Creative Destruction and Academic Intoxication

I recently read an article by a sportswriter that has the potential to reverberate far beyond the world of sports.

The writer stated that in 20 to 30 years, college sports would not exist. It was an interesting hypothesis, and his reasoning was that at the rate we are going, universities themselves would not exist.

The writer posited that to stop the bleeding red ink that has led to tuition fee hikes, more and more schools would cut back on athletics.

It is a fascinating potential chain of events, but let’s take it one step further way beyond college sports.

What if changing technologies and cost structures render universities irrelevant?  Is it possible that in half of a century universities will cease to be?

Even more importantly, let’s dare to ask the charged question. Does this even matter? Is it possible that the end of campuses will result not in a bang, but in a whimper? Is it also possible that this will be an overwhelmingly positive development?

The reasons to dislike universities are numerous. They are hotbeds of liberalism where knowledge takes a back seat to activism and protests. Ideological bigotry has replaced the true purpose of universities, which is to educate.

College professors often have tenure. No other industry has this. Tenure can breed complacency. While a fear of being fired can be chilling, people in every industry somehow cope. Remedies exist for true victims. In professional sports, coaches can sty on the sidelines for decades, but when they stop winning, they get their gold watch and rubber chicken banquet. They then become “ambassadors.” Yet professors stay on forever, which does more than lead to laziness. It also stifles creativity by preventing a new breed of professors from engaging students with new ideas.

Yet even for those that are apolitical, universities might be going the way of the horse and buggy. This is positive. It is called creative destruction.

Creative destruction is what capitalism is all about. Things die and are replaced. Eli Whitney invented the Cotton Gin and Cyrus McCormack invented the reaper. Yes these devices put many people out of work. Yet life involves adapting and learning new skills.

Wall Street used to have people running around on trading floors yelling. Nowadays, much of this is electronic. The Pacific Stock Exchange does not even exist any more.

Satellite television means that we no longer need to hire a college student to stand for hours on end holding the antenna at the exact angle to prevent snow.

One can adapt or die. Retailers chose to adapt. Rather than try and fight eBay, book and clothing stores chose to use online sites. Brick and mortar stores still exist, but they have online presences. Record companies chose to try and destroy Napster. They won the battle but lost the war. File sharing still exists. Tower Records is out of business.

The question then becomes whether or not there is anything that a university offers that cannot be offered elsewhere. Do universities have a unique product or service that cannot be obtained elsewhere?

No. People are getting online degrees.

While liberal arts colleges do plenty, some will argue that advanced degrees are vital. Do people really want heart surgeons that do not have a degree from a medical school?

This argument is weak. Rather than go to UCLA Medical School, why not have UCLA Medical Center have an education wing? Hospitals can have schools in them. After all, medical students have residency periods. Most industries have on the job training that is more valuable than college

Other people will point out that universities are more than just facts and books. There is the “college experience.”

The college experience is code for socializing. If I want to hang out, get drunk, and be around people with bras and panties on their heads, I can go…well, the point is there are places to go for that.

I made friends in college that I will have for life. I treasure those friendships. Yet had I skipped college I would have had different experiences and made different friends.

True, closing down universities would make life tougher for drug dealers and gun dealers, but that is a painful aspect of change.

There are those who will try to use nostalgia and tradition as an argument, but new traditions can begin. The “good old days” were not that good. We have gone from pestilences that wiped out millions of people to cures for once deadly diseases.

The bottom line is that no person, business, or entity of any kind is “too big to fail.”

We got it right when we let Lehman Brothers burn. We got it wrong by propping up other firms that should have been treated like Old Yeller. It is cruel, but life is cruel. I support good CEOs getting millions of dollars in bonuses. I also support bad CEOs being denied bailout money, especially when I have student loans.

Which brings this all full circle. I spent thousands of dollars for a piece of paper, and I make most of my money in ways that have nothing to do with that expensive piece of imitation parchment.

Universities claim that they make “well rounded” individuals. That is more code for social engineering. Some of the least well rounded people I know are the ones teaching our young people.

The world would go on just fine without Harvard. The late William F. Buckley opined that he would “rather be governed by the first few hundred names in the phone book than the Harvard faculty.”

I got my MBA from USC. At USC, what were we studying? Harvard case studies. I can say I received a Harvard education. It was the same material.

There is nothing about a university that should make it exempt from the creative destruction that affects everything else in the same way there is nothing in any other entity that should make it immune from the constant winds of change.

So who would argue against all of this?

Simple. College professors. They can wax poetic all they want, but they are like anybody else engaging in rational self-interest. They do not want to fire themselves in the same way that unions want stronger unions with more benefits even if it cripples the overall business.

College professors suffer from “academic intoxication.” Too many of them simply love the smell of their own scents. They are the entrusted caretakers of our knowledge.

This is a fancy way of saying “elitist gasbags.”

When Harvard professor Henry Gate barked at Police Sargeant William Crowley “Don’t you know who I am?,” my response was “Yes. You are an overrated snob with an inflated sense of self-importance harassing a police officer for doing his job.”

Does anybody think the world needs Ward Churchill “teaching” our children?

I am not advocating that we shut down all universities and fire professors and force them to get jobs in the real world (although it would be nice to force them to trade in their ivory towers and tweed jackets for some construction workboots). Some of them are honest professionals that contribute something positive.

I am saying that the marketplace should decide. If universities can revitalize their business model and provide a valuable service at a cost that keeps them in business, so be it. If enough people decide that Harvard should go the way of Tyrannosaurus Rex, we should not keep T-Rex alive for thousands of years for fear of hurting his feelings.

The battle is one of creative destruction vs. academic intoxication. Academic intoxication benefits only the sources of it. Creative destruction, which hurts many people including me in the short run, benefits society as a whole in the long run.

If professors taught this to students early on, we would all benefit even more.


4 Responses to “Creative Destruction and Academic Intoxication”

  1. Toma says:

    Very good eric, universities and unions have priced themselves out of the market. It has been coming for a long time and it may be closer than we think. Likewise Congress is pricing itself out of the market. It can’t happen to soon. Total collapse is painful but usually a necessary phase in renewal. Can we handle it?


  2. Dav Lev says:

    For years, I have advocated cutting down on the importance of universities and colleges.

    I attended a major university and have a degree, so I know from where I speak.

    I recall going to my first frat party. A stripper was doing her thing
    and then some, in the middle of a bunch of half-crazy, drucken
    guys..taking pokes at her. To this day, I will remember my amazement.
    I just didn’t expect apparently very bright men acting that way.

    Look, I liked college and all that went on.

    But Letters and Science was a joke. Why did I need two languages anyway, or two years of the same language? I have never used the
    knowledge. For some, language study is difficult and really unnecessary.

    Or as my typing (high school) teacher tole me years before, “your most
    important subject, besides simple math and English, which you will use
    forever, is typing”. He was right.

    Those 4 years were a complete waste of time, effort, and money AND
    there were no political rallies to speak of, just students wanting four more
    years to have a good time, study somewhat, and look for their MRS degree.

    I am not advocating doing away with every university class, just the
    superfluous. We do need professionals, doctors and the like. We need
    engineers, chemists, biologists, teachers, etc. We do not
    need 4 years to prepare them for MAs and PHDs.

    I notice that the cost of a four year degree at the U of Calif system
    went up 32%, causing student protests. They have a point.
    Hows about reducing the four years to 2.5 and/or shifting many students
    to the State colleges?

    I would also place more responsibility on corporations to teach
    the skills THEY need. Why burden parents and the States?

    Or as one friend told me, who failed out of a college, “I didn’t need
    business classes and should have majored in something I liked”. “Companies can teach a simple business or computer class

    UCLA has a department for those interested in the entertainment
    industry. Why cannot the major studios teach drama, production,
    acting? You get the point.

    And of course, the Dept of Middle Eastern Studies I Love Palestine and Hate Jews should be the first to be dissolved.

    College loans, or schlorships paid for by taxpayers, forget it.
    You want to go to college, work for it.

  3. Laree says:

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  4. nkras says:

    I’m a bit disappointed at this post. Maybe you have a different understanding of what a university does than I do.

    Broadly speaking, university academia is about research and teaching. The cash-driven, opaque, and decentralized nature of capitalism generally hasn’t allowed for the kind of deep exploration of academic topics–especially deeply theoretical topics, such as particle physics–that universities have. With the death of great industrial research institutions like Bell Labs, the life of theoretical sciences lies almost exclusively with the universities. And without the groundwork of intellectual capital and human capital being laid at universities, you will lose a great deal of innovation in all areas. Universities are more important now than ever.

    As for your political argument, I don’t buy it. I just graduated from college with a degree in physics and I found the place to be economically conservative and socially liberal, with political activism being centered more on causes than along strict party or partisan lines. The same is true for professorial instruction. What’s better than a creative academic disagreement?

    As for teaching, just because you read the same materials doesn’t mean that you have the same education. Just because two students are both studying the Declaration of Independence doesn’t mean that they will have the same reasoning about it.

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