It’s Time to Break Up the Ivy League CartelRoundup
tags: higher education, Ivy League, colleges and universities
Sam Haselby is a historian and an editor at Aeon. He is the author of The Origins of American Religious Nationalism (Oxford, 2015).
Matt Stoller is the director of research at the American Economic Liberties Project and the author of Goliath: The 100-Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy (Simon & Schuster, 2020).
Power in the U.S. flows through the gates of the Ivy League and a very small tier of other top universities. These institutions set and sanction the boundaries of knowledge, including what kinds of political and social views are welcomed in prestige cultural spaces. This has long been the case. In 1805, for example, Unitarianism won a real degree of respectability when Harvard, then a Calvinist institution, appointed the Unitarian Henry Ware to the Hollis chair, long the most prestigious endowed chair in the country. Last year, in a 21st-century version of the Ware affair, conservatives won when Harvard’s president and provost overruled the faculty and turned away the economist Gabriel Zucman, whose renown rests in large part on his empirical work substantiating the democratic benefits of a wealth tax. Lawrence H. Summers, who once said that “inequality has … gone up in our society” because “people are being treated closer to the way they’re supposed to be treated,” supported the hire but nevertheless explained, shortly thereafter, that raising taxes on the rich is a bad idea.
One of the great puzzles of American society is the position of the Ivy League. It is a bastion of privilege and power, and yet full of left-leaning professors who one might imagine would favor the redistribution of wealth. According to the Harvard Crimson, 77.6 percent of Harvard professors define themselves as left-leaning, and just 2.9 percent as conservative. What explains this dynamic? Harry R. Lewis, a former dean of Harvard College, said that such anti-conservatism 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.”
A wildly different explanation is apparent from watching Netflix’s Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal, about a highly publicized fiasco in which wealthy parents used bribery to get their kids into top colleges. What is most interesting about this episode wasn’t the corruption, but a poignant feature of normal 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 their kids from facing questions of deservedness. Of course, most involved in our supposed meritocracy don’t use bribery, but 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 the same gulf between haves and have-nots has opened in U.S. colleges and universities. Since the pandemic began, 570,000 jobs have disappeared in American academic institutions. More than 75 percent of college faculty in the U.S. are contingent workers or not on the tenure track. Meanwhile, as of 2020, the aggregate value of the endowments of the richest 20 U.S. colleges rose to over $311 billion, all of which are subsidized by taxpayers through the tax-free treatment we offer nonprofit educational institutions. The joke that Harvard is a hedge fund with an educational arm is not so far off.
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