Friday, August 29, 2014

Alma Merit - Meritocracy and Universities

by Dr. Ellen Brandt

When top-tier universities fail to embrace Meritocratic values, their very reason for existence comes into question. And it's happening right now.

It's become a frequent phenomenon the past few years, accelerating since the Great Crash of 2008-09 focused the sharpest of sharp spotlights on the gaping economic chasm between the very, very few who are very, very rich and everybody else everywhere on earth.

Every week or two, a major publication or TV news show comes out with a story disparaging top-tier universities in the strongest of terms, with the author or commentator declaring that he (it's usually a he) would never upon pain of death send one of his offspring to an Ivy or other top-tier school - despite the fact that he went to one of them himself and maybe taught there as well.

These "we hate elite universities" screeds usually fall into one of two distinct patterns, depending on the political orientation of the writer or speaker.

Critics with a supposedly Libertarian (too casually branded as Conservative) focus are generally upset because their alma mater or multiple maters "aren't preparing graduates for the real world" - meaning, it turns out, as the story or broadcast unfolds, that many top-tier graduates are not earning as much money; founding as many app-de-jour startups; or getting as much attention in the business media as graduates from second- or third- or eighth-tier schools - or people without college degrees at all.

But many supposedly Progressive critics believe the exact opposite is true: that Ivy and other top-tier university grads are, to a woman or man, the Evil Puppetmasters who have taken all wealth and power unto themselves, splashing delightedly in Dark Pools of Capital, while the 99 percent of 99 percent remain stranded on the shore, mired in despair and crawling towards economic Armageddon.

What these two seemingly disparate approaches have in common is that they are both, at base, vocational arguments. They posit the hypothesis that the core purpose of a top-tier university education is producing a graduate who will make more money - and via that money wield more power - than those who attend less prestigious universities or don't go to college at all.

Some see this supposed "vocational edge" of top schools as positive, as do the Libertarian critics cited above. Some see the supposed vocational advantages of a top-tier education as negative and unfair, as some Progressive critics do.

But critics from both sides of this essentially false debate are clearly deep believers that top-tier universities are, have always been, and always will be part and parcel of a Thug-ocracy of Wealth for Wealth's Sake.

Whether they're in awe of this Thug-ocracy of Wealth and the power derived from Wealth - or whether they hate it and want it dismantled - both groups of vociferous critics now consistently and insistently link the Thug-ocracy of Wealth for Wealth's Sake with top-tier universities in the U.S. and abroad.

Those who are in awe of Wealth for Wealth's Sake have lately become almost deafening in their demands that if the Ivies and other top-tier schools cannot produce a steadier stream of "one-percenters," they are simply of no use to anyone. Shut them down and turn them into diploma mills, specializing in the few skills that appear to be relevant these days, like coding, hacking, and gamification.

Now, I'd hope that most of my fellow Ivy Leaguers and graduates of other distinguished institutions of higher learning in the U.S. and abroad would disagree strongly with the vocationally-oriented arguments of both admirers of the Thug-ocracy and those who detest it.

I'd hope that all of us - alumni, matriculants, administrators, teachers, parents, and friends - would dismiss the vocational thesis by proclaiming that:

*** The purpose of a top-tier university education is producing graduates who are well-educated in the broadest possible sense, people who will make a difference in the world as scholars, creators, and citizens.

*** The task of a top-tier university education is helping students discover, develop, and refine their innate intelligence and talent, so they can put this intelligence and talent to work in the world after they graduate.

*** Alumni of today's finest universities have a value to the world far beyond accumulating Wealth for themselves and their companies. Their value to the world depends upon their hard work, diligence, and creativity in applying their intelligence and talent to the various endeavors they decide to pursue, on whatever stage they choose to pursue them.

*** Highly-educated and broadly-educated people are the world's most precious commodity, because they have the ability, as they gain skill and experience, to transform the world around them and make it a better place.

Yes, I hope that's what everyone is proclaiming. But I'm no longer sure, nor are many who will read this story.

In the past several years, believe many alumni, students, teachers, and administrators alike, our beloved alma maters have shown signs of losing their way. And in losing their way, they may be en route to betraying the faith so many generations of Americans and other world citizens have had in them as bastions of scholarship, civilization, democracy, and the general good.

In a previous story (see Meritocracy Has Eleven Letters, Not Four), we talked about accusations that top-tier universities have been playing fast and loose with "legacy" admissions policies, favoring less qualified offspring of wealthy alumni over more qualified applicants without such legacy credentials.

As we stated in that story, we do not believe such accusations are valid, based on either the statistical or anecdotal evidence. Alumni themselves would almost certainly rise up in outrage if such "legacy cheating," favoring their wealthiest peers, was found to exist at their own schools. If even a hint of this kind of corruption is found at any top-tier university, it needs to be rooted out immediately.

But other trends involving the Mega-Wealthy do seem to be increasing the past few years. These are disturbing trends - anti-Meritocratic trends - and our university communities need to have the courage to discuss them, to debate them, and if necessary, to eliminate them for the sake of our alma maters and their important place in the world.

In the wake of my Baby Boomers-The Angriest Generation series five years ago and since launching this current blog series and the Bring Back the Meritocracy! project this year, I have talked to or corresponded with literally tens of thousands of fellow Ivy grads and alums of other top-tier schools at home and abroad. Here are some of the trends which disturb them, highlighting the "Thug-ocracy versus Meritocracy" issue:

*** Far too much space and/or airtime in university channels of communication has been devoted to sometimes painfully gushing stories about Big Donors and their efforts to "give back" to their alma maters by endowing classrooms, dorms, parks, sports stadiums, zoos, space stations, private planets . . . . OK, I made up the last three, but you get the picture.

And Yes, this emphasis on an exalted cadre of Ultra-Donors is new. There always were a few fabulously rich alums or friends of our schools who left big bequests and gave their name to a laboratory or library or professional school. But these worthy benefactors stayed in the background and rarely called undue attention to themselves - nor did administrators nor anyone else fawn over them.

Perhaps it's just an unfortunate extension of the same worship of celebrities and media-anointed "thought leaders" that has plagued the developed world's culture the past few years. Perhaps reality TV producers are already working on "The Real Donors of Dallas/Nagasaki/New Delhi" or "Idol Philanthropist," which will let viewers vote for their favorite financier's favorite college building.

But maybe it's something a tad less funny - and a tad more unsettling.

***  Of course, many I've talked with believe there is suddenly way too much effort devoted to fund-raising - period. It seems seven out of eight pieces of mail or E-mail one receives from one's alma mater these days is a plea for donations; a summary of donations; a "special tear-out supplement" about donations; or one of those very annoying lists of fellow alumni donors, dividing them into Giant Squid, Octopi, King Crabs, Geoducks, and Urchins - or some similar scheme meant to encourage you to get out of that selfish Urchin category and move up to the Octopi pool, where three of your former roommates are swimming.

The possible excuse here is the extreme suffering which numerous university endowments  - and those who ran them - went through in the turbulent economic times just past. The scuttlebutt is that even some top schools looked Ruin in the face - and they clearly didn't like it.

But the emphasis on hard-sell fund-raising once again raises the spectre of alumni being valued for the size of their pocketbooks, rather than their distinction in other facets of their lives.

*** Part and parcel of the Celebrity Donor syndrome is an extraordinary new habit of naming things - pretty much anything and everything - after them. This seems to be a sore point among a clear majority of top-school alums, judging by the volume - and vehemence - of commentary in the "Letters to the Editor" and guest editorial sections of alumni publications.

The name-it (brand-it?) mania has strayed very far from the major gifts province of yore - i.e. recently yore. Besides naming or re-naming such things as specialized professional schools, libraries, stadiums, and mass scholarship programs (like it or not, that's always been with us), we're now seeing every inch of space - concrete or intangible - plastered over with perpetual reminders of whose targeted endowments are paying for it.

Is there any scholarship, fellowship, internship, or professorship that isn't currently the subject of financial bragging rights? Is it just a matter of time before individual desks, the beds in dormitory rooms, dishes in the cafeteria, and possibly chalkboards, staplers and paper clips are acknowledged as the gift of some well-heeled alum or another?

Already Chloe-Zoe Smith-Jones, promising undergraduate, has been awarded an Algernon Fitzalgernon scholarship (named for the chairman of Meerkat Amalgamated Funds, Ltd.) to matriculate in the new department of Cloud Computing for Physical Therapists, where she will study under such luminaries as the "Roberta and Robert Robinson-Roberts Professor of Interdisciplinary Disciplines" Jack Blue-Green. Young Chloe will live in the Allison Wombat Dormitory; eat in the Class of 1978 Javelin & Key Cafeteria; and attend concerts in Peter Piper Pickedpepper Hall, where she may sit in balcony row 7C (endowed by Katherine King Crabbe, a King Crab-level donor), before noshing at intermission on pate sandwiches and sparkling water, compliments of George and Greta Urchin (Urchin level donors).

Perhaps none of this will affect young Chloe, psychologically, ethically, or otherwise, as she moves through her academic career and on to the rest of her life.

Or perhaps it may.

*** For some alums - and matriculants, teachers, administrators, and parents - part of the uneasiness with Mega-Wealthy Donors per se is where the overwhelming majority of these Donors come from.

In those days of yore - i.e. recently yore - top schools' biggest benefactors tended to be those who had made their money founding major manufacturing or services companies or perhaps by inventing something important. In general, then, these Moguls were legitimate Moguls, whether or not one liked a particular one.  They were people who had come by their assets in what might be called a Meritocratic manner, because they'd done something important that had benefited their fellow citizens and the world around them.

That seems to have changed abruptly within the past (very) few years. All of a sudden, 70 or 80 or 90 percent of many top schools' Mega-Donors come from just one sphere of endeavor - and that sphere of endeavor is the sphere of Finance.

Overwhelmingly, today's biggest "gifters" come from the realm of investment banks and hedge funds and other kinds of funds, whether at home or abroad.

Undoubtedly, many of these Emperors and Empresses of the financial world are honest, decent, humane, and thoroughly lovely people we'd all be proud to have as friends, colleagues, or members of our softball or bowling teams.

If one believes the world of high finance, as it currently stands, is squeaky clean, honest, fair and pure, and that its denizens have operated with the best intentions and in the best interests of their fellow Americans and fellow world citizens . . . then perhaps this trend of our alma maters being seemingly helplessly dependent on the largesse of financiers will not upset you.

And perhaps you've been fast asleep the past 20 or 30 years. Or living in an antiseptic bubble, where the concerns of the hoi polloi, including most of your fellow alums, can't reach you.

*** One great concern shared by many observers of the Celebrity Mega-Donor trend is that fabulously wealthy benefactors may start to shape the overall agendas of universities: which professors they hire and promote; what kinds of scholarship they do; and what sorts of projects, domestic or international, our universities decide to initiate or participate in, delineating their footprints - and influence - in the world.

Some think the last is already happening - enough so, at least, that it should become an active topic of discussion among our university communities.

Sophisticated and well-educated people tend to laugh at Hollywood and its "causes" - pet diseases or social projects that rise up geyser-like and become the focus of widespread media attention, because a handful of Hollywood stars or producers use their skills for hogging the limelight and proclaim that the Heartbreak of Toenail Fungus or Saving the Purple Millipede is an urgent matter that needs to engage the human race right now.

Lately, we've seen the same exact thing in many top-tier university publications and other media channels, except that those whose pet projects are featured - often exhaustively - aren't Entertainers. They're our Benefactors-Reborn-as-Celebrities. And if they proclaim that our universities need to promote, say, better school lunch programs in Tuvalu or smartphone giveaways to lost tribes in the Amazon Basin . . . Hey! they've individually amassed more money than 60-percent-of-their-graduating-classes-combined. Clearly, they are smarter and better than the rest of us. Clearly, their focus should be our focus, their insights our insights, their wishes our commands . . . .

Or not. Because if a handful of Uber-powerful alums and other Benefactors are given the right to decide anything - let alone a lot of things - about how and when and where our alma maters concentrate our support and influence in this country and this world, are not said alma maters precisely where our most vociferous critics say we are - firmly in the hands of the vaunted Thug-ocracy of Wealth for Wealth's Sake?

Instead, shouldn't our beloved and still respected alma maters rest firmly in the much broader and more inclusive - and arguably far more prudent - hands of their entire alumni - and student - and faculty - and administrative - base?

The loud and persistent emphasis on top-tier universities' wealthiest and most financially-generous Donors has at best diminished the interest of a significant proportion of alums and others in their broader communities of support. At worst, it has outright alienated some of this base, to the extent that they've become completely non-supportive - witness the extraordinary attacks from alumni and even faculty commentators that we referenced at the beginning of this story.

Note, too, that there is one kind of aid and development project the Titans and Titanesses of Finance dominating our Donor streams seem to have studiously stayed away from these past several years: Pretty much anything and everything that might help their fellow alumni who have not been as financially blessed as they have been.

This strikes one as an extraordinary state of affairs. First of all, at no other time in our top universities' histories, with the possible exception of the Great Depression of the 1930s, have so many members of the "Best and Brightest," especially those over age 50, been teetering on the brink of complete financial extinction.

Anecdotally, there may be hundreds of millions of those we've dubbed the "Highly-Educated But Under-Employed" in the United States and the rest of the  world.

Note that Baby Boomers, the generation most at risk, make up fully one-third of the population of the U.S., the rest of the developed world, and China and about 1/7 of the population of the entire world. In other words, there are over 1 billion Boomers.

Note, too, that the principal reason so many "Best and Brightest" alums, particularly those over age 50, are at risk is because of broad and seemingly inexorable economic trends which those Dark Pools of (Badly-Allocated?) Capital and those who have run them either put into motion in the first place or, at the very least, have benefited from greatly: downsizing, outsourcing, managerial shrinkage, housing crises, market crashes, and the hollowing out of both manufacturing and Main Street small business.

Of course, one can't force any self-respecting Titan or Titaness of High Finance, Mega-Donor or otherwise, to act in a responsible or prudent or humane or compassionate way - even towards his or her fellow alums, their families, and their communities.

But I would contend, along with a large proportion of my fellow alums, that our alma maters themselves should act in a responsible and prudent and humane and compassionate fashion. That they should, because they need to. That they should, because it is in their best interest to do so. That they should, because they will have betrayed their purpose for existing if they do not.

For starters, top-tier universities need to begin actively discussing the growing problem of Alums-at-Risk, particularly alums over age 50, many with multiple top-school degrees and decades of superior work behind them. Until our universities simply acknowledge that a very big group of such alums exist, rather than sweeping all cognizance of them under the proverbial rug, the problem of what to do about them remains both a festering sore and a potential disaster for the Ivies and similar schools.

In a follow-up blog, we'll make some suggestions about specific programs - starting with some hard-nosed research  - that we'd like top universities to initiate. (See And On the Painfully Thoughtful Side . . . )

In both conceptual and practical terms, as we have emphasized throughout this series, we believe one of the best -  most decent, least controversial, most logical, and simply smartest - ways to steer our alma maters back on track and back on goal is by embracing and proudly proclaiming our commitment to Meritocracy.

The Meritocratic values - education, talent, intelligence, hard work, and experience - must be reinstated at the core of top-tier universities' internal and external value systems.

They need to be recognized. They need to be publicized. They need to be celebrated. They need to be inculcated throughout each university's community of students, alums, faculty, administrators, and supporters.

Continuing to fawn over - or perhaps just tolerate - any Thug-ocracy of Wealth for Wealth's Sake, even if some of its prominent members are "our own," is not, has never been, and will never be in the best interests of top-tier universities and those who care about them.

Yes, it may get them a few more endowed paper clips and staplers.

But it won't win them the love and gratitude and respect of the people of the United States or the people of the world.

In upcoming stories, we'll explore the relationship between Meritocracy and Political Centrism and why the vast and influential Baby Boomer generation has become the lightning rod for discussions and debates about Meritocracy and the pressing need to restore its luster.

For two Addenda to this article, one humorous, one serious - and we believe, important - see:

And On the Lighter Side . . . 


And On the (Painfully) Thoughtful Side . . .