Higher Ed’s been rotten a long time: see what I wrote about it in 2011.

The origins of the United Statesuniversity system.

The most depressing thing about being a professor is being part of the United States professoriate. I love teaching, scholarship, ideas, and service. But the professoriate is, unfortunately, an integral cog in the machine that is the American academy. And the American academy is literally a feudal, caste-based holdover from the Middle Ages. Harvard and Yale, the two first colleges founded in the United States, were patterned after European colleges which were themselves designed around the religious authority of the church.

Professors are called “doctors” because their title comes from “doctus,” a Latin term meaning “learned.” A “doctor of the church” was an ecclesiastical authority who proved to superiors that he knew the scriptures and exegesis well enough to be trusted as an authority on the Bible. One prerogative afforded to the doctors of the church was the right to define articles of faith. If Christians failed to demonstrate sufficient understanding or commitment to articles of faith, they were tortured. Those who were not Christian were tortured until they recited articles of faith, or in some cases massacred.

In addition to the problem of coercion, a problem was that Christian churches easily translated their ideological power into financial influence, and became entangled in rank corruption that led to the Protestant Reformation and centuries of war that tore Europe apart. (Study the wars of the Reformation to see a guide as to what may occur once the masses in the United States realize that universities are today’s equivalent of the medieval church.)

If you understand that American colleges and universities grew out of such a system, which depended on closed priesthoods, cabals, constant surveillance and evaluation, articles of faith, and torture, then you are in a better position to understand why higher education in the United States is so bizarre, mentally unhealthy, and anti-democratic.

It can also help you to understand where American castes come from. The United States does not have a hereditary class system, though obviously some people benefit from being born into wealthy families. The true ruling class in the United States is not based on income or even wealth, both of which can be lost from year to year. In the United States, the ruling caste is not iron-bound; it is porous, with some people being able to enter it from humble beginnings, provided that they please the high priests of the institution that truly polices and enforces caste privilege: the university system.

Just as it was possible, at times, for peasants to enter the clergy and rise up through the ecclesiastical hierarchy without disturbing the elitism and privilege of the whole system, so there are people from humble beginnings who excel in high school and get into elite schools on scholarship. (Frantz Fanon would be quick to point out that this mirrors the way the French colonizers handpicked golden children among the colonized to educate and install as imperial magnates.)

The American class system is based on where you go to college. In October 2011, the Chronicle of Higher Education published a list of the 123 colleges and universities that charge more than $50,000 per year in matriculation costs. Here you see the Ivy League, MIT, Stanford, USC, the University of Chicago, and even one public university — UC Berkeley. Of the 1,058 private colleges and universities in the United States, these 123 colleges comprise only 9%, the uppermost tenth. According to a report from the United States Census published in 2003, there are roughly 12.5 million students enrolled in public colleges, versus 3.8 million students enrolled in private colleges; hence roughly 23.3% of students attend private schools and, if we combine these statistics, only 2.3% of the entire population of college students attend the 123 schools that charge more than $50,000 annually.

By 2010, the spread of higher education had brought about a situation in which 27.5% of the adult population finishes a bachelor’s degree. If we consider that 2.3% of this 27.5% attends the elite 123 colleges, then we come upon the map for the American ruling class:

Of the entire adult population in the United States, only 0.6% — less than 1 in 100 — carries or will carry a degree from the Harvard-USC-Stanford family. This 0.6% controls virtually everything in the United States: the government, all of the media and publications, the lion’s share of economic activity, the courts, and of course, the system of education. 

This 0.6% of the population has been educated and groomed for adulthood by institutions patterned after the medieval church; though physical torture has been abolished, torture lives on through the emotional manipulations of hazing, peer review, mysterious tenure decisions, admissions and rejections, contrived internal rivalry, and purposeful status anxiety reinforced through shame and embarrassment. 

You have heard the Occupy Wall Street protesters say that 1% oppresses the 99%. It is even worse than 1% versus 99%; it’s about one person out of two hundred belonging to a closed, secretive, and all-powerful caste that makes decisions and controls the perceptions of the other 199, without being affected by the demands or responses of the 199.

The plantation system was not like the corporation.Corporations displaced plantations as key systems.

The only problem with Occupy Wall Street is that they focus too much on Wall Street, stocks, and bankers. They talk about “plutocracy,” a term that conjures images of the late nineteenth century with its robber barons and captains of industry. As I have written in my essay on Titanic, Americans like to read the world around them through the social dynamics and iconography of the Gilded Age, so it’s natural that Occupy Wall Street would define the ruling class as plutocratic. 

Back in the late 1800s, when fewer than 5% of the United States attended college and the ruling class consisted mostly of manufacturing magnates who rose to power after the Civil War, the term plutocracy made sense. As the smoke cleared from the Civil War, the Republican Party could stand proud of having obliterated the slave plantation as a social and cultural institution. Unfortunately, the Republican Party’s emerging new class of businessmen would flock to a new institution — the corporation, which gained enormous power through the 14th Amendment in the late 1860s, and came to dominate American life.

Leland Stanford, railroad tycoonFounder of Stanford University

But here is the wrinkle: Corporations have cracked and crumbled. They do not hold the true power as they did in 1911, because they have proven unable to weather ups and downs in the business cycle. I would argue that today we are seeing just how weakened corporate power is, much the way Americans witnessed the demise of the plantation economy in the mid-nineteenth century. 

After World War II and the economic shocks of the 1970s, I would argue, corporations already ceased to be all-powerful in American society. But the postwar GI Bill and the boom in college attendance between 1950 and 2010 brought larger and larger chunks of the populace into the system of “higher education,” and in so doing, enlarged this institution’s footprint and influence. The college system was able to indoctrinate more and more of America in its system of value, which grew out of the medieval system of priestly hierarchy.

Just as the Three Estates in France (the nobility, the clergy, and the commoners) clashed with each other in the upheaval that became the French Revolution, so the United States is now witnessing its own Estates clash. Rather than an all-powerful clergy, however, the Estate that is most hegemonic, entrenched, and difficult to dislodge is what I would call the Harvard-Yale Estate — the caste of people who have been able to gain entry into the educationally defined 0.6% elite.

One of the reasons that the Harvard-Yale Estate is so difficult to unseat is that the class it produces is shrewd at deflecting public anger at other institutions. Consider that something profoundly changed in the United States social structure around 1988, after the presidencies of not-so-elite Richard Nixon (Whittier College grad), Jimmy Carter (Naval Academy and Georgia Tech grad) and Ronald Reagan (Eureka College grad). Since 1988, every president of the United States has attended Harvard and/or Yale; every time a challenger from outside the Estate arises (Bachmann, Palin, Paul, Cain, Perry, etc.), the Harvard-Yale Estate closes ranks across political ranks and destroys the upstart. Since 1988, the Harvard/Yale Estate has only increased in its total power as corporations, rather than assuming dominant power, have receded as guarantors of privilege. The 2012 presidential race is likely to be between two Harvard graduates again: Mitt Romney and Barack Obama.

One reason that the Harvard/Yale Estate can preserve its power is that these elite colleges confer lifelong degrees: Once you graduate from them, you have the degree for life. 

The framers of the United States Constitution worried about the creeping danger of a new aristocracy to replace the monarchy they had overthrown in the Revolutionary War. Hence in Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution (not one of the amendments, such as the clauses protecting free speech, but the actual Constitution) posts this stipulation limiting the powers of the federal government:

No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State. 

Strangely, the First Amendment, which has a much weaker embargo on federal endorsements of religion (the amendment merely states that the US Congress cannot pass a law establishing an official religion), has been broadly stretched by the US courts to prohibit almost any exercise of religious expression on any property remotely tied with any public funds. Villages, counties, states, and even the United States military have at different times been forced to curtail any religious activity.

Yet Article I, Section 9, is much more explicit in stating that the entire United States may not grant titles of nobility. What is a Harvard or Yale bachelaureate? One cannot argue that a Bachelor of Arts from Harvard is a “license.” It does not certify any specific skill. It is a lifelong title that allows the graduate to belong to a different class: the uppermost 0.6%. It that is not a title of nobility, then there is no title of nobility. Moreover, whereas the rationale for eliminating nativity scenes from a public high school is somewhat remote from the concerns that prompted the First Amendment, the concerns that prompted Article I, Section 9 are explicitly being demonstrated by the creation of an elite 0.6% carrying “titles” from colleges that form a de facto nobility. Nonetheless, federal money flows in enormous amounts to Harvard, Yale, and rest of their peer institutions, without any legal challenges.

While you can lose your job at a corporation or go bankrupt, you will always be an alumnus of the college you attended. If you attended one of the schools for the elite 0.6%, then you can count on certain social benefits in the form of networking, favors, and also unquantifiable prestige. The system doesn’t let you hit rock bottom, for the most part. Your brothers in the same holy order of sorts take care of you and pick you up if you fall. The Estate offers the thing that the corporate elite and actual religious leadership do not have: security. 

The idea of Occupy Wall Street occupying Wall Street instead of Columbia University and New York University, which are in the same city and participate much more explicitly in the maintenance of a caste system, is embarrassing. The fact that protesters rail against banks but never think to fight against elite colleges speaks to just how much power the Harvard-Yale Estate continues to wield. Like the medieval priesthoods from which the Estate evolved, those in the college elite exert psychological control over the masses. People fear challenging the authority for reasons they do not entirely understand. Here is where Karl Marx missed the truth by a hair: Social and cultural capital have become far more powerful — and far more difficult to identify — than actual money.

The Harvard-Yale Estate is adept at making themselves invisible. Yet the institutional corruption that preserves the caste is unmistakable: These are colleges with enormous endowments protected by a strange status as “non-profit” corporations, even though the endowments are controlled by a secretive class of administrators and are used only for the benefit of the tiny fraction of the population that gets into the caste.

Moreover, the graduates of these schools, who go on to dominate in the media and in the government, protect them by mythologizing the legitimacy of their elitism, somehow convincing Americans that some important work is being done in the secluded cloisters of wealthy schools, without which the country could not function. Senators like Carl Levin and Representatives like Brad Sherman (both Harvard graduates) do their part to influence legislation that continuously nourishes the campuses where the 0.6% study and solidify their caste membership. So for instance, on June 24, 2011, Obama announced the release of $500 million in funds to six schools: Carnegie Mellon, Berkeley, Stanford, MIT, Georgia Tech, and the University of Michigan, of which only the latter two do not appear among the 123 most expensive schools in the United States. 

Enormous amounts of federal grant money flow to the elite colleges and allow for huge offshoots of “indirect costs,” basically slush funds pushing money deep into the system in case their already plush endowments are not enough to protect the schools from any economic trouble. 

Then, too, the system of federally backed student loans and grants is structured to place no limits on the tuition that institutions can charge and still enroll students with federally backed loans. Just as this no-limits form of federal backing led to skyrocketing mortgage costs because of corrupt price gouging in housing, so the same thing occurs at the elite colleges, which continued to push their tuition upward and upward from the late 1980s until today, causing tuition to increase by over 400%, far outpacing inflation or any increases in wages. It is because of this corrupt manipulation by a feudal priestly caste that USA Today reported in October 2011: 

The amount of student loans taken out last year crossed the $100 billion mark for the first time and total loans outstanding will exceed $1 trillion for the first time this year. Americans now owe more on student loans than on credit cards, reports the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the U.S. Department of Education and private sources. Students are borrowing twice what they did a decade ago after adjusting for inflation, the College Boardreports. Total outstanding debt has doubled in the past five years — a sharp contrast to consumers reducing what’s owed on home loans and credit cards.

As Harvard’s own publications pointed out in September 2009, no fewer than one fourth of Barack Obama’s appointees had degrees from Harvard, one university. The most famous of these was Larry Summers. 

Rather than illustrate the important value of having an elite college dominate a country’s institutions, the result, within two years, was 9% unemployment, a burgeoning deficit, and an explosion of public anger that coalesced into, at last, Occupy Wall Street.

While the Tea Party had vituperated directly against the Ivy League elite, accusing President Obama of elitism, the Tea Party’s message was undermined by the conviction on the part of many rightists that Obama was “socialist,” which he most definitely is not. Obama is part of a feudal priestly caste, the Harvard-Yale Estate. In The Colorful Conservative, I define four squares of political orientation: The Left, Burkean (Conformist) Conservatives, Colorful Conservatives, and Libertarians/Nihilists/Anarchists. I have no problem classifying Barack Obama as a Burkean Conservative, which places him squarely with David Brooks and Peggy Noonan.

Speaking of Edmund Burke, here is what he had to say on the overthrow of the French aristocracy, when he published Reflections on the Revolution in France, in 1790 (excerpted here):

The age of chivalry is gone. — That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever. Never, never more, shall we behold a generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom. The unbought grace of life, achieved defensive nations, the nurse of the manly sentiment and heroic enterprise is gone! It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honor, which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage while it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil, by losing all its grossness. . . .In the groves of their academy, at the end of every vista, you see nothing but the gallows. . . . When the old feudal and chivalrous spirit of Fealty, which, by freeing kings from fear, freed both kings and subjects from the precautions of tyranny, shall be extinct in the minds of men, plots and assassinations will be anticipated by preventive murder and preventive confiscation, and that long roll of grim and bloody maxims, which form the political code of all power, not standing on its own honor, and the honor of those who are to obey it. Kings will be tyrants from policy when subjects are rebels from principle. . . . To make a government requires no great prudence. Settle the seat of power; teach obedience: and the work is done. To give Freedom is still more easy. It is not necessary to guide; and only requires to let go the rein. But to form a free government; that is, to temper together these opposite elements of liberty and restraints in one consistent work, requires much thought, deep reflection, a sagacious, powerful, and combining mind. 

Edmund Burke thought elitism was necessary because without it, the average person’s flaws would overwhelm the nation with deleterious influences. Gone would be class in both senses — an economic category, and a sense of dignity. Obama thinks about the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street protests the same way Burke thought about the French Revolution. Obama believes in Harvard, no matter how many times Harvard-educated leaders screw up and prove themselves no better than ordinary folks at deciding how things ought to run.

This is why William F. Buckley said famously that he would rather a society be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone book than by the faculty of Harvard. 

Notwithstanding the fact that the Tea Party misdiagnoses Barack Obama as socialist rather than as a Burkean conformist, at least the Tea Party protests did direct their rage, in part, against the true culprit in America’s caste system: the Ivy League and by extension the entire Harvard-Yale Estate. Why is it that Occupy Wall Street still hesitates to attack the true ruling caste, choosing to demonize banks instead of holding Harvard, Yale, and Stanford hostage? 

If ever there was a time for a French Revolution in the United States, it would be now! The student loan bubble has at last turned the protesters’ gaze upon higher education. The failure of Barack Obama’s Harvard-led elitist cabal to fix anything has debunked any claims that the elite has some transcendental standards like “excellence,” “truth,” or the Platonic good that it must foster with unique privilege. The stunning similarities between Harvard/Columbia grad Barack Obama’s policies and those of Yale/Harvard grad George W. Bush, have laid bare the underlying illegitimacy of the Harvard-Yale Estate’s elitist cabalism.

They serve no purpose. They are not really smarter, regardless of what their SAT scores were. They are richer, but for no good reason. They truly think they are better than the rest of America, when in fact they are far worse. They are stubbornly entrenched, and even more stubbornly deaf to the realities of the 199 out of 200 in America who bear the brunt of their mistakes with no redress. They are, to put it bluntly, disgusting. And now we all know it.

The Occupy Wall Street camps and the Tea Party legions are both massive, with a stunningly endless army ready to protest, sign petitions, take over congressional seats, stop traffic, hurl rocks, and even take pepper-spray in their eyes and tear gas grenades lobbed at their heads. All predictions that these movements would dissipate and go away with early setbacks have proved wrong, especially in California. Drive them out of downtown, they move to a UC campus. Drive them from campus, they take over abandoned houses. Push them from squatter zones, they take over a port. They have the power, because they have the knowledge that they are oppressed, and now is the time to shatter the elite that oppresses them.

So why isn’t America revolting against the true ruling caste? The answer is complicated, yet simple. Americans have long romanticized education. The mythology of Harvard and Yale “bright minds” doing “important work” and answering to the call of destiny is still powerful, especially among young unemployed people with large student-loan debts who dream of one day having what the Harvard-Yale Estate has.

And while the colorful Right could spearhead a revolution, the Left is, well, the Left. It ought to be the Left to lead the charge because that’s what they do. Yet ever since the Vietnam War era, the protest Left has found safe haven in the very place that it ought to be demolishing: the elite colleges.

Which brings us to our Top Ten List for Christmas Day, 2011. The response among the Harvard-Yale Estate to the most dangerous challenge to their power has been nearly universal and probably shrewd.

A Dartmouth College Women’s Studies Professoris soothed by her research assistantafter a grueling day of speeches at Occupy Middlebury

“Let them eat cake.”

I have heard that it is purely a myth that Marie Antoinette actually said, “let them eat cake.”

But there is no mythology about the way elite colleges have sought to escape serious scrutiny and responsibility for the current economic crisis and the entrenched caste system. They deflect. They throw a concession. They camouflage as commoners, like Marie Antoinette milking cows in the Petit Trianon.

They act outraged. They change the subject to talk about evil Republicans, bigoted Christian fundamentalists, corporate demons, Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann. They claim that they are doing “important intellectual work” by thinking about revolution and tutoring the future leaders in leftist liberation, at the elite colleges that will allow those future leaders to escape safely from any revolution that might occur (unless Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party smell the fink and take down the Harvard-Yale Estate).

They find sacred cows and charity cases — homosexuals, Third World victims, poor children, people with disabilities, veterans — and they claim that without their scholarship and guidance, a truly populist society will eat the needy alive.

In everything they do and purport, they say, in simple terms, let them eat cake. Here are the top ten cases.

10. Andrew Ross, professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University, advises people with large student loans to stop paying them off so the government will be forced to bail out the whole trillion dollars. 

Over the last year, New York University raised its annual matriculation costs by 3.7%, bringing the yearly grand cost of attendance to $56,787. Assuming that a student does not have problems finishing on time, a four-year degree clocks in at $227,148. It is hard to envision what someone with a degree in social and cultural analysis from NYU does, if she graduates owing almost a quarter of a million dollars.

Of the 123 elite schools charging over $50,000 per year, NYU is the most prominent one within a close distance of the financial district, where protesters were camping out in Zuccoti Park on November 21, 2011. It was on that day, according to this progressive blog, that Andrew Ross made an appearance before the Occupy Wall Street crowd, and had this to say:

“Since the first days of the Occupy movement, the agony of student debt has been a constant refrain,” announced Andrew Ross, a professor at New York University, to a crowd of more than 100 assembled in Zuccotti Park. “We’ve heard the harrowing personal testimony about the suffering and humiliation of people who believe their debts will be unpayable in their lifetime.” Ross, who teaches social and cultural analysis at NYU, helped to unveil the campaign on Monday. He is also an active member of the Occupy Wall Street education and empowerment working group, which is spearheading the student-debt refusal pledge. In addition to asking debtors to stop making their student loan payments after a million signers have made a similar pledge, the campaign hopes to draw attention to the connection between the increasing cost of college and rising student debt loads. Further, the campaign aims to highlight the necessity of federally funded institutions of higher education, interest-free student loans and a requirement that for-profit and private universities reveal their internal finances — not to mention the abolishment of all current student debt.  

That Andrew Ross, ensconced in a college that charges almost $60,000 per year, would spearhead a movement calling for the abolition of all current student debt, is the utmost act of bad faith.

First of all, students who default on their debt have no guarantee that the scheme will work and the government will bail them out.

New York University, lower Manhattan

Second of all, if the government bailed the debt out, it would be a huge victory for the ruling elite situated at, of all places, New York University. Unlike houses, college degrees cannot be vacated and auctioned off if the debtor defaults. The graduate of NYU holds the degree for life — see how this is like the medieval title system? — and there would be no way of relieving an NYU grad of his debt with revocation of the alumni privileges as condition of the amnesty.

The NYU grad would still be able to strut around with the expensive title, take advantage of alumni connections, and most likely make a lot of money once the recession fades, which it presumably will. The “abolishment” of all student debt would, essentially, use taxpayer money to bankroll Andrew Ross’ elite intellectual progeny in their safety from any kind of social blowback. It would protect the caste system by giving NYU a pass for its outrageous tuitions. Those who attend inexpensive state schools (like mine) in order to avoid taking on debt, would be stuck with a lower-access degree for life, having lost the advantage they got with their sacrifices of having no debt.

But the bigger question is simply, why is Andrew Ross still at NYU if he objects to this exploitation so much? I hope those who hear him don’t eat the cake. It is worse than Alice’s.

9. Columbia University endorses Occupy Wall Street, and radical feminist Judith Butler saunters downtown to make a speech.


Columbia University is an Ivy League school, and home to many of the economic advisers who held sway both with the Bush team and Obama’s administration. It is also where Obama received his BA.

Map of Columbia and the neighborhoodformerly known as Harlem

Over the last year, Columbia University raised its matriculation costs by 4.2%, bringing its yearly attendance bill to $53,853. One reason that the college charges so much is that Columbia University must spend a lot of money to distinguish its vicinity, “Morningside Heights,” from the neighborhood formerly known as Harlem. The #1 subway stops at 116th Street to let people off on their way to Columbia, and the next stop is the famed 125th Street. As you can probably imagine, it isn’t easy or cheap to carve out a safe space for elitist privilege in a neighborhood famous for riots, gangs, and crack. Columbia University was once voted the worst landlord in New York City by the Village Voice because of its gentrification schemes, which put many black people on the street.

But Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University, was reported on October 9, 2011, as supporting the Wall Street Protests. This from the Columbia Spectator:

In the fall of 1968, a young Columbia Law School student marched down Wall Street to protest the war in Vietnam with thousands of other students.

Forty-three years later, that student, University President Lee Bollinger, says he supports Columbia students who have found themselves downtown in recent weeks, with frustrations that seem to echo his generation’s own.

“I think today there is a similar feeling,” he said, referring to the Occupy Wall Streetdemonstrations that began three weeks ago in protest of corporate greed, unemployment, and corruption in the financial sector. “In both, very, very serious things happened. The political systems seemed unable to cope with those problems, and civil demonstrations are perfectly legitimate, reasonable, and at times highly effective ways to change that.”

In an interview with Spectator on Thursday, Bollinger said that financial institutions have not adequately apologized to the American public for their role in the financial meltdown that has left many broke, angry, and worried about the future.

“My own view is that Wall Street bears a very significant share of the responsibility for the failures of these systems and the resulting, negative effects on the entire society and beyond,” he said, adding that financial institutions and government agencies have still not adequately acknowledged their role in the crisis that resulted in the loss of 8.5 million jobs.

Bollinger has served on the board of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, an agency which regulates financial institutions and implements monetary policy, since January 2007. In July 2010, he was appointed chair. 

Lee Bollinger was not alone, of course, though his ostensible street cred as someone who went to Columbia in the 1960s and took off an afternoon to hang out protesting against Vietnam forty-three years ago might set him apart from people like Judith Butler. Or does it? The man has had forty-three years to take seriously the values he trumpeted in 1968, if indeed he went to protest against Vietnam, as opposed to making the story up now as cover. He is president of Columbia University and could, one supposes, cut tuition to $15,000 per year, have open admissions, quadruple the number of students, and have Columbia serve its community and cease to be an engine of elite privilege.

Then again, he is the freaking CHAIR OF THE FEDERAL RESERVE BANK OF NEW YORK!!! And he’s telling people to go downtown to protest against Wall Street? Did anyone suggest that perhaps his endorsement is a crass ploy to keep the unwashed masses on Wall Street, on the other end of Manhattan, and away from his heavily policed wrought-iron gates?

The OWS protesters, however, just can’t get enough of the cake. Jeffrey Sachs, aprofessor in Columbia’s Economics department — arguably the academic department in all of New York City with the most blood on its hands — shows up for the protesters in a business suit and gives this strange anti-Republican chant to the masses of unemployed bearers of unsalvageable student loans. And the crowd loves it!

Soon Judith Butler, too, showed up, looking trim and sleek as she read a speech from her cell phone. Cake, cake, cake.

8. Yale Philosophy Professor starts an email chain asking for “safe protest zones” where students at public universities can sabotage themselves, while sending out no letter calling for a boycott of Yale.

If you look at this profile picture of Matthew Noah Smith, you will want to like the guy.

What is his set? It seems, the academics who want to beat up on public university police departments. You see, Matthew Noah Smith started an email chain based on this open letter, which he asked people to sign:

Open Letter to Chancellors and Presidents of American Universities and Colleges From Your Faculty

We have witnessed, over the past two months, police departments using significant amounts of force against individuals peacefully participating in the Occupy movement. But during the week of November 13 – November 19, there was an astonishing escalation of the violence used by municipal police departments against non-violent protesters. We hoped that even as politicians and municipal police violently responded to the Occupy movement, college and university campuses would remain safe locations for non-violent political dissent. But that has not been the case. In fact, universities and colleges appear to be using the same tactics in their interactions with unarmed, non-violent members of the university community as we have seen municipal police use against the broader Occupy movement. In particular, we are concerned with the actions by police associated with two University of California campuses. At UC Berkeley, police beat faculty and students who were peacefully attempting to establish an Occupy camp on Sproul Plaza. At UC Davis, police casually pepper sprayed protesting students who were peacefully sitting with their arms linked. The message sent by university officials is clear: if you engage in non-violent political protest on the university campus, you run the risk of being assaulted by university police. We condemn this and any deployment of violence by university officials against members of the university community who are non-violently expressing their political views. We condemn university officials using violence or the threat of violence in order to limit political dissent to the narrow confines of print and university-sanctioned events. We condemn university officials using violence and the threat of violence to prevent members of the university community from peacefully assembling. For more than three generations, American university and college campuses have been crucial locations in which inspiring and important political activity has occurred. From the founding of SNCC at Shaw University and the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in the 1960’s, to the divestment movements across American college campuses in the 1980s, to the establishment of student labor alliances in the 1990’s, American college campuses have pulsed with hopeful and positive forms of dissent and visions of alternatives. This admirable tradition is being threatened by the use of violence by university officials against their own students and faculty who are acting within this tradition. We therefore call on chancellors and presidents of universities and colleges throughout the United States to declare publicly that their campuses are Safe Protest Zones, where non- violent, public political dissent and protest will be protected by university police and will never be attacked by the university police.We call on these chancellors and presidents to commit publicly to making their campuses safe locations for peaceful public assembly. We call on these chancellors and presidents to institute immediately policies that reflect these commitments, and to instruct their police and security forces that they must abide by these policies. We believe that this action is necessary for the protection of one of the principal virtues of our higher education system, namely that it is an environment that cultivates an active and engaged political imagination. We call on the leaders of America’s universities and colleges to stand with us. 

This may be very unfair of me (it actually is), but I just can’t shake the feeling that this letter isn’t fair. Professor Smith teaches in Connecticut, three time zones away from California. He is an Associate Professor at Yale University, having gotten his PhD only in 2004, so it seems he finished at UNC Chapel Hill and landed tenure at Yale, a school notorious for not tenuring many people, within six years of defending his dissertation. He’s doing well for himself — and he reports every day to work at one of the wealthiest institutions in the world, surrounded by the ghettoes and urban blight of New Haven, Connecticut.

Yale and surrounding ghettoes

Over the last year, Yale increased its yearly matriculation costs by a whopping 5.8% to an annual bill of $52,700 (I don’t even believe it’s that low; many costs aren’t being fairly reported.) The college is located in, according to this May 24, 2011 report from the Yale Daily News, the fourth most dangerous city in the United States. Rampant assault and robbery require, of course, an ever vigilant police force. But the daily mill of altercations between poor New Haven residents and the police might not rise to the level of national concern, because of the color of those poor people’s skin. Thirty-seven percent of New Haven’s population is black and about 10% of the city is Hispanic. Having spent some time in New Haven, I can assure you that if several dozen black and Hispanic townies congregated on Old Campus, facing Phelps Hall, refusing to leave after having their tents taken down, and chanting, “Hell no, we won’t go,” and demanding open admissions and tuition waivers, there would be a lot more than pepper-spray flying through the air.

Which brings me to the basic quandary of the “free protest zones” that Professor Smith wants. Does he want anything to change? At Yale? Or maybe he pictures that civil disobedience at places like UC Davis might prompt tuition stabilization at public colleges, for the working-class people who can’t even afford to apply to Yale? Here’s my problem with the whole affair: I live in Los Angeles, and teach at a Cal State. Yes, I agree that tuition hikes are brutal. But I also have 137 students next semester with no TA, and I teach writing. It may be a small thing to Professor Smith, but I live a constant grind and I don’t have time in my life for massive disturbances on the sidewalk in front of my office. I serve the people of the United States as a soldier and a writing instructor. I work hard. I don’t make a lot of money. I sure as heck don’t have the amenities available to a Yale professor, or even a current Yale student. I don’t ask for much. I do ask for police to keep the campus functioning so we can do the best we can.

Smith says that colleges have “pulsed with positive and hopeful forms of dissent and alternative visions” ever since the 1960s. Maybe if you are reading Plato’s Republic on Old Campus with fourteen students in Directed Studies. My students go to college for training, to get good jobs. I give them the tools to dissent — later, after they have finished their studies. In my classroom, we have lots of public discourse and many fertile conversations, rich in insight and hope and alternative visions. I can’t engage in all those things if mobs of protesters shut down my university to protest a $500 hike in tuition. It would stop me from being able to teach, my students from learning, and discourse from forming.

Police should show restraint and judgment, but so should students. And I’d like to see Professor Smith get serious about change. Not just the “let them eat cake in a free protest zone” shows of liberal sympathy. I want him to send out a letter soliciting signatures for Yale University, which was built on opium trading and slave plantation proceeds, to disband as a private college, liquidate its endowment, transfer its holdings to a public trust, have open enrollment, and charge $9,000 in tuition per year, something that any student could, reasonably, handle with the student loan system that exists. 

It will never happen. I would die waiting for that letter to be sent out. That’s the problem.

7. Angela Davis headlines a communist conference to support Occupy Wall Street, across the street from the Wharton School of Business.

You may know Angela Davis from the lore of old: She was the raucous black woman with an Afro who didn’t take any crap back in the 1970s. She wrote Women, Race, and Class, an excellent historical study I have used in multiple classes. She was the living, breathing symbol of revolution once upon a time.

Since then, she received tenure at UC Santa Cruz, in a history of consciousness program. UC Santa Cruz is a beachfront school where lots of wealthy kids go to talk about revolution. Has the revolution happened yet? Let’s check.

Hmmm. It’s been a good 40 years, and that history of consciousness program has not, in fact, fomented any revolution. But I don’t hold it against Angela Davis for being tenured, comfortable, successful, and well-heeled in a vacation-like community where the yearly seasons are temperate and she will never have to walk into a classroom of 35 poor black students from Los Angeles who need to be proficient essay-writers in fourteen weeks.

Wharton School of Business

I do hold it against Angela Davis for delivering a keynote speech at a conference on Herbert Marcuse, a vaunted radical intellectual from the 1960s, which was hosted at the University of Pennsylvania. In case you are curious, the University of Pennsylvania raised its yearly cost of attendance by 3.9% this year, to a toasty annual sum of $53,976. It is at the University of Pennsylvania where the Wharton School of Business is housed, one of the most powerful business programs in the country and a program with a lot of influence on Wall Street.

The name of the conference, which was held Oct. 27-29, 2011, was “Critical Refusals.”

I think that is supposed to mean that critics are supposed to refuse to engage in oppressive and exploitative systems.

So why are they having the conference at the same place where the Wharton School of Business prepares robber barons for the future?

By the way, Herbert Marcuse’s son was quoted in other reports on this conference; he’s a tenured faculty member at our forementioned favorite place, Columbia University.

Am I being crude here? Crass? Yes, maybe a little. But the time has come and gone when radical thinkers could ignore the ironies — and blatant self-negations in their choices — by saying they are doing “important work.” I hate to be rude, but this is cake at this point. Just lots of catered pastries on a white tablecloth on a table in the back of a lecture hall full of very wealthy white people who have no intention to dismantling their caste. This “let them eat cake,” with a bit of sass, but still the same old jive. Also, the 1970s were a long time ago. It’s time to regroup and do some “important work” on yourself, A. Davis. 

6. University of California at Berkeley launches a scholarship program to help middle-class students.

We were saying a while back that UC Berkeley earned a very special distinction, as being the only “public” institution with yearly attendance fees surpassing $50,000.

For the record, UC Berkeley was where Judith Butler taught before she transferred to Columbia University, so it looks like we have come full circle.

If you want to be exact, here is the lowdown: UC Berkeley increased its annual matriculation costs this year to $55,512 for students who don’t live in California. Full article below:


If you live in California, then the tuition is “only” $33,000 per year, over three times what Californians pay to attend my campus for one year.

The Berkeley Campanile

This is a program similar to what Harvard launched in 2004, to great fanfare. Back then, Harvard was lauded for starting a program to recruit working-class students with financial incentives. As we can now conclude with 20/20 hindsight, Harvard’s program didn’t accomplish much, because only about 30 students a year were able to take advantage of the program, and the school’s matriculation costs kept climbing to the current stratosphere of $52,560. Berkeley is just now getting around to throwing some cake to the out-of-state parvenus who want four years of that Bay Area sunshine. To qualify, they have to come from households with incomes between $80,000 and $140,000. 

This is like whistling into the wind. As one critic pointed out about the Harvard program back in 2004, the only way to combat class inequality is for elite institutions to cease being elite–they have to admit more students, have broader admission standards, and lower tuition. Otherwise all they are doing is handpicking a small number of golden children who get a pass out of the middle class into the upper class, leaving the rest of the 99.4% to get pepper-sprayed at Occupy Davis.

5. Colleges everywhere suddenly discover veterans, and repay them for their service by ignoring their military experience and instead sending them to school psychologists.

Never to be outdone by the Right in the art of exploiting soldiers, the Left suddenly discovered the rhetorical power as well as financial bevy to be had by feigning sympathy for men and women who served in the armed forces.

We all heard about Scott Olsen, the man injured in the Occupy Oakland riots, who is identified as an Iraq War veteran about twice in every article about those events of November 2, 2011…

Most of the details backing up #3 have been deleted due to my desire not to start tensions at my job.

4. Stanford University professor sends email to tens of thousands of English teachers, urging them to condemn the police at UC Davis. 

I am sure Russell Berman is a very fine man, but I didn’t like the email he sent me.

He is the president of the Modern Language Association, the professional organization that governs my field, college English. (Update, since this post was first written, Berman’s term ended and he was replaced with Michael Berubé, an extremely wise choice for the MLA because Dr. Berubé works at a state school in Pennsylvania and has an illustrious, very real history of combating elitism. A protest letter coming from Michael Berubé would have had a completely different effect, no doubt being easier to take seriously.)

He is also a full professor at Stanford. 

I have already responded to the letter here. Let’s review the basic facts about Stanford University, which was founded by Leland Stanford, a man who made a lot of money on railroads built by underpaid and underfed Chinese coolies.

Map of Stanford in relation to Berkeleyand Davis, both within 90 minutes of driving.

In the last year, Stanford University raised its cost of attendance to $52,341 per year. Stanford University is located in Palo Alto, California, a very short distance from UC Berkeley and UC Davis, the two campuses that Berman mentioned as he urged professors to condemn the police on both campuses. 

The thought that maybe the Occupy Colleges people should attack Stanford — not just build tents, but actually charge it with battering rams and pitchforks — and that Russell Berman should give such a movement his sincerest blessing, didn’t occur to Berman. But it did occur to me.

3. Harvard students walk out on conservative professor because they say he causes income inequality.

On November 2, 2011, seventy students walked out of a Harvard economics class taught by Greg Mankiw. They didn’t like certain things about the course.

That sounds to me like Tuesday. Who cares?

Well, since it is Harvard and there is, lo and behold, a letter, it became a big story and ended up feeding the chatter mill about Occupy Wall Street.

On this link, we have the letter addressed to Greg Mankiw, of which I offer some excerpts below:

Today, we are walking out of your class, Economics 10, in order to express our discontent with the bias inherent in this introductory economics course. We are deeply concerned about the way that this bias affects students, the University, and our greater society.

As Harvard undergraduates, we enrolled in Economics 10 hoping to gain a broad and introductory foundation of economic theory that would assist us in our various intellectual pursuits and diverse disciplines, which range from Economics, to Government, to Environmental Sciences and Public Policy, and beyond. Instead, we found a course that espouses a specific—and limited—view of economics that we believe perpetuates problematic and inefficient systems of economic inequality in our society today.

A legitimate academic study of economics must include a critical discussion of both the benefits and flaws of different economic simplifying models. As your class does not include primary sources and rarely features articles from academic journals, we have very little access to alternative approaches to economics. There is no justification for presenting Adam Smith’s economic theories as more fundamental or basic than, for example, Keynesian theory.

Care in presenting an unbiased perspective on economics is particularly important for an introductory course of 700 students that nominally provides a sound foundation for further study in economics. Many Harvard students do not have the ability to opt out of Economics 10. This class is required for Economics and Environmental Science and Public Policy concentrators, while Social Studies concentrators must take an introductory economics course—and the only other eligible class, Professor Steven Margolin’s class Critical Perspectives on Economics, is only offered every other year (and not this year).  Many other students simply desire an analytic understanding of economics as part of a quality liberal arts education. Furthermore, Economics 10 makes it difficult for subsequent economics courses to teach effectively as it offers only one heavily skewed perspective rather than a solid grounding on which other courses can expand. Students should not be expected to avoid this class—or the whole discipline of economics—as a method of expressing discontent.

Harvard graduates play major roles in the financial institutions and in shaping public policy around the world. If Harvard fails to equip its students with a broad and critical understanding of economics, their actions are likely to harm the global financial system. The last five years of economic turmoil have been proof enough of this.

We are walking out today to join a Boston-wide march protesting the corporatization of higher education as part of the global Occupy movement. Since the biased nature of Economics 10 contributes to and symbolizes the increasing economic inequality in America, we are walking out of your class today both to protest your inadequate discussion of basic economic theory and to lend our support to a movement that is changing American discourse on economic injustice. Professor Mankiw, we ask that you take our concerns and our walk-out seriously. 

Really? Last year, Harvard raised its annual tuition costs by 3.8% to $52,620 per year. It’s Harvard, which accepts fewer than seven in one hundred applicants to its undergraduate program. Harvard IS inequality.

map of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

Now don’t me wrong; I am not going to jump up and defend Professor Mankiw. Anyone who teaches Economics is a bit dismal, which is why it’s called the dismal science. But the students write “Economics 10 contributes to and symbolizes the increasing inequality in America.” You know what else contributes to and symbolizes the increasing inequality in America? Elitist schools! And the guilt-ridden liberals who go to them, then write this:

Harvard graduates play major roles in the financial institutions and in shaping public policy around the world. If Harvard fails to equip its students with a broad and critical understanding of economics, their actions are likely to harm the global financial system. The last five years of economic turmoil have been proof enough of this. 

Where is the irony self-awareness? These students are basically assuming that the world is going to be run by them (they “play major roles in the financial institutions”) even though, as the authors admit, “the last five years of economic turmoil have been proof” that nothing about Harvard really screams competence. Maybe, just maybe, if they walk out of class, they can actually occupy Harvard Yard, and demand that the whole institution turn its gargantuan endowment to a public trust administered by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone book–then they can insist on open enrollment and force themselves to deal with people who are faster, slower, smarter, dumber, richer, and poorer than themselves (kind of the way we did things in Basic Combat Training). 

But that’s asking way too much. Instead, these Harvard students just want two classes on John Maynard Keynes and a couple photo ops with the admiring masses they will soon enough lord over and exploit, like the feudal elitists they are.

Doesn’t Mankiw understand? They want to learn how best to deliver cake to us. Let them let us eat cake!

2. Paul Krugman, Princeton professor, unfortunately exists.

If you are not familiar with him, let me explain to you who Paul Krugman is. He writes a column for the New York Times in which he wrings his hands about class oppression and blames all woes on Republicans. 

Some of his trademark quotes are here.

He says, for instance, this:

“I believe in a relatively equal society, supported by institutions that limit extremes of wealth and poverty. I believe in democracy, civil liberties, and the rule of law. That makes me a liberal, and I’m proud of it.” 

Yes, he also teaches at Princeton University, an Ivy League school that is extremely expensive and exclusive. Not a lot of democracy going on there, unless you count the closed-door tenure review discussions where powerful bigwigs blacklist junior faculty who threaten them.

Princeton University

He says this, too:

“The media are desperately afraid of being accused of bias. And that’s partly because there’s a whole machine out there, an organized attempt to accuse them of bias whenever they say anything that the Right doesn’t like. So rather than really try to report things objectively, they settle for being even-handed, which is not the same thing. One of my lines in a column—in which a number of people thought I was insulting them personally—was that if Bush said the Earth was flat, the mainstream media would have stories with the headline: ‘Shape of Earth—Views Differ.’ Then they’d quote some Democrats saying that it was round.”  

This proves that Ivy League professors are no better than the average person on the street. The example about the earth being flat is stupid because, of course, Bush never said the earth was flat. And of course the media has many fact-checking stories with agencies like Politifact. And technically “objectivity” and “even-handedness” are the same thing; these are two casual words that people use to denote the absence of bias in the face of multiple possible perspectives. 

He also says this:

“The rich are different from you and me: they have more influence.” 

I’m sorry, are you talking to me? I know you ain’t talking to me. From where I’m sitting, you’re rich, Paulie. But I thank you for your columns. They make for good cake. They could just use a little more frosting.

1. The winner–Elite professors at “Critical Ethnic Studies” conference in California collect $150 from 1,200 attendees, offer no food, refuse to take questions, make grossly irresponsible statements about the military, and goad us all to boycott Israel.

There is simply no way to express in full detail the ridiculousness of the Critical Ethnic Studies conference I attended in March 2011. 


I presented on multiculturalism in the military and got verbally assaulted by five Canadians who said I was brainwashed and guilty of killing fellow brown people. I attended hours and hours of panels that felt like a Communist re-education chamber, listening to people generalize blindly about the United States military and decry class oppression. Many of these loudmouths hailed from such quarters as the University of Southern California, which charges $54,896 per year; Duke, which charges $53,905; Tufts University, which charges $54,474; the University of Chicago, which charges $55,416; and Cornell, which charges $54,695.

Critical Ethnic Studies, March 2011One of many panels featuring speakersfrom colleges that groom the uppermost 0.6%.

I discovered that many of the attendees were busy networking to get jobs and/or publish their monographs for tenure. A major draw was the endless mill of plenary sessions, which took place in an overcrowded gymnasium and felt very much like a Leninist pep rally. There was much denunciation of “settler colonialism,” often from people who work in these highly priced universities, guarded by elite police units, surrounded by poor people who have no chance of attending. And many of the graduate students attending were also, quite notably, racking up over $100,000 in debt to get degrees in Ethnic Studies…. You know how this story ends. The hordes of dreadlocked and scrawny radicals I saw in Riverside in March were undoubtedly among the tent-dwellers who were driven out of Occupy Los Angeles the following December, on orders of Chicano Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

For each of the many, many, long, long plenaries, speakers came to the podium and railed against neoliberalism, the prison-industrial complex, global capitalism, and anything military. They said nothing about how little they did, during their decades of tireless activism, to force their home institutions to dismantle their privilege, charge lower tuition, and refrain from reducing generations of college grads to debt peonage with useless majors to show for it. And they did not have to answer to any of these charges, since they took no questions. That’s right. They got up, they talked at us, and then we were shuffled out. All for $150, which in my case, the Army paid for. They didn’t even offer boxed lunches. No sandwiches, free cans of diet coke, or even … cake.

Ain’t that a shame? How do you spend days saying “let them eat cake” without even offering cake? But the topper came when David Lloyd, a very white man, with a very British accent, stormed up to the podium and goaded the gym full of minorities from every part of the world, to boycott Israel. Never rest, until the occupation ends!

This was before occupation was considered a good thing by Occupy Wall Street, which wouldn’t happen for another six months.

What a year.