Ivory Power

Picked up a free Wall Street Journal again. Learned that since the 2015 student uprising, the University of Missouri has been hemorrhaging students and sports fans, with layoffs and forced retirements to follow. I am asked to believe that this no mere correlation. Indeed, the headline is pretty straightforward: “Mizzou Pays a Price for Appeasing the Left.” One ’78 alumnus reported that he and his wife agreed over breakfast “that MU is NOT a school we would even consider for our three children.” The ages of the letter-writer’s three children were not disclosed; nor are we ever likely to know if cooler heads prevailed by sundown. The author of the Journal piece, Jillian Melchior, concludes that “Universities have consistently underestimated the power of a furious public.”

It may well be that the average Missouri teenager is voting with her feet by not attending the state flagship, even if accepted. It may also be that the average Missouri parent would rather her child not go to college at all if “the Berkeley of the Midwest” is the only option. Either scenario strikes me as contrived, to say nothing of the Berkeley analogy.

For all of the real and manufactured public outrage about universities right now – not to speak of a college degree, which everyone seems to agree is vital for everybody’s economic survival but disagrees on how to pay for – I find it ironic that nobody has seriously bothered to put the present-day campus debates into historical perspective. Clark Kerr, as good or better an authority on crisis management than any Murdoch or Sulzberger hack, described the public backlash against broader cultural changes as preceding the “great frontlash” of the 1960s student protests. “Should the model of the university be based more on productive conflict or on doctrinal unity, on the interaction of disparate entities or on the integration of fully compatible parts?” Kerr asked. “The multiversity is based more on conflict and on interaction; the monistic university more on unity and integration. Monistic universities are more like Plato’s hierarchical Republic, and multiversities more nearly correspond to Aristotle’s search for the Golden Mean.”

But that was a decade after the tumult, whereas Kerr’s caveat had been articulated as early as 1963:

“The multiversity is a confusing place for the student. He has problems of establishing his identity and sense of security within it. But it offers him a vast range of choices, enough literally to stagger the mind. In this range of choices he encounters the opportunities and the dilemmas of freedom. The casualty rate is high. The walking wounded are many.”

Kerr was a great “ideas” man in the tradition of Hutchins and Conant, but he was also a university president, so I wish that he had felt free to acknowledge that he was not describing an either-or but rather a spectrum, or a set of choices but rather an existential crisis. Institutions, no less than individuals, aspire to unity and integration, even if they achieve more in the throes of conflict; similarly, identity and security are no more guaranteed on an American college campus than they are off of it. It’s hard to read the Journal and other late-arriving voices of conservative commentary on the state of higher education and not recognize that the current struggle for Ivory Tower power is a war of monisms.

***

I have for a while now maintained an intermittent, always cordial, and sometimes spirited correspondence with the former president of a large private university in the Southeast. Bill was among the last presidents to actually come from academia, may have been the last with a humanities background (if you don’t count Harvard’s outgoing Drew Gilpin Faust, and assume that history is more an art than a science), and almost certainly was the last scholar of English letters who will ever be asked to helm a major research institution in the United States. I’m still sorting, but for now, I keep coming back to the passages I printed out and marked with a highlighter in the beginning:

“The best presidents are level-headed, aware of the omniimportance of academic realities, and are friendly and generous in spirit. But no president makes an institution great; that is the job of the faculty.”

“It is not easy to be president, and part of the difficulty and yet part of the pleasure is to navigate waters one has not navigated before…Most of the problems can be solved and while never permanently put to rest, can be reduced to management. That is what the best presidents do and have done. Do not make the mistake of believing that this time…the problems are impossibly difficult and beyond solution; academic reality doesn’t work that way.”

And my favorite:

“While most professors are ‘liberal,’ where they work is not.”

***

The Guardian reports that Cambridge University Press has gone the way of Google, Apple, and everyone else looking to exploit the Chinese Miracle and in this case, yielded to a request by Beijing to block access to more than 300 CUP articles probing too deeply into subjects (e.g., the Cultural Revolution, Tiananmen Square, etc.) deemed off-limits by authorities. An official statement from CUP declares the publisher “troubled” by the requests, for what it’s worth. Considering how many Chinese students now have the resources and the mobility to actually live and study where Springer links are freely available, the move might seem like a desperate act of bureaucratic Canuteism. But until all Chinese students (or citizens in general, for that matter) have access to such resources and opportunities, CUP’s profits in the Peoples’ Republic are best regarded as a pass-through expense for the rest of us.

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