Neither Neoliberal nor Woke: What's Really Going on in Elite Higher EdRoundup
tags: colleges, higher education, universities
David A. Bell is a professor of history at Princeton University.
No one seems to like America’s elite universities these days, but the reasons appear entirely contradictory. Left-wing critiques present these institutions as sites of vast social privilege and structural racism whose flagrantly unequal admissions policies make them little more than machines for the reproduction of a neoliberal social elite. Right-wing critiques, meanwhile, label these universities as bastions of wokeness in which students and humanities professors compete to see who can develop the most absurd “intersectional” theories while angrily silencing and canceling anyone who dares to disagree with them.
Whatever one’s political position, it’s hard to deny that our elite universities are in fact very contradictory places. On the one hand, professors (at least in the humanities and the social sciences) vote overwhelmingly on the left — in many departments, 95 percent or more vote for the Democratic party. On the other hand, a high proportion of undergraduates come from families in the top 1 percent of the income bracket and benefit from the advantages conferred by legacy status, expensive, private secondary schooling, and the ability to excel in sports not played in most American public high schools (squash, golf, sailing … ). These same undergraduates direct themselves in large part toward finance, consulting, and technology jobs, with a high proportion of the senior class in some of these institutions competing for positions at a small handful of firms (McKinsey, Bain, Goldman Sachs, Google … ). These patterns reinforce American inequality.
How can we explain these contradictions? Are the left-wing professors mere window dressing, trotted out to disguise the ugly social realities of the neoliberal academy? Or perhaps the wealthy families are poor dupes, paying huge tuition fees (and making even larger donations) to support woke fanatics who teach nonsense while working to destroy American culture? Both of these explanations get repeated day after day, ad nauseam, in the media and on social media.
There is a better way to understand this apparently contradictory situation — and to start addressing some of the problems they point to. We must remember a perfectly obvious fact that usually gets overlooked in these heated ideological debates: Elite universities are powerful institutions that, whatever their functional role within larger social and cultural systems, act in their own self-interest. That self-interest is measured in dollars but also in the more nebulous currency of prestige. Prestige, furthermore, is not a simple matter but has many different components, based in many different constituencies.
It’s easy to forget that elite universities act in this self-interested manner. Despite the critiques from both the right and the left, most of the leaders of these institutions, in my experience, ardently believe in the high purposes expressed in the schools’ high-minded mottos: truth, light, wisdom, service. They tend to be exceptionally earnest, well-intentioned, and committed people, easy to credit with selfless motivations. And, of course, the universities themselves take every possible opportunity to profess their dedication to higher purposes in their copious promotional literature. But that dedication to a higher purpose is hardly incompatible with self-interest. From the university’s point of view, doesn’t it need to be as strong, as well regarded, and as financially secure as possible to pursue that higher purpose as fully as it can? Put on your own oxygen mask first before helping others.
The pursuit of self-interest explains both why elite universities cling to their baroque admissions systems and why they hire left-leaning faculty — practices that can seem contradictory at first glance. Take, for instance, the practice of legacy admissions, which appears so flagrantly unequal and unfair to many critics. If you see the purpose of admissions as serving the larger social good, by giving the best possible education to the best students, while also working to correct damaging forms of social inequality and redressing past discrimination, then it is hard to argue with this judgment. But if you see the purpose of admissions as serving the good of the university itself, then legacy admissions makes perfect sense. It not only encourages large donations from alumni eager to have their children admitted but also creates a strong sense of community, albeit of an exclusive and limited sort, on the campus itself.
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