WSJ, Mar. 21, 2021
“even Harvard—which, Mr. Galloway notes, has become a slightly absurd “$50,000 streaming platform”—faces a reckoning in the Zoom era.”
I strolled through Harvard University recently on what should have been a busy Friday morning. The solitude was striking, with once-lively routes deserted and nearly all libraries and classrooms shut, along with sports facilities, public halls and museums. Hardly any buildings, including dormitories, showed signs of life. Even scientific laboratories had only skeletal crews. It’s a great time to find a parking space.
Buildings are locked to the public. A university ID is required to enter. This reminded me of the time in 1984 when, on a lark, I tried to enter the high-rise that houses Moscow State University, only to be carded by Soviet apparatchiks and refused entry.
Nothing in my nearly seven decades’ knowledge of Harvard (which started with preschool in 1952) prepared me for this lonely ramble. It prompted me to ponder the four existential challenges facing universities:
• The internet. The Western university dates to the founding of the University of Bologna in 1088. It remains an essentially medieval institution, with scholars educating students clustered in their immediate presence. Although “massive open online courses,” cutely known as MOOCs, haven’t generally taken off, a massive reliance on Zoom instruction has finally proved the internet’s potential to disrupt the dominant, archaic model.
• Extreme leftism. The academy’s liberalism dates back a century (to the aftermath of World War I) and its radicalism a half-century (to the 1960s). The passage of time finds the faculty ever more wildly radical in its teachings, indulging in increasingly preposterous flights of absurdity. This zealotry upsets not only conservatives; prospective students also realize the limited utility of a degree in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender studies.
• Exorbitant prices. Columbia University costs $64,380 a year in tuition and fees (plus housing). Higher education has lost its role as a “lubricant” of upward social mobility, explains marketing specialist Scott Galloway, instead turning into more of a “caste system” primarily serving the privileged. University staff are “no longer public servants, but luxury goods who are drunk on exclusivity and brag about turning away 80, then 85, then 90% of applicants.”
• Covid-19. The sudden focus on personal physical safety disrupted previously stable models of student recruitment, teaching, tuition, fundraising and employment. In-person attendance will return, but long-smug institutions are scampering to find new procedures.
Harvard Internet map 4096.GIF might seem immune to these problems, with its $50 billion in net assets, the country’s largest, and a college acceptance rate of 4.6%, among the country’s lowest. But even Harvard—which, Mr. Galloway notes, has become a slightly absurd “$50,000 streaming platform”—faces a reckoning in the Zoom era. How might that reckoning look? Here’s a prediction:
MOOCs will finally fulfill their potential. Laurie Santos, a Yale psychology professor, already attracts nearly a quarter of the Yale student body to her lectures on “The Science of Well Being,” making it the most popular course in Yale’s 320-year history. More important, starting Saturday the course boasted a non-Yale audience of 3.4 million participants.
The appearance of such huge courses at a moment when lesser institutions are failing suggests that a few star universities will flourish while the rest starve and die. Patterns in college applications imply this trend is already under way. Imagine a reduction from some 5,300 U.S. colleges and universities to 50, each with its renowned outlook (including some conservative ones), specialties and strengths. Thousands of existing campuses will become shared satellite facilities for those 50, complete with dormitories and sports facilities.
Courses like Ms. Santos’s will require legions of teaching assistants and graders who meet in person with students, giving education the personal touch and community grounding essential to its mission. The California State University system, with 23 campuses, foreshadows this geographic dispersal, as does the distinction between full-time and adjunct faculty. In-person advanced seminars with star professors will continue as ever, training the next generation of scholars.
Tuition will come crashing down as economies of scale come into play, truly opening education to all and ending the student-loan crisis.
The taxi system was unreliable, expensive and unpleasant, so along came Uber and overturned it. Higher education, even more antiquated than taxis, is due for a comparable shock—and the sooner, the better.
Mr. Pipes founded Campus Watch and is president of the Middle East Forum.
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