Monday, November 8, 2021

Why I'm Skeptical about the University of Austin

See the announcement here:

Their expressed intentions include a strong commitment to liberal free speech and research policies and to increased rigor in the classroom. I hope they succeed.

But I am skeptical that they will, though--based on this statement--I am rooting for them. (I reserve the right to stop rooting if subsequent statements show bad intent or behavior.)

The reason is that the problems that plague universities seem to be built-in, and I'm not sure how this new university will overcome them. Let me explain the basics.

Every major organization faces a problem in that the goals of the organization as a whole and the goals of individual people within the organization may conflict. The organization might be dedicated to, say, furthering research, but the individual secretary in cubicle C just wants a job. The organization might be dedicated to finding the truth no matter where it lies, but the dean wants the angry mob to go away and the students who make up the angry mob want to ensure their truth and their feelings are protected. 

What's good for the organization and what's good for any individual within it can conflict. You need to align the utility functions of the individuals with the organization's goals. 

Indeed, it's worse than that because there are only individual people. The organization does not really have goals. The organization itself has no heart to break or dreams to realize. There is no Harvard per se that aims for truth, or social justice, or status. There are only individual people at Harvard that have their individual aims. The organization aims at any particular goal only in the reductive sense that many individuals might, in light of their shared values or incentives, be directed toward that goal. When we say Harvard aims for status and money, what we mean is that most people there aim for that. When we say Harvard aims for social justice, what we mean is that most people there pretend to aim for it. (I presume we all know no one sincerely means it.)

If this university gets off the ground, it will probably at first attract faculty and students committed to a certain ideology of the university. It's a good ideology, as far as I can tell! (Universities should seek truth and provide a rigorous, demanding, mind-expanding education. Most people disagree with this today, but they're wrong!) Because at first they will likely attract people who share this mission, there's a good chance that at first they will adhere to it, for the most part.

But then there will still be the perverse incentives. Individual professors push their brand over the university's brand. Individual students might want easy grades in their case, if not other cases. Individual staff members might want to squash just this one speaker they find obnoxious. Deans don't want to deal with bad press. Competition from other schools requires compromise. Getting good press means playing along with prevalent ideas. Etc. On the margins, individuals will face these temptations and some will succumb. 

However, the real issue is what happens in the long-term. The start-up tech firm is founded by three dorks with a vision and a passion, but 30 years later it's run by career manager types who are just as happy to sell this tech as they are to sell shoes. The people there don't have any passion for that initial vision. It's just a job.

So it goes with universities. Suppose the University of Austin becomes successful. It attracts an elite student body which then gets good jobs and grad school admissions. It attracts elite faculty. It has a high ranking. 

What will happen then is that people will go the University of Austin as students or faculty for the same reasons they try to go to other elite schools. They won't care so much about the original mission. They'll care about the status and financial rewards attendance brings. Just as today's Harvard students are mostly there for self-promotion, not veritas, so their future students will likely not be there for the mission. 

That's what I'd expect if they succeed and become a big deal.

The other alternative, I suspect, is to stay small, like St. John's College, which the incoming president used to lead. St. John's works, as far as it does, because it only admits a small number of weird students attracted to its mission. (N.B., I was one such weirdo. I applied to St. John's myself and was admitted, but I couldn't afford to go.) It's probably possible to maintain a tiny student body and tiny faculty that believes in that mission over the long term. 

At any rate, conservative critiques of the academy often read to me as follows: The USSR, China, Cambodia, and Cuba were humanitarian disasters because their Communist Party leaders have evil intent. What we need to do is ensure the new central planners have the right motives. But the real problem is the central planning and the incentive structure it creates. There is no long-term version of "making sure the right people run the system". The same goes mutatis mutandis for universities.