies a one-way street where the teacher simply opens up the skull of his students and pours in the smartness – another grotesque example of the unholy and evil alliance between Colleges of Education and Colleges of Business). Unfortunately, the student narcissism that increases student consumerism and the necessity to raise funds for bloated administrative budgets, is putting pressure on university professors to lower standards (that is, to “dumb down” their courses) to retain happy, tuition paying, ignorant students. To me, this is a mortal sin – literally. Loving teaching and wanting an intellectual experience with my students might not be the equivalent of the Pauline Folly, but it’s getting close.