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Pretend It’s a University
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Pretend It’s a University

On the past and future of higher education.

A gate at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Via Getty Images)

There was big news in higher education at the end of 2023—not that sad nonsense with the presidents of Harvard et al. but the very welcome news that the University of Austin (UATX), a newly created private institution with a small campus in Texas and a couple of hundred million dollars in the bank, has been certified by the state as a degree-granting institution and plans to admit its first class in the fall of 2024. Tearing down Harvard is pretty easy, with Harvard itself doing most of the sledgehammer work, but building something new and better is an audacious proposition and will be a long process—a long, slow process that unfolds at the pace of genuine scholarship rather than at the pace of social-media posting.

UATX has been the target of some genuinely shocking, genuinely vicious, and genuinely stupid criticism, written off as some kind of right-wing grift. (Disclosure: Over the summer, I spoke at the UATX “Forbidden Courses” seminar, an unpaid talk about the futility of undergraduate journalism “education,” as though you needed permission from a credential to look around and ask questions and write down what you learn.) But it is very strange what passes for “right wing” just now: Pano Kanelos, UATX’s president, is the former president of St. John’s College, Annapolis, not a talk-radio host. Other figures associated with UATX are not exactly veterans of the John Birch Society: Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a Somali refugee whose first big issue in politics was female genital mutilation and forced marriage in the Muslim world; Tyler Cowen is an eccentric economist and polymath whose interests range from public-choice theory to art collecting; Richard Dawkins is an emeritus Oxford fellow best known for his evangelical atheism and his work on evolution; Caitlin Flanagan writes for some weird political magazine I’ve never heard of; David Mamet is our country’s finest living playwright; Princeton’s Robert George is … Robert George. I suppose we are meant to conclude that “not explicitly left-wing” is to be understood as a synonym for “disreputably right-wing.” But that is not how the world works, at least for reasonably intelligent adults, which is what universities are supposed to attract and produce.

Here is the radical UATX position on free speech on campus: “Students are free to form voluntary associations or societies and these associations are free to invite such outside speakers as they wish, so long as it is made clear that the invitation comes from the association and not the university.” Further, students “may peacefully protest an event held on [university] premises, but they may not prevent or substantially disrupt the proceedings.” Wouldn’t that have been a hell of a thing for Claudine Gay to say? “Harvard students may think and say as they please. What they may not do is harass others or disrupt the regular functioning of the university.” That would have been great. 

If only it were, you know, true

The number of UATX-affiliated people with Ivy League colleges, Oxford, and other elite institutions on their curricula vitae is not, I think, an accident. Because they value these institutions, they understand what is being lost by their debasement and what has already been lost. A free society needs well-functioning elites: elite institutions, elite classes, financial elites, political elites, etc. That is because a free society needs independent centers of power, centers of power that are outside of the state and not subject to transient stampeding majorities. Without these, you end up with statism or chaos or, counterintuitive though it may seem, both at once. We in the United States have dysfunctional elites, and for this, I blame Bill Gates. 

Hear me out. 

In 1980, Gates described his vision for Microsoft and the then-nascent personal-computer industry: to put “a computer on every desk and in every home.” Gates and others in his field were extraordinarily successful at this, and then Steve Jobs and Apple one-upped them by putting a computer in every pocket, ubiquitous computers the collective power of which was compounded many times over by their being linked by a sophisticated global network that existed only as science fiction when Gates first articulated his mission. And while the large investments in computers and other technology from the 1980s through the turn of the century did produce some real gains in productivity, they weren’t as big (or as obviously big) as you might have expected, and they weren’t concentrated in the places you might have expected them to be. A 1998 Fed paper considered the “productivity paradox,” and it is worth quoting at length: 

The productivity paradox has not affected all sectors of the economy, though. U.S. manufacturing, for instance, has experienced relatively strong annual productivity growth over the past few years. In fact, output per hour in this sector has grown more than 4 percent a year since 1995—a sustained rate of increase unequaled since the end of World War II. Perhaps, then, the expected productivity gains are more isolated than anticipated, occurring mostly in those sectors that are extremely capital intensive, like manufacturing.

What hasn’t accompanied this relatively strong growth in manufacturing productivity, however, is a commensurate increase in real wages. While output per hour has been growing at more than 4 percent a year, real compensation per hour at manufacturing firms has been growing at less than 1 percent a year. It wasn’t until the beginning of 1998 that year-over-year growth in real compensation per hour spiked up to almost 4 percent.

This leads to yet another conundrum, since traditional labor market theory predicts that productivity gains should drive wage increases. Why? Because theory says workers should receive a wage that exactly compensates them for their added value to total output, otherwise known as their marginal revenue product. This is calculated by determining how much output workers can produce in an hour—their marginal product—and then figuring out how much extra revenue that output will bring the firm—its marginal revenue—hence the term, marginal revenue product. The chain of events, then, would be: investment in computers leads to increases in output per hour (higher productivity), which, in turn, leads to higher wages. For the U.S. manufacturing sector, the chain appears to be holding, although the last link seems weaker than the first. Perhaps, then, investment in computers and information technology has had other, not as easily observed, outcomes.

The spread of technology throughout business firms and large institutions had a few effects worth noting for my purposes here. First, it raised the wages for workers who knew how to use the new technology or who could be trained how to use it. Office workers such as secretaries, paralegals, and those engaged in routine administrative work, for example, soon commanded higher wages than their less technologically savvy competitors; that lasted until there effectively were no jobs for secretaries who didn’t know how to use Microsoft Word or for administrators who didn’t know how to use Excel. As a result of the prevalence of technologically adept workers in many office jobs, a great deal of routine administrative work—a great deal of paperwork—was automated or partly automated, with a handful of technologically empowered workers able to do work that once had taken dozens or scores of workers. 

The example that always comes to me from my own work history is newspaper production. As my generation of young editors came into the marketplace able to use desktop-publishing software, big swathes of the unglamourous back-end of the newspaper business were made redundant: first typesetters, and then paste-up artists, darkroom staff, technicians who did things like making halftones (which were necessary for printing pictures), the people who ran the big cameras that were used in the making of press plates, etc.—those jobs mostly disappeared, and the work was shifted to copy editors. (Copy editors now spend a lot less time editing copy, with evident results in this time of shedding and cold rocks.) I once worked as a composing-room foreman, and my mother worked for a time as a classified-ads clerk, one of a dozen or so. Meeting one of those now is like meeting someone whose business card (not that you see very many of those, either) says cooper or cordwainer—yes, such people still exist, but they are mostly rare artisans. (One very fancy maker of sneakers objected when an interviewer described him as a cobbler; a cobbler, he explained, merely repairs shoes, while he was a cordwainer, a creator of shoes.) Automation cut into a lot of manufacturing employment (more total output with less total labor and other inputs is pretty close to the definition of higher productivity) but it really laid waste to a lot of jobs that would have been done by people we’d describe—if we were writing in 1917 or so—as clerks. 

The ranks of clerks used to employ a great many well-educated children of the elite classes. T. S. Eliot worked as a clerk at Lloyd’s Bank for many years before he could support himself as a writer and editor; Franz Kafka, trained as a lawyer, worked as a clerk at an insurance company. Before the emergence of the modern corporate form, most businesses were organized as sole proprietorships or small partnerships with rote administrative work done by clerks, who might number one or two or who might be numerous enough and diverse enough in their work to require being organized into considerable bureaucracies. Experience in these clerical bureaucracies left its mark on the work of Eliot and, most dramatically, on Kafka, whose trademark blend of futility and horror in the bureaucratic setting earned him the rare honor of an eponymous adjective: Kafkaesque

The class of clerks as a corporate army of largely interchangeable administrative workers no longer exists—except in a few places that function, by no means coincidentally, as full-employment programs for college-educated progressives: education, health care, nonprofits, and other places where they can be protected from the demands of the market, along with such private-sector sanctuaries as the burgeoning industry of so-called diversity training. The disappearance of that class is one of the reasons nobody has ever come up with a very good English translation of the title of Julian Benda’s La Trahison Des Clercs, rendered with different kinds of unsatisfactoriness as The Treason of the Intellectuals or The Treason of the Clerks. The religious connotations of “clerical” in English make the translation even more vexing. But if you are wondering who Benda’s clercs are, think of Claudine Gay as a kind of archduchess among them, lording it over the more ordinary clercs who fill the ranks of assistant associate vice-deputy deans of students for gender-inclusion hoo-haw. 

It is to the scientist Peter Turchin that we owe the phrase “elite overproduction,” which is not an elite that produces too much of whatever it is it is supposed to produce but rather the general social overproduction of a certain class of people—educated, socially integrated, with expectations of upward mobility—whose ranks come to grow so numerous as to completely saturate the marketplace for paid work of the kind they have been trained for and expect to do. Which is to say, at a certain point the elite becomes a class of which we might ask: “Is your fecundity a trammel or a treasure?” With the disappearance of all those old corporate clerical jobs that once wrung meaningful economic value out of the likes of Eliot and Kafka and many millions of other educated children of the intellectually inclined middle classes and the well-to-do, educated mediocrities possessed of some ambition and bureaucratic survival instincts faced a restricted marketplace. That had serious economic consequences for them, but there are many ways to get money, whereas there are fewer ways to get the status and prestige they desire. If you want a quasi-Marxist explanation of the explosion of administrative positions in educational and health-care institutions and for the swelling of corporate human-resources and diversity offices—all of them generally staffed with a remarkably homogeneous class of people—then there it is. 

It would be tempting to say that the bosses at Harvard should take a page from Fran Lebowitz and “pretend it’s a university.” And it would be pretending, in a sense: Of course, Harvard is still a great institution of higher learning, but it isn’t only that. It is part of a gigantic social program for the educated upper middle classes. 

The Claudine Gays of the world have a knack for navigating the internal politics of large organizations and for chasing credentials. As a cynic might expect, the credentializing and professionalizing of these institutions has not always led to excellence: In the golden age of American newspaper journalism, reporters and editors were in the main people who had not graduated from any college with any kind of undergraduate degree, much less one in journalism. In this, the toilet age of American newspaper journalism, promising prospects and leaders are expected to have graduate degrees in journalism from Columbia, Northwestern, or Penn. Dozens of big tech firms started by dropouts and uncredentialed upstarts celebrate the romance of their garage days but would need an extraordinary reason to even consider hiring someone like one of their founders for the most ordinary job, while the HR departments are barnacled over by otherwise unemployable grievance-studies graduates. Public libraries that were run for generations by volunteers or by bookish generalists now are in the care of people with advanced degrees in something called library science, under the management of whom our libraries have been turned into makeshift mental wards and masturbatoria for vagrants making the most of the public internet connections.

When my friend Jonah Goldberg says that the intellectual wagon-circling around Claudine Gay is about a self-interested class of people “protecting their food bowls,” it is useful to understand that dynamic in the context of Turchin’s elite overproduction. Our progressive friends wail like tornado sirens when a figure such as Gay is described as a “diversity hire,” but surely it is the case that she was, in fact, hired in part because of certain personal features, though her race and her sex are not the only relevant ones. She is a representative of—in fact, a pretty good personification of—a class. Classes have shared interests—that is part of what makes a class a class. 

Surely no one thinks she was hired for her banal and plagiarized scholarship or remains in her professorship because Harvard is simply ravenous for more of her intellectual product. 

“What struck me most in the congressional hearings was how difficult it was for the college presidents to say things that were simply true,” said Pano Kanelos, president of the University of Austin, in a conversation last week. Kanelos is, as mentioned above, a former president of St. John’s, which received its charter in 1784 but is the successor of the older King William’s School, founded in 1696. (Harvard was founded six decades earlier, in 1636.) St. John’s is famous for its great-books curriculum. It should say something about the fundraising acumen of Kanelos’ new project that its current bankroll is about the same size at St. John’s endowment—and that is the work of two years rather than 240.

I have spent a little time with Kanelos over the past couple of years, maybe a half a dozen conversations and a couple of dinners. I work in the conservative world, and so am pretty well attuned to its nuances, but I could not tell you whether Kanelos is a political conservative in the way, say, William F. Buckley Jr. was. Like Buckley, Kanelos is a trenchant critic of the pieties and pretensions of American higher education, and it seems to me that such criticism should make sense to people of many different political stripes, whether they be Reaganite conservatives or New Deal liberals. But Kanelos is not a burn-it-down guy—he is a build-it-up guy. He refrains from gloating, though of course the mess at Harvard and at its peer institutions cannot help but offer an advantageous point of comparison for his own project. 

“There is a kind of fog over higher education,” he continued, “that obscures the very purpose of these institutions. Where there should be a clear, well-lighted path, that the mission is to search after things that are true and to say things that are true, we have this fog of corollary interests and parallel value sets, whether it is activists, individuals and groups on campus, or the intrusion of financial concerns into the system. Whatever it is, that north star of truth is being obfuscated.”

“The purpose of a university is to prepare people for the knowledge economy,” Kanelos added. “They have been doing that since the Middle Ages, but in the Middle Ages there were very few fields: law, medicine, and theology. That’s what Oxford did, and Cambridge and the Sorbonne. As we marched through modernity, the knowledge economy became the dominant part of the economy, so that prestige and elite status live almost exclusively within professions that are intellectual in nature. Universities have become the sole portals into the elite class. Prior to the middle part of the 20th century, the majority of the elite class didn’t come in that way; you didn’t need a university to become an elite. Universities were places where there were really smart people interested in scholarship, but you didn’t need a university to become a Carnegie or a Rockefeller—you needed other stuff: connections, resources, gumption, etc. Universities could be egg-heady and lean left because they existed in their own space. But as that knowledge economy expanded, universities became the choke point for access to elite status. So, now, the values that universities have, the principles they abide by, and the politics they hold become attached to whatever is elite. So, you can’t pass through the university and achieve elite status without running the gauntlet of ideologies that are dominant at the university. That’s how those ideas get into the bloodstream of corporate culture and tech culture.” 

And so: “Power and status are accessible only to those who conform to the dominant ideology or value set. What happens? We take the best and send them to these legendary institutions, and what they learn is that to get power and status, you keep your head down, don’t rock the boat, don’t challenge orthodoxies. Instead of cultivating in them independence of thought, we nurture the opposite. That has a significant impact on society—it produces a regime of conformity.”

As Kanelos sees it, the solution to the problem of ruthlessly enforced left-leaning conformism in the universities is not to build institutions that are right-wing but to build institutions that are better. “If a significant problem in higher education is political asymmetry tilted toward one side, the solution isn’t to build institutions on the other side,” he said. “It is to find a way to transcend the political spectrum. The political binary itself limits the scope of human thought and creativity. Universities can’t be penned in by politics and ideology. Politics should be studied at the university—it shouldn’t be the operating system for the university.” 

Kanelos noted that UATX has captured the imaginations—and the hopes—of enough supporters that it will be able to offer full scholarships to every member of its first class. “Nobody believed you could possibly launch a university in two years,” he said. “This is a moment that is hungry for new universities, and support has really just coalesced around us, from future students, donors, and the public at large. It is a sign of what’s needed that a new university such as ours, with our values, can launch so quickly and with such velocity.” 

It will be some time before an institution such as the University of Austin can do the kind of work that the Ivy League once did: preparing elites for constructive social leadership. Harvard may need to pretend it’s a university for a while, but down in Austin they are building the real thing. I began my college education at one of the other schools in Austin—maybe I’ll get back down to Austin one day to finish up at the new one.

Kevin D. Williamson is national correspondent at The Dispatch and is based in Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 15 years as a writer and editor at National Review, worked as the theater critic at the New Criterion, and had a long career in local newspapers. He is also a writer in residence at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. When Kevin is not reporting on the world outside Washington for his Wanderland newsletter, you can find him at the rifle range or reading a book about literally almost anything other than politics.