Richard Levin’s Awfully Big Corporate Adventure

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.

The Gospel According to Saint Anthony Blair

All hail.     For lo verily, the Prophet Anthony Blair, millionaire warmonger and late convert to Catholicism, hath descended from his spiritual retreat with Bono on Mount Davos and come amongst us,   bearing not tablets of stone, but a column in The Observer containing his proposals on how the world and the Middle East might pursue peace in the 21st century.

Casting his compassionate eye across our troubled world,   Saint Tony is saddened by a ‘ghastly roll call of terror attacks in the obvious places: Syria, Libya, Iraq and Lebanon, as well as Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia and Pakistan.’     He is also appalled by acts of terror ‘ in places where we have only in recent years seen such violence: Nigeria, and in many parts of central Africa, in Russia and across central Asia, and in Burma, Thailand and the Philippines.’

At this point certain inconsistencies cannot help but catch even the most casual reader’s attention.   Why does Blair’s indictment of contemporary violence only refer to the anti-government attacks in Egypt for example, and not the hideous slaughter of more than 1000 supporters of the ousted Muslim Brotherhood by Egypt’s military government last year, in a coup that he supported?   If Blair is so appalled by the ‘ghastly roll call’ of terror attacks in Syria, why was he calling for Western governments to arm the rebels last year?

Does he know that his great friends the Saudis, whose corrupt business investments he did so much to protect when he was in office,   threatened Russia with ‘terror attacks’ during the Winter Olympics last year if Putin did not change his policy on Syria?   What in fact, do the events that he describes actually have to do with each other at all?

That last question, at least, does have an answer.   For the Prophet hath looked deeply into all these events and concluded:

The fact is that, though of course there are individual grievances or reasons for the violence in each country, there is one thing self-evidently in common: the acts of terrorism are perpetrated by people motivated by an abuse of religion. It is a perversion of faith. But there is no doubt that those who commit the violence often do so by reference to their faith and the sectarian nature of the conflict is a sectarianism based on religion. There is no doubt either that this phenomenon is growing, not abating.

An abuse of religion, golly who would have thought it?   So that’s why the Rohingyas have become a stateless and victimized minority in Burma.   That’s why anti-Russian rebels in the Caucasus have been fighting for years against Russian domination.     This is why Sunnis and Shiites are currently slaughtering each other in Iraq – something that they weren’t doing before the Prophet got together with his equally devout mate George Bush to plot the war that caused the collapse of Iraqi society.

Forget the corrupt oil politics that drive the insurgency in the Niger Delta.     Or the poverty and corruption that fuels the maniacally violent Boko Haram in northern Nigeria.   Forget authoritarian governance, police and military violence, politics, the unequal distribution of resources, the role of religion in forging political and ethnic identities within states and between –   forget all that because all these manifestations of 21st century violence are all the result of a ‘perversion of faith.’

To put it as politely as I can, and far more politely than Saint Tony deserves, this is total and unmitigated nonsense.   That reactionary religious extremism exists is indisputable.   It is also clear   that such extremism has increased its political influence, particularly in the Middle East.

But that does not mean that the wars and acts of violence in the 21st century are ‘religious’ conflicts, let alone that they are based on a ‘perversion of faith’, whatever that means.   Religious conflict did not cause the Syrian Civil War, anymore than it has caused the wars in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, or the ongoing violence in Palestine, Lebanon or any of the other countries that Blair so gormlessly attempts to envelop in his dim thesis.

In fact there is no need to ‘pervert faith’ in order to use religion as a justification for violence or a political instrument.   All religions contain messages of peace and violence that can be drawn upon depending on the circumstances.     Religion can be a tool of political control by states and governments, and in some cases such control can be exercised by favoring certain sectarian groups at the expense of others, or by using religion to promote geopolitical influence beyond their borders.

But religion can also provide a potent mobilising ideology for revolutionary violence, and the fantasy of a just state founded on religious purity tends to acquire more momentum under oppressive regimes where no other ideological critiques are permitted, as has so often been the case in the Middle East.   Religion can also provide a rallying call for resistance to occupation, as Britain and the United States have discovered in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There is no doubt that the belief that religiously-justified violence is sanctioned by God can lead to some spectacularly cruel and fanatical acts of violence, but in strategic terms, most acts that fall within Blair’s   ‘roll call of terror attacks’ stem from a template of modern revolutionary violence that can be both ‘religious’ or ‘secular.’

And however bloody some of these acts have been, they are no less fanatical   than Blair and Bush’s catastrophic and disastrously misconceived wars, with their utter disregard for the potential consequences.

When Blair calls for greater western engagement in the Middle East on the grounds that ‘ All over the region, and including in Iraq…the same sectarianism threatens the right of the people to a democratic future,’ he entirely neglects to mention the extent to which the previous intervention in Iraq that he so fervently advocated has actually fuelled sectarian conflict, and created a vortex of violence that has sucked in Iraq’s neighbours.

All that is neatly obliterated by Saint Tony’s reflection on ‘my experience post-9/11 of how countries whose people were freed from dictatorship have then had democratic aspirations thwarted by religious extremism.’

And the solution?   According to Blair, western governments must now set out to embark on a campaign to promote education and religious tolerance in the Middle East and across the world, against those who ‘disseminate hatred and division’ so as ‘not to allow faith to divide us but instead to embody the true values of compassion and humanity common to all faiths.’

Now resist the urge to be sick readers, and sing hallelujah, for as Saint Tony reminds us, the world has the ideal instrument for realising this   agenda, in the shape of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.

So there you have it, the man who took his country to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq which his own foreign policy establishment once concluded were a major driving force behind acts of jihadist violence in Britain and beyond, who supported Israel’s wars in Lebanon and Gaza, who has never yet seen a war that he did not support,   just wants us all to love each each other – and help him make even more money in the process.

And yet all this remains puzzling, not because Blair can make such stunningly shallow observations in the belief that they are profound thoughts – he has always done that.   But the real mystery is why so many powerful people take his fatuous and ill-informed pronouncements seriously – and why a former bastion of British liberalism feels the need to promote the views of this contemptible and dangerous narcissist,   whose own actions have proven again and again, that he actually doesn’t know what he is talking about.