A Case of the Varsity Blues

Accepting a permanent state of academic unease 

June 9, 2019

I’ve worked in higher education my entire life. As a staff member of two fine institutions, I’ve had roles in academic publishing, communications and media relations, online learning, and academic support.

I chose to be part of higher ed from day one, viewing it then, as I do now, as a meaningful vocation.

When the Varsity Blues scandal hit, I initially glommed onto the Hollywood angle. I sent around a joke to many of my colleagues: “From Full House to the Big House”. We had a sense, however, that the scandal ran deeper than a few wealthy actors buying their admissions slots. True to form, the story started to unravel, twist and turn, and then unravel even more.

Even if you worked for an institution that was not directly implicated, Varsity Blues and the resulting outrage took all of higher ed to task. It was like a permanent dark fog had landed amid the spires.

Moreover, Varsity Blues hit not out of the blue, but on the heels of a series relentless attacks on higher ed: from DACA to the HR1 bill to suppression of free speech to rising costs to the MOOC meltdown to not preparing graduates for real jobs.

Many of my colleagues were drained from managing crisis after crisis, but they felt like they were fighting the good fight---and doing so for a good cause.

A challenging political environment and fair and unfair criticisms of public and private institutions can be countered. A self-inflicted assault on the very soul of higher ed, however, was something else entirely.

The deepening Varsity Blues revelations hit me hard. As a veteran administrator, I wasn’t surprised or even angry. Instead, I felt embarrassed. Betrayed. Most of all, I felt dispirited, almost ill. I heard from many of my colleagues and confidants that they too were uneasy, and well, a bit blue.


Could what Jason Brennan and Phillip Magness suggest in “Cracks in the Ivory Tower: The Moral Mess of Higher Education” be true? Have my peers and I been working for the equivalent an Enron?

“From a business ethics standpoint, the average university makes Enron look pretty good. Universities’ problems are deep and fundamental: Most academic marketing is semi-fraudulent, grading is largely nonsense, students don’t study or learn much, students cheat frequently, liberal arts education fails because it presumes a false theory of learning, professors and administrators waste students’ money and time in order to line their own pockets, everyone engages in self-righteous moral grandstanding to disguise their selfish cronyism, professors pump out unemployable graduate students into oversaturated academic job markets for self-serving reasons, and so on.”

Ouch. Even if just a few elements of what the authors espouse have merit, the ivory tower isn’t just cracking, it’s crumbling. 

This dismal assessment of academia also brings to mind Kevin Carey’s magnificent hit piece, “The Creeping Capitalist Takeover of Higher Education.” His argument in short: higher ed, fearful of inevitable and ongoing disruption, is in a sense, selling its soul twice by giving over its core functions, its very reason for being, over to for-profit publishers, software and edtech companies, and OPMs.

You could say that Carey’s critique (neon green digital ants and all) was overblown and biased---and plenty did---and that Brennan and Magness, both faculty members, are peddling the blame-the pointy-headed-evil administrators-diatribe that ebbs and flows every few years. Okay, so maybe things are not quite so bad.

Then enters respected, level-headed education scholar George Siemens who offered this social media salvo a week or so ago:

“I no longer think there’s a huge difference between for-profit and public higher education. Sit in enough faculty meetings, meet with enough leadership, and it becomes clear that it’s all about money. The difference between for-profit and public is mainly about appearances. In public institutions, we claim the higher ground but almost everything is driven by student numbers, enrollment, and dollars. Education could be less expensive, it could be more engaging, it could have a bigger impact, but we are confined to a system that values dollars first.”

So is Georgia Tech a version of ITT Tech, but with better labs? Has the special mission of higher ed been reduced to marketing and market forces? Here again, others have counter punched, by citing demographic and funding realities, and by highlighting the positive (institutions with improving graduation rates, tuition freezes or discounts, innovative on-campus and online programs, grads getting good jobs, and so on). 

With the help of my co-blogger Steve Mintz, I too could likely find counterexamples to the gloom and cynicism and deliver them with an honest dose of healthy concern. An underlying theme of our blog (which dates back to the now scoffed at “Year of the MOOC”) has been that the academy might not be in a crisis or crumbling, but it is at many an inflection point.

Moreover, the Varsity Blues scandal is fading from the news tickers. Some of the universities involved are tightening up their processes. The editorial board of Harvard’s student newspaper recently declared: “Harvard must make it clear to the world that its main mission is to cultivate and educate its students so that they can make a difference.”

And yet, for me, for many of my colleagues, and perhaps for you, the blues persist. That might not be a bad thing for the foreseeable future. We need to remain in a state of agitation, a state where we have to continually gut check what feels right to us and what is right for all the various stakeholders that higher ed both relies upon and enables. 

In the words of my co-blogger, “In the end, institutions are us.”

Michael Patrick Rutter is Senior Advisor for Communications in the Office of the Vice Chancellor at MIT.

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