Clouds of criticism and thunderous warnings of decline continue to hover over American education. Until the last few years, colleges and universities were shielded from the harshest attacks. But skyrocketing tuition, among other factors, has caused parents, students, and politicians to begin scrutinizing what is happening on college campuses. Calls for change are getting louder. A handful of recent books on higher education serve as reminders of what is at stake in the reform effort.

HIGHER LEARNING IN AMERICA: 1980-2000, edited by Arthur Levine (Johns Hopkins University Press, 383 pp., $35.95). Professor Arthur Levine of the Harvard University Graduate School of Education has collected essays from experts on the full range of issues affecting higher education. Taken together in this volume, these essays provide an informative historical guide of the past decade, while also looking into the future of American higher education.

The next decade promises to be a challenging one for colleges and universities. This book explains why. It examines the political, economic, and demographic shifts that are putting pressure on the current system. And it doesn't ignore the diversity of institutions. The contributors discuss research universities, liberal-arts colleges, and community colleges.

UP THE UNIVERSITY: RECREATING HIGHER EDUCATION IN AMERICA, by Robert and Jon Solomon (Addison-Wesley, 312 pp., $24.95). The authors of this straight-talking book are brothers and university professors. They speak with a clarity born of experience and dedication. The most refreshing aspect of this book is that its authors teach at state universities rather than the elite private institutions where much of the defensive writing about universities originates.

Instead of taking a defensive position, the Solomons make a plea for universities to return to their original mission of teaching. Although this plea is emanating from many sources today, it is particularly persuasive here because of the authors' devotion to the cause.

"This is not another bitter diatribe against what is happening in the universities," they write. "It is an enthusiastic program for re-creating the university so that it serves us all well, and at a price we can afford."

Organized in a readable format, this book is essentially a collection of short chapters, each making the case for radical reform of higher education. The authors call for abolishing tenure, eliminating PhD dissertation requirements, and instituting student evaluations of professors. Some of the ideas - such as open enrollment - are Utopian. But this book addresses many of the university's pressing needs.

INSIDE AMERICAN EDUCATION: THE DECLINE, THE DECEPTION, THE DOGMAS, by Thomas Sowell (Free Press, 368 pp., $24.95). If there's anyone out there who doesn't believe that American education is failing its students, this book makes the case with conviction.

Sowell, a senior fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution, sees deception at work and sets out to unveil the dogma or "hidden agendas" behind the decline in American education.

This volume attacks elementary and secondary education and higher education with equal vigor. The first part of the book laments the low intellectual quality of schoolteachers and what Sowell views as "classroom brainwashing" aimed at changing students' values, behavior, and beliefs.

Sowell warns that things may get worse before they get better. "The inevitable retirement of an older generation of teachers and professors must leave the new trends ... as the dominant influence on the shaping of education in the generations to come," he writes. The imminent retirement of a generation of college professors is a serious issue for American colleges and universities, as the following book shows.

THE ART OF HIRING IN AMERICA'S COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES, edited by Ronald H. Stein and Stephen Joel Trachtenberg (Prometheus Books, 188 pp., $32.95) addresses the concern about future faculty shortages. The book is a collection of essays by university administrators and professors.

The authors point out that "American colleges and universities are facing their most difficult challenge since World War II." Although some researchers are challenging these findings, studies show that the United States may confront a severe faculty shortage by the year 2010.

In the 1960s, colleges added to their faculties to keep up with the enrollment of baby boomers. Now those faculty members are approaching retirement age. The question is whether or not downsizing of colleges will alleviate the need for replacement professors.

Much of this book is written for insiders, complete with specific recommendations on hiring practices. But it raises an important - and widely ignored - issue looming in the future of America's institutions of higher education.

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