That marketplace – it’ll get you every time.
I vetted the theme a few weeks back, and now seems a good moment to reintroduce it, what with a New York Times story pointing to turmoil at the University of Missouri as the cause of a 35 percent drop in freshman enrollment since then.
“The university administration acknowledges,” says the Times, “that the main reason is a backlash from the events of 2015, as the campus has been shunned by students and families put off by, depending on their viewpoint, a culture of racism or one where protesters run amok.” Everybody had a grievance. Some went to great lengths to show and validate their own concerns.
At one anti-racism protest, a journalism instructor (!) tried to get a reporter physically removed from the scene. The university president resigned after black players led the football team in a strike. The chancellor (ex-Texas A&M Chancellor Bowen Loftin, as it happens) followed suit. “In the minds of many,” the Times observed, “[the instructor’s] outburst and the resignations became symbols of a hair-trigger-protest culture lacking any adult control.”
Which is where the marketplace comes in. Customers don’t like the product or the service – they take their business elsewhere. Happens with restaurants, flower shops, cell phone providers, and the like. Why would it be different with academia? Because academia is a cocoon of excellence different from greasy, grubby Main Street?
Hardly that. Not a few of academia’s denizens—students, faculty, administrators—give evidence of having arrived from another universe. They snap their fingers in the face of the marketplace beast. Don’t tell us what’s good! We know what’s good!
Then the customers go away, and the staff cuts commence, and dorms shut down, and the library begs (as the Times points out) for book donations.
Actions have real-world consequences; dumb actions (cf., the University of Missouri, in 2015) have consequences prejudicial to the life of the mind and, not incidentally, the university’s life and integrity. “When will they ever learn?” Peter, Paul, and Mary used to warble. That’s hard to predict, but something else isn’t: Learning is an experience the paid dispensers of learning ignore at peril to themselves as well as the world.