Sunday, April 11, 2021

A Lot of Ruin In A University

Adam Smith observed that there "is a lot of ruin in a nation," meaning that once an institution is in place, it has inertia, continuity, a lot of hidden strengths before it finally falls. It does fall eventually, following the rule that Milton Friedman laid down that "things that cannot go on forever, won't." Yet they do hang on remarkably long, don't they?  I have been hearing since the 1980s that the deficit and national debt will send America under eventually, and I do believe this is true.  I am not intending in any way to suggest this is wrong.  When that day comes, all of us will say "I told you so" and feel smug even as we are scrambling to find wood to burn. But we only believe that intermittently, else we would have stormed Washington in a real riot years before this one, violently kicking out not only the slightly-more-offending Democrats, but Donald Trump and his trillion dollar payouts.  In fact, kicking out anyone back to...I don't know, Calvin Coolidge? But we haven't, so perhaps we only 20% believed it.  Enough to be arrogant, not enough to take action.

Universities are on the ropes.  They have been held aloft financially by government largess for what? 20 years, 40 years, 60 years? This is unsustainable, and state legislatures, which have significant conservative elements even in liberal states, will not continue to fund this idiocy at State U much longer, not this bite-the-hand-that-feeds-them attitude toward America and the free market and business and capitalism. 

Except they have, since 1980 anyway, as I will relate shortly.

There have been predictions of the collapse of higher education, increasing in the last few years. Every year, these institutions deliver a less-valuable product at a slightly-higher price. It adds up (and also subtracts down, if you take my meaning). We are now a credential society rather than a meritocracy. Many schools on the margin have taken devastating blows from Covid. There will be continued uh.... consolidation going forward. 

Yet as with a nation, so too with a college. The current system will hang on for a long while, because some schools have such an enormous cushion that they can do just about anything, and the principal of previous alumni gifts, increasing even at low returns, plus rent-seeking from government programs, added to parents' money in search of prestige and advantage, added to the real academic benefit that still manages to work its way through, will stretch out the lifespan another year, another decade, another...century?  Yes, maybe.  The others will go under and only people directly connected will care. 

So long as credentialism rules are there are government subsidies, something like the present system will survive. It is under pressure and it will change, but don't expect to see a different world anytime soon, however many people come up with bright ideas how to fix everything.There will therefore be no pressure to stop moving left and enforcing that on others. There will be fewer positions and more people to stab you in the back.

An anecdote: My stepfather became a trustee of New Hampshire College of Accounting and Commerce in the late 1960s. My high-falutin' liberal arts friends and I looked down on this as a mere business college and called NHCAC "Cac." I did pipe down after my mother married the guy in 1966.  I was obnoxious, but not crazy. (Spoiler alert:  It became New Hampshire College and then Southern NH University, one of the largest online colleges in the world. Yeah, that one you see the TV ads for.) He later became CEO of a very solid, cautious mutual fund, David L Babson.  He was on the NH State Republican Committee in the 60s and 70s. Archetype country-club conservative. I was liberal, but not quite communist.  I learned in the early 80s that multiple professors in the Human Services wing were open Marxists.  I sat down and described this to him, figuring that I was his inside source, telling him information that was being hidden from the board. He shrugged.  He knew.  That was how those departments ran.  You couldn't get top professors who weren't Marxists. He wanted NHC to be a top college.

Well, knock me over with a feather. All that only to note how far back this goes, even with conservatives supposedly at the helm.

9 comments:

Dan Kurt said...

RE: "...following the rule that Milton Friedman laid down that 'things that cannot go on forever, won't.'"

Not Saint Milton but Herbert Stein, sometimes called Stein's Law: "Things that can't go on forever, don't."

Dan Kurt

Zachriel said...

Assistant Village Idiot: In fact, kicking out anyone back to...I don't know, Calvin Coolidge?

Clinton left the U,S. with cash surpluses. Gore ran on keeping some of that in a “lock box” to build up reserves for Social Security and other impending expenses. The U.S. chose to go in a different direction.

james said...

As long as universities fill a legitimate need, or are perceived as doing so, more cost effectively than new institutions started from scratch, I think they can worry along for a very long time. An economic crash can take out a lot of them, and Berniesque governments could confiscate Harvard's endowments--but some would still be there.

I'm not sure how popular the idea of a liberal education ever was, but for training engineers and lawyers and whatnot we don't seem to have anything geared up to replace a university.

It is possible for them to commit suicide, of course. If "diversity demands" dilute the significance of their credentials, the increased demand for independent professional certifications (like the bar exam) may drive an expansion of the testing/prep services into something more like a complete educational service. It wouldn't happen overnight, and the diversity-mongers would go after the new services in turn, but that could still bring down some of the universities.

Zachriel said...

Assistant Village Idiot: The current system will hang on for a long while, because some schools have such an enormous cushion that they can do just about anything, and the principal of previous alumni gifts, increasing even at low returns, plus rent-seeking from government programs, added to parents' money in search of prestige and advantage, added to the real academic benefit that still manages to work its way through, will stretch out the lifespan another year, another decade, another...century?

On your larger point, the question is one of evolution or revolution. Universities are highly complex institutions and interact with the larger society in a myriad of ways. Complex systems can evolve in unexpected ways, or can collapse entirely. Your claim rests on lack of pressure to change, but it seems that there are a variety of pressures on universities, such as competition between them for the best students and scientific research output, among them.

Assistant Village Idiot: There will be continued uh.... consolidation going forward.

Consolidation is change. Smaller institutions may not be able to adapt or have the scale necessary for survival. Also, a century is practically forever in the modern world.

Unknown said...

Outside the US, there is much greater subsidy to universities, but this is also on the decline everywhere -- to a certain level, you can see that more engineers, authors, and doctors is s net benefit to society, but there's a point at which every country begins to see that every extra $£ₖᵣ€ above a threshold is 'regressive'; benefitting mostly people from families that are already in the upper income quintiles and not providing more net benefit to society as a whole.

And while Uni is still a 'rite of passage' in certain societal subgroups (yes, my nephew was a member of Cambridge Footlights), it is much more so in the USA WRT non-academic and non directly-career-related activities -- the social fraternities, the athletics (&'tailgating'), the Florida-spring-break, the dorm life, etc.

I think that many US institutions are dependent upon alumni donations and hence amplify these 'belongingness' activities. That's going to keep bringing in students and dosh long after the obvious economic value of the degree goes net negative.

Bram said...

In 1984 my parents visited me for parents weekend at my college. We went to the chapel on Sunday morning and the chaplain starts talking about what a great guy Dan Ortega is. I'm squirming in my seat with embarrassment - then my Dad starts laughing out loud, loud enough to draw attention.

Afterwards he tells me when he was at Yale ('59 -'63) the chaplain used to talk about how great Castro was.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ Bram - great story, a definite keeper.

@ Unknown - I posted a few years ago about colleges selling not only an experience, but a sense of belonging to a special club, which starts at the brochures and hits the ground running during freshman orientation. Not until much later did I figure out that this is not mere snobbery - though it is that - but creating a sense of community that can be tapped into for donations later. We are going to our college reunion this year for the first time since the 5th. There are a very few people I would like to see, and likely only a quarter of them will be there. Then, if high school reunions are any clue, I will have conversations with people I knew less well but have a fine time with now. That's still barely enough motivation for that amount of travel.

james said...

https://www.insidehighered.com/quicktakes/2021/04/14/laurentian-university-cuts-69-programs

I'm curious what led to this.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

As of this morning, this is what is left. They have kept their Health, Management, applied science, and everything easily politicised and woke.

https://laurentian.ca/undergraduate-programs