Sunday, March 19, 2017

First Mover Advantages

John Leo at Minding the Campus is getting impatient about the administrative response to the protests that shut down Charles Murray's talk at Middlebury College. Over at Reason, Jon Haidt warns of a "huge disruption" to the current business model of universities as the disappointment over what college has become hits home to students and the parents who pay their tuition. I, too, believe that within a decade many colleges, who have been banking on a captive audience for ideological indoctrination, will be forced to close as students find more efficient (and less exasperating) ways to gain the credentials, and especially the skills, they need to succeed in life.

I'm not as sanguine as Jon Haidt seems to be about the alternatives to four-year residential liberal arts education, though I do think it's a road too many students take. (There are too many students going to too many of these colleges without really thinking about the value of what they might be getting there.) I hope that only the ideological superstructure of today's colleges will fall apart, forcing the colleges to fall back upon their permanent infrastructure: a group of buildings, some pleasant grounds, a faculty dedicated to learning, and some longstanding academic traditions. These last will of course include free speech.

I think there are two opportunities that will open up in the wake of the coming disruption. The first is the one that Middlebury is poised (but apparently reticent) to take. It can be the first college to issue stern reprimands against students who are known to have participated in the prevention of Murray's talk. Many of them are easy to identify in the video (since, with their backs turned to Murray, they proudly face the camera.) This will win back the trust of the parents and students who are rightly concerned about the educational climate at Middlebury. The schools that make examples of truly disruptive protesters first will attract the attention of students who want some assurance that their intellectual space will be protected from ideological excesses.

The other opportunity comes out of the rubble of the colleges that fail. College campuses are highly specific places. Once they go bankrupt, they can't easily be converted to other uses. So we do well to think about how a campus can be quickly acquired and staffed, and then begin enrolling students. I'm imagining that some of these campuses may be quite nice architecturally, so the idea will be to design a low-cost, no-frills curriculum that depends mainly on the reading of widely available texts, discussion in low-tech classroom settings, and examination in straightforward written and oral forms. The students will be given an "opportunity grow" through ordinary learning of the familiar kind.

As T.S. Eliot once said, you don't make flowers grow by pulling on them, but by watering and weeding. You give students good books to read, foster lively discussion, (yes, you invite stimulating and sometimes controversial speakers), and you expel students who waste not only their own time, but that of the their fellow students, on pointless protests against their inheritance—the privilege of living in Western civilization.


Andrew Gelman said...


I have no idea why you think that colleges "have been banking on a captive audience for ideological indoctrination." Maybe things are different in Denmark, but my impression is that in the U.S. and other countries I've seen, colleges (by which I assume you mean the administrations: presidents, chancellors, provosts, deans, etc.) have the following goals, in decreasing order of importance:
1. Keep doing what they're doing, primarily teaching and research.
2. Keep themselves on the + end of the budget, thus fundraising, lobbying, raising tuition, cutting costs, all while minimizing any negative impacts on item 1 above.
3. Staying afloat long-term, which often means not getting steamrolled by technological and political changes, hence various internet endeavors, international campuses, etc.

"Ideological indoctrination" is not #4 on this list, or #5, or #10 . . . I don't think it's on the list at all!

What we do see is various people at universities such as students and profs who take advantage of media attention to further some of these goals. This includes students who shout down an unpopular speaker and other students who go to the administration or the news media to protest lecturers who are too left-wing or right-wing for their taste.

Where's the administration (as you put it, the "colleges") in all this? Trying to minimize damage to their reputation and to the larger vision of the campus as a home for scholarship. Remember that California campus administrator a few years ago who got in trouble when the campus cops pepper-sprayed student protesters? I don't think this was about ideological indoctrination any more than it was ideological indoctrination for a different California campus to want to get rid of a controversial astronomy professor. In both cases, I think the goal was avoidance of trouble.

Thomas said...

You're right. I'm imputing a motive (ideological indoctrination) that probably isn't among the top goals of most colleges. I should just have said: they've been banking on a captive audience, full stop. The "disruption" that Haidt warns of is when that audience is no longer as easily captured.

I think we agree about the rest: the problem faced by administrators is one of keeping the trouble to a minimum, as various interest groups try "take advantage". (I would say that one important interest group is the Title IX crowd; and it is a very large and powerful force in US campus life.) Haidt also points this out: the preferred solution has been to hire more administrators. But this is "digging their own grave" because people who are looking at colleges from the outside (prospective students and their parents) just see this as turning a blind eye to, or tolerating, and in some cases fomenting the trouble.

Things aren't nearly as bad in Denmark. In a way, I'm trying to explain why my kids probably won't end up attending an American liberal arts college. Ten years ago, I was very much hoping they might.

Andrew Gelman said...


Rather than "banking on a captive audience," I'd say "banking on a thriving customer base" or something like that. I think colleges see their students not as an "audience" but as paying customers. This is not a bad thing. Here's how I see it: the university views itself (correctly, in my opinion) as supplying a valuable service, and ideally there will be a continuing stream of customers for the service. The students aren't a "captive audience" and they never were: students can transfer to other colleges, and they have flexibility on what courses to take while in college.

Considering college as a (nonprofit) business, I don't see it as so different from other businesses: Apple is happy if there's a continuing flow of people buying phones; General Motors would like a continuing flow of customers for cars along with only mild competition with other automakers, Google wants the same thing for ads, etc. All these companies, I'm sure, feel that they're providing good value for their customers and are also making the world a better place.

Thomas said...

I don't think students are best understood as customers. In an important sense, they are the "product" (of an "expensive education" as the saying goes. And the customers (employers) are in fact increasingly worried about the quality of that product.

I would insist that the relevant ideologues do see the students as captives. That is, the "residential life" staff who do "implicit bias" training in an attempt to rid students of their latent homophobia and racism are assuming that the students have no choice but to submit to it, and are therefore an opportunity to make "progress" in the culture.

Anonymous said...

Thomas, you wrote, "You give students good books to read, foster lively discussion..." in your idea of a good old fashioned college. It reminded me of St. Johns college in Annapolis and Santa Fe. They famously study the original texts.

Thomas said...

Yes, I think the future is old school. (Maybe I just hope it is!) Thanks for the link. I'm going to assume it's REALLY hard to get a job at a place like that. But one can dream.

Andrew Gelman said...


You write, "the relevant ideologues do see the students as captives." This may be a correct description of "the relevant ideologues" but I don't think it describes the view of the colleges (that is, the people who run colleges).

Thomas said...

Yes, the challenge going forward (and where the advantage will go to those who move first) is to counter the ideological excesses of certain parts of college administrations, much of which is empowered by the federal Title IX bureaucracy. I will agree with you that the hearts of many university presidents is in the right place, even if they sometimes lack the courage to follow it.