The Mirror Cracked

Originally published in Times Higher Education on May 7, 2009.

How is the financial collapse changing American higher education? Andrew Delbanco, Director of American Studies at Columbia University, gives a sobering answer in the current issue of The New York Review of Books. Sources of revenue, Delbanco notes, are as varied as the structure of the institutions themselves, with private colleges relying on tuition, public schools relying on state funds, and both depending on endowments and alumni contributions. As every source is strained, so every institution is contracting in ways that diminish the quality of education.

Although generalizations are notoriously difficult to sustain in this “mixed system of public, private, large and small, residential and commuter, religious and secular, nonprofit and for-profit institutions,” Delbanco finds everywhere he looks freezes in faculty salary and hiring, mandatory furloughs and layoffs for staff, and postponements or cancellations of construction projects. Some private colleges are trying to add revenue by admitting more students than their libraries, laboratories, and dormitories are designed to serve. Worse, an honest debate about inequality in admissions, having gained traction before the collapse, now seems beside the point. “Higher education has always been a mirror of American society—and, for the moment, at least, the image it reflects is not a pretty one,” Delbanco writes.

A look in the mirror at Harvard reflects an especially troubling image.Before the collapse, Harvard had announced a long-overdue increase in financial aid and had broken ground on a long- planned expansion that would have doubled its physical size. With the world’s largest university endowment valued at $36.9 billion, officials had counted on $1.4 billion in earnings to fund one-third of its operating budget. No one knows for certain how much the endowment has declined. Recent analyses by the New York Times (“Harvard, Private Equity, and the Education Bubble”) and Forbes (“Harvard: The Inside Story of Its Financial Meltdown”) put the losses between 30 and 50 percent—and put the blame on the same exotic financial instruments that have brought the rest of the country low.

Losses to Harvard’s self-image, according to which the students are told they are too smart to fail, have been no less severe. According to the Boston Globe, the Office of Career Services has responded by creating a seminar, “Reflections on Rejection.” Abigail Lipson, director of the Bureau of Study Counsel and cosponsor of the seminar, described its message in a bulletin distributed to participants: “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’s missing from that last clause is vile, which would complete the old Calvinist idiom of devotion and despair, now rendered in a therapeutic jargon that scarcely conceals the school’s religious zeal for success. One senses an opportunity. Moral imagination is what has been missing from our elite universities all along. This crisis, rightly understood, should multiply officially sanctioned standards for success. To continue as before, as if only the financing of higher education needs changing, will mean that our brightest students will have learned little from the crisis, because we will have had little to teach them.