I can certainly think of some more direct questions than that:
“What are these things we call ‘universities’?”
“Where did they come from? Why do we have so many of them? How have they become so influential? What has their net effect on the society around them been? If you didn’t have them, would they have to be invented? Or would you invent something else instead? Maybe something, like, totally different? If the latter, assuming that we just leave them alone and let them do their thing, how long will it take to turn into something different? And will it be the different thing you want? Or is it more likely to be some other, like, different thing?”
In other words, it strikes me that we are dealing with a question of pathology here. How bad can the problem be? Who the heck knows. I’m sure most people’s opinion differs from mine.
But at least as far as diagnosis goes, shouldn’t every option be on the table? Shouldn’t one at least consider the possibility that what we call a “university” is indeed a fundamentally malignant form of social organization, and the efforts of all right-thinking intellectuals should be devoted not to reforming the institution, but figuring out how to terminate it – or at the very least reboot it?
Bear in mind, we know how the present authorities that actually, at present, control the universities got to be where they are. They arrived on a wave of ethnic gang violence, unleashing the tactics Tom Wolfe described so well in Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers against any outpost of the responsible postwar Establishment which dared to for a moment resist them. Surely this implies that any effort to “reform” the universities would require some tactic even more vicious and unscrupulous than ethnic gang violence. Even if this could be imagined and made to work, I’m sure the results would be even worse.
Thus I don’t think the universities are reformable. And if they are problematic but not reformable, they are malignant.
Therefore, there is only one policy to take with the universities: sell the land and buildings, add the proceeds to the endowment, convert the whole thing to a mutual fund, and distribute its shares equally among the alumni. The whole process could go through in a month or two. All the affected people are smart, and surely they would have no trouble finding work.
It seems Summers is talking around a point with a very large circumference. He sounds as non-sensical as Greenspan did when he was simply making hedging gibberish while purposely inflating several bubbles.
Summers does not want to be at the center of another media storm like he faced when he simply got to the point.
I looked inside that thing and saw Pinker there, and watched for a little while about his Big Idea and it was about bringing the thought of the Enlightment to the less enlightened corners of the world. Per Summers little spiel about epistomology, one might ask Pinker if he should start a little closer to home.
Along with Mencius, I think universities have gotten to the point where I don’t think they’re reformable at all. One of of the obvious markers of how rich a society are is that we let them continue to exist. One of the remarkable things about universities is that with a few exceptions, namely k-12 education, a bit about the law, and empirically grounded scientific consensuses, what people in universities think has little to no impact on anything done or thought in the US. This is a good thing obviously, though it would be better if one could get them out of k-12 education and the law and keep the science part. Hopefully we’ll close them down for the cash like Henry VIII did when he closed the monasteries, their institutional ancestors, if people keep giving them money.
English universities, which have been around a long time, have gone through periods when they were very poor and others when they got good again. Our best universities may get good again, but only after the present generation of academics passes from the scene. Sort of the way quantum mechanics replaced classical mechanics: not by persuading the classicalist, but just waiting until they died.