Break Up the Ivy League Cartel

Harvard, Yale, and the other top schools descended from an elitist Puritan tradition are wrecking the great post-World War II democratization of education.

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The nature of power in America flows through the Ivy Leagues and top universities. To take one example, academic economists use their academic credentials to launder fraudulent arguments about consolidation. But the gatekeeping power of elite higher education goes far beyond that. These are the institutions that validate and structure the boundaries of knowledge.

Today I’m pleased to welcome a guest writer, Sam Haselby (@samhaselby), who thinks deeply about the history of the Ivy League, its role today, and its religious roots as a set of institutions designed around exclusion.

The Ivy League vs Democracy

One of the great puzzles of American society is the position of the Ivy Leagues. They are a bastion of privilege and power, and yet the campuses are rife with left-leaning professors who one might imagine seek to redistribute wealth. According to the Harvard Crimson, 77.6% of Harvard professors define themselves as left-leaning, and just 2.9% as conservative. What explains this dynamic? Former Harvard College Dean Harry Lewis said that it gets to the basic point of the school, which is to advance radical ideas. “It’s almost by definition anti-preservationist because we place such a high value on the creation of new knowledge,” he said.

A wildly different explanation is apparent from watching Netflix’s Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal, the highly publicized fiasco in which wealthy parents used bribery to get their kids into top colleges. What I found most interesting about this episode wasn’t the actual corruption, but a different and more poignant feature of American meritocracy. Even in the midst of acts of bribery, many of the parents were beset with fear that their children might find out about the crooked machinations to win their admission to elite schools. They took desperate steps to shield the kids from facing real questions of “merit” or deservedness. And in fact, while most involved in meritocracy don’t use bribery, a tremendous amount of energy now goes into preserving similar basic fictions about the nature of elite private education and its role in the United States.  

We most often hear about inequality in terms of super-rich corporations and individuals or families. But it is important that the same gulf, separating haves and have nots, has opened between U.S. colleges and universities. Since the pandemic began, 650,000 jobs have disappeared in American academic institutions. More than 75% of college faculty in the U.S. are contingent workers or non tenure-track. Meanwhile, as of 2020, the aggregate value of the endowments of the richest 20 U.S. schools rose to over $311 billion, all of which are subsidized by taxpayers through the tax-free treatment we offer nonprofit educational institutions. The common joke, that Harvard is a hedge fund with an educational arm, is not so far off.

According to the IMF, the value of these endowment funds is greater than the GDP of New Zealand, Finland, or Chile. In the last 5 years the U.S. has fallen in the UN’s Human Development Index, but its elite universities have risen in the world rankings and gotten richer. America’s richest colleges and universities, in effect, exist in a country of their own (though paid for in part with the public’s money).

This inequity reflects a restructuring of political power, towards an aristocracy. In historical perspective, we are seeing the collapse of the great post World War II democratization of post-secondary arts and sciences education alongside the appearance of a meritocracy alienated from the public and at odds with democracy. If anyone points out the role of elite education in the reproduction of inequality today, Americans tend to see it as flawed or compromised meritocracy rather than “true” meritocracy. But such responses are signs of a kind of Stockholm Syndrome. The “merit” of meritocracy has little to nothing to do with the abilities, or worth, or value of people as human beings and citizens.

Meritocracy and democracy are not the same thing. The goal of meritocracy is to produce, or reproduce, an elite. There is nothing necessarily democratic about that. The Puritans who founded the Ivy league schools were very good at building stable and exclusive institutions, for many reasons, including that the elite, for them, was the elect: those specially chosen to receive God’s grace, to be one of the sanctified and saved few among the masses of the damned. In the early United States, however, New Englanders quickly discovered, to their dismay, that being the elect did not mean much to many Americans and they would be hard pressed to win national elections. The Puritan schools are designed to serve the elect, not for democratic education.  Thomas Jefferson feared and reviled the Puritan schools, and founded the University of Virginia to counter what he saw as their anti-democratic influence. 

The Civil War and Reconstruction, first, and the Civil Rights Movement, second constitute the greatest achievements in modern American democracy. Both also were high marks of public education. In the former, radical Republicans who had seized control of the government created America’s great land grant universities, while the Civil Rights Movement unfolded after a generation of Cold War investment in high quality public university education. The United States has spent a generation moving away from this kind of democratic education toward a gilded meritocracy. America’s elite private schools are now one of the last strongholds of the drunken post-Cold War triumphalism that hoarded wealth and privilege to private institutions at the expense of public and democratic ones.

There is no way that I know of to have truly democratic elections without widely available and high-quality public education. But as everyone knows, the consolidation of wealth by elite, mostly private, schools has gone hand-in-hand with damaging political campaigns that have weakened even the country’s greatest public universities, such the University of Wisconsin- Madison and the University of California-Berkeley, for example.

In 1940, the acceptance rate at Harvard was eighty-five percent. In 1970, it was twenty percent. This year, for the class of 2025, it was 3.4 percent. On the surface, a far more selective Ivy League seems to support the notion of meritocracy as something approximating what Jefferson characterized as the purpose of (unrealized plans for) free public schooling in 18th century Virginia: “the best geniuses will be raked from the rubbish annually.” In practice though American meritocracy has become skewed to elite reproduction. The economist Raj Chetty has found that nearly 40 of the country’s elite colleges and universities, including five in the Ivy League, accept more students from families in the top 1% of income earners than from the bottom 60%. Computer scientist Alison Morgan recently released a study examining 7,218 professors in PhD granting departments in the United States across the arts and sciences.  She found that the faculty come from families almost 34% richer than average and are twenty-five times more likely than average to have a parent with a PhD. Faculty at prestigious universities are fifty times more likely than average person to have a parent with a PhD.  American meritocracy has become a complex, inefficient, and rigged system conferring a series of “merits” on ambitious children of highly educated and prosperous families. 

In the mid 20th century, when Harvard accepted 80% of its applicants, its graduates voted Republican. Today Ivy league acceptance rates are in the single digits and its graduates, as well as 70% of people with graduate degrees, vote Democratic. This is why Thomas Piketty refers to the U.S.’s (as well as the UK and France’s) “Brahmin left.”  Yes, the Brahmin left - sometimes lumped in with the conservative punching bag ‘woke capital’ - is a favorite target of right-wing propaganda, so Democrats might assume that this reservoir of elite expertise is good for democracy and progressive ideas. 

And indeed, rich meritocratic institutions are natural refuges for leftists or progressives in an oligarchy. But they are poor environments for democracy or democratic thinking. We think the Ivy League is best because it admits the lowest percentage of students. Once admitted, whether it be grades, a professorship, tenure, the name or type of professorship, the fewer that have it always means the better it is. To some degree this is inevitable as talents in the arts and sciences can never be democratic. But the basic social logic of meritocratic life is one of exclusion.

Combining an existential commitment to this meritocratic exclusion with sincere progressive beliefs leads to dissonance. On the one hand, we hear grandiose world-historical claims from meritocrats, while the institutions struggle to conduct themselves as decent neighbors and good citizens. Two Yale professors gained notoriety for ominous exegeses about how Russians and Nazis have taken over the Republican party (never mind, apparently, that Russians and Nazis were historic enemies). Meanwhile, Yale declines to make its dorms available to New Haven city workers on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic (the university was soon forced to reverse its decision). Cornell University’s English department changes its name (adding an “s” to “literatures”) and compares their act to the 20th century decolonization of Africa.  The same week, Ithaca College, two miles down the road, lays off 130 faculty members. Cornell gives no sign of noticing. Columbia University announces it has received a 5$ million grant for two law school professors to study democracy. The same week, the university tells its striking graduate students, who have exercised their legal rights to form a union, that the university refuses to recognize their right to strike, much less their union and will confiscate their wages.

There are some countervailing signs. Three hundred Princeton faculty signed an anti-racism letter that called on the university to increase the university’s financial support for the people of Trenton, New Jersey. Columbia, Cornell, and NYU are all building new science research centers in New York City. These will offer the institutions fresh opportunities to be decent neighbors and good citizens. But reform will not solely come from within the Ivy League, or within higher education itself. Philanthropic organizations are still giving big grants to America’s richest universities, recirculating resources among the richest institutions always while chanting social justice keywords. The change has to come from politics, from a broader debate about the point of higher education.

That debate is happening. Politicians in Massachusetts sometimes float taxing Harvard’s endowment fund, and in fact, last year, as a result of Trump’s inclusion of a minor ‘endowment tax’ in his otherwise reactionary 2017 tax cut, the top schools had to actually pay a modicum of taxes. More importantly, last week, Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal and Senator Bernie Sanders introduced legislation that would go a long way to restoring democratic education in the U.S, rescuing it from the regime of our gilded meritocracy and its Brahmin byways. Jayapal and Sanders’ proposal would make public college and university tuition free for families making under $125,000. It would transform American life and help the public universities, colleges, and community colleges that have for decades been starved and battered. I hope Joe Biden recognizes the impact restoring these non-Ivy League institutions could have. He has certainly reoriented the Democrats in other ways. It was not meritocrats Bill Clinton and Barack Obama who abandoned decades of austerity economics that threw elite education into the center of the oligarchy economy. It was Joe Biden, a University of Delaware and Syracuse Law School graduate.

There’s a large supply of scholars and teachers ready, willing, and able to work. There’s a lot of public universities, colleges, community colleges, and HBCUs that have for decades been starved. Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement brought the modern U.S. its greatest achievements in democracy, both were also high points for democratic education and public schools.  The Biden family understands public education and Jill Biden is an educator.  With something like a WPA program to bring arts and sciences education to Americans, Joe Biden could restore democratic education in the U.S.

Fundamentally, the anti-monopoly movement to break up large corporations involves restructuring our society so that communities and families have more control over their lives and sovereignty. The regional divide we’re seeing, with a few gilded cities and their educational castles, must be broken to have a free self-governing people. That means making education work not just for an elect, but for everyone.

Sam Haselby is a historian and an editor. He is the author of The Origins of American Religious Nationalism.

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Matt Stoller