The Future of an Illusion

Today the American universities not only form the best system of higher education in the world, but are morally impressive institutions. They are not incoherent, nor are they in crisis.

Well, I guess this ain’t Allan Bloom.

No, it’s UD‘s hero, Richard Rorty.

She likes Bloom, but she likes Rorty more.

Her other heroes? The two Christophers: Christopher Lasch and Christopher Hitchens.

Albert Camus. George Orwell. Philip Rieff. Tony Judt.

Can we derive some coherence from these dead white males? Can we say why the same human being would swoon reading both hyper-righties and hyper-lefties? (And weren’t Lasch and Hitchens sort of both?) Why the same human being would applaud when Rorty says universities aren’t in crisis, and when Bloom says they are?

Do we want simply to say, with Gwendolyn, that ‘In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.’? Because all of these men wrote well (Rieff wrote like a jerk, yes, but not all the time. Not in his earlier days.), and some of them (Orwell) wrote insanely well.

No. Surely we want to grant UD a tad more depth than this. It’s not merely about writing style. Yet writing style is part of it. These men are all impassioned moralists, impassioned social justice warriors, and their prose shows it. Their prose has the sort of kick you get when you actually care about what you’re saying, when you believe that language is politics and that politics is how you decrease human suffering. It’s very much like what George Saunders says in an appreciation of E.L. Doctorow:

What I found particularly inspiring about Doctorow was the way he would tweak form to produce moral-ethical effect — the way that he seemed not to see these two things as separate. Reading his great “Ragtime,” for example, I can feel that all of that technical verve is there necessarily — to serve and escalate meaning and emotion. But as important — the verve serves and escalates the fun, the riveting sense that a particular and wonderful human mind is having a great time riffing on the things of this world, trying to make sense of them. The work exudes fascination with the human, and a wry confidence in it, and inspires these feelings in us as we read. Doctorow, we might say, role-models a hopeful stance toward what can be a terrifying world.


In the same remarks of his I quote from at the beginning of this post, Rorty says:

If I were writing a history of the American university, I would tell an upbeat story about the gradual replacement of the churches by the universities as the conscience of the nation. One of the most important things that happened in the U.S. in the twentieth century was that the universities became the places where movements for the relief of human suffering found privileged sanctuaries and power bases. The universities came to play a social role that they had not played in the nineteenth century.

An impassioned atheist, Rorty reveres the American university as the place where arts- and sciences-inspired free and democratic discourse about the world and how to improve it, and about humanity and how to know and love it, thrives. The university is where we gather to read and talk about morally charged language, like Doctorow’s.


Remember what Bartlett Giamatti called the university: a free and ordered space. When Rorty calls the university “not incoherent,” he doesn’t mean it’s coherent, as in fully pulled together, fully ordered and organized around some shared principle or faith. (And as readers of this blog know, once a university decides to organize itself around Joe Paterno, forfuckinggetit.) He means it’s coherent enough – it’s ordered enough to be free enough to generate the sorts of conversations, readings, and experiences that tend to make people (students, professors, readers of the research professors and students generate) more lucid and more compassionate. And more free, rather in the way of, as Saunders puts it, having fun — being part of a classroom where people are experiencing “the riveting sense that a particular and wonderful human mind is having a great time riffing on the things of this world, trying to make sense of them.” That mind, in the university setting, is a collective one, made up of the free and at the same time ordered synergy between a professor and her students.


All of this is by way of background for a few comments on this intriguing opinion piece in today’s New York Times.

Kevin Carey is clearly on Bloom’s side. This is his opening paragraph:

To understand the failures of the modern American college system — from admissions marketing to graduation rates — you can begin with a notorious university football scandal.

So we’re going to talk about Chapel Hill as emblematic of what has made American universities a failure. Not just a failure – a nothing. An illusion. Carey’s title: The Fundamental Way that Universities are an Illusion. Later in the piece he will talk about them as Easter eggs – beautiful on the outside, dead on the inside.

The Nyang’oro fraud went on as long as it did because

U.N.C. had essentially no system for upholding the academic integrity of courses. “So long as a department was offering a course,” one distinguished professor told the investigators, “it was a legitimate course.” … The illusory university pretends that all professors are guided by a shared sense of educational excellence specific to their institution. In truth, as the former University of California president Clark Kerr observed long ago, professors are “a series of individual faculty entrepreneurs held together by a common grievance over parking.”… When college leaders talk about academic standards, they often mean admissions standards, not standards for what happens in classrooms themselves. Or they vaguely appeal to traditions and shared values without any hard evidence of their meaning… The problem for students is that it is all but impossible to know ahead of time which part of the disunified university is which. [And the problem for faculty is that this] kind of profound dissonance can knock askew the moral compasses of people who have ostensibly dedicated their professional lives to education. How else to explain the many people at Chapel Hill — including, incredibly, the director of a center on ethics — who abetted or ignored rampant fraud?

It’s the free and ordered thing again. Carey believes the freedom Rorty identifies in the American university has dissipated into disorder, so that anything goes in terms of pedagogical content, which makes the world safe for the endemic cheating we know goes on at virtually all big-time sports schools. At such schools – the cutting edge, Carey seems to argue, of the frayed American university – even faculty – even ethics faculty – are cheaters. And why? Because they recognize “no shared values,” no “shared sense of educational excellence,” that would give existential identity, much less academic integrity, to the place where they happen to work.

In response to this, I’d like to cite Rorty once again:

In one sense, [the term “morality”] is used to describe someone relatively decent, trustworthy, and honest – one who gives correct change, keeps promises, doesn’t lie much, can usually be relied upon to take an appropriate share in cooperative efforts, and so on. It seems to me if you’re not that sort of person by the time you’re eighteen, it’s probably too late. I don’t think that sociopaths who enter the university are corrigible by any measures that the academy might adopt. If the family, the community, the church, and the like, haven’t made you a relatively decent member of society, haven’t given you a conscience that stops you from cheating the customers, administering date rape drugs, or doing a lot of things we hope our eighteen year olds won’t do, the university won’t either. The academy can’t take on the job of straightening you out, of creating the conscience that the rest of the culture didn’t manage to produce during your first eighteen years.

This is the same point UD tirelessly makes about the absurdity of ethics courses in business schools – and those are older students. They’ve had four or five years past undergraduate school to acquire a sense of decency.

And how much more hopeless when you’re whatever age professors Jan Boxhill and Julius Nyang’oro were when they dedicated year after year of their lives to robbing students of an education and trashing their school’s integrity…

Carey wants us to believe that the openness of their work setting, the structural trust of faculty and students upon which the maturity and generativity of the American university rests, knocked askew the fragile moral compasses of Boxhill and Nyang’oro. But that trust did nothing to their morality because they lacked morality all by themselves; they were the sort of people who take advantage of the trust others place in them, and the openness of the American university simply made it easier for them to do the sorts of things they do because of the way they are. UD doesn’t think we should press the great free liberal arts schools of America in the direction of moral explicitness and constraint merely because some of the people there are bad actors.

Thomas Jefferson, Pat Robertson, and Donald Trump:

These three American presidential candidates all founded universities. Jefferson, who of course went on to become president, established the University of Virginia. Robertson, who ran but failed to become president, founded Regent University. Trump, currently running, founded Trump University.


Go to the University of Arizona Tucson.

Real testimony on the experience of attending South Carolina State University.

When I was a student/athlete at then-SCSC, I witnessed increased donations in the athletic department but we as students got nothing. We went from flying to events and games to riding a bus for 15 to 20 hours while coaches received increased salaries, bought new houses and cars, and continued to travel by air. Large donations presented at halftime during footballs games were not spent on the science department as indicated at the time of presentation.

I must say I love SCSU, but the mismanagement of funds has negatively affected enrollment and has caused a decrease in donations from alumni. SCSU, a historically black college, has in years past been a very respected institution, but the actions of deceitful people in power have caused many who would have chosen SCSU to go elsewhere.

This is what legislators deciding the school’s fate really need: Direct testimony from honest people who’ve been there. Of all the things said in the last couple of weeks about SCSU, UD finds this the most persuasive and the most moving.

A university is a delicate thing; a university means an enormous amount on many levels to many of its graduates. When a regime of greed and deceit sets in on campus (I’m looking at you, Yeshiva University), these graduates, wounded and angry, pull back. Word gets around. Contributions and applications tank.

Schools like these need completely new presidents and boards of trustees. And that’s only a first step.

The President on Schools like South Carolina State University.

According to [Congressional Black Caucus] members, [President Obama recently told them] that struggling HBCUs with low graduation rates are failing black students, and he reportedly said that the lowest-performing institutions “should fall by the wayside.”

Under an existential threat to the school, South Carolina State University is able to gather fewer than thirty people to a rally.

The turnout strengthens the arguments of those in the legislature who point out that there’s no there there.

UD recommends that SCSU stop holding rallies.

UD’s mouth fell open in disbelief YEARS ago about South Carolina State University.

You can follow her many posts about this staggeringly pointless institution by typing South Carolina State University in her search engine. She has often wondered aloud, on this blog, why the chump taxpayers of that state don’t en masse refuse to pay up until SCSU, with its virtually non-existent student body and its corrupt leadership, is shut down.

Now a state subcommittee has indeed voted to close the money pit, though higher level votes are needed to really make this happen. As proposed, the closure would be temporary; but the measure would almost certainly hasten the natural evolution of the campus toward extinction. You cannot function without students and without money. Taxing citizens year after year in order to transfer revenue to an empty outstretched hand is insane.

And speaking of transfer: Under the plan, SCSU students with respectable GPAs would be free to transfer to other state campuses. They may thus have an actual shot at an education.

He’s B-a-a-a-a-ck!

Or he will be soon. UD has been waiting with bated breath for Arthur Porter – former head of the McGill University hospitals – to be extradited back to Canada (he’s been in a Panamanian prison for a year or so) to face corruption charges. His wife has already pled guilty to money laundering; he faces charges of having drummed up the money (22.5 million!!) via bribes from the company he chose to build a new hospital for the university.

Porter’s a real character; he has much to teach us about the varieties of responses available to people accused of massive corruption.

He has, for instance, claimed to be on the very brink of death from cancer for about three years. And he’s a doctor! He should know!

UD knows there’s more where that came from.

Background on Porter? Type arthur porter in my search engine.

UD thanks Dennis, a reader, for linking her to the latest revelations in the UVa rape case.

The Washington Post’s interviews with the three friends of “Jackie” who rallied around her in the immediate aftermath of events make clear that all three are skeptical of her claims.

Even more ominously:

[P]hotographs that were texted to one of the friends showing her date that night were actually pictures depicting one of Jackie’s high school classmates in Northern Virginia. That man, now a junior at a university in another state, confirmed that the photographs were of him and said he barely knew Jackie and hasn’t been to Charlottesville for at least six years.

UVa/Rolling Stone: An Update, an Interesting Idea, and a Bit of Self-Analysis.

Says here that Rolling Stone will entirely re-report the now-notorious “Jackie” piece (UD assumes this means a group of RS editors will re-report the piece?), a project that will involve “head[ing] to UVa both to sort through the errors of the story and to tell readers what actually happened.”

Indeed, as Joseph Heller put it, Something Happened. It’s even possible that we’ll find out much more precisely what.


Some people believe “Rolling Stone was credulous about such an intense story because from factcheckers to editors to writers they are predisposed to believe the worst about fraternity brothers at an elite university.”

I suppose this goes to a culture clash idea: The argument would be that you’ve got brainy lefty hipsters who write stuff like this about Goldman Sachs, versus a fratful of future Mr Goldman Sachs… Sachses…

Maybe. UD thinks it may have more to do with the Huguely factor — UVa was attractive and … plausible… to the writer of the piece and to the factcheckers and editors and writers because as recently as last March Huguely’s murder of his girlfriend was still in the news.


And why, UD has been asking herself, was she so “credulous about such an intense story”?

First of all, as I said above, something traumatically assaultive did happen. At this point, this seems to me beyond doubt, though of course we could turn out to be living in the sort of Kafkan world in which the whole damn thing is a lie… I’ll just say again that this seems to me wildly unlikely. So I was credulous because there was credible material in the story.

Second, though, and pertinent only to me: I was perhaps borne along by the prose. It didn’t occur to me, as I praised the article’s writing, that the writing was maybe too good, too perfectly lurid. I was captured, as they say, by the style, and as a result I take on the coloration of Gwendolyn: “In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.”

The Washington Post Now Reports Serious Problems with the UVa Rape Story as Recounted in Rolling Stone.

Apparently the woman at the center of the case has told conflicting versions of the story.

The fraternity, too, will soon begin defending itself against her claims.


A note from Rolling Stone. UD thanks Chris, a reader, for the link.


I should have been more skeptical.

The Faceless Institution

The overwhelming majority of fraternity men are not rapists nor would they ever consider committing or condoning sexual violence, but as President Sullivan said on Monday, “There is great concern that a sexual predator can hide out in a fraternity, and therefore that fraternal social activities pose literal dangers to their guests.” This has nothing to do with whether fraternities contain a vast majority of good people (I have no doubt they do). It has everything to do with the fact that fraternities have houses with unwatched upstairs and padlocked doors, the ability to widely distribute unidentifiable mixed drinks to unknowing first-year girls and national organizations with comprehensive systems for deflecting liability. A rapist on a college campus is three times more likely to participate in a fraternity than not and sorority women are 74 percent more likely to be sexually assaulted than nonaffiliated women. Again, whether most people in fraternities are well-meaning individuals is beside the point; the faceless institutions in which these good people exist are flawed.

Closing Law Schools, Fraternities, Football Programs…

… It’s drinking-up time at the American university, and although we know all conditioned things are impermanent, a lot of people seem really, really pissed about it.

Yes, yes, only one football program has actually shut down.

As for fraternities [aka eat or be eaten clubs, dahling]: Like vampires, they cannot truly be killed. Fraternities can be suspended while crews hose down the vomit, but they almost always come back to haze again, until once again they are suspended, etc.

Even when a school or a national organization officially shutters them, fraternities live on as rogue operations just off campus.

Fraternities will never authentically be threatened with extinction. They are too important to the nation. The behaviors and attitudes you learn at a fraternity are structural to the leadership of America’s elite financial organizations. Fraternities are not about college; they are about Goldman Sachs.

And on law schools… How has it come to this? Can we actually be about to witness the shuttering of some of them?


It’s all about the tragic confluence of the we’ll accredit your Aunt Tillie’s ass ABA, the ne touche pas my salary and course load law professioriate, and a collapsed job market.

In response to the collapsed job market, the ABA continues to accredit new schools.

I know you think that this cannot possibly be true, but it is. Every ten seconds the ABA accredits a new American law school.

Well, not every ten seconds. But frequently.

“As an ex-Greek member, I can honestly say that even I was shocked at what happened that fateful night.”


What is this former member of a sorority at San Dildo State University trying to tell us?

An Open and Shut…


For reflections on whether this will mean downward pressure on law faculty salaries (UD can’t see how it could be otherwise), go here and read all of the posts on the page.

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