Recent Harvard grad Carine Hajjar has bad news and some intelligent observations on the deplorable state of universities today, including in particular the most prestigious.
Before the Cold War, universities were run by faculty: “From the perspective of 100 years ago,” says Goldstein, “the idea that a faculty member would have his speech suppressed by the university was difficult to conceptualize.” During the Cold War, higher education was laden with research grants, one of the factors leading to the bureaucratization of the modern university. From 2007 to 2018, public degree-granting postsecondary schools in the U.S. generated a revenue of $671 billion. “The amount of money involved in higher education in the U.S. was slightly more than all the software we sell and electricity combined,” notes Goldstein. The result? “Universities don’t reflect the interest of the faculty anymore, they have the priorities of a corporation.”
The idea of university corporatism as an impetus for illiberalism is not new. In 2015, Fredrik deBoer, who had just completed a Ph.D. at Purdue, wrote a piece for the New York Times on the pernicious effects of corporatism on campus, stating that “a constantly expanding layer of university administrative jobs now exists at an increasing remove from the actual academic enterprise.”
Academic freedom is not optimal for market share. “Tranquility and profitability tend to win out over truth and inquiry,” says Goldstein. Controversial views (even if factually accurate) can disturb the corporate equilibrium. This may be one of the reasons why universities are increasingly dedicated to a new concept: “safetyism,” a term coined by FIRE’s founders, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in their book The Coddling of the American Mind. Educators’ telos is no longer only knowledge; it’s ensuring that students feel “safe.”
But what is “safe”? Goldstein deals with cases where students claim to feel “unsafe” when presented with certain arguments in class. But can one really equate words — statements, claims, hypotheses — to physical safety? “It isn’t as if somebody saying words will make you explode into a fine mist,” as Goldstein says.
“Safe” in modern parlance seems to be about being on the “correct” side of an issue. That side is no longer simply the one on the left. Pinker shared a story with me about a hiring process he was involved in. The candidate, in Pinker’s words, “was a kind of middle-of-the-road liberal Democrat.” His political orientation did not matter; he violated a pillar of the orthodoxy. “He was skeptical about affirmative action,” which got him “branded as an extreme right-winger.” I asked if this was the reason the candidate was not hired. “It went into it,” among other factors.
Larry Summers, former president of Harvard, told me that certain topics demand more homogeneity than others: “We’re comfortable accepting a fairly wide range of views on U.S.–China foreign policy but we’re not comfortable accepting a wide range of views on affirmative action.” Other taboos include certain positions on race, gender, and colonialism. Summers shared a hypothetical: “If someone did research that showed that it’s better for children to spend more time with their mothers during the first six years of their life during the day, you’d have to be an extraordinarily brave person to do that on Harvard’s campus.”
How did we get here? Wasn’t the once-whimsical soft Marxism of college enough? Pinker offered a psychological explanation, mentioning the work of his former postdoctoral student, Peter DiScioli, on the human creation of groups. Humans have a propensity to compete for prestige as well as a fear of being in the “more vulnerable coalition.” So they join the mob lest they be the target of the mob. It’s a phenomenon that occurs in witch hunts, cultural revolutions, and political purges: “Anyone can be a victim if they themselves don’t join the ‘denouncers.’” This can be extrapolated to universities-turned-corporations, which, seeking to avoid controversy, are happy to oblige denouncers.
Ironically, the hippie-student-against-the-man crowd is driving this whole corporate tilt. “It’s easiest for [administrators] if they cave. . . . No skin off their nose if the universities are less able to investigate questions of truth and falsity and explanation,” said Pinker. They’re more worried about appeasing the “left-leaning students protesting outside their office.”
Why is this woke crowd powerful enough to dictate university incentives? Humans, in general, want to be on the “right” side of history. “We’re all moralistic animals,” said Pinker. But that doesn’t mean objective morality: “Moralistic efforts are those that attempt to claim superiority and demonize opponents.” We go for what is perceived as moral. The Harper’s open letter touched on this: There’s a “vogue for public shaming” and a “tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.”
So long as this “vogue” continues, profit-seeking entities will comply. Safetyism and moralism go hand in hand: Universities can avoid controversy by tolerating mob mentality. It’s similar to the virtue-signaling you’re seeing in corporate America (think woke Coke). It’s trendy, it’s safe, and it sells.
After all, what’s more corporate than appearing moral?