George Will on UATX (Part I)
Will discusses a nascent university and in doing so produced a cliched column about higher education.
George Will reminded me of something I thought I had written about, but since searching the archives produces nothing, I guess I just thought about writing about it (that happens with some frequency). What is that something you ask? Well, it is the creation of the University of Austin (UATX–but not to be confused with the Universidad Autónoma de Tlaxcala), a fledgling private, non-profit liberal arts school that is allegedly going to have its first incoming freshman class in the fall of 2024.
Will praises the endeavor in WaPo: How to build a university unafraid of true intellectual diversity.
My challenge in discussing this column is twofold. First, the column itself is just a cliched example of the typical nonsense about higher education. Second, UATX just needs a ton of unpacking.
So, I am going to split this discussion into two posts. The first is just about Will’s generic criticism of American higher education. The second will be about UATX itself.
So, let me start with the generic almost cartoonishly lazy characterization of higher education in the United States: “The news from academia is embarrassing — intellectual fads, political hysterias, the hunting of heretics.”
Let me offer an obvious retort that somehow gets rather ignored. American academia is producing, on a regular and ongoing basis going back decades and decades, educated persons who then go on to far better earnings prospects than they would have had without their educations. Further, the source of much of the economic engine of the country relies on individuals educated in American colleges and universities. Over a million international students currently study in the US because of the value of our educational system (and if visas were easier to get even more would be here studying).
Can one find examples of wackiness in the ranks of the American professoriate? Of course, but given that there are about 4,000 colleges and universities across the country, it is hardly shocking that one can find something in that mix of tens of thousands of faculty members to criticize, if not ridicule. It is also not surprising that a collection of highly educated, intelligent people might not occasionally produce some boundary-pushing notions.
Indeed, learning itself is a boundary-pushing exercise. It assumes that knowledge can be used to make the world a better place. It is not inherently conservative in the sense that education does not exist to maintain the status quo, but it seeks to improve it. As a result, some attempts to improve will be failures, but more significantly, any attempt at improvement runs the risk of challenging existing power arrangements, and hence frequently leads to pushback.
It is not for nothing that Socrates, by teaching that the unexamined life isn’t worth living, was sentenced to either exile or death by the elites of the day, because he was corrupting the youth, don’t you see, by making them question the “truths” that society believed in. (This reference is especially biting, I assure you, given Will’s praise of UATX–but I digress).
The notion that the academy is nothing but a bunch of embarrassment is in and of itself embarrassing.
Will also engages in some additional stock footage about American academia:
In today’s academic caste system, full-time tenure-track professors do substantially less teaching than do graduate students or part-time adjunct teachers. Teaching and scholarship seem secondary to the nonacademic agendas of institutions’ bureaucracies, which grow like kudzu. Harvard University’s ratio of administrators to faculty is about 3 to 1; Stanford University has 15,750 administrative staff, 2,288 faculty. The bloat enforces “diversity, equity, inclusion” conformities, administers Title IX sexual policing and attends to the emotional serenity of students who feel “unsafe” around intellectual heterodoxy.
As usual, the exemplars of higher education that are supposed to demonstrate the sins of them all are, in fact, outliers. It is beyond tiresome that every time higher education is criticized the examples used are elite privates (or, maybe, elite public flagships). This is a distortion. Stanford and Harvard are as far from being prototypical universities as one can get. It is utterly absurd to keep using elite private schools as stand-ins for all colleges and universities.
Further, he conflates two issues (tenure-track faculty v. grad students and full-time v. part-time faculty). These are not the same thing. Moreover, the places where graduate students teach substantial numbers of students are research schools with Ph.D. programs. This is not all of academia. It all depends on the type of school. Yes, at major research schools the faculty might only teach 1 or 2 courses a semester, but it is far more common that they teach 3 or 4 (or more) per semester.
The link provided as a citation goes to another op/ed column, which in turn links to other opinion essays. So I am not sure of the exact source of the claim.
I would note that part-time faculty (adjuncts) may well also have Ph.D.s, making them a different category than grad students. I will not dispute that adjuncts are underpaid and that having a lot of part-time faculty is a real problem, but it is so much more complicated than the simple implication here about all the lazy tenure-track faculty.
The “administrative staff” number is dong a heavy lift. It is hardly surprising to me that there are more staff than faculty. There is a lot to do to run a university. Not only is it a large, fairly complicated business that requires all the functions any business does (e.g., HR, payroll, marketing, IT, physical plant) not to mention specialized areas such as sponsored programs (managing grants and contracts), development (fund-raising), athletics, and a variety of student services. For that matter, dorms, dining halls, and other food services have to be maintained. Libraries and labs have to be staffed.
It isn’t all DEI and Title IX (the horrors!). Those are likely relatively small chunks of the org chart.
I am likely forgetting something, but I can say for certain that running a university is more complicated than it looks, and it is far more than just hiring some professors and giving them a room and a chalkboard.
In general, this is all just the typical, recycled nonsense. Faculty are lazy! Faculty are whacky! Schools have too many employees! Harvard and Stanford are all you need to know! And, oh my gosh, diversity, equity, and inclusion will be the death of us all!
All while ignoring the obvious value-add to society of colleges and universities.
And note, I am not saying that higher ed should be immune from criticism. It is far from perfect, but goodness gracious, could we get some better critiques?
(On to part II!)
Will is a really bright guy but he’s also really old. Still, he’s in fairly elite circles—and holds a prestige PhD himself—so should certainly be better informed.
Edited to add: And his dad was a philosophy professor at a major research university (Illinois). And he himself taught at Michigan State and the University of Toronto before moving into punditry.
I really don’t think brightness has anything to do with it. It may actually be an active harm in this case.
Staying informed requires a desire to find yourself regularly proven wrong. That’s something that Will, and many others in the University of Austin circle, haven’t been interested in doing for years (if not decades in Will’s case).
Frankly, for years I’ve viewed Mr. Will with the same jaundiced eye that I’ve used on my BIL’s complaints about… everything. Haven’t seen an original or well reasoned piece by him since before the Bush administration.
@Flat Earth Luddite: He should spend his remaining years writing about baseball, he’s pretty good at that
Good point. I’d enjoy that way too much for it to actually come to pass. But hope springs eternal…
“Still, he’s in fairly elite circles—and holds a prestige PhD himself—so should certainly be better informed.”
C’mon, you know as well as I that folks like Mr. Will never notice all the plebs working behind/under them that makes their continued existence possible. Papers are graded by fairies (elves?). Classrooms are cleaned by trolls. Only they, the anointed, matter. All else is mist.
The website makes it seem more like a think tank with op-ed level scholarship which answers to the donors.
I flipped through their undergrad curriculum and there’s a deep vibe of fraud coming off it, like it was created for men in their 50s who have regrets ending up in management. None of it sounds real, i.e. a possible project being write a symphony for lost languages.
Back when I worked at a large industrial research lab, management worked quite hard and managed to keep the ratio of administrative:research staff at about 2:1. Without things like tracking and administering outside grants. And with a lot of support services — janitorial, groundskeeping, most of security — provided by hired firms.
I’ve said this same thing about K-12 from time to time. […sigh…]
Considering the type of faculty this is likely to attract, I wouldn’t recommend it to any female students.
@Just nutha ignint cracker: Agreed.
Evidence? He may have a high IQ and he may have once used it. But I see little evidence he’s done anything for years but parrot Republican conventional wisdom. Take the late Charles Krauthammer as an example of a smart conservative pundit. His lies were so well crafted it was a fun game to look for just where a definition shifted or a conclusion sounded logical, but wasn’t. Once you saw the craft, there was no doubt he was deliberately lying. With Will’s sloppy writing it’s always possible to think he actually believes the nonsense he wrote down.
Will’s anti-Trumpism was driven by marketing considerations, not conviction. Will is a very financially successful pundit. The path to money in his line of work is to find an audience and tell them what they want to hear. Like J. K. Galbraith said, shilling for the wealthy pays better than crusading for the truth.
My hobby horse lately is that no matter what “progressives” do or say, FOX/GOP will find or invent something to bitch about. Oppressively “woke” colleges seem to fall under that umbrella. I haven’t been in a college classroom since around 2010, and then it was one grad level engineering class, so I wasn’t exactly involved in campus life. Dr. T, I rely on you, and OTB commenters, to keep me somewhat grounded in what actually happens on campuses. I look forward to part 2, which will presumably note, IIRC from reading this column some days ago, that Will kept speaking of UATX as though it were an actual existing college. (Didn’t it used to be UAT? Did UTA or someone sue?)
@Michael Cain: Indeed. This stuff all requires a lot of work by a lot of people.
Well, sophistry requires intelligence to come up with good narratives that “prove” a point.
@Flat Earth Luddite: Adding another condescending asshole to the pantheon of full-time baseball critics is unneeded. He is Bob Costas’ with 4-syllable words rather than 3.
” Moreover, the places where graduate students teach substantial numbers of students are research schools with Ph.D. programs.”
I went to school at a major research university and to graduate school at a smaller research university (a number of years ago). I am still friends with people at both schools in ag/science colleges and the only classes taught by graduate students are/were labs and a few of the classes for non-majors. Not sure if this applies in the humanities or at other schools.
@BugManDan: As you are noting, it really is a lot more complicated than it is made out to be, and even my attempt at clarification was not especially helpful. Part of my point is, as you know, the only way to have a substantial graduate teaching force of any kind is to have large graduate programs.
But yes, if grad students are teaching they are likely teaching labs and, if they are quite advanced, some intro-level courses.
@Steven L. Taylor:
Most research schools have disproportionate numbers of math grad students. Very few make it to a PhD, but a large number are accepted just because there are so many sections that need TAs for the three-semester calculus sequence, linear algebra, and first semester differential equations.
You may have noticed most of my historical allusions are western. That’s the history I know best and have studied most. I’ve read a bit on Persia, India, China, and the Americas pre-1491, but very little in comparison.
Partly it’s because far less material is available, partly because western civilization still dominates the world. So, to understand the world as it is, studying western history is more helpful.
As far as I know, there’s no widespread, generalized objection to the continued study of western civilization and history. There is one to studying only the west to the exclusion of all else, as used to be the norm.
There’s much to praise about western civilization, like modern science and technology, largely driven by the scientific and industrial revolutions. There is much to condemn, too, like WWI and WWII, and that’s even before touching revolting subjects like colonization and race slavery. To a great extent, this is true also of almost all other civilizations. The Aztecs, for instance, built agriculture on swamps and balanced brackish and fresh water in Tenochtitlan; they also engaged in human sacrifice and were cruel conquerors.
“The problem with universities is they operate so slowly“, Joseph Epstein, 2015 Uncommon Knowledge. What is now coming to a head started with those who entered the faculty in the ’70s. And now the acolytes they created.
So to say universities have produced higher incomes for decades is not wrong, but also resting on the laurels of the over all quality that declined over the last 50 years as the old professors retired.
Not to mention that into the early ’80s, the magic parchment did grant you access to better jobs, but that has changed as technology has mooted the carbon copy production of the past and increased the need for college to teach real problem solving
–Econtalk podcast with economist Ed Leamer, April 13, 2020
And it would be wise to overcome the confusion caused by the push the belief that to be successful one must go to college. Over the last 50 years, those who would be successful in their own right have at 18 been pushed to college, but that doesn’t mean that college attendance is then responsible for their success. Quite the contrary as the modern campus with social justice, free speech repression, is likely an impediment to not only the development of human capital in students, but also their development of thinking skills.
–Jordan Peterson, 2022, Uncommon Knowledge, ‘The Importance of Being Ethical’
“Social justice is an actual impediment to acquiring human capital”
–Thomas Sowell, explains subsequent to that comment at the link
@JKB: Some interesting points. Here are a few reactions:
It may be that the value of a college education has diminished in the last 50 years, but the burden of proof is on you for that, and you haven’t provided much in the way of evidence. A college degree was never necessary for success – my parents didn’t have one and did well. It just is a big boost, statistically speaking.
However, I would contend that it is an absolute boost when it comes to STEM, which is what I do. I cannot imagine hiring people to do the things I need them to do who didn’t have college degrees. I think it’s possible to learn it without a college degree, but very few people can teach themselves those skills, and it’s also very hard to get hired. Not impossible in either case. Just really hard.
Finally, I think you have a very distorted view of what goes on on a college campus, and how much influence the SJ movement has on it, and what they in fact do and want.
I mean, when I was in college, it was possible to go hear the guy who every day would stand outside and talk about how great Communist China was. And there was a regular collection of Lyndon LaRouche fans spouting nonsense and handing out literature. Nobody thought they were ruining America. Nobody I knew, anyway. We mostly ignored them. Maybe certain people are more like that? That’s not to say I don’t endorse being nice to people, I do. And that, to me, is the core message of SJ.
Quoting Jordan Peterson does not help. He’s more or less an anti-authority with me. He is grifting, selling something that certain people want to hear. His book was a collection of platitudes mostly; there is nothing of value in it hasn’t been said hundreds of times before. He just gave an attractive “anti-SJ” coating so as to pull in dollars from people who wanted that message.
But, of course, that wasn’t the claim.
The claim was that American universities have been a major engine of economic development.
The following all need college/university training: accountants, lawyers, engineers of all stripes, nurses, doctors, dentists, veterinarians, (indeed, anyone in any medical field), teachers, architects, agronomists, meteorologists, really any kind of scientist, IT people–the list is rather long.
Ignoring all of that is like not being able to see the forest because of all the trees.
@Steven L. Taylor:
Some, such as doctors and vets, are guilds with state backing. They just put different titles on apprentice, journeyman, and master. Note that in states where it has become increasingly difficult to get the guild members to work in rural areas, state legislatures have whittled away at the guild’s control. My state allows certain categories of nurses in rural areas to do things that were formerly reserved to full doctors. (Side note: You think it’s not a guild? Consider how long doctors who have jumped through the hoops can let their training lapse and perform what is effectively malpractice before their license to practice is lifted. People die because it’s a guild.)
Lots of IT people acquire the necessary skills and knowledge for their work on their own.
At the end of my technical career, I had a title and did work that caused people to address me as “Dr. Cain” because the title and work had “Ph.D. required” written all over it. I backed into it by virtue of a masters degree and ability. To quote a couple of friends who did have Ph.D.s, “We know you can do the coursework for a Ph.D. We know you can do Ph.D. quality original research because we’ve watched you do it. We know you have the writing skills for a dissertation because we read your memos/papers. But you lack the tolerance for the academic bullsh*t necessary to finish a Ph.D.” They’re right. I made two runs at it, in two different fields, and the academic BS chased me out both times.
@Michael Cain: All of this is true but doesn’t obviate my basic point.
I mean, in theory, anyone can learn anything without formal schooling.
@Michael Cain: @Steven L. Taylor: Put another way, I would in no way deny that there aren’t other ways to imagine things could work, but in terms of an organized structural process, it is the most effective and efficient that the world has yet seen to produce the kinds of professionals that I noted in my list.
I think a lot of critiques take that fact for granted.