College of Theseus

Most of us know to be skeptical about the public statements of a person paid to defend a particular organization or corporation. For the same reason, we tend to look askance on a pundit or expert who will derive some particular financial benefit if people heed his or her advice–a biochemist who is supposed to test a drug who owns shares in the company that will produce it, for example. There are often legal and ethical restrictions that apply in such cases.

You can’t so easily constrain a conventionalized narrative that mainstream reportage and experts collaboratively disseminate that just so happens to advance a strongly vested financial interest that is diffused across a particular business sector or range of organizations. Even if that story leaves out vitally important details, or is simply wrong in some crucial respect.

For example, almost every mainstream story I’ve read or heard about the financial struggles of Sears, Toys R Us, and other brick-and-mortar retailers leaves out the role of private equity, debt and cult-like management strategies employed by neophyte CEOs (often installed by private equity firms). The shorthand instead is always: couldn’t compete with Amazon. Which is a story that benefits Amazon and its shareholders: it is how Amazon survived years and years of continuous losses, because reporters and experts kept describing it as the inevitable future, kept using it as the singular causal explanation for every other event in retail.

Another example: autonomous cars. A ton of big players have a huge bet down on the table on autonomous cars, and virtually everyone writing about the issue is compliantly doing their best to make that bet pay off by describing autonomous cars as inevitable no matter what technical, political and economic challenges might remain in their implementation. Just saying something is inevitable doesn’t overcome fundamental material limitations: flying cars, jetpacks and moonbases were also once represented as inevitable in a near-term future, but all three turned out to be basically impossible within present circumstances. But in a sense the actual money knew that: no one but fringe visionaries put serious investment into those projects. With autonomous cars, there’s real money involved, and so every time an expert or a reporter casually and thoughtlessly treats them as a certainty, they are creating the certainty that they only claim to predict. If it turns out that you can’t simply unleash tens of thousands of perfectly working autonomous vehicles onto the current road network, it will be made to happen by changing the infrastructure. The autonomous car makers will buy out HOV lanes and put guides on them and get manually driven cars banned from them, in the name of safety or experimentation or innovation. Then they’ll argue that any accidents on non-guided roadways are actually human error, not autonomous car error, and push for eliminating manual drivers from all high-speed highways. Inch by inch it will happen–and “prediction” will have played its role.

The example that’s really got my goat this week, however, is the way that much of the press and a particular group of experts report on the closure or threatened closure of colleges and universities. Let’s take three examples that have been reported recently: Newbury College, Green Mountain College, and Hampshire College.

The reporting and prognostication tends to lump these closures together as a single phenomenon, stemming from a singular cause, interpreted within a conventionalized story. That’s usually something like, “College is too expensive, families are no longer certain of the value of traditional higher education, and this is just going to accelerate as we hit the edge of a demographic drop-off”. All of this is true enough in terms of pressures on the entire sector: college is expensive, its consumers are feeling doubtful about its value, and there’s a demographic drop-off coming. But it’s also a story that has a client behind it: various “disruptors” who have a huge bet down on the table that various kinds of for-profit online education will and must replace expensive, inefficient, “traditional” brick-and-mortar education. Those folks are getting impatient–or are starting to worry they’re going to lose their money. They’ve been moving fast but so far not that much has been broken. They’ve been angling to do the usual smash-and-grab theft of public goods but so far all they’ve been able to do is sneak a few bits of bric a brac into their pockets. So the story that all colleges are near to failing, about a kind of institutional singularity, is especially important for them to tell–and to urge others to tell for them.

The problem with that story is two-fold. First, even if we’re talking about “all of American higher education”, this is not the first time that the entire sector has been faced with severe economic and sociopolitical pressures and not the first time that these pressures have produced new institutional forms and marketing hooks–and waves of consolidation and failure. It’s not even the first time that people enamored of a new mass medium have specifically sought to use it to replace colleges and universities–it happened with television, it happened with radio, it happened with the postal service. And yet for the most part, the variety and richness of physical institutions of higher learning has remained intact in the United States through all those failures and consolidations and transformations. The current storyline forgets all of that. There is an unbroken clumpy mass of “traditional higher education” and then there is the disrupted, innovated future. Only occasionally does an expert or prognosticator go a bit deeper into the history before breaking out the shill for the brave new innovated future–Kevin Carey, for example, does an actually fair and responsible job of recounting how contemporary research universities in the US took on the shape they now have and understands that this doesn’t extend all that far back.

But it’s at the individual level of institutional closures that the conventionalized narrative is just plain misleading or even false. Because many of the places that have announced closures or crises recently have never been stable or successful institutions in the first place, or have always been outliers in certain respects.

Let’s take Newbury to start.

The United States is known, correctly, for a unique variety and quantity of institutions of higher education. This was primarily generated in the 19th Century between 1830 and 1890. Every institution created subsequently in the 20th Century was to some extent building on this unique earlier history, trying to fit into the infrastructure created in that era, but there were at least two significant waves of later institutional creation, one in the 1920s that capitalized on the new centrality of higher education to the training of professionals and specialists, one in the 1960s that was a response both to a massive new investment in public education and to the demographic bulge known as the “Baby Boomer generation”.

A lot of those 1960s institutions have lived on the edge of failure for their entire existence. They were responding to a temporary surge in demand. They did not have the benefit of a century or more of alumni who would contribute donations, or an endowment built up over decades. They did not have names to conjure with. They were often founded (like many non-profits) by single strong personalities with a narrow vision or obsession that only held while the strong personality was holding on to the steering wheel. Newbury is a great example of this. It wasn’t founded until 1962, as a college of business, by a local Boston entrepreneur. It relocated multiple times, once into a vacated property identified formerly with a different university. It changed its name and focus multiple times. It acquired other educational institutions and merged them with its main operations, again creating some brand confusion. It started branch campuses. It’s only been something like a standardized liberal-arts institution since 1994. In 2015 it chased yet another trend via expensive construction projects, trying to promise students a new commitment to their economic success.

This is not a college going under suddenly and unexpectedly after a century of stately and “traditional” operations. This is not Coca-Cola suddenly going under because now everyone wants kombucha made by a Juicero. This is Cactus Cooler or Mr. Pibb being discontinued.

Let’s take Hampshire College. It’s a cool place. I’ve always admired it; I considered attending it when I was graduating high school. But it’s also not a venerable traditional liberal arts college. It’s an experiment that was started as a response to an exceptionally 60s-era deliberative process shared between Amherst, Smith, Mount Holyoke and UMass Amherst. It’s always had to work hard to find students who responded to its very distinctive curricular design and identity, especially once the era that led to its founding began to lose some of its moral and political influence. You can think about Hampshire’s struggle to survive in relationship to that very particular history. You should think about it that way in preference to just making it a single data point on a generalized grid.

Let’s take Green Mountain College. “The latest to close”, as Inside Higher Education says–again fitting into a trend as a single data point. At least this time it is actually old, right? Founded in 1834, part of that huge first wave of educational genesis. But hang on. It wasn’t Green Mountain College at the start. It was Troy Conference Academy. Originally coed, then it changed its name to Ripley Female Academy and went single-sex. Then it was back to Troy Conference. Then during the Great Depression it was Green Mountain Junior College, a 2-year preparatory school. Only in 1974 did it become Green Mountain College, with a 4-year liberal arts degree, and only in the 1990s did it decide to emphasize environmental studies.

Is that the same institution, with a single continuous history? Or is it a kind of constellation of semi-related institutions, all of which basically ‘closed’ and were replaced by something completely different?

If you set out to create a list of all the colleges and universities by name which have ever existed in the United States, all the alternate names and curricular structures and admissions approaches of institutions which sometimes have existed on the same site but often have moved, you couldn’t help but see that closures are an utterly normal part of the story of American higher education. Moreover, that they are often just a phase–a place closes, another institution moves in or buys the name or uses the facilities. Sure, sometimes a college or university or prep school or boarding school gets abandoned for good, becomes a ruin, is forgotten. That happens too. We are not in the middle of a singular rupture, a thing which has never happened before, an unbroken tradition at last subject to disruption and innovation.

This doesn’t mean that we should be happy when a college or university closes. That’s the livelihood of the people who work there, it’s the life of the students who are still there, it’s a broken tie for its alumni (however short or long its life has been), the loss of all the interesting things that were done there in its time. But when you look at the story of any particular closure, they all have some important particulars. The story being told that flatters the disruptors and innovators would have us thinking that there are these venerable, traditional, basically successful institutions going about their business and then suddenly, ZANG, the future lands on them and they can’t survive. At least some of the institutions closing have been hustling or struggling or rebranding for their entire existence.

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One Response to College of Theseus

  1. Matt G says:

    Great to see another thoughtful post here. This echoes Jill Lepore’s fantastic takedown of disruption in the New Yorker a few years back. Might not be so bad if some of the business schools (they seem to be everywhere these days) pushing disruption went under.

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