Failure is Not an Option

Originally published in Times Higher Education on March 24, 2011.

Our institutions tremble and sway, but it’s a rare week that passes without the Leaders of Public Opinion reminding us of the stability, excellence, nay, the world-historical glory, of our system of higher education. Here is the last Americanpiety, the liturgy incanted in newspaper columns by Thomas Friedman (Brandeis, 1975) and Nicholas Kristof (Harvard, 1981) and in think pieces by the likes of James Fallows (Harvard, 1970). Dispatched by The Atlantic last winter to discover “How America Can Rise Again,” Fallows listened to “experts around the country” whistle “Alma Mater” among the ruins. “U.S. higher education has essentially been our innovation engine,” Princeton’s president, Shirley Tilghman, told him. “I still do not see the overall model for higher education anywhere else that is better than the model we have in the United States, even with all its challenges at the moment.” Laura Tyson, dean of business schools in Berkeley and London, chimed in: “It can’t be a coincidence that so many innovative companies are located where they are. There is not another country’s system that does as well—although others are trying aggressively to catch up.” In higher education, Fallows reports, lies “America’s advantage.”

Certainly, a degree from a leading school is an “advantage” in national politics no less than in journalism. Like George W. Bush (Yale, 1968), President Obama (Columbia, 1983) has surrounded himself with graduates of elite private universities. It is often remarked that the 17 members of his Cabinet, his chief of staff and three senior advisers are together a tribute to ethnic and racial diversity. But only Vice President Joe Biden and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis received undergraduate degrees from public colleges. In Obama’s first year his entire economic team—Tim Geithner (Dartmouth, 1983), Ben Bernanke (Harvard, 1975), Larry Summers (MIT, 1975), Christina Romer (William and Mary, 1971), Paul Volcker (Princeton, 1949) and Austan Goolsbee (Yale, 1991)—came from the Ivy League or one of its close counterparts. The same rule of thumb has applied to his Supreme Court nominees, Sonia Sotomayor (Princeton, 1976) and Elena Kagan (Princeton, 1981).

Certainly, too, the elite private university provides an “advantage” in business. Asked earlier this year by Bloomberg Businessweek to name chief executives he admires, the president cited his friendship with J.P. Morgan’s Jamie Dimon (Tufts, 1978) and Goldman Sachs’ Lloyd Blankfein (Harvard, 1975). He praised the Silicon Valley billionaire John Doerr (Rice, 1973) as well as FedEx’s union-busting chief, Fred Smith (Yale, 1966). Later in the interview, when asked about his ambitious plan to double American exports, the president showed how fully he has absorbed the consensus: “We have still got the most innovative economy,” he boasted. “We have still got the best universities in the world.”

In truth, the consensus betrays a hollow conception of higher education that puts product development over moral and cultural development. The president’s secretary of education, Arne Duncan (Harvard, 1987), makes the point clear in the recent issue of Foreign Affairs. Hailed as one of the administration’s deep thinkers,Duncan peddles a cost-free vision of progress via education that is all too typical of the technocratic mind. Here are the usual, lazy conflations of political democracy with the economic marketplace, of power with knowledge, and of knowledge with information, the same clichés of borderless information automatically regulated by the hidden data of the “knowledge economy.”

The education department’s reform program, “Race to the Top,” perfectly captures the secretary’s blithe suggestion of society as a game, and of life as a competitive race. In the market-oriented educational creed fronted by journalists and politicos the historical ambiguities and uncertainties entailed by the actual experience of learning are nowhere acknowledged. “In moments of agony, I envied my fellow slaves for their stupidity,” Frederick Douglass wrote in a famous passage in his Autobiography. “I have often wished myself a beast. I preferred the condition of the meanest reptile to my own. Any thing, no matter what, to get rid of thinking! It was this everlasting thinking of my condition that tormented me.”

Columbia sociologist Jonathan Cole’s book, The Great American University: Its Rise to Preeminence, Its Indispensable National Role, Why It Must Be Protected, celebrates its many advances in biology, medicine, and physical science—things like stem cells, gene-splicing and fetal ultrasound scanners—and refers them to its strategic business partnerships. But just as the new creed takes “everlasting thinking” out of the curriculum, so colleges and universities lose their distinctive institutional character as they turn into a branch of industry. Every further advance into this brave new world, every innovation like stem cells, gene-splicing and fetal ultrasound scanners, confuses the academic value of research with the commercial value of profiteering.

It was Stanford that taught two computer scientists, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, to ignore the line separating scholarship from entrepreneurship, the disinterested quest for knowledge from the instrumental expectation of profitability. Page and Brin met during an orientation session for new computer science graduate students. Eventually they convinced Stanford to lend the computing power for the experiments that led to Google. The company, which held its first press conference in a university building, models its headquarters on the campus and promotes itself as a simulacrum of a graduate student milieu. It rewarded Stanford with stock and royalties and a seat on the board. Neither Page nor Brin finished his graduate degree, but they staffed Google with graduates of elite private universities, favoring those with high test scores and grade-point averages. Early senior management such as Sheryl Sandberg (Harvard, 1991) and key advisers like Bill Campbell (Columbia, 1962) came out of the Ivy League, as did chief executive Eric Schmidt (Princeton, 1976). Schmidt and Campbell serve on university boards of trustees. The fathers of Page, Brin and Schmidt are all professors.

The “facebooks” of Harvard’s student houses supplied Mark Zuckerberg with the initial “social capital” for his new media company. Just as Larry Page helped to launch Google by training Stanford’s computing power to the task of copying the entire Internet—a piratical act that prefigured the company’s contempt for intellectual property, other than its own—so Zuckerberg began the experiment that led to Facebook by breaking into Harvard’s online directories and downloading the images onto his personal computer. University officials charged him with violating copyrights and privacy. Soon, though, the social networking site spread to Princeton and Stanford, then to Dartmouth, Yale, Cornell and Columbia, universities where all students, in effect, minor in marketing. In the summer of 2004, Zuckerberg moved to Palo Alto, sublet a house near Stanford, and received a key investment from venture capitalist Peter Thiel (Stanford, 1992).

Maybe the origins of Google and Facebook indicate no more than the rough accuracy of Balzac’s famous quip—that behind every great fortune lies a crime. But the culturally impoverished sensibilities of Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and Mark Zuckerberg suggest the university’s failure to humanize its whiz kids. According to New Yorker business correspondent Ken Auletta, neither Page nor Brin reads books, ever. Zuckerberg is reported to have handed out business cards that read: “I’m CEO … bitch.” All you need to know about his moral imagination and the milieu that nurtured it you can find in the Instant Messages he sent to a classmate soon after gaining control of Facebook:

yea so if you ever need info about anyone at Harvard

just ask

i have over 4000 emails, pictures, addresses, sns

what!? How’d you manage that one?

people just submitted it

i don’t know why

they ‘trust me’

dumb fucks

Silicon Valley glorifies a data-driven conception of intelligence that encourages companies like Google and Facebook to attack real human values, like privacy, in the name of progress. And on the campus itself? The omnipresence of private interests has ensured a corporate style of management. Conflicts of interest are routine in not only in computer science, but in academic medicine, journalism, psychology, and biotech. The best-known recent scandal—the bribing of financial aid officials by student loan companies—has forced senior administrators across the country to draft codes of conduct regarding conflict of interest, codes which are lax enough for business-as-usual. In most areas of the university’s operations, there is no scandal, no scrutiny, no pretense of reform. Private industries like food service, mobile communications, and technology hardware enjoy revenue-sharing agreements, trade board seats, and exchange gifts and vacations with academic officials. The sonorous meetings of senior administrators are themselves sponsored by corporate vendors with commercial interests at stake.

Little of this reality has penetrated the skulls of college drops-out like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck or state university graduates like Sarah Palin (Idaho, 1987), who remonstrate against the elite private university as a hobgoblin of left-wing privilege. In fact, since the end of the Cold War, government has disinvested from all academic subjects that cannot justify themselves in market terms; and disinvestment has transformed higher education into a parody of left-wing idealism. Unlike their colleagues in science, law, business, economics, and computer science, humanities faculties depend entirely on their institutions for support. And what support! Of the total research spending by colleges and universities in 2006, the humanities received a 0.45 percent share.

In October, a Washington Post op-ed from political scientist Charles Murray (Harvard, 1965) provided a neat summary of the Tea Party point of view, alleging that elite universities have become “the principle gateway to membership in the New Elite,” as if the mere presence of an educated elite were somehow alien. Meanwhile, credentialed conservatives like David Horowitz (Columbia, 1959) and Ann Coulter (Cornell, 1984), are still moaning about multiculturalism, as if culture was still taught on campus; and the reliably smug George Will (Trinity, 1962) is heaping abuse on California’s public-employee unions, as if the most irksome business on campus, the teaching, has not been delegated to an underclass of part-timers, graduate students, and adjuncts that mirrors the stratification in the knowledge economy, so called.

To understand the irrelevance of the conservative critique, consider the role of the universities in the catastrophic failure of critical intelligence otherwise known as the Great Crash of 2008. The social origins can be traced to the early Seventies, when Wall Street firms began heavily recruiting from the Ivy League. Tycoons like Morgan Stanley’s John Mack (Duke, 1968), Citigroup’s Robert Rubin (Harvard, 1960), Bank of America’s Brian Moynihan (Brown, 1981), and their man in Washington, Edward Yingling of the American Bankers Association (Princeton, 1970), began their gilded careers then. As graduates of the Ivy League, these innovators hired their own, reassured by the complacent notion that they were getting the smartest, most capable, best-credentialed members of society. And over the decades, Wall Street, like the elite universities from which it recruited, evolved a stratified labor system, routinized conflicts of interest, and fetishized a sterile conception of intelligence focused on test scores and grade-point averages. By 2007, when 47 percent of Harvard’s graduates went into jobs in finance or consulting, the institutional convergence of Wall Street and higher education reached its surprising climax.

Why surprising? Didn’t the Ivies supply Wall Street with a meritocracy, a natural aristocracy of talent and intellect? Not exactly. “At least one-third of the students at elite universities, and at least half at liberal arts colleges, are flagged for preferential treatment in the admissions process,” writes Daniel Golden in The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges. Their campuses are filled with players of rich-people sports such as golf, sailing, squash, and lacrosse; with students born lucky enough to have a parent or grandparent as an alumnus; with the children of politicians, celebrities, and faculty; and with “development admits,” i.e., those admitted in honor of their family’s donation potential. Golden claims that gaining entry into a liberal arts college with an endowment in the low hundreds of millions costs around $20,000 in donations, on top of annual tuition in the five figures. Double that, and then some, and one may hope to gain the attention of a more exclusive college. Admission to a top 25 university requires a minimum outlay of $100,000—again, not including tuition. For a top 10, one would be looking at $250,000, and up.

Is the bribe worth the payoff? No question. According to a survey conducted by the Wall Street Journal, beginning pay for college graduates owes little to choice of major. What counts is the school itself. “The median starting salary for Ivy Leaguers is 32 percent% higher than that of liberal-arts college graduates,” the paper reports, “and at 10 or more years into graduates’ working lives, the spread is 34 percent%.”

The bribe looks better still when you consider it’s not possible for students to fail, no matter how they are admitted. Stuart Rojstaczer, a retired Duke professor, has published a large body of data concerning the long-running grade bubble. “If current trends hold,” Rojstaczer wrote in 2008, “A will be the average in the coming decade at most of the highly selective private colleges and universities in the United States.” The critic William Deresiewicz, meanwhile, has described the platoons of high-priced tutors, practice examiners, counselors, and recruiters who exist to give affluent students an “endless string of second chances.”

The functional equivalencies between the two industries are hard to miss. Like Wall Street’s inflated credit ratings, the elite university’s inflated grades packaged mediocrity as excellence. Like Wall Street’s government bailouts, the elite university’s third-party helpers stand by to socialize students’ risk. Too Smart to Fail, in short, is the educational equivalent of Too Big to Fail.

Reflecting in the summer of 2008 on his two dozen years as a student and assistant professor at Columbia and Yale, Deresiewicz bemoaned “a narrow and suffocating normalcy” on these campuses. The students, according to Deresiewicz, learn “a false sense of self-worth,” grow incapable of relating to those outside their social class, and meet criticism with awful exclamations of wounded vanity. The elite university “makes you incapable of talking to people who aren’t like you,” as it “teaches you to think that measures of intelligence and academic achievement are measures of value in some moral or metaphysical sense.” The self-love is complete. “Places like Yale are simply not set up to help students ask the big questions,” Deresiewicz wrote.

Matt Mahan discovered the same failures after he won election as Harvard’s student body president in December 2003. Disillusionment set in by the end of his second term. From his position, he watched 300 official student organizations operate as pre-professional agents for careers in finance, law, medicine, and government. Mahan’s senior thesis described a Harvard education as a totalizing experience that robs the student of individuality—in the name of diversity. As he told the puzzled interviewer sent by the Harvard Crimson, “I had to come to terms with the fact that for the most part I had instrumentalized my academic experience and focused more on just getting through the classes than really being changed by them.” Mahan then delivered a chilling verdict: “I think it’s so sad that the vast majority of Harvard students will go into a very lucrative profession, do a little bit of community service on the side to feel better about their lives, but do nothing to change the underlying structures that have produced them. They’ll live in a beautiful suburb where they never have to confront homelessness and poverty, and all end up in the same retirement home where they’ll play golf until they die.”

Wall Street’s implosion spoiled their expectations and exposed the elite university as a bacchanalia of entitled self-regard. Suddenly, the institutional equivalencies became too obvious to ignore. Brown’s president, Ruth Simmons, earned $576,000 from her salary in a typical year. But she raked in another $323,539 from her seat on the board of Goldman Sachs, plus $4.3 million worth of stock, in return for which she and nine other board members were entrusted with the delicate task of determining Lloyd Blankfein’s bonus ($9 million). Did anyone at Brown dare to ask why its president was sitting on the board of an investment bank? Not until Brown’s endowment, under the direction of its fiscally brilliant president, shrunk from $2.78 billion in 2008 to $2.04 billion in 2009. So it went for the other top schools, self-proclaimed guardians of rationality. During the Great Crash, the portfolios of U.S. endowments and foundations declined by an average of 20 percent. The endowments of Yale, Stanford, Princeton, and MIT, each of which had exceeded $10 billion in value, lost between 25 and 30 percent. Meanwhile, a record 30 presidents of private colleges in America were hauling in more than $1 million in total compensation, the result of a corporate theory of management that refers remuneration to the open market, rather than establishing relations of fairness within university communities.

Harvard, as one might expect, had the biggest endowment of them all: $36.9 billion. The Harvard Management Company, which ran the money, operated a Wall Street-style trading operation that for years paid out fantastic bonuses to its top managers. Egged on by its president, Larry Summers, Harvard invested aggressively in stocks, bonds, hedge funds, and private equity. Summers, a former treasury secretary and World Bank economist, pushed for investing 100 percent of the university’s cash and broke ground in Allston, Massachusetts, on a long-planned expansion that was to double the school’s physical size. Summers was an authentic economic genius. Everyone said so.

The crash cost the university $1.8 billion in cash alone. Harvard’s response? Lay off low-paid staff, freeze pay, and halt construction of the Allston campus. This last measure has left a large hole in the ground and complaints of a rat infestation. Why did Allston residents and the university’s staff have to suffer the consequences of a colossal managerial failure? Why did the budget axe land heaviest on the lowest paid and least culpable members of the university community? Socialism for the rich, capitalism for the rest? Such are the “big questions” elite universities are not set up to ask.

The students were victims too. Amid a deflationary panic over job prospects for graduating seniors, Harvard’s Office of Career Services—normally a Wall Street recruiting arm—offered a seminar called “Reflections on Rejection.” The prayerlike language with which it was announced made the theodicy of merit sound more fragile than anyone had guessed. “We learn to recognize our bad feelings as an indication that we care, we have high standards and high hopes, and we expect a lot of ourselves and of the world, rather than assuming that we are hopelessly untalented or unworthy.” All that was missing was “vile” to complete the Calvinist idiom of despair.

Summers, as one might expect, got a promotion, leading the Obama administration’s National Economic Council. Let Summers’s career stand as a parable of university arrogance. Back in 1991, at a World Bank conference in Bangkok, he announced that the “laws of economics are like the laws of engineering. One set of laws work everywhere.” As treasury secretary, he put this sweeping ignorance of history and human development to work in holding off attempts to regulate derivatives. As president of Harvard, he put it to work in an irresponsible investing strategy. And where did he go after talking his way out of that job? You guessed it. He went to Wall Street, where he worked at a secretive hedge fund. From one calamity to the next, Summers landed softly, received a leg up, prospered. When the catastrophe he helped to bring about vaulted him back into the seat of power, it was said that Larry Summers was Too Smart to Fail.