A Day of Reckoning for America's Universities

On October 7, 2023 the words “never again” rang hollow for the first time since the Holocaust when 6 million Jews perished at the hands of the Nazis. Employing a level of barbarism that should cause even the most fervent anti-Semite to recoil in disgust, Hamas terrorists systematically tortured and murdered over 1200 Jews. Many of those who watched the video footage of these events will never fully recover and those who do now have unimaginable horrors permanently etched in their memories. Hamas redefined what is meant by “man’s inhumanity to man.”  

This attack was a massive intelligence failure on the part of the Israelis, but it was also an unforgivable moral failure on the part of some of this country’s most prestigious universities, including Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania. Not only is there an absence of moral outrage for what occurred, but there is inexplicable pro-Hamas support voiced by many students and faculty. Perhaps these schools were taking their cue from former President Obama, who opined after the attack that “we are all complicit.” This is yet another example of Obama falling back on his old bad habits of voting “present” when asked to take a stand. Neville Chamberlain would be proud. Nor should we forget United Nations general-secretary António Guterres who in observing that the massacre “did not occur in a vacuum” left the door ajar that Hamas may have been justified in its actions. Similar thoughts were no doubt expressed in countless faculty lounges across the country, and herein lies the problem. The college students who support Hamas’ action are the product of an educational system that has failed to teach them the lessons of history. Universities should actively encourage the free exchange of ideas. There can be legitimate and well-informed differences of opinion about Israel’s role in the plight of the Palestinian people without supporting Hamas and fomenting antisemitism.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, invoked the term “moral clarity” to underscore the fact that what happened on October 7 was not some Rorschach test in which individuals could reasonably draw different inferences from the blood spatter as to the morality of Hamas’ actions. There is no gray area here -- there is only good and evil. Too many of our universities and their feckless administrators find themselves on the wrong side of history. As a result, they have unwittingly set in motion a chain of events from which they are unlikely to recover -- nor should they.

This is not altogether a bad thing. One can view what is about to take place on our college campuses through the lens of what the renowned economist Joseph Schumpeter famously referred to as “the perennial gale of creative destruction” -- the idea that dynamic forces work incessantly to destroy existing business models and institutions and replace them with superior alternatives. He was referring specifically to the marketplace for new products and services, but it applies with equal force to the marketplace for ideas. The universities in this country have been peddling inferior “goods” at grossly inflated prices for far too long. Saving them may no longer be possible; toppling the Ivory Tower may be the only viable path forward.

We did not arrive at this inflection point in higher education overnight. The “creative destruction” we are about to witness is not unlike the gradual movement of tectonic plates that causes pressure to build until an earthquake occurs.

Universities conflate indoctrination with teaching -- college students are taught not how to think but what to think. This absence of critical discourse has allowed mistruths to flourish in the vacuum. A recent survey finds that 80 percent of college students self-censor so as to placate the political and social leanings of their peers and professors. Too much emphasis is placed on the (racial/sexual) diversity of the faculty and the student body and too little emphasis is placed on the diversity of ideas. To wit, less than 1.5 percent of Harvard’s faculty identifies as conservative.  

Yet it is the economic forces that will be the genesis for reshaping higher education in this country. The average college student in the United States today puts in less than 60 percent of the study time per week that their counterparts did in 1961 (14 hours versus 24 hours). “The most plausible explanation for these findings… is that standards have fallen at post-secondary institutions in the United States.” Even students in the more technical fields, such as engineering, are not able to perform the jobs that they were hired to do. This has forced employers to commit additional resources to supplemental training for new employees. This may explain why an increasing number of major corporations have eliminated college degrees as a prerequisite for employment. These include Apple, Google, IBM, and Tesla.

At least one major law firm has withdrawn job offers to students at Columbia and Harvard who participated in pro-Hamas demonstrations. Frustrated with university leadership, Jewish benefactors at a number of Ivy league schools have resigned their board positions and withdrawn their financial support. Lawsuits are pending against several high-profile universities for failing to protect Jewish groups on campus in the aftermath of the attacks. These include Harvard, Cornell, Columbia, New York University, MIT, Stanford, the University of Pennsylvania, and UC-Berkeley.  

Will we see a mass migration of Jewish professors out of universities that support Hamas? This prospective flight of human capital poses a serious problem for the Ivy league and other prominent universities. (The Yiddish term is Tsuris and we should probably capitalize it.) Jews comprise approximately 2.4% of the adult population in the U.S., but they are significantly overrepresented in being awarded Nobel Prizes. Jews were awarded 38% of the total U.S. Nobel prizes in Physiology and Medicine. In Chemistry, Economics, and Physics, the corresponding values are 27%, 51%, and 38%, respectively. Lest this be dismissed as hyperbole, it important to recall that the Third Reich’s persecution of the Jews led to a mass exodus of prominent German physicists which, in turn, enabled the United States to develop the atomic bomb before the Nazis.   

We stand at a crossroads in higher education in this country today that is emblematic of what the physicist and philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn referred to as a paradigm shift.

Political revolutions are inaugurated by a growing sense, often restricted to a segment of the political community, that existing institutions have ceased adequately to meet the problems posed by an environment that they have in part created… Their success therefore necessitates the relinquishment of one set of institutions in favor of another… 

The world is forever changed as a result of the events of October 7th and pari passu, so are our universities. Out of the darkness comes light.

Dennis L. Weisman, Ph.D. is professor of economics emeritus, Kansas State University, and former director, strategic marketing, SBC (now AT&T). His research has been cited by the United States Supreme Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

Image: Ted Eytan

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