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O tempora, o mores: the political economy of American higher education


The following sentence provides a neat summary of the political economy of higher education in the United States today:

A private, Franciscan college headed by an economist is bragging that it’s just received a $4.375 million dollar subsidy from a Republican gubernatorial administration.

The college in question is my own institution, Felician. The governor in question is New Jersey’s Chris Christie, widely thought to be a contender for the Republican nomination for the presidency in 2016. For those of you shocked by this, or who find it somehow unintelligible, I recommend thinking about the quoted sentence via the following twelve-step procedure.

(1) Look at the key words in the quoted sentence and line up all possible pairings of them: private, Franciscan, economist, bragging, subsidy, Republican. I leave this as an exercise.

(2) With all those pairs in hand, gather together the ones that without much trouble lead to obvious contradictions. There are exactly two of them: (private, subsidy) and (Franciscan, bragging).

(3) Now gather pairs that involve tensions, but no obvious or outright contradictions. Here are four of them: (Franciscan, economist), (Franciscan, subsidy), (Franciscan, Republican), (subsidy, Republican).

(4) Finally, gather pairs that either seem perfectly reasonable or could potentially cohere, at least on some obvious interpretation of them. Depending on how you count, there are at least four of them: (private, economist), (economist, Republican), (economist, subsidy), (economist, bragging).

(5) Notice that if you divide the pairs in step (3) equally and add two of them to those in step (2), you get four reasons for cognitive dissonance. But if you add the remaining two pairs in step (3) to those in step (4), you get (at least) six reasons for affective comfort.

(6) Recall that 6>4.

(7) Recall that $4.375 million dollars are on the line.

(8) Recall that enrollments are dropping, and times are tough.

The return of the Gilded Age in Rutherford, NJ (care of a subsidy or two).

The return of the Gilded Age in Rutherford, NJ (care of a subsidy or two).

(9) Recall that private colleges are competing against state schools that are getting much larger subsidies.

(10) Recall that everyone does it.

(11) Recall that even the biggest free market fetishist among us must drive on publicly subsidized roads.

(12) Recall that times are tough.

From step (12), as Aristotle says in a different context, the action follows straightaway. In other words, once you get to step (12), you take the money and brag about it. How else is higher education going to remain hire education?

I’m sure this analysis will depress some readers. But the fact is, we live in a pragmatic regime whose basic normative commitment is expressed in the following principle:

The advantages that can be expected to accrue from commitments that involve no obvious contradictions override the disadvantages that can be expected to accrue from commitments that involve actual ones.

In other words, if your commitments involve a complex mixture of contraries and compatibilities, as long as you focus on the compatibilities, it’s all good.

I forgot to mention before that we’re a Franciscan College which just renovated the Castle on its campus with a different government grant, but the attempt to discuss a private, Franciscan college (headed by an economist) that brags about receiving a subsidy from public sources to overhaul a Gilded Age castle privately built by an early twentieth century capitalist but that is now on the National Registry of Historic Places might have overcomplicated our analysis.

People sometimes ask, “Is nothing sacred?” I’m sure some things still are. The real question is, “Is nothing private?”

Would it upset you greatly to learn that my research on this topic is funded by a grant by the Division of Social and Economic Sciences of the National Science Foundation?*

(*I’m joking. It isn’t. But perhaps I should apply, before that barbaric Republican war on social science really kicks in?)



1 Comment

  1. “Recall that 6>4”

    I literally LOL’d.

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