Break Up the Ivy League Cartel

tags: social class, meritocracy, elitism, Ivy League, colleges and universities

Sam Haselby is a historian and an editor. He is the author of The Origins of American Religious Nationalism.


The nature of power in America flows through the Ivy Leagues and top universities. To take one example, academic economists use their academic credentials to launder fraudulent arguments about consolidation. But the gatekeeping power of elite higher education goes far beyond that. These are the institutions that validate and structure the boundaries of knowledge.

Today I’m pleased to welcome a guest writer, Sam Haselby (@samhaselby), who thinks deeply about the history of the Ivy League, its role today, and its religious roots as a set of institutions designed around exclusion.

The Ivy League vs Democracy

One of the great puzzles of American society is the position of the Ivy Leagues. They are a bastion of privilege and power, and yet the campuses are rife with left-leaning professors who one might imagine seek to redistribute wealth. According to the Harvard Crimson, 77.6% of Harvard professors define themselves as left-leaning, and just 2.9% as conservative. What explains this dynamic? Former Harvard College Dean Harry Lewis said that it gets to the basic point of the school, which is to advance radical ideas. “It’s almost by definition anti-preservationist because we place such a high value on the creation of new knowledge,” he said.

A wildly different explanation is apparent from watching Netflix’s Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal, the highly publicized fiasco in which wealthy parents used bribery to get their kids into top colleges. What I found most interesting about this episode wasn’t the actual corruption, but a different and more poignant feature of American meritocracy. Even in the midst of acts of bribery, many of the parents were beset with fear that their children might find out about the crooked machinations to win their admission to elite schools. They took desperate steps to shield the kids from facing real questions of “merit” or deservedness. And in fact, while most involved in meritocracy don’t use bribery, a tremendous amount of energy now goes into preserving similar basic fictions about the nature of elite private education and its role in the United States.  

We most often hear about inequality in terms of super-rich corporations and individuals or families. But it is important that the same gulf, separating haves and have nots, has opened between U.S. colleges and universities. Since the pandemic began, 650,000 jobs have disappeared in American academic institutions. More than 75% of college faculty in the U.S. are contingent workers or non tenure-track. Meanwhile, as of 2020, the aggregate value of the endowments of the richest 20 U.S. schools rose to over $311 billion, all of which are subsidized by taxpayers through the tax-free treatment we offer nonprofit educational institutions. The common joke, that Harvard is a hedge fund with an educational arm, is not so far off.

According to the IMF, the value of these endowment funds is greater than the GDP of New Zealand, Finland, or Chile. In the last 5 years the U.S. has fallen in the UN’s Human Development Index, but its elite universities have risen in the world rankings and gotten richer. America’s richest colleges and universities, in effect, exist in a country of their own (though paid for in part with the public’s money).

This inequity reflects a restructuring of political power, towards an aristocracy. In historical perspective, we are seeing the collapse of the great post World War II democratization of post-secondary arts and sciences education alongside the appearance of a meritocracy alienated from the public and at odds with democracy. If anyone points out the role of elite education in the reproduction of inequality today, Americans tend to see it as flawed or compromised meritocracy rather than “true” meritocracy. But such responses are signs of a kind of Stockholm Syndrome. The “merit” of meritocracy has little to nothing to do with the abilities, or worth, or value of people as human beings and citizens.

Read entire article at BIG by Matt Stoller