Look In the Mirror, Higher Ed

Higher education has no standing to lecture others on waste, lack of accountability, or exploitation and greed

It’s not unusual for publishers and others to be lectured by those in higher education — students, faculty, librarians, administrators — about their purportedly blinkered, wasteful, exploitative, and/or ineffective practices, all of which are creating vague “crises” of various kinds at universities and in society generally.

I experienced this indirectly recently as a post of mine about paid peer-review led to academic tsk-tsk’ing about my lack of faith in OA and the — wink, wink — famous inefficiency of publishers . . . because we can only believe one thing, and because associate professors are so good at business.

Yet, look in the mirror, and universities might see that their tuitions have risen far more dramatically than publication costs over the past two decades, while administrative bloat has increased and social belief in higher education has suffered.

It seems like those in glass houses are throwing stones.

In a memorable rant on the “Pivot” podcast from a member of academia courtesy of a professor at NYU, Scott Galloway (starts around 26m), we get an unblinking “insider’s” look in the mirror at American academic priorities and status.

This is nothing new in some ways — in 2011, the year the number of administrators at US universities eclipsed the number of faculty, another scathing view of misaligned priorities in higher ed was released. Then, it was believed that rocketing tuition costs, student loan defaults, and the general feeling of elitism at college campuses would be their undoing as more efficient options (MOOCs, non-traditional schools, and more) would disrupt them.

Nothing dire happened, but there has been a noticeable erosion, with the effects now becoming manifest, as higher education is viewed as less desirable across the board, but particularly among political moderates and those on the political right.

Yet, the shock waves that have been truly damaging are the reflections of college cultures in the media.

Overall, colleges and universities have lost their mojo, and Galloway believes last week’s appearances of university presidents unable to clearly and definitively label calls for genocide “harassment” or “hate speech” only underscored how detached from reality those in higher education appear to most people.

Pressure came swiftly to the mealymouthed university presidents — one has already resigned, one has apologized and remains under pressure to resign, and the other has the support of her university amidst calls for her resignation.

Why does this matter? Because scholarly publishing is beset by many of the same cultural problems universities have developed — a monoculture based on vague pursuits (OA, DEI), prioritizing money above all else, breaking trust with those it was intended to serve and instead exploiting them, and domination by bureaucrats seeking easy lives and big paychecks.

As a friend in Europe told me after listening to Galloway’s takedown, things are even worse in the EU — which lines up, as the EU has become the hotbed of bureaucrat-led OA policymaking.

Here’s the rant, edited for clarity but with profanities preserved:

Here’s the bottom line. At universities, we’ve become total fucking whores. . . . What’s happened slowly but surely over the last 30-40 years at universities is . . . every morning, the leadership and administrators at universities wake up and look in the mirror, and ask themselves one question: “How do we increase our compensation while reducing our accountability?” And they found the ultimate cloud cover to achieve that is with all of these ridiculous departments in ethics and leadership and sustainability and ESG and diversity, equity, and inclusion — that no one could measure. They all make sense, they all sound great, but they have absolutely no measurable outcomes.

The administrative bloat has grown between 50% and 100% just in the last 20 years on campuses. The result is skyrocketing tuition.

And what we’ve also had is the “Rolexification” of these campuses. UCLA looks more like the Mandarin Oriental Bel Air now than a public campus. And in order to feed the beast of waste and administrative arrogance and self-aggrandizement and Rolexification, we have to raise a shit-ton of money from alumni. And a lot of alumni — including Jews, but also non-Jews — is that I have no desire to fund this bullshit. . . .

At the end of the day, we’re like a really high-end whorehouse at this point. . . . [Universities] have become the most prestigious, high-end certification whorehouses, and it’s all about money. . . .

Steven Pinker put out a tweet that someone forwarded me that I thought made a lot of sense.

He said the wrong way for the elite universities to dig themselves out of their reputational hole is to restrict speech even more. Instead:

1. Clear and coherent free speech policy
2. Institutional neutrality — institutions are forums, not protagonists
3. Force prohibited — no more classroom takeovers, intimidations, blockades, assaults
4. Disempower DEI bureaucrats who are responsible to no one and who have turned campuses into laughingstocks
5. Viewpoint diversity — discourage political and intellectual monocultures including hard-left and intersectional speech

The term I would use for universities over the last 20 years in terms of the zeitgeist and the sort of feel and the vibe is that we are all barking up the same tree. And if you don’t bark up the same tree, you are shamed, and potentially fired.

It’s all so interesting. We were all waiting for the disruption of higher ed to be a function of money or not good outcomes in terms of economics or student loan debt, and it’s not. This is what’s disrupting higher education.

Do you realize Republicans now view higher ed in the same light in terms of approval as Congress? And moderates — now less than half of American adults feel that going to college is a good idea for their kids. . . .

This kind of DEI-inspired, bureaucratic, and out-of-touch bloat has infected scholarly publishing (there are some prime examples), and the OA monoculture is a massive worry, despite its apparent failure. (What happened to actual freedom to do business as you see fit?)

As for our obsession with money, a recent quote from an academic questioning open data practices comes to mind:

. . . the notion that my data are public because my work was publicly funded really devalues everything except the money that went into the work.

So, next time a university employee lectures about efficiency, effectiveness, reputation, or priorities, ask them to look in the mirror. There’s a lot of ugliness in the higher education circles, and it’s driving people away.