Universities were already in big trouble when 2020 rolled around. The combination of skyrocketing tuition (up more than double the rate of inflation since 1980) and an increasingly inferior education had made college a hard sell for many American families, and demographic trends looked likely to put further pressure on declining enrollments. But that was all B.C.—Before Covid-19, which is shaping up to be a potentially lethal event for the American academy.
When the virus emptied campuses in mid-March of 2020, schools had to refund payments for spring room and board and forgo income from sports, while still paying coaches. Small colleges lost millions in revenues, and big universities lost hundreds of millions. Professors scrambled to adapt to an online medium that was unsuited to teaching and learning across a range of disciplines, from performance arts to laboratory science. Students found themselves back in their parents’ homes, staring at classes on Zoom, from which, they quickly discovered, it was easy to hide (just turn off the video). Administrators who had sold their universities more as “high-touch” summer camps with “wraparound student services” than as academically rigorous institutions suddenly realized that the market for their product had all but disappeared. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, nationwide freshman enrollment is down a whopping 16.1 percent this academic year, while overall undergraduate enrollment is down 4 percent. Industry-wide program eliminations, layoffs, furloughs, and pay cuts are well under way.
What will college education look like A.D.—Après le Déluge? University administrators are generally not inclined to let a crisis go to waste, and the coronavirus is no exception. Since April 2019, I’ve been writing and speaking about the academic destruction of the University of Tulsa, where I taught from 1988 to 2020. It has become clear to me and my colleagues that what is in store for higher education as a whole is visible in microcosm in the sorry fate of our institution. If you cherish liberal education—if you believe that American colleges and universities must aspire to form free citizens, broad-minded individuals capable of independent judgment and action—you may wish to stop reading now. My tale, as Hamlet’s ghost says, will harrow up thy soul.
In brief: an illiberal alliance of technological corporatism and progressivism is rapidly turning universities into a “talent pipeline” for the digital age. When fully constructed, this pipeline will deliver a large and steady flow of human capital, packaged in certifiable skill sets and monetized in social-impact or “pay-for-success” bonds. But the strongly particular or eccentric shapes of mind, character, and taste that make human beings, as John Stuart Mill says, “a noble and beautiful object of contemplation” would clog the talent pipeline. Uninterrupted flow requires a standardized product: individuals ground down smooth into workers and managers, who will fit interchangeably into a globalized and digitalized system of production. The emotional infantilization and ideological indoctrination found at almost all colleges and universities today are, among other things, forms of behavioral conditioning driven by corporatist imperatives.
The comprehensive commodification of higher education arises from a broad combination of powerful interests that have little to do with teaching, learning, and scholarship. Corporations profit from the talent pipeline because training costs are shifted to other organizations. Private investors, academic institutions, and city and state governments profit because they can enter into partnerships with one another, pooling financial resources and minimizing risk. Big philanthropies, increasingly indistinguishable from for-profit enterprises, reap financial gains while advancing their managerial agendas and ideological imperatives—which, in turn, are actively promoted by education-consulting firms, university-accrediting agencies, foundations that focus on school reform, and other professional prognosticators.
The disappearance of the liberal arts and the shift to technical training appeal, in different ways and to varying degrees, to people across the political spectrum. Many on the left believe that universities exist to promote social justice and welcome changes that promise to help disadvantaged groups learn skills and find jobs. Many on the right believe that most professors of humanities and social science are hostile to the essentially conservative enterprise of preserving and transmitting the Western tradition. And the virus has greatly accelerated what one education-consulting firm heralds as the “reengineering” of higher education.
In April 2019, the University of Tulsa’s trustees approved True Commitment, a restructuring plan produced by a committee appointed by administrators, chaired by an accounting professor, and bound to secrecy by nondisclosure agreements. True Commitment eliminated 40 percent of the university’s academic programs, mostly in the liberal arts—including undergraduate majors in music, theater, languages, philosophy, and religion, as well as graduate programs in mathematics, physics, and chemistry; dissolved all academic departments; and created broad, amorphous divisions, including one called Humanities and Social Justice. Slated for expansion were technical and vocational programs like cybersecurity, computing, accounting, industrial organizational psychology, and health sciences. At the time, TU was a Top 100 national research university with an endowment of $1.2 billion; it remains the highest-profile institution to have undergone such a radical academic and organizational transformation.
How did this happen? The story of TU’s collapse begins with billionaire George Kaiser and the Bank of Oklahoma (BOK), of which Kaiser is the majority shareholder. In 2015, BOK took sole control of the Chapman Trusts, which constitute half the university’s endowment. It did so by eliminating the position of individual trustee, and then settling out of court when the office’s last occupant brought suit. Soon thereafter, Kaiser’s allies took top positions at TU. Circumventing the usual nationwide search, TU’s board hired Gerard Clancy as university president in 2016. Clancy was then given a seat on the BOK board. Soon thereafter, Janet Levit was appointed TU provost. Levit’s husband, Ken, is the executive director of the George Kaiser Family Foundation (GKFF), which will ultimately inherit Kaiser’s shares of BOK. Janet Levit is a former law professor; Clancy is a psychiatrist. Neither holds a Ph.D.
George Kaiser is probably the most influential person in Oklahoma. He has played a critical role in supporting health care, education, and the arts in Tulsa and in the state as a whole, but his support has resulted in a significant loss of public control and oversight. Referring to the GKFF, Michael Mason, an investigative journalist who has thoroughly researched Kaiser’s influence in Tulsa, told U.S. News in 2019: “No foundation has ever had so much power over an American city. . . . It’s a prescient model of what’s happening to the whole United States.” The GKFF is a philanthropy but also appears to be a profitable business. Bloomberg’s analysis of GKFF’s 2011 tax return concluded that “at least $1.25 billion of the charity’s $3.4 billion in assets is invested in ways that benefit Kaiser’s for-profit endeavors.”
Kaiser’s involvement with TU seems to be more about promoting his ambitious version of corporatist progressivism than it is about making money. GKFF’s main areas of focus include early-childhood education, delivering health care to indigent families, and making Tulsa more vibrant and economically robust. Kaiser regards the foundation’s initiatives as nationally significant models, and these efforts have gotten the attention of influential people: Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton visited Oklahoma to observe GKFF’s early-childhood Educare program, and Clinton wanted to adopt it for the whole country. A 2016 New York Times article noted that Kaiser had “turned Tulsa into ‘beta city’ U.S.A., a testing ground for evidence-based social programs” justified by “data.” “If Kaiser could change one structural aspect of the country,” the article reported, “he said he’d eliminate the attitude that centralized control is inherent evil.”
Clancy was, in some ways, the perfect person to turn TU into an instrument of Kaiser’s vision. He served on a HUD task force under President Obama that called for universities to become “anchor institutions,” focused on serving their local communities. “When an entire university—i.e., its corporate as well as its academic side—is engaged,” the task force wrote in its report, “it can be a catalyst to transform communities.” But this will require universities to “change their organizational cultures and structures and embed civic engagement across all components of the institution.” As president of TU (a position he left in January 2020), Clancy got the opportunity to do just this. His 2017–22 strategic plan for the university asks:
Who will lead improvements in our K–12 education systems? Who will guide the growing number of first-generation students to go to college and help them succeed in college? Who will champion health equity? Who will assist in improving our police relations and criminal justice system? Who will lead Tulsa’s efforts to develop, recruit, and retain young, creative talent? . . . The faculty, staff, students and graduates of the University of Tulsa will.
TU has a seat on the executive board of the Higher Ed Forum of Oklahoma, an “anchor institution consortium” that “develops collaborative and innovative strategies to coordinate, integrate and support the educational pipeline.” Clancy chaired the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce in 2011, and the university is now a member of the Chamber’s OneVoice advocacy effort, which supports “efforts to meet industry needs for skilled workers in jobs that require training beyond high school but not a four-year higher education degree.” OneVoice estimates that, in 2025, 53 percent of the jobs in Oklahoma will be in this category. TU is also a private investor in the Chamber’s Grow Metro Tulsa initiative, which seeks to “implement a comprehensive strategy to align educational curriculum to the needs of regional business and industry” and to “convene and collaborate with regional partners to increase regional attainment of post-secondary degrees and certificates.”
This word “certificate” is important. Certificates are credentials earned in short courses that involve job training. Education experts call earning certificates “up-skilling.” Certifiable skills can be ideological as well as more narrowly technical; an increasing number of universities now offer certificates and other “micro-credentials” in subjects like “diversity and inclusion.” The certainty that many marketable job skills will be quickly outmoded by technological development does not trouble institutions of higher education, for it means that they can count on a steady supply of repeat customers or “knowledge nomads” in what is now referred to as “lifelong learning”—an idea recently promoted by Thomas Friedman in the New York Times.
The kinds of changes that have been implemented at TU are not peculiar to it. They have been in the works at least since Marc Tucker, founder of something called the National Center on Education and the Economy, wrote Hillary Clinton a letter after her husband was elected president in 1992. Tucker’s letter proposed “to remold the entire American system for human resources development,” making public schools part of “a seamless system of unending skill development that begins in the home with the very young and continues through school, postsecondary education and the workplace.” This goal influenced the Common Core Initiative developed during Obama’s first term and is now actively promoted by some of the most influential players in the business of higher education.
Consider education-consulting firms, which have proliferated in recent years. Many universities—especially private ones—have boards composed almost exclusively of CEOs, bankers, and lawyers. None of TU’s trustees has a background in education; none had any objection when the school’s top administrators hired the education-consulting firm EAB to tell them how to do their jobs. Employing consultants whose advice costs far too much to reject is a reliable way for managers to shift blame if their decisions turn out to be bad ones. But make no mistake: the business of EAB—whose website states that it advises more than 1,700 of the “most progressive colleges, universities, K–12 districts, independent schools, and graduate programs in the country”—is management, not education. One advantage of replacing academic departments with divisions, EAB counsels, is that departmental promotion criteria “prioritize evidence of disciplinary excellence,” whereas divisional ones “prioritize divisional and institutional mission.” It was EAB that taught TU’s administrators to sell divisions as “breaking down academic silos” and to use Orwellian language like “continuous improvement”—an activity in which professors are now required to engage once every semester, on Continuous Improvement Day.
Consider also the university accreditation racket. The Higher Learning Commission (HLC) is one of six regional accrediting agencies in the United States. HLC, which covers 20 midwestern states, is the accreditor for TU. HLC’s most recent strategic plan, titled “Beyond the Horizon,” promotes “five strategic directions,” known as VISTA: Value to Members, Innovation, Student Success, Thought Leadership, and Advocacy. None of this—including “student success,” which just means achieving high rates of retention and graduation—has anything to do with what has always been the core mission of a university: preserving, cultivating, and transmitting knowledge. Levit uses similarly abstract and symbolic language on her LinkedIn page, where she describes herself as a “big-picture, innovative thinker who knows how to operationalize ideas” and a “thought leader on implicit bias.” (How’s that for corporatist progressivism?)
With support from the Lumina Foundation for Education—a philanthropy with $1.4 billion in assets, whose website asks us to “imagine learning that’s accessible, lifelong, and prepares everyone for a global future”—HLC produced a document titled “Innovation: Beyond the Horizon and the Future of Education,” which contains astonishing claims and vaguely threatening admonitions:
Students may enter and exit their education over a period of time, so they are likely to value transferable and stackable credentials that result in an escalating certification or degree. . . . Even in traditional degree programs, students will begin to ask for acknowledgement of parts of courses such as taking quarters of a course in different timeframes.
Nationally and globally, there is a need for re-skilling and up-skilling. . . . [and] for just-in-time education, such as “needing to know a foreign language by Thursday.”
Accrediting agencies and institutions of higher education will have to choose to recognize the reengineering of higher education either as an obstacle or as an opportunity, understanding that success follows risk and the default to tradition is not a viable option.
Pedagogical obtuseness to one side, here we have a major accreditor making effectively self-fulfilling “predictions” about the future of higher education, signaling to schools that depend crucially on its approval precisely what it is looking for in a college or university. (TU undergraduates are now required to take courses in cultural diversity and gender studies only because they were mandated by HLC.) To borrow a phrase from the philosopher Eva Brann, this is willfulness masquerading as prescience. It’s the same sort of future-bullying—another of Brann’s bon mots—that Clancy exhibited when, asked at a contentious faculty senate meeting why his administration should be trusted, he replied, “because we know the future of higher education.”
Other organizations that work to shape policy also claim to see the future. KnowledgeWorks, a foundation that promotes “personalized learning,” predicts that school as traditionally conceived will give way to a “diversified ecosystem” of “individualized learning playlists” in which “learning adapts to each child instead of each child trying to adapt to school.” Educational achievement will be reflected in “diverse forms of credentials, certificates, and reputation markers.” Such credentials are already part of the higher-education landscape. Yale, Cornell, and Georgetown market certificates in “diversity and inclusion.” Graduate students at the University of Rhode Island can earn a “Diversity and Inclusion Badge” to “gain a competitive edge in the job market.” Boise State University requires students majoring in community and environmental health to earn “21st Century Skill Badges” developed by Education Design Lab (an organization funded by Lumina) in partnership with schools like Vassar College. Education Design Lab’s badges include “Empathy” and “Intercultural Fluency,” which certify, among other things, the ability to “validate others’ feelings and perceptions” and “recognize and challenge one’s own cultural biases.” Badges certifying correctness of thought and feeling—recorded, as seems inevitable, in digitally scannable blockchain—are soon likely to be required for many jobs, if only because earning them demonstrates one’s willingness to be monitored in virtually every particular.
Since the dawn of human society, education has consisted of two simultaneous and inseparable activities: teaching, the transmission from generation to generation of knowledge, culture, and tradition; and learning, the individual assimilation of these hard-won treasures of the past. University accreditors, education consultants, and philanthropies are promoting what would be a complete reversal of these basic human processes, except that “making school adapt to students” is a fraud. For only one path is on offer, and it runs through the pipeline. The hydraulic requirements of the pipeline dictate that individual human units be made to resemble frictionless atoms; and “social distancing,” including the massive shift to online work and study, has sped up that atomization through the dissolution of fundamental social bonds.
It is, moreover, in the nature of digital media to dissolve coherent wholes into discrete, reassemblable bits. And while the digitalization of communication may have little effect on “re-skilling,” it is disastrous for liberal education. The most meaningful sorts of teaching and learning take place face-to-face. That is mostly impossible at present, and not just because we’re all wearing masks. Anyone who thinks it pedagogically irrelevant whether one’s students are gathered in a seminar room or accessible only as electronic images has no experience conducting online classes. My best professors didn’t teach philosophy, literature, and history so much as they taught me. They knew me personally and directly and could not have done so only by means of Zoom and e-mail.
What does the reengineered education promoted by organizations like HLC, EAB, GKFF, and the Lumina Foundation look like in practice? TU’s 2017–22 strategic plan answers this question. Titled “Building the Foundation for a Great Story and a Greater Commitment,” the plan is a classic of postmodernist, therapeutic, progressivist, and consumeristic jargon.
The plan’s introduction, “Jobs as Central to Life,” starts with an anecdote about some severely mentally ill people who got jobs thanks to an outreach program that Clancy helped implement. The implicit comparison of TU students to psychiatrically disturbed patients is subtly reinforced by the “TU Commitment,” which promises to make students feel “physically, emotionally and spiritually safe, valued for who you are and your potential now and forever,” and “not talked down to,” because “you have a voice and a desire to be heard.” Subsequent sections include “The 4th Industrial Revolution and Innovation and Everything We Do” and “The 4th Civil Rights Movement and Justice and Everything We Do.” The 4th Industrial Revolution, the plan explains, “is where technologies are fused. The lines are blurred between the physical, digital, and biological sciences and artificial intelligence, big data prediction, [and] precision medicine.” This revolution, the plan goes on to say, “promises the opportunity for a more tailored, longer and safer life” as well as “even more personal choice in entertainment and shopping.”
The plan proclaims “a commitment to prepare our staff, faculty and graduates for high-quality jobs and in doing so help them write great stores [sic] of their lives. These stories will inevitably entail jobs that serve the rapidly growing technology and knowledge economy and, just as important, jobs that forge a more just society.” What about the liberal arts? “We are pleased to note,” the plan reassures us, “that the most technology-oriented CEOs are recognizing what we have known for quite some time—the central importance of the liberal arts in their new hires.”
Colleges and universities were once understood to be places where the young, sheltered from the demands of work and social utility, could ripen into mature adults. That is no longer the case. TU is following a path paved by powerful people and organizations. Where does this path ultimately lead? The strategic plan tips its hand when it praises Karamay in Xinjiang, China, as a “model city for the future, built from the ground up in the past decade,” which “has the ability to plan in [the] absence of tradition.” Karamay and Xinjiang are known for extreme surveillance and the forcible internment of Muslim minorities in detention and reeducation camps. These are telling facts. The current destruction of education in the United States is a victory for a soul-crushing, Chinese-style global corporatism. At the end of this particular road is a drone running on Huawei hardware, breaking up spontaneous associations and arresting madmen who speak their minds and profess their faith.
This bleak future is not inevitable. For TU, at any rate, things haven’t worked out as planned. In December 2019, Moody’s downgraded the university’s bonds two steps, to just above junk, with a negative outlook. Faculty and staff were informed that an additional $14 million–$20 million would have to be cut from the university’s annual operating budget of approximately $200 million. This was before the coronavirus produced a projected $20 million loss for fiscal year 2020–21. Fall 2020 numbers for new and returning students are dismal. Fall 2020 undergraduate enrollment is down from last year 10.6 percent overall and roughly 35 percent in the freshman class. The university recently hired yet another management consulting firm, Boston Consulting Group, to help draft a new strategic plan, allegedly at a cost of between $1.5 and $2 million. Meantime, TU has doubled down on corporatist progressivism. It just announced a lengthy series of workshops on “Decolonizing Your Syllabus,” sponsored by the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and Conoco Phillips. Yet the financial implosion of a thousand TUs will not answer the larger question: How can new growths of liberal education hope to take root in the exhausted and ideologically salted soil of today’s universities?
Photo: Georgetown and other universities now market certificates in “diversity and inclusion,” part of an expanding redefinition of credentials in higher education. (LINDA DAVIDSON/THE WASHINGTON POST/GETTY IMAGES)