Why Must Academia Evolve?

My favorite Life in Hell cartoon – you can guess which Swami I am.
This hung on Wayne Miller’s and my graduate student office door back in 1984

For those that didn’t bother to read my ‘About’ page, I’ve been a professor at Washington State University for the last 31 years. I arrived in 1988, a young lad of 25, and came for the whitewater kayaking, and stayed. And stayed. And for those that think this piece is about WSU, you’re wrong. WSU certainly has influenced my worldview — it’s impossible not to be influenced by some place you’ve spent most of your life at. But I’ve traveled around the world, once even giving a speech to most of the Deans of China’s engineering colleges. I’ve talked from Budapest to Copenhagen, and even given talks in South Africa. I worked, at the behest of a large corporate software supplier, in organizing eco design and sustainability education across Europe. And I’ve traveled and presented in Latin America as well.

So it’s safe to say I’ve kinda seen it all, at least academically. Because I pretty much have.

Academia is not truly identical the world over. There are better and worse universities out there, doing what they do. From an engineering perspective, the very best? TU Delft, and the German ones. The worst are scattered across the globe, and their manifestation largely relies on how much money they have. I’ve been in labs at Egyptian universities that were supported by USAID that were awesome, next to classrooms with broken furniture and no windows. I’ll never forget the scene I witnessed of the departmental chair doling out semi-worthless Egyptian pounds as salary to his faculty. And yet I’m not sure he was any more corrupt than any of the more modern schemes I’ve seen.

But as crazy as it may seem, they all have the same social structure. And as such, they nominally behave the same way. Sure, the European universities elect their presidents and rectors, or whatever. And they ARE a little more progressive. But most of the lot functions exactly the same, the world over.

The spotlight has re-focused on corruption in academia because of the recently revealed scandal regarding billionaire pedophile Jeff Epstein giving cash to the MIT Media Lab. Specifically, Joi Ito, professor and director, started taking money from Epstein, partially on the advice of the former Media Lab’s director and co-founder, Nicholas Negroponte. And yeah, in case you’re wondering, Nick’s brother John was the one who gave us Iran-Contra, as well as the veritable collapse of Iraq. These folks get around. Considering the cast of characters, it’s easy to lapse into ‘blame the individual’, non-systemy-goodness thinking. The Negroponte boys — a pair of consiglieres if there ever were a pair.

Far better investigative reporters can highlight how everything went down. Various women in the Media Lab thought it was more than odd that Epstein was accompanied everywhere he went by a pair of super-models. One development associate ( for those not in the academy, that’s a fundraising solicitor) name of Signe Swensen, wondered and asked the entourage if they had been kidnapped and if she could help. I’m not surprised. Development folks often have the most developed empathy of most people inside a university, because they’re constantly reading cues from donors on whether they’ll give money. So good on her that she saw what looked like a distressed situation and attempted to help. And that empathy thing again — with what she knew about Epstein, her conscience couldn’t take it, and she finally resigned.

Ito himself waffled around about Epstein’s money. But once you mainline that hardcore crack — “repeat donor” money — it’s hard to say ‘no’ to it, regardless of who gives. Repeat donor money allows an institution to institutionalize, and that’s what the v-Memes want to do – self perpetuate. Even in my own paltry little program, I’m constantly looking for supporters that will do multi-year support of my Industrial Design Clinic. One industry in the bag, that keeps giving and giving, takes part of the workload off me and allows me to cultivate new experiences for more students.

But the real problem isn’t the people. The system attracts the kinds of people it needs. It fills in the blanks. Negroponte and Ito ended up in those positions because they could do the Performance-driven, Authoritarian high status, social structure shakedown racket better than anyone else. It’s not surprising that once they built the brand, they worked to rake in the cash. The system veritably demanded it. Like Dolly Parton once allegedly said, “if they weren’t natural, I woulda had ’em made.”

Let me pause for a minute and explain a little bit about what is actually happening in America’s university landscape. Universities, more than probably anyone else, have been affected by tax law and tax cuts for the rich. What that means is the rich have more money to do with what they want. And after you buy one or two or five yachts, well, you don’t get the Jones you used to get off the smell of salt water. People will take that extra cash and spend it aspirationally. What that means is that they’ll look over their heads, v-Meme/value set-wise, and give money. If you’re an Authoritarian, you want to give one level up to Legalistic/Absolutistic. If you’re Performance-driven, you’ll turn into a Communitarian. It’s the surest way of actually determining how empathetically evolved a person is — who do they give money to, and why.

And while you have to know the ‘why’, usually it’s pretty obvious. The most successful private universities were funded by the most wretched industrialists. They wanted the increase in status that would come from funding, or naming a university. My own alma mater, Duke University, was founded by tobacco money from James Buchanan Duke. Our sister university, Wake Forest, was started by Baptists, but moved and grew because of Reynolds tobacco money. Clerical organizations have started many a university — a parallel cross-value-set move, and also pragmatic. Preachers need to be trained. But other universities of more secular bent have prospered from the mostly Authoritarian v-Meme money beneath them. Look at the list the Rockefeller family has funded over the years.

(And if you’re wondering, yes, note that Bill Gates hasn’t started a university. As a Performance-driven Authoritarian, aside from a building here and there, Bill’s evolved a Communitarian foundation with global reach. You can run, but you can’t hide from the v-Memes.)

But back to the tax cuts. What the tax cuts did, besides depleting the Treasury, and causing all sorts of political Kabuki theatre around how money gets spent in this country, is give the rich people a whole lot more money. Some, like Charles and David Koch, took those dollars and built a conservative political machine that has effectively seized the majority of state legislatures in this country. They’ve sprinkled some garden-variety acceptable-cause donations (like MOMA) around as well. Jane Mayer profiles this in her book ‘Dark Money‘. (Long, but good, if you’re interested.)

But the natural tendency is to just assume that rich people are evil, and they’re going to do things like the Koch brothers. Here’s news — not all of them. A lot of them are deeply concerned about whether there’s going to be a world around or not. But they’re still subject to the same laws of v-Meme evolution as every human. Except they have a ton of money, and they’re looking for someplace to invest it. Many are authoritarians — you don’t get to be a billionaire without a little of that. So that’s constraining.

And where do you think they want to invest it? Why not in the equivalent of the stock market — America’s university system? If you’re gonna do that, wouldn’t you rather invest in Blue Chip stocks, like Stanford, Harvard, or Yale? Some of the rich come from these places, and have legacies. But there’s a whole class of people who have arisen as well with the rise of tech. Not all of them are white folks. Various ethnic minorities — Chinese, Indians, and so on — have all been very successful. They want to give aspirationally as well. They earned the money. And so they, too give — to places like Stanford and such.

The problem is that those same universities start echoing/parroting back to those same rich people the messages they want to hear. Once you get over a certain funding level, the In-group bubble extends around the university, or the university system, and it becomes an echo chamber for a given group of rich folks. Stanford serves Silicon Valley. The Ivies have fed our defective foreign policy mechanism in D.C. and Wall Street forever.

So, with university fundraising, and budgets in general, you’ve got a very mixed picture out there. On the one hand, you have rich folks of all stripes ploughing money into the Blue Chips, and those Blue Chips are looking for new things to do. But at the same time, you’re seeing a parallel de-funding of institutions that used to depend on tax dollars for revenue. Places like my university — WSU. When I was involved with university governance about 15 years ago, our state-funded share of the budget was around 23%. Now it’s down to 14%.

I don’t know the actual numbers associated with private universities. But I can look around the landscape and see what’s happening. The Blue Chips have tons of dough. They’re doing things like starting campuses in odd places — Northeastern, for example, has a Seattle campus on the shores of S. Lake Union. At WSU, we’re relying more and more on student tuition to pay for everything. So we increase enrollment, have bigger classes, and recruit more kids from China through a variety of programs. Oh yeah — and teach more classes with temporary/clinical/adjunct faculty members. They’re cheaper.

But fundamentally, we don’t change. Or rather, our social structure doesn’t change. We’re still an Authoritarian stack, modestly Legalistic at best. We have a Faculty Senate, for example. I couldn’t tell you what they’re up to. They’re mostly giving in to faculty’s inherent desire to pick policy nits, and it’s painful to watch. You’re not a Chaucer scholar your whole life if you don’t have at least a little OCD. And most every successful faculty member has a little of that in ’em.

That low empathy, Authoritarian stack still prevails, whether you’re at MIT, with their Performance-based v-Meme sidebars (MIT is famous for having professors start companies, for example) or at WSU, where we’re playing Johnny-Come-Lately with all things like that.

Since both are an Authoritarian/Legalistic stack, they still run off status. And what is status? Status is exactly what you think it is. It’s “who’s better”, arbitrarily decided. For universities, it’s a Cool Kids Competition. Status in universities, for the most part, is run via research rankings (whose Cool Kids are the smartest — we are universities after all!) But WHAT we do is almost never invented, nor entertained by profs. themselves. That would require individual agency. You’re supposed to get out and hustle bucks. Which means someone else has a major say in what you’re doing with your academic freedom. There are precious few faculty like me, kinda out doing what I want, especially in engineering and the sciences. Because that takes not just money. But free money, as in money you can direct.

On top of that, the need to hustle bucks, and not completely die of exhaustion, means you start feeding into the dynamic of the social structure. You specialize. You’re given a home department (I’m in Mechanical and Materials Engineering.) But anyone that knows anything about engineering knows that is about as broad a department as you could get. I happened to specialize in Design about 25 years ago, and education, which has quite a few different demands than ordinary analytical engineering.

And the arbiter of that aggregated coolness? The Big Picture ranking system that everyone cares about — the US News and World Report issue — is intractable, opaque bullshit. The damage done to the American university system by U.S. News and World Report and their infernal college issue is really incalculable. I wrote a newspaper column on the issue, riffing off Tim O’Reilly’s notion of what Skynet was — the AI app. that destroyed the world in the Schwarzenegger Terminator movies. US News and World Report IS Skynet for universities. Yet every university president knows exactly where she/he is in the rankings.

Back to ‘specialize’. You find one thing that you’re an expert in, and double down. Your community gets smaller. Hair on a frog’s back turns into hair on a flea’s back on the hair on a frog’s back. I’m being a little supercilious here, but you get the idea. You do this maybe because that’s where your interests lie. But you’re also doing it because it’s easier to get money. Funders get to know you as the ‘hair on xxx back’ guy. And you tune your request to be just a bit ahead of the curve. And before you know it, you’re validating my ‘meta-linear theory of knowledge aggregation.’ Breakthroughs aren’t going to happen. Hairs are gonna get smaller, on the backs of smaller and smaller critters.

This fine-scaling in sophistication happens naturally inside our social structure. Sophistication CAN require money (if you’re in engineering, you’ve got to have a bigger Scanning Electron Microscope, or better controllers, or something.) But if you’re in the Liberal Arts, it often doesn’t. Either you reduce your scale of analysis (to a subset of a neighborhood of San Francisco) or you get more pure. We’ve seen this happen with cultural studies. I am absolutely a supporter of things like intersectionality studies. But when do the boxes get so small that they don’t matter? When do you come up with methodologies dealing with individuals across larger cultural groups? It’s not in the v-Meme, so we don’t do that. It’s not in our value set. And it’s rare to even find people willing to admit this.

And what about paradigm-changing voices that are outside your main milieu? You shut them out. Like this blog. The last thing you want is some idiot nonlinear dynamicist/aerospace engineer talking about psychology or sociology. Who’s got time for his nonsense? When was the last time he did a neighborhood survey? Or crowded a bunch of Psychology 101 students in a lab for a weird experiment?

And now we start to understand the other huge problem with the social structure. How would the vast majority of individuals inside ever develop to the point where they might talk to a meta-nonlinear paradigm shifter like me? What do you do with a dude that’s decided he’s an expert in multiple fields? We better just ignore him. Let alone synergize with him. In fact, by even writing that, I’ve committed a grave, status-based sin. I’ve said my work is paradigm shifting. How dare I? So people like me (there aren’t many of us anyway) are just ignored.

And naturally, it all fits into the university landscape of 2019. The Blue Chips have a profound interest in controlling the debate in every field they decide to play. But they can’t be too far out there, because if they are, they can’t raise the money necessary, from the government funders as well as the private donors, to keep their expensive operations going. But they still have to establish themselves as the smartest kids on the block. They have to stay nominally fresh, with increasing amount of stuff fed to the popular media.

And the media feeds all of this. Journalists, who used to be grounded, working-class gumshoe equivalents, are now raised in the same kind of status-centered professional colleges. When you couple that narrowed worldview with the collapse of mainstream media funding, you get a cascade of collapse, as less-experienced journalists who know less and less of history, are looking for sources. And where would you rather find your source from? Harvard or Yale? Or some southern-state land grant? Personally, it all starts going Catch-22 on all of this. With the current corruption crisis at MIT, who would the press rather quote? A detailed systemic analysis by a systems prof. from a land grant university? Or someone (anyone!) from MIT? And no, I’m not butt-hurt. But it gets wild after a while.

That feedback loop makes the situation even worse, of course.

And what about the land-grant institutions? They’re still competing in the insane status game. But it’s a game they can’t really win. Government grants are flat, and those bureaucracies suffer regarding generating ideas for funding that any bureaucracy does. It’s all meta-linear Johnny-Come-Lately shit all over again. So they do what poor folks do — they buy a lottery ticket, in the guise of athletics, put their money on Red, and spin. Silly rabbit — the house always wins. Your number is NOT going to come in.

In the case of the poorer universities, not enough grant money to actually support research means tuition has to be used to shore up research infrastructure. Which means more kids in larger classes. Which creates more Authoritarian v-Memey badness, increasingly from First Generation minority students, who have been told the good life awaits them after they take out $100K of debt that they really don’t understand, and likely will struggle to pay back. Who have already been locked in a high school classroom for the last four years because we can’t pass gun control legislation. You get the idea.

But those students still have to be taught. So bring on the adjuncts/clinicals/etc. Who are far cheaper, and can be chronically overworked — which many are.

Now add in administrative bloat — more recruiting, more services for kids that are likely to fail out, and on and on — and you can see the flywheel spin up, making it even harder to change course.

But I go on. The reality is that both rich and poor schools are largely chasing the same thing — status. And neither of them is developing any empathy along the way. And once one starts any institution of size, that lack of empathy, especially when money is tight, which it ends up so inevitably, with bureaucracies expanding to their budget — it’s just a matter of who takes it in the shorts. Most of the time, in large universities, it’s the students. They’re at the bottom of the pyramid.

But in the Blue Chips, they’re still going to need more money to live their cash-inflated lifestyles, and attract the very smartest of the Cool Kids, that have the ability to toe that fine line between staying ahead of the advancing wave, while not shifting any paradigm that would upset the apple cart and be too far ahead of normative values. Look at the never-ending philosophical support provided by the Ivies for both Wall Street and Endless War. Someone’s got to write those screeds that justify that most recent tax cut, or advocate for bombing Syria one more time.

And that means you’ll take your money from whoever gives it. Jeffrey Epstein’s sins are modest, compared to Mohammed Bin Sultan’s. Hell, he can look out his palace window onto Chop Chop Square and watch a decapitation if he chooses.

Why should you, as an ordinary person, care about any of this? Universities have an enormous job to do that affects all of us — whether you’re a fan (or a professor at one) of the Blue Chips or not. Whether they should or not, people look to the entire university system to find answers for the future, and educate their children for a modern society — something we are increasingly failing to do.

While you might expect to hear some familiar-sounding argument about teaching vs. research, that’s really not it at all. You have to have profs. do research or their brains rapidly turn to mush. Teach a class three times in a row without new information, and bad stuff happens to you. I don’t know how the Calculus I instructors keep from going insane. (But who cares, right? They’re very likely adjuncts.)

It’s actually the quality of all of it that goes down without empathy. When you create a system that basically works on destroying agency of the people inside of it, and creating a sub-class of Ph.Ds that do the dirty work of education, then you actually create a system that doesn’t make the researchers flourish either. You need empathetic development in order to form interesting and positive collaborations with people from other disciplines. Plus, you need it in your own brain to reconceptualize old material in new ways that allow folding in of new information, and complexity. You actually screw the main focus of what you think you had — research productivity. It IS terrible when some sex-slave trader like Jeffrey Epstein gives someone blood money. The problem is that, in the overall scheme of things, it’s one of more modest.

And the things that build empathy — like connecting with external constituencies (it’s built my career) — are also what you need, especially in the applied sciences like engineering, to make sure you’re on the right track. You need to make sure you’re not repeating your standard memetic patterns ( like looking at everything where there’s a boss in the middle, and everyone hanging out on the nodes) are actually correct. When you don’t, you end up with crazy bullshit, like the One Laptop per Child project, courtesy of the MIT Media Lab, that spent a bazillion dollars and failed miserably. You can decipher the misery from the Wikipedia article here.

The short answer is we in the academy have to do some serious soul-searching regarding how we manage personal and relational development in the context of everything we do. We have to change our fundamental social structure. We’ve grown far too attached to our medieval feudalism, and it’s killing us. Empathy is the thread that runs through all of it – or rather a lack of it. More empathy would make people like Epstein reprehensible from the start. More empathy would increase synergistic research. More empathy would make it intolerable to have a slave class working to do most of our teaching and not being able to live anything resembling a normal life. These things are NOT bugs. They are FEATURES.

Why must academia evolve? Big change is coming. Hell, it’s happening in front of us, and it’s bigger than the chronic diversity wars going on on university campuses. Managing complexity with coherence always has to be our goal if we want to evolve. We better figure it out fast, though. The boat’s leaking faster than we can pump it out. I can smell the salt water, getting stronger. And it’s not because I’m rich, and have five yachts. It’s because the ship is sinking.

3 thoughts on “Why Must Academia Evolve?

  1. I tend to think that 30-50% of academia/university/research is basically obsolete. Some stuff such as engineering, medicine . chemsitry and other fields which require both (or either) a whole lot of complex and expensive equipment, and very technical math or computer skills, require such instiituions. Non-academic fields such as construction and maintenance also require special ‘trade’ schools. But a whole lot of stuff (philosophy, literary theory , literature, history , some basic fields like ecology or simple mathematical modeling in economics, political theory, sociology, law, psychology, etc do not require big institutions . Alot of basic research is applied to things the world doesn’t need (in my humble opinion)–weapons,cures for preventible diseases, computer graphics for ads… .

    Lots of money at U’s goes for sports (and as a big sports fan, sports excites me as much as seeing 10 car pileup when i’m trying to cross a street–just love that group collective behavior; especially if you get a riot after the game. Our local billionaire team owner and nature lover cut down a half acre of trees on national park land because they obscured his view. got a 500$ fine . WSports and religion are memes that are here to stay for the forseeable future, like politcal campaigns, and 50% inane congressional debates i hear on cspan. Interestingly some of these politicians actually seem to have some knolwedge—though it may be the staff they employ who find it for them.)

    I’ve seen a few interesting things from MITs media lab and some lightweight stuff (S Turkle—a critic of computers and our use of them, who works in a place dedicated to them. Sortuh like someone living on a slave plantation arguing against slavery. She wants us to ‘connect’ offline, and writes books about it which we can connect with in a bookstore. Maybe she should write books explianing what people in her dept should do. I had mixed feelings about 1 laptop idea –on one hand poor people should have access to modern info. on other hand, the WWW besides being a library, is also a distracting and at times dangerous place. (people were making jokes about one laptop, one … site’. in this area there was a discussion on public radio yesterday about rules for ‘sexting’ by young teens , etc. -eg should they be prosecuted? )

    the paper in 2013 PNAS ‘concepts and implications of altruism bias and pathological altruism ‘ by B Oakley has some discussions of empathy. like the university, it may need some rethinking, though these may be ‘locked in’ even if flawed ( as some are ‘locked up’ even if not guilty). (the first half that paper is quite good; the second half of sort of goes off the rails which is not uncommon in academic papers. (She discusses group behavior, role of altruism and empathy, how they sometimes can backfire, and then basically seems to promote some sort of neoliberal (possibly quasifacist) ‘guardian state’ as the optimal solution. ). My favorite academic papers that go off the rails are by physicist F tipler—-1st 3/4th of these sometimes can give a good review of much of 20th century physics, then
    last part shows how from this you can prove the bible is literally true, obama was crackpot, etc.

    (The style of stuff i read is more like what is in PNAS rather than the conversational style i see here, in articles on medium and many pop books—especially self help and psyhcology, and i can only make it through parts of the math papers i read. (The fields i look at are mostly useless except as entertainmnet–though can be viewed as ‘excercizes’ which eventually will lead to something useful. Most people don’t need much math to survive, and most people can’t do math required to make somethig useufl, though they may be able to teach basic math to someone who later can do useful math) . (The stuff i write which is not analyses is closer to poetry, sciecne fiction, fantasy surealism or free association. Even more incoherent than a proof of Fermat’s last theorem to the average reader.


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