University campuses in the Far East - money, power or democracy?

Yale should have proud independence from the lures of power and money in its bones. That does not mean shunning either, but treating both as servants of a better ideal. But the recent announcement of a campus in Singapore suggests that it has forgotten that stance. More generally, this sort of forgetting is a danger to the fabric of democracy

Jim Sleeper
Jim Sleeper
18 March 2012

Some societies in Asia may be receptive to a seed of liberal education being sown by universities such as Yale. Some Asian societies might nourish liberal education's understandings of ordered liberty and democratic deliberation better than we're doing in the United States. 

But that's precisely the problem being dodged by those who are planting campuses abroad: Americans who teach liberal education here in the U.S. need to find better ways to keep it independent of well-funded conservative efforts on many campuses to conscript the classic texts into the service of "national security" agendas, and they have to keep it independent also of the global capitalization of everything, which threatens to asphyxiate the liberal education that university leaders claim to want to promote abroad. 

That's my argument in the following essay, which went up on HuffingtonPost March 16 and has been racing around on campuses and through Asian Studies groups. The Yale controversy may well become a "news" story in the next couple of weeks, but if we want to understand the current events, we have to understand the undercurrent events that I suggest here are driving them.

You could have heard a pin drop among the 150 professors -- three times more than usual -- in attendance at a closed-door, March 1 meeting of the Yale College Faculty as one of them told president Richard Levin something he didn't want to hear. The message was that his administration shouldn't have collaborated with an authoritarian, corporate city-state to establish a new college -- "Yale-National University of Singapore" -- without most of the Yale faculty's knowing of it until the basic commitments had already been signed and sealed. 

"You are this university's highest executive officer, and we're grateful for what you and the Yale Corporation do," the professor said. "But in political philosophy there's a living, unwritten constitution: Yale is really what we do --our research, teaching, and conferences. Without that, there is no Yale to take abroad or anywhere else. The faculty are the collegium" - a company of scholars that, to do its work well, has to stand somewhat apart from both markets and states. 

Liberal education probably couldn't survive without markets and states, but Levin was being reminded, in effect, that in a liberal capitalist republic like ours, markets and states can't survive without liberal education because they have to rely on citizens' upholding certain public virtues and beliefs that -- as you may have noticed lately -- neither markets nor the state can do much to nourish or defend. A liberal state, after all, isn't supposed to judge between one way of life and another, which makes it hard to distinguish bold entrepreneurs from sleazy free-riders. And markets certainly can't draw that distinction, because their genius lies precisely in approaching consumers and investors only as narrowly self-interested actors.

That leaves only good journalists and good colleges to nourish our public prospects. Which is why, even though the Yale Corporation -- a small, self-perpetuating governing body, with only a few members elected by alumni -- can do whatever it wants, the professor was right about the "living" part of a university's constitution.

In 2006, for example, Harvard's governing corporation, which is like Yale's, understood that its faculty's loss of confidence in President Lawrence Summers made his administration untenable. Now Yale's faculty is challenging not Levin's presidency but one of his emblematic projects. A resolution demanding that Singapore respect, protect, and further political freedom, on-campus and off, will debated at the faculty's April 5 meeting.

This measure's proponents will surely be portrayed as leftist malcontents by conservative commentators who said the same thing about Harvard's critics of Summers. But neither controversy fits the panicky caricatures of politically correct professors or deans who'd rather denounce capitalism and chase post-modernist moonbeams than prepare their students to serve markets and the state. Nor is the Yale dispute really only about the rush by American universities to emulate multi-national business corporations by expanding abroad. 

The greatest danger in such ventures -- and in Harvard's recent embarrassing entanglements with some of its faculty members' dubious dealings in Russia or Libya -- is that no university can remain what the political philosopher Allan Bloom called "a publicly respectable place... for scholars and students to be unhindered in their use of reason" if those scholars are treated (and behave) as employees of a corporation -- or, in public universities, as political appointees. More properly, they're a "company" in the old-fashioned sense of a body whose principals determine and care its mission. 

The university as a business corporation helps them do that by keeping the lights on, as it were, and by defending their freedom where possible against market and political constraints. It shouldn't get involved in trying to export its university's "brand name" and expand its market share abroad, or in transforming the home college into a career-networking center and cultural galleria for a "diverse" global elite that answers to no polity or moral code.

Unfortunately, some members of Yale's corporation are doing even more than that. And, unfortunately, enough Yale faculty have come to depend on or aspire to administrative funding or preferments - or have become self-marketing free agents in their own right -- that even some who oppose the Singapore deal express their view only with arched eyebrows and significant silences. 

But the packed faculty meeting this month reflected rising concern that Levin, a very nice man and an economist of the neoliberal, "world is flat" sort, has joined with corporation members to commit Yale's name and some hand-picked members of its faculty to a venture that sidelines the collegium from any real deliberation about its educational mission. 

Too much more of this, and the company of scholars becomes a corporate team. 

It's not only faculty self-governance that's fading under market imperatives and seductions. So is liberal education, which, in American colleges, has often succeeded in inducting future citizen-leaders of the republic into what the conservative political philosopher Michael Oakeshott called the humanities' "great conversation" across the ages about eternal challenges to politics and the spirit. Markets and states skirt such challenges, but free people since Socrates have risked a lot to meet them, and they've always been a republic's greatest strength, not only in high places but in local communities. 

The old colleges struggled to temper students' training for Wealth-making and Power-wielding with humanist Truth-seeking. Yes, that made those students who took that effort seriously somewhat adversarial to conventional wisdom; Allan Bloom considered that the colleges' glory. Yet today's globalization of capital and culture, which Yale's Singapore venture reflects, makes it hard for would-be defenders of the old colleges to reconcile their yearning for an American republican liberty with their knee-jerk, algorithmic obeisance to whims and riptides of casino-financing that's dissolving American sovereignty.

Conservatives are trying to straddle this yawning contradiction between their patriotism and their "free market" ideology by "grand-strategy" agendas, in lavishly funded college programs that they think will rescue liberal education from the few feckless liberals and Marxists whom the noise machine blames for subverting what conservatives themselves are destroying. 

Yale recently established a $50 million Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, along with the $17.5 million-endowed Brady-Johnson "Studies in Grand Strategy" program and, the Johnson Center for the Study of American Diplomacy. These have soft spots for "professor-practitioners" such as Stanley McChrystal (hired fresh off his firing by Obama), John Negroponte (the former Bush National Intelligence Director), and Tony Blair - "generals" who can overawe undergraduates by fighting the last wars. To teach Thucydides' account of the Pelopponesian War as if it were a guide for Davos men, American grand strategists, and military commanders is to debase them all.

Even President Levin, who gave George W. Bush an honorary doctorate just before 9/11, later served on Bush's commission to evaluate 9/11 intelligence failures, bringing along several Yale students to produce a report that theNew York Times called "a profile in timidity." Whether or not the Times was right, Yale emerges from such ventures accommodations looking less like a bulldog than like a kitten that purrs when stroked and that darts under a sofa when threatened. 

In fairness, Levin and other neo-liberals, buffeted by conservative ranters, donors with agendas, and daunting market undertows, would really rather bring liberal education to Asia than be parties to its conscription and debasement at home. But in fact Yale is doing both, and for reasons that remain unclear. 

The university's insistence that it's spending nothing on the Singapore venture only reinforces the perception that who pays the piper calls the tune, and there's no consolation in the fact that three present or recent members of the Yale Corporation - among them the venture capitalist G. Leonard Baker, Jr., who recently led a 5-year "Yale Tomorrow" capital campaign that raised $3.881 billion, thereby placing the university's administration in his debt - are now or have also been directors, advisors, and investment officers of the Singapore Investment Corporation Pte Ltd. (GIC), which is chaired by the country's prime minister and manages at least $100 billion of assets. 

(The other two Yale Corporation members who've been involved in this iare Charles Ellis, who is married to Linda Lorimar, the Secretary of Yale University, and Charles Waterhouse Goodyear, the former CEO of another Singaporian government investment company, Temasek, in 2009.)

Whether or not Yale-NUS is some business deal, it's an instance of the business corporatization of universities."Is Yale U. Starting to Run More Like Yale, Inc.?" asked a 2009 story in the student-run, independent Yale Daily News, noting that university vice presidents who've been imported from business corporations were referring to students as "customers." 

Some students and their lawyered-up parents readily accept that designation and demand the services they think they've paid for. That accelerates a superficially pleasing drift from civic-republican rigor to posh campus amenities, but it also leaves the colleges handling students' real intellectual and intimate crises with the soulless, self-protective legalism of corporations worried only about liability and market share. 

Fortunately, some conscientious (and some brilliantly irreverent ) student reporters and editorial writers have kept the deeper questions alive on campus even when most faculty seemed too apathetic or intimidated to raise them. It was a Yale Daily News editorial last year, "Keep Yale Out of Singapore," that awakened some faculty.

The sea changes in capital and in state efficacy contributed to the recent loss of compass and ebbing of faith in liberal education. But there are other causes, too. In his forthcoming (and already much ballyhooed) College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, Columbia English professor Andrew Delbanco echoes Yale's former law school dean Anthony Kronman, whose Education's End blames the loss of faith less on markets or conservative grand strategists than on universities' much-older commitment to scientific (or, one might say, "scientistic") research. 

The criticism here is not of science per se but of some liberal educators' pretensions to be scientific in their explorations of the eternal challenges to politics and the spirit mentioned earlier. "When political science is severed from its ancient rootage in the humanities and 'enriched' by the wisdom of sociologists, psychologists, and anthropologists," warned Reinhold Niebuhr more than half a century ago, "the result is frequently a preoccupation with minutiae which obscures the grand and tragic outlines of contemporary history and offers vapid solutions to profound problems." 

Neibuhr's solutions were Christian, and while Delbanco invokes America's Puritan wellsprings, he offers only a secular-humanist reliance on the humanities to shape citizens for a republic or an embryonic global public sphere. Kronman - who worked on the early stages of Yale's Singapore plan and also helped New York University develop its campus in Abu Dhabi - also takes justified swipes at "politically correct" dismissals of the works of dead white men.

So does Delbanco, a survivor of culture wars in Columbia's English Department, but, as Margaret Soltan shows hilariously in her "University Diaries" blog at Inside Higher Education, Delbanco is more than a little too cautious. 

The challenge Delbanco and Kronman don't quite face is that, like Christianity and free markets, liberal education has many more noisy claimants and celebrants than it has true friends, The false friends are funding the lavish campus institutes and centers I mentioned, and even student organizations and faux-populist movements, to save liberal education from the liberals by mining the classic texts for guidance in navigating riptides of global capital and of resistance to it abroad and at home: "You need a 360-degree perspective," Yale's Diplomat-in-Residence and Reagan State Department veteran Charles Hill told a student interviewer in 2003. "Your approach can't be just military and diplomatic, it also has to involve such things as economics, personnel, rhetoric, and morale. And you can't just look outward, because somewhere in some basement or in the Holland Tunnel, something is going wrong. You can't neglect anything." 

Liberal education requires a lot more adult grace and restraint than that, as well a much deeper sort of conviction and inter-generational commitment. Hill's is not the way to show 18-years-olds, fresh off thousands of hours on the internet and in shopping malls, that freedom isn't about consumer choice and self-marketing; it relies on the mastery of those public virtues -- the arts and disciplines of democratic deliberation -- that are grounded in mutual respect and rational dialogue. 

A liberal education disposes a student to keep words and deeds from parting company, as Hannah Arendt put it, until, the words become empty and the deeds become brutal, as indeed they're becoming in our investment banks and election campaigns.

No wonder that harried administrators such as Levin and other university presidents, struggling to balance what former Harvard College dean Harry Lewis calls "the retail-store university" in his Education Without a Soul, find themselves shorn of the authority and wisdom to distinguish one student's quiet civic passion from another's busy public emptiness, let alone address them. 

No wonder some administrators are indulging or even conducting what leftists think is a coup d'etat against faculty self-governance. It's not quite that, but it's a consequence of the desperate effort to ride market and political currents and to open conservative alumnae hearts and wallets to provide more loyal crews and tighter rigging for their commercial and military cruises. 

No wonder, too, that some professors have become part of the problem, behaving not as members of the collegium but as free-agent super-stars who leave the humanist conversation and its soul-sick student aspirants to the ministrations of university bureaucrats and health counselors.

No one warned against all this more tellingly than Bloom, who conservatives often invoke. He urged the university to resist "whatever is most powerful" and "the worship of vulgar success." He especially disdained professors who try to become counselors to the king but forget that "the intellectual, who attempts to influence... ends up in the power of the would-be influenced." 

The ultimate irony, again, is that the conservatives' own market and nationalist strategies have begun to work against one another, with disastrous consequences that they finesse by shifting the blame to feckless liberals.In 1941, when TIME magazine co-founder Henry Luce (Yale Class of 1920), a son of American Protestant missionaries to China, proclaimed The American Century, the two horses of American national-security and of global capital pulled more or less together, in harness to the American republic. But by the time George W. Bush (Yale, 1968) and Dick Cheney (Yale drop-out, 1961), took that rig on a full gallop in 2003, they couldn't avoid crashing into what the conservative political scientist Samuel Huntington had seen coming in 1994: The hard reality is that the horse of global capital no longer pulls alongside the horse of American nationalism. 

Huntington noticed that Aetna, Ford, and other conglomerates were no longer American companies. After 9/11, Cheney's own Halliburton moved its world headquarters from the Bushes' Houston to Abu Dhabi, and Post-America, a book by Fareed Zakaria (Yale, 1986, now a Yale Corporation member), announced that the global capitalist horse had broken loose from its old harness. This time, it's not Henry Luce's Yale that's paying for missions abroad; it's the government of Singapore, for a mission that Yale's own faculty has had little a role in shaping.

The old colleges weren't always noble and independent. They produced herds of dray horses of the financial and legal establishments; the legions of mountebanks, blowhards, and bounders at the Council on Foreign Relations; and the CIA, which was invented at Yale soon after Luce proclaimed the American Century. But they also produced or provoked a Dwight Macdonald (Yale, 1928), William Sloane Coffin, Jr., William F. Buckley, Jr.,(1950) John Lindsay (1944), Garry Trudeau (1970), John Kerry (1966), Howard Dean (1971), and thousands of other remonstrants and guardians of the republic, most unsung, whose works, including their inspiration of others, have been among its greatest strengths.

Today's neoliberal riders of national-security and global currents justify themselves morally by waving the pennants of "diversity," but its advances couldn't have been won without tough, old civic-republican virtues that sustained the early Civil Rights movement and, yes, the old colleges themselves: At its 1964 Commencement Yale presented an honorary doctorate to Martin Luther King, Jr., who, fresh out of jail, wasn't yet popular with most white Americans (including conservative Yale alumni of that time.). The college helped open the hearts of northern WASPs and Jews whose own Puritan ancestors had made history of the same Exodus myth that King was invoking in the South. 

Has that myth expired, except as a cartoon in the mind of a Rick Santorum? Conservatives and neoliberals like Levin, struggling to pilot our liberal arts colleges through the sea-changes sketched here, will have to demonstrate the courage of liberal education's best convictions. Conservatives of Henry Luce's stripe, especially, will have to test the best of their old Puritan faith against what John Winthrop called the "carnall lures" of wealth.There's a reason to hope that their faculty critics can help them or their institutions to do that. It's precisely -- and ironically -- that the old colleges weren't so noble all the time but that they never stopped trying. At the dawn of the 18th century, Yale was founded to stop Harvard's diversion of the holy Puritan mission toward decadent wealth-making, in a world increasingly connected but flattened by commerce. The world isn't flat, Yale's founders insisted. It has abysses, and students need a faith that's powerful enough to plumb them, face the demons in them, and even defy the powers that be in the name of better ones. 

Yale President A. Whitney Griswold, a descendant of Puritan governors of Connecticut, demonstrated that faith in 1951, when -- almost as if anticipating Yale-heavy intelligence and foreign-policy fiascos such as the Bay of Pigs and our grand-strategic blunders in Vietnam and Iraq -- he dismantled Yale's Institute of International for International Studies, a "Good Shepherd" predecessor of the dubious Jackson Institute and Grand Strategy programs at today's Yale.

Griswold's successor Kingman Brewster, Jr. a descendant of the minister on the Mayflower, sustained those reforms because, as he told my entering Class of 1969 on September 13, 1965, "To a remarkable extent, this place has detected and rejected the very few who wear the colors of high purpose falsely. This has not been done by administrative edict or official regulation. It has been done by a pervasive ethic of student and faculty loyalty and responsibility and mutual regard which lies deep in our origins and traditions." 

It's tempting these days to dismiss an admonition like Brewster's as little more than a snob's boast about an in-crowd. But he really wanted Yale students to plumb the old depths in order to know true leaders from false. He may even have been channeling a spiritual forebear, the Puritan minister Richard Mather, who wrote in 1657 that, "Imposters have but seldom got in and set up among us, and when they have done so, they have made a short blaze and gone out in a snuff." 

The old tensions between religious and humanist Truth-seeking, between authoritarian and republican Power-wielding, and between all of them and capitalist or Wealth-making run all the way back into the old colleges' taproots. When those Connecticut Puritans founded their college to counter Harvard's lapses, even they turned for funding and books to a governor of a multi-national corporation, the East India Company, Elihu Yale, and named their college after him.

It's enough to give the righteous critics of Levin's venture in Singapore some pause. Or maybe it gives even more precedent for criticizing it! Conservatives, meanwhile, so hot to rescue liberal education from liberals, might take pause, too, as they remember the old Puritan willingness to defy worldly power as well as to court it. And neoliberals who still think the world flat had better start looking into its abysses with something more accelerators and multiple-regression analyses. 

For all of us, Truth emerges not from esoteric doctrines, radical-left pronouncements of Rousseau's General Will, nationalist grand strategies, or even the latest scientific paradigms, let alone from commercial and technological breakthroughs that raise the ante but don't end the game. Truth develops only provisionally from the trust-building process of deliberative democracy, and the point of this essay is that that requires a deep civic faith that's kindled or reinforced in college - or, fatefully, that isn't. 

"Anyone who is himself willing to listen deserves to be listened to," Brewster wrote. "If he is unwilling to open his mind to persuasion, he forfeits his claim on the audience of others." Universities can't demonstrate this in places like Singapore unless they're proving it daily in their own companies of scholars. If they try to harness liberal education to strategies driven by the lust for money, power, and public relations, they'll lose not only liberal education but the republic.

But let me give the last word to former student of mine, who, as a senior at Yale in 2004, wrote that "a set of practices, habits, customs and beliefs must be considered basic to a functioning democracy. .... Unlike the Constitution, though, such subtle understandings and habits cannot be codified. The ethos of a republic is at once its most inscrutable and important attribute." We have to hope that liberal arts colleges' faculty and students will vindicate this "living constitution" in the nick of time.

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