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Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Top universities: A "ponzi scheme"?

Professor William Stuntz (Harvard) has a piece in TNR, "Future Shock," about the Larry Summers affair and the future of higher education:

Harvard is the General Motors of American universities: rich, bureaucratic, and confident--a deadly combination. Fifty years from now, Larry Summers's resignation will be known as the moment when Harvard embraced GM's fate. From now on, the decline will likely be steep. And not only at Harvard: Among research universities as in the car market of generations past, other American institutions will follow the market leaders, straight to the bottom. The only question is who gets to play the role of Toyota in this metaphor. . . .

. . . It's a little like the early stages of a Ponzi scheme: Everyone wants to keep it going as long as possible, and the odds are it won't end just yet. My generation of academics (I'm 47) will get ours and then, probably, get out before the crash--just as GM's managers in the 1950s got theirs, then went on to rich retirements. But woe to those who come after us.

. . . I feel a little like an aging French nobleman in, say, 1780. Life is good. One day soon, it won't be. But who cares? I've got mine.

I guess many of us here at Prawfsblawg are "com[ing] after" Professor Stuntz in the academy.  I love teaching and writing, and participating in the enterprise of academic communities.  So, I hope he's wrong about the coming "crash."  Is he?

Posted by Rick Garnett on March 1, 2006 at 11:28 AM | Permalink


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When in doubt, historicize. I wonder the extent to which Stuntz's article is merely reiterative of the typical, cyclical trend of doom and gloom and populist distrust of academic intellectuals that has surrounded the American higher educational system for at least a century. (I should say that there's nothing wrong either with the doom and gloom or with the populism -- it's just the apocalyptic tone that seems overwrought.)

Consider: the legal realists complained about formalism both that it was overly scholastic and that it had no real relationship with facts on the ground, and that its education was foolish. Did HLS crumble as a result of Dean Langdell's gambit? Did Yale die because of its embrace of realism? (Quite the opposite, actually.) In its turn, the same arguments in similar form have been made about every significant new intellectual movement in the legal academy, from realism itself through legal process, law and econ, the crits, and on and on. Whatever the relative merits of those fields' insights, the legal academy was still standing as they waned or morphed into something new, and the general hierarchies of elite law schools remained as well. Changes around the margins, yes, but not the GM/ Toyota revolution that Stuntz predicts.

The article points to no new, significant technological or political economic factor that would change the fate or structures of higher education, at least in the short term. Tenure has all kinds of unintended consequences, including the ossification and empowerment of entrenched faculties, but Harvard has survived generations of tenured [fill in your favorite pejorative group], and will likely to do so for the foreseeable future.

Posted by: Mark Fenster | Mar 1, 2006 7:14:12 PM

Larry Summers' resignation is like an ink blot test: people see in it what they want to see. And the "narratives" of his resignation say more about the writers of the narratives than about Harvard.

I think the "crash" has already come for lots of people in the academy. A lot of the people I went to graduate school with at Harvard (who were among the very best humanities graduate students in the country) have had trouble getting tenure-track teaching jobs. And a lot of my friends in arts and sciences departments now are having trouble making ends meet, in addition to the increasing class sizes, which is making their lives harder. Plus, there is dramatically increasing use of adjuncts, so there are fewer tenure-track jobs. The "crash" has little, imho, to do with left-wing faculty who refuse to work hard. The faculty I know (in addition to not being all that left-wing) generally work quite hard, deliver high quality work for their students and their departments, and do so for relatively little in terms of pay.

I'm sure there will be some new ways of squeezing faculty even more: I think we're not far from out-sourcing academic jobs to other countries. Heck, the page proofs I got recently for a work I have forthcoming from a major academic press were outsourced for copy-edit. That says a lot more dire things about the future of the academy, I think, than that an abrasive boss has resigned.

The Harvard Crimson published a very thoughtful op-ed yesterday, which I think presents a solid picture of the situation on the ground in Cambridge:

Posted by: Alfred L.Brophy | Mar 1, 2006 5:23:24 PM

Of course, in the car market, the American consumers voted with their $$ for foreign imports a generation before GM ran into its current serious trouble.

So long as U.S. research universities maintain their powerful net draw on students across the world, I think predictions of impending doom are jumping the gun.

Besides, wasn't Harvard also rich, bureaucratic and confident in 1956?

Posted by: bill | Mar 1, 2006 12:57:58 PM

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