I’m emphasizing both private and public largess because different factions and groups in our national life, not just conservatives and liberal critics of wokeness, would benefit from more academic entrepreneurship. For instance, in my experience, successful people from Silicon Valley, whatever their political beliefs, tend to have very definite views on what’s wrong with the legacy institutions of the East Coast and their hidebound ways. But that certainty often coexists with a digital-age bias against any kind of old-fashioned institution-building, an impulse to “disrupt” philanthropy rather than simply imitating the tycoons of the past.
Obviously there are lots of potentially admirable and productive ways for internet tycoons to disburse their billions. But universities are the great power centers of science and industry and culture in our time, they’re generally agreed to be in serious need of reinvention and reform, and it’s a little peculiar that you don’t see the new superrich trying to put their stamp on the meritocracy — that we don’t yet have the Gates University or the Bezos Collegium.
Not every rich donor has the Muskian or Bezosian capacity to start a university single-handedly. But even just the opportunity to help shape a new one seems worth more than the chance to become a rounding error to the multibillion-dollar endowments of the Ivy League. Amid all this week’s tweeting about the University of Austin, for instance, the journalist Julia Ioffe asked its partisans: “Would you send your kids there? If it was between, say, Harvard and University of Austin, what would you choose?” I have no idea what the parental answer ought to be, given that the start-up school is just an outline at the moment. But if I had money to give to a university and I had any sympathy for the Austin project whatsoever, I would definitely choose to put it there rather than into Harvard’s pockets.
A similar logic applies to public money we spend on higher education. I’ve argued before that conservatives should favor establishing national public universities, under bipartisan supervision and with a mandate to cultivate ideological diversity, rather than fighting endless battles at the state level over cutting funding or programs or blocking tenure appointments they dislike.
But the left, too, which has its own litany of complaints about the corporate university, should see advantages in establishing novel institutions. Forgiving yesterday’s student debt is well and good, but I suspect that if you took the billions of dollars of higher-ed money being pondered in the Build Back Better plan and set up a group of national public universities aimed at offering low-cost educations to low-income Americans, you would do more good than sluicing it through the system that saddled all those kids with debt in the first place.
And for that matter, if you’re the kind of progressive donor or foundation that’s given generously to the initiatives and ideas that the University of Austin’s would-be founders regard as threatening to academic freedom, wouldn’t you want to see your own vision of the university realized with full integrity somewhere, instead of being compromised by its association with historically tainted institutions? I probably would not send my children to Ibram X. Kendi College, but I would consider it a healthier expression of anti-racist ideology than a bunch of diversity programs layered throughout the corporate-university bureaucracy.
The absence of such true experiments tends to confirm one of my working theories of our era — namely, that you can tell that some of the talk about roiling crisis and radical transformation is overblown because of how tightly people cling to existing power centers, and how few are willing to strike out on their own.