No one seems to like America’s elite universities these days, but the reasons appear entirely contradictory. Left-wing critiques present these institutions as sites of vast social privilege and structural racism whose flagrantly unequal admissions policies make them little more than machines for the reproduction of a neoliberal social elite. Right-wing critiques, meanwhile, label these universities as bastions of wokeness in which students and humanities professors compete to see who can develop the most absurd “intersectional” theories while angrily silencing and canceling anyone who dares to disagree with them.
Whatever one’s political position, it’s hard to deny that our elite universities are in fact very contradictory places. On the one hand, professors (at least in the humanities and the social sciences) vote overwhelmingly on the left — in many departments, 95 percent or more vote for the Democratic party. On the other hand, a high proportion of undergraduates come from families in the top 1 percent of the income bracket and benefit from the advantages conferred by legacy status, expensive, private secondary schooling, and the ability to excel in sports not played in most American public high schools (squash, golf, sailing … ). These same undergraduates direct themselves in large part toward finance, consulting, and technology jobs, with a high proportion of the senior class in some of these institutions competing for positions at a small handful of firms (McKinsey, Bain, Goldman Sachs, Google … ). These patterns reinforce American inequality.
How can we explain these contradictions? Are the left-wing professors mere window dressing, trotted out to disguise the ugly social realities of the neoliberal academy? Or perhaps the wealthy families are poor dupes, paying huge tuition fees (and making even larger donations) to support woke fanatics who teach nonsense while working to destroy American culture? Both of these explanations get repeated day after day, ad nauseam, in the media and on social media.
There is a better way to understand this apparently contradictory situation — and to start addressing some of the problems they point to. We must remember a perfectly obvious fact that usually gets overlooked in these heated ideological debates: Elite universities are powerful institutions that, whatever their functional role within larger social and cultural systems, act in their own self-interest. That self-interest is measured in dollars but also in the more nebulous currency of prestige. Prestige, furthermore, is not a simple matter but has many different components, based in many different constituencies.
It’s easy to forget that elite universities act in this self-interested manner. Despite the critiques from both the right and the left, most of the leaders of these institutions, in my experience, ardently believe in the high purposes expressed in the schools’ high-minded mottos: truth, light, wisdom, service. They tend to be exceptionally earnest, well-intentioned, and committed people, easy to credit with selfless motivations. And, of course, the universities themselves take every possible opportunity to profess their dedication to higher purposes in their copious promotional literature. But that dedication to a higher purpose is hardly incompatible with self-interest. From the university’s point of view, doesn’t it need to be as strong, as well regarded, and as financially secure as possible to pursue that higher purpose as fully as it can? Put on your own oxygen mask first before helping others.
The pursuit of self-interest explains both why elite universities cling to their baroque admissions systems and why they hire left-leaning faculty — practices that can seem contradictory at first glance. Take, for instance, the practice of legacy admissions, which appears so flagrantly unequal and unfair to many critics. If you see the purpose of admissions as serving the larger social good, by giving the best possible education to the best students, while also working to correct damaging forms of social inequality and redressing past discrimination, then it is hard to argue with this judgment. But if you see the purpose of admissions as serving the good of the university itself, then legacy admissions makes perfect sense. It not only encourages large donations from alumni eager to have their children admitted but also creates a strong sense of community, albeit of an exclusive and limited sort, on the campus itself.
Elite universities are powerful institutions that … act in their own self-interest. That self-interest is measured in dollars but also in the more nebulous currency of prestige.
Looked at coldly, elite universities in fact have something of an empirical stake in unequal admissions practices of all kinds. The children of famous, wealthy, and powerful parents will not just launch into post-graduation life with their prestigious diplomas, but also with all the additional considerable advantages their family backgrounds have conferred on them. They are more likely than other graduates to become famous, powerful, and wealthy in their turn and will thereby bring favorable attention — as well as, it is hoped, financial support — to their alma mater. Admitting students who do well in different sports helps the respective teams, pleasing the alumni of those teams and, again, prompting donations and strengthening a sense of community.
Of course, elite universities also have a stake in admitting some students from disadvantaged backgrounds. University publicity offices like few things better than being able to boast that a student from an inner-city high school, an immigrant, perhaps, or a first-generation college student, has won a prestigious prize or fellowship and gone on to an elite professional school. Being known as a school too solicitous of the ultra-wealthy, with too few students from disadvantaged, underrepresented backgrounds, can be damaging to institutional prestige. University administrators have exquisitely sensitive antennae regarding these issues, and they carefully calibrate their annual intake to maximize all these different factors while doing their best to avoid bad publicity. At the same time, placement offices work overtime to ensure that every graduate has a shot at one of those $250,000 starting salaries (before bonus) at a hedge fund.
But a university’s prestige is not derived from just its students and alumni. Faculty also matter. Just as elite universities compete to recruit the “best” students, as determined by the multivariable calculus of contemporary admissions, so they also compete to recruit the highest-quality professors. And they measure quality in some fairly obvious ways: who publishes the most-cited articles in the highest-impact journals; who wins the top prizes and fellowships and gets reviewed in prestigious general-interest publications; who is elected to high office in their discipline’s professional associations. You might think universities would also be interested in recruiting the best teachers possible, but teaching does not come with clear measures of distinction in the way research does. There are teaching prizes, but faculty members do not compete for them with faculty from elsewhere. Princeton boasts about its faculty members who win its teaching prizes, but it boasts a lot more about its faculty members who win Nobel prizes.
When it comes to faculty “quality,” universities defer almost entirely to the different academic disciplines — and to their prevailing politics. If American sociologists collectively think that the most vital sociological research involves tracking, explaining, and criticizing the various forms of American inequality, and if they give their highest professional recognition to the scholars they see doing so most compellingly, then university-hiring practices will follow. If this work correlates with strongly left-wing political opinions, then elite sociology departments will lean to the left (as, in fact, they mostly do). If literature professors collectively determine that one of their most important functions is to demonstrate how literature can serve either to reinforce or resist various forms of domination, then elite universities will compete to hire faculty whose work are along these lines that the field considers most persuasive. Such faculty are, not surprisingly, more likely than most Americans to vote for the Democratic party and perhaps also more likely to support banning controversial right-wing speakers from campus.
It might seem contradictory for universities to hire faculty who, politically, are critical of the inegalitarian social and economic structures that those same universities arguably support. Yet it is clear that, in practice, these contradictions do not interfere with the universities’ operations. Very few aspiring faculty turn down an appointment at an elite university because of that university’s supposed role in reproducing a neoliberal elite. And very few prospective students turn down an offer of admissions from an elite university because of the political opinions that prevail among the faculty. The founders of the anti-woke University of Austin are obviously hoping that a pool of such students exists, but it is unlikely to be a very large one. As long as graduates of the existing elite universities continue to snag choice positions in finance, consulting, and technology, applications will continue to deluge these universities. And as long as elite universities continue to be congenial places for the study of subjects like American inequality and practices of domination through literature, the best scholars in those fields will continue to flock there.
Elite universities, because they are rich, powerful institutions that pursue their own self-interest, are hard places to influence. The late Henry Rosovsky, who served as dean of arts and sciences at Harvard University, used to say to the entering class of undergraduates each year: “You are here for four years. The faculty are here for a lifetime. Harvard is here forever.” Point made. But influence is not impossible, and it is easiest to exercise by appealing to universities’ concern for their prestige (unless you happen to have a few hundred million dollars lying around).
Take the issue of legacy admissions. If all that was necessary to end the practice was to persuade well-intentioned university administrators of its fundamental injustice, it would have disappeared years ago. If some elite schools like the Johns Hopkins University have now dropped it, it is probably not just because their leaders want to do the right thing, but also because they have gotten valuable publicity by doing the right thing first, ahead of their competitors (yes, I am being a little cynical here). But if opponents of legacy admissions want to win the battle, the best way is to relentlessly shame universities that cling to the practice until that shame, plus whatever good intentions their leaders might possess, outweighs the benefits (and, as noted, there are significant material benefits).
Or consider the issue of teaching. While most faculty members at elite universities take teaching seriously, and try to do it well, it is undeniable that these universities value it in a very different way from research. With teaching, we expect faculty to clear a bar of reasonable competence — anything better is appreciated but not required. With research, we expect the best in the world, or something close. The most effective way to upend this would be to create some form of recognition for excellent teaching that elite universities could compete with each other to obtain. Create a panel whose members could observe select (or even random) classes at every participating university and have them award numerical scores. Encourage U.S. News & World Report to factor these scores into the rankings. Elite universities might suddenly decide to take teaching more seriously in their hiring and tenure decisions.
But in whatever way you might want these universities to change, keep in mind that they are not going to change simply because their leaders recognize the compelling force of a cogent moral argument. That is generally not the way that powerful, rich institutions change — even ones committed to the life of the mind, led by good, moral, thoughtful people. Such institutions have powerful interests. Their leaders feel a responsibility to multiple constituencies: alumni, parents, faculty, students, staff (not necessarily in this order, but often in this order). Doing the right thing, as any university president will quickly tell you, can be complicated. A relatively small number of people can appeal to a university’s interests in a very material manner, through the pocketbook. But elite universities care enormously about prestige, and about shame, and that is a field on which many more players can operate, often with surprisingly effective results.