Notes From the Margins…

Richard Levin’s Awfully Big Corporate Adventure

  • March 25, 2014
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One of the small mysteries that has always intrigued me about Tony Blair’s dizzying transformation into a global moneymaking machine, was his teaching role at Yale University.   In September 2008 Blair taught his first class at Yale as part of a three-year collaboration between the Yale School of Divinity and the Tony Blair Faith Foundation calling itself the   ‘Faith and Globalization Initiative’.

According to its PR blurb, Blair would participate in a series of seminars in which ‘ The potential of religious faith to bring the world”s people together rather than drive them apart will be explored through the seminar and made available to a world audience through a multi-media website.’  

The Great Man himself summed up the course with a characteristically inane observation of his own, to the effect that ‘ Global interdependence is a reality and faith is inextricably linked to that interdependence. As we have seen, faith can be a source of division and destruction, but faith can also be a source of reconciliation, not conflict.’

Sure it can Tony, and you would know right?   All this surprised me for various reasons.   Firstly,   it was curious and in fact astonishing to learn that one of the world’s great universities had chosen chosen a man whose dim support of the Bush administration’s militaristic adventures and fraudulent wars had reaped such a terrible a harvest of destruction, violence, chaos and division across the Middle East, to lecture its students on on how to bring people together.

It was also striking that a politician who had never previously mentioned ‘faith’ in his political career – and who had explicitly disavowed any religious component to his politics while in office – was now presenting himself as some kind of authority on the interaction between Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

Last but not least, I was puzzled by the fact that such a prestigious academic institution would seek the expertise of a politician who,   whatever his political skills, was a long way short of a deep thinker.   I mean,   we are talking about a man who once said that his favourite book was Ivanhoe, and who was once criticized by three of the UK’s foremost academic experts on Iraq and the Middle East for his stunning ignorance of the region’s politics and his complete lack of intellectual curiosity about them.

Call me old-fashioned, but I thought that universities were supposed to be places dedicated to the pursuit of intellectual debate and inquiry, that valued genuine knowledge and expertise as part of their role as ‘centres of critique’, as Terry Eagleton puts it.   Yet here was Yale creating an entire divinity course around the political equivalent of Peter Sellers’ character Chance the Gardener from Being There.

I was reminded of this episode recently by the news that Richard C. Levin, who was then president of Yale, has just accepted a new job as CEO of the Silicon Valley online education company Coursera.   This is a company that specializes in ‘Massive Open Online Courses’ (MOOCs), in which students can access courses online for free.

Coursera has currently enrolled some 2 million students for its courses across the world, and it makes money when students pay for courses which it calls ‘Signature Track’ courses’ for as little as $50 to $100 dollars.

The company has made major inroads into the online education market, forging partnerships with Harvard and other Ivy League universities.     Coursera has also been criticized for a number of reasons.   Some have cited its high drop-out rates,   the high incidence of plagiarism, the poor quality of its grading systems, its willingness to submit its courses to censorship.

Others have questioned the academic credibility of its courses and warned of the potentially destructive long-term impact on university education through the expansion of ‘massified’ learning processes, in which ‘classes’ may be attended by as many as 100,000 students, with no real contact with their teachers.

None of this has prevented the former Yale president from accepting the new job for an unspecified salary, after stepping down last year.     From Coursera’s point of view, Levin will help the company develop its partnerships with American universities and reinforce its academic credibility.   But these services won’t have come cheap.   In his 20 years as Yale president, Levin was extremely successful in attracting revenue and increasing the size of Yale’s endowment, and he was spectacularly well-rewarded for it.

In 2011 Levin was listed by the Chronicle of Higher Education as one of the highest paid men in university education, with a salary of $1.65 million, in addition to the income he received as a director of American Express and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Yet in 2009/10, faced with a $150 million budget gap, Levin introduced a range of measures that included a freeze on salaries for deans and administrators, cuts in research grants, and the laying off of hundreds of clerical and technical workers.

In effect Levin embodies the transformation of American universities into what Noam Chomsky has called the ‘corporate business model, ‘ in which the huge increase in high-salaried senior managers and administrators has been accompanied by the spread of ‘precarity’ throughout the teaching and non-academic staff.

From 1985 to 2005, according to the Times Higher Education Supplement ‘ student enrolment in the US rose by 56 per cent, faculty numbers increased by 50 per cent, degree-granting institutions expanded by 50 per cent, degrees granted grew by 47 per cent, administrators rocketed by 85 per cent and their attendant staff by a whopping 240 per cent.’

This transformation was the subject of Benjamin Ginsberg’s 2011 book The Fall of the Faculty: the Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why it Matters.     A professor of political science at John Hopkins University, Ginsberg condemned the ‘administrative blight’ inflicted by an army of ‘deans’ and ‘deanlets’ that he argued had marginalized the faculty itself.

A similar process has been underway for some time in the UK, where chancellors and vice-chancellors have been hoovering up city-level pay cheques while academic and non-academic staff have seen their pay and working conditions steadily deteriorate over the last decade.

So it isn’t surprising that the former president who helped ‘corporatize’ Yale is now helping a private corporation give itself the credibility of a university that it has not earned.     And nor is it surprising that a university that was transformed under Levin’s leadership into a highly-efficient revenue-attracting machine should have seen Tony Blair as a viable addition to the faculty.

After all, it was Levin,     in his capacity as president,   who once described the appointment of this hollow cipher as ‘ a tremendous opportunity for our students and our community. As the world continues to become increasingly inter-dependent, it is essential that we explore how religious values can be channelled toward reconciliation rather than polarisation.’

No doubt.   But Blair was not the man to undertake such an enterprise.   Yale should have recognized this, yet chose to pay him $200,000, even as it was freezing salaries for its own staff.   Levin’s latest job is perhaps a clue as to why this happened, and further evidence that too many powerful people running universities are more concerned with enriching themselves than the pursuit of knowledge or teaching people to think.

In that sense at least, the relationship between the former Yale president and the British Prime Minister does show some real symmetry.

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  1. Richard Carter

    25th Mar 2014 - 11:26 am

    Excellent piece as ever, Matt. One minor quibble: it should be Silicon Valley – I think Silicone Valley would more likely be in Hollywood….

    • Matt

      25th Mar 2014 - 12:15 pm

      It would indeed! Thanks for pointing it out, Richard.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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