Whither the University?

A new university takes shape in Austin


I have been exceptionally busy, but in raising my head above water I could not miss the announcement of the founding of a new college, the University of Austin, an attempt by a coterie of public figures self-described as being all over the political spectrum to fix the ills of modern higher education by decamping to new digs. I certainly share the overall sentiment that in many respects higher ed is broken and I fully support, in principle, the notion of trying something new, whether that's online alternatives, reinvesting and rethinking existing programs and institutions, or building from the ground up. I am mildly amused by the tone of aggrievement in the founders' expressed endorsement of anti-aggrievement; conversely, in Ferguson's piece I find the notion that higher ed is “liberal” somewhat lazy and misleading (more below).

In the end I suspect none of this business will work, but not for the reasons the founders might anticipate.

Niall Ferguson's WaPo piece gets the lede right but topsy-turvies the diagnosis.

How to explain this rapid descent of academia from a culture of free inquiry and debate into a kind of Totalitarianism Lite? In their book “The Coddling of the American Mind,” the social psychiatrist Jonathan Haidt and FIRE president Greg Lukianoff lay much of the blame on a culture of parenting and early education that encourages students to believe that “what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker,” that you should “always trust your feelings,” and that “life is a battle between good people and evil people.”

However, I believe the core problems are the pathological structures and perverse incentives of the modern university.

That last sentence is right on its face; what Ferguson follows up with as illustration of that statement is a mixed bag. He's right about weak administrators and implications that higher ed, structurally, tends towards group-think and non-confrontation. He doesn't connect it to the way students have become consumers or customers, but one could. He rightly points to administrative bloat but doesn't highlight the corresponding consequence, the increase faculty contingency and precariousness. Most “faculty” (~70%) are not the tenured or tenure-track “professors” that we might nostalgically imagine from popular media. This matters greatly, as Ferguson is wrong in his implications about what the political leanings of the professorate mean. Certain disciplines are indeed made up of faculty more D than R, with egregious disparities in departments like English or, inversely, Business and Law. Like so many others, such statistics lead to a lazy characterization of the “liberal” professorate. The question shouldn't be whether or not faculty in a university hold certain views but rather how those views inform their actions in the structure of the university as a whole. In teaching, for example, on the whole, professors act as a moderating influence on students. It's the students who are pulling each other further along the political spectrum (as the data that Fergusan cites about student beliefs outpacing faculty beliefs suggests as well.) But here's where Ferguson, like so many others, goes wrong. The apparent liberalism of professors only extends so far, if it extends at all, within the structural constraints of the university. Universities are intensely hierarchical places, traditionally but all the more so with administrative bloat and increased faculty contingency in past decades. Authoritarian hierarchy is the structural norm in a university. It doesn't matter that professors claim to hold liberal views or might lean a certain way in certain departments. Structurally, they are all caught in a world where conformity matters and where power comes from on high. That is the kind of structural illiberalism that reinforces the sort of things that Ferguson and others involved with the U. of Austin are seeking to flee.

We'll have to wait and see what this new university looks like and how it fares. The fact that so many of the people associated with this endeavor are prominent in what I might call “academia plus” kind of positions makes this sort of thing far more conventional than its founders claim. They are doing exactly what so many are trying to do in online education, start up rivals to the university, targeting the low hanging lucre of executive education, coding and professional skills training, or marketing, design and other specialties which fall outside the medieval trivium and quadrivium. I appreciate the U. of A thinking in terms of having a St. Johns or U. of Chicago-esque core curriculum eventually (no surprise given staff roster). That seems like an inevitable counter-reaction to calls for curricular revision elsewhere. Whether or not you agree with that or find value in it, there is undoubtedly an appetite for that sort of thing among some people at any time. It doesn't have to be a rejection of anything or some massive anti-woke statement to say that lots of people might like to read some Plato and find out what the fuss has been about for the past 2500 years.

The other aspect of “academia plus” — by which I mean folks who have prominent political or public personae, also journalists and business figures first and entrees to higher ed from professional work, and of course the academic superstars themselves (Ferguson, for example), all at the fringe and apart from the workaday academia of huge state colleges and tiers below R1, that is, apart from the majority of higher education — the other aspect of founding thinkers drawn primarily from this lofty altitude is their obvious blindness to the world below them. I say this not to insult. But I remain unconvinced that what the U. of A. is responding to is anything more than an elite obsession and insider debate spilling out into the public sphere. That is, though Ferguson explicitly derides the modern university as a “finishing school,” what is being purposed is in many respects no different. Or, rather, it's just a different kind of finishing school, one aligned to different values and preferences and emphases.

This brings us back to the structures of higher ed and where I think the public statements so far still miss the crucial bit of the puzzle. They make it sound like a radical revisioning, a great departure, a foundation. But they remain caught in the structural web of elite higher education. The debate itself, the brokenness of higher ed, is framed in terms of the brokenness of elite higher ed. From that foundation everything is askew.

I may be wrong, but I don't think the path forward lies in the structures that exist and I don't think we need to continue to look to the most elite institutions or their trials as models of what we should or shouldn't do. The question is then: what does the alternative look like?