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American Higher Ed is Headed Towards Austerity on a Gurney

Thanks to coronavirus affecting even the richest schools, fat-cat profs and administrators might end up on the wrong side of triage.
Coronavirus Pandemic Causes Climate Of Anxiety And Changing Routines In America

The scope of U.S. higher education is vast. At a cost of $600 billion, it employs some 4 million Americans and instructs 20 million students. It encompasses a vast array of courses and research, adding up to an awesome national store of human capital.

Public universities are the largest employers in several states. The California system has 225,000 academic and administrative staff; New York, 90,000; North Carolina, over 50,000. These figures do not include janitors, cafeteria workers, groundskeepers, and other assorted labor. Colleges are often community anchors. Memorial libraries and art museums are hubs of towns and cities nationwide. 

This spring, colleges and universities with immense fixed costs are deserted ghost towns. Blocks of dormitories, apartments, and small stores stand empty. Campus lawns are getting mowed, but deans, professors and students are all away. Summer programs are cancelled. What of football weekends, alumni reunions, lucrative campus programs … all suspended until further notice? 

Some college planners write off the fall 2020 semester and target back-to-campus normality for 2021. That’s still a worst-case scenario, but who will want to be the first to crowd into big lecture halls or live far from home in high-rise dorms? Many students might take a gap year for financial or other reasons. 

And what will become of the million foreign students—about 375,000 of them mainland Chinese nationals, the children of CCP winners—who provide easy cash for public and private schools? Getting any reliable information right now about their present whereabouts or future intentions is impossible, much less valid rationales for these numbers. Mt. Holyoke and Bryn Mawr pretty much depend on foreign revenue to survive. Of UC Irvine’s entering freshmen class, more than 15 percent are Chinese nationals on student visas. 

Just a moment ago, selective admissions offices wanted edgy and “underserved” applicants. Soon they will want paying customers. “Everything is up in the air,” says higher-education expert Robert Zemsky at the University of Pennsylvania. “The yield process is going to be very weird.” According to a Chronicle of Higher Education survey, most college presidents expect to provide refunds, draw down endowments, freeze hiring, furlough the untenured, rely more on part-time faculty, cut benefits, and “re-engineer operations.”

What will be the cost to the traces of high-minded elegance that linger at many tradition-proud private and public campuses? What will happen to sports teams and the financial engines they power? No one’s sure. Faculties are discovering that distance learning lacks the force of face-to-face instruction. It requires persistence and resolve that few students naturally possess, particularly when they are starting out.

We’ll soon find out what kinds of knowledge and instruction tomorrow’s students will be persuaded to pay for—indeed, go into debt—to obtain. We’ll learn how many of them plan to travel far from home to attend a full-service residential college.

Soft-money sinecures, funding for arcana and worse, thinly veiled political subversion rewarded with grants and titles, the whole collegiate caprice of the 2010s might just go poof. Even the most valuable research faculties are used to cushy formulas and “release time” by which they do little teaching—avoiding the classroom actually confers campus prestige—formulas soon to be scrapped to make ends meet. 

This year, soon, colleges and universities will need to borrow money to meet fixed costs, go begging to legislatures and alumni, cut staff, and postpone revenue outlays. What will become of the expansive diversity, inclusion and equity superstructures recently built into institutions? Therein lies higher education’s predicament. Despite cratering endowments and shrinking enrollments, these superstructures will fight at any cost and against institutional interests to remain campus bellwethers. 

Since 2014, high-profile universities have created multi-million dollar appeasement packages to fight the forces of white privilege and fragility, bigotry, hate speech, and rape culture. Harvard College dean Rakesh Khurana declared “diversity of our student body” should be at the forefront of a “paradigm shift,” and with his allies, has worked for the last six years to make this happen. Yale has pledged $50 million to hire faculty of color and fund sensitivity training on racism and discrimination for the entire administration. 

Smooth opportunists like former Harvard law professor John Palfrey at the MacArthur Foundation see new frontiers in virtue signaling. “What we are facing is not only a humanitarian crisis; it is a crisis of racism,” according to Palfrey. “Racism is a contagion that existed long before COVID-19” that demands a “response to the way Asian Americans have been targeted by racism and xenophobia related to the coronavirus.”

At Purdue’s Center for Intercultural Learning, Mentorship, Assessment and Research, you can almost feel the desperation. “In these unscripted times, we offer resources and lesson plans for teaching students how to communicate across difference—the heart of intercultural learning—in virtual spaces,” it asserts. “This skillset is more crucial than ever as we cope with the new realities created by the Coronavirus.” Few people who work off-campus even remotely believe such nonsense, but these outlooks have currency within the professoriate. 

A glossy National Humanities Center newsletter leads with the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment’s passage and ratification calling it “an apt occasion to reflect on gender-based inequities” and to “shine a light on the often overlooked contributions women writers, artists, and leaders have made to our history and culture.” Good to know, especially to learn later in the newsletter that the Center has been closed since March 13 due to pandemic. 

Throw a dart at the nuisances of the recent past. Will the ridiculous Critical Theory and Social Justice department at Occidental College survive? Will queer theorist Rei Terada, Professor of Comparative Literature at UC Irvine, get juicy lecture fees to discuss “Futures of Opacity: Anti-capitalism and Racialization in the Era of Real Subsumption”? Maybe not. 

When austerity is essential, elected officials and trustees might review the wisdom of fueling diversity superstructures designed to crush or cancel Western civilization; sustaining a culture of grievance and recrimination; ensuring that advanced degrees, scarce jobs, impressive titles, and special funds go to designated minorities and women; protecting “vendor diversity”; and providing remedial education and therapy for mismatched students. Then there are the bureaucratic armies on and off campus who earn their keep, in the language of the University of California, overseeing “compliance with federal and state laws regarding discrimination, sexual harassment, sexual violence and retaliation, as well as the university’s affirmative action obligations as a federal contractor.” 

Institutions have a choice. They can wisely parcel diminished resources or, beset by systemic rigidities and suicidal ideologies, bet on the bad, propelling identity payoffs and set asides at the expense of serious scholarship and what remains of academic integrity. 

Brown University might proclaim in deo speramus, and Harvard, veritas. But for much of the nation’s ruling class, god and truth are institutionally passé. After the 2009 Ft. Hood shootings the chief of staff of the U.S. Army memorably declared, “As horrific as this tragedy was, if our diversity becomes a casualty, I think that’s worse.” The same thought line infects the professoriate, but more so. 

Higher education and other U.S. institutions need a vaccine for this hard-to-stamp-out contagion. Fat-cat senior faculties can’t yet grasp that their me-first pensions and programs might end up on the wrong side of triage. Maybe it would be a good idea for some of them to learn how to mow campus lawns.

Gilbert T. Sewall is co-author of After Hiroshima: The United States Since 1945, and editor of The Eighties: A Reader.