Title

The Marketplace. My Subconscious.

"I go back to professional baseball and Alex Rodriguez making $25 million a year. Or to Julia Roberts and $20 million for one movie. Are those people worth it? Of course not. But if that's what the marketplace is and enough people are willing to watch Alex play or Julia Roberts in a movie, they have a right to get that."

By

UD
December 6, 2007
 
 

"I go back to professional baseball and Alex Rodriguez making $25 million a year. Or to Julia Roberts and $20 million for one movie. Are those people worth it? Of course not. But if that's what the marketplace is and enough people are willing to watch Alex play or Julia Roberts in a movie, they have a right to get that."

This absolutely typical statement comes from an observer and defender of multi-million dollar salaries for university football coaches. You'd never know from his comparison of university coaches to professional athletes and film stars that universities are non-profit institutions....

But no one much plays along with the whole we're a non-profit thing anymore. Harvard's a non-profit worth $36 billion. Your tax money and mine ministers to its neediness.

The Senate Finance Committee can grumble all it wants about universities hoarding tens of billions of endowment dollars rather than spending them on, among many other things, making education seriously accessible and affordable; alumni can express outrage that investment fund people on campus get compensation insanely out of line with everyone else; university watchdogs can bark about disproportionate executive and administrative salaries, and the opulent perks that accompany them... But it's useless.

It's useless, first of all, because the idea of a university has fallen out of all of this. No one has any idea what universities are anymore.

Actually, it's difficult to say what a university is. But it's simple to say what you should do with money. Get it. Keep it for yourself. Spend it on entertainments and personal luxuries.

"There are certain dynamics that take over in terms of behavior," says Warren Buffett, attempting to account for non-profit organizations like universities hoarding their often immense amounts of endowment money. "That dynamic - though undoubtedly subconscious - sometimes takes precedence over considering what might be be best for society." For instance, notes a critic of non-profit hoarding, "If one of the issues you care about is global warming and you see it as an imminent threat, a 5 percent annual payout rate [for activism on behalf of the environment] just isn't logical."

Or let's say one of the issues you care about is educating people -- say you're a university -- and you spend most of your money on athletic personnel, recruitment, and facilities, rather than classrooms -- that just isn't logical either.

Note that these strange disbursements and selfish hoardings aren't done rationally. Certain unconscious dynamics... Isn't logical... Are these people worth it? Of course not... When massive national scandals like university athletic spending (plus athletic-fallout spending, like the big money the University of Colorado just paid to settle a lawsuit brought against them because of their sordid football team of a few years back) and university endowment hoarding surface, there's this talk of abstract forces bearing down on people and preventing them from being rational and socially responsible...

I mean, you know, it's the marketplace... and my subconscious has been acting up lately...

UD proposes that we introduce clarity into this murky portrait of subterranean urges and invisible hands. What is a university, if not the one place in the country where people try to be morally serious about themselves and other people? What do university presidents repeatedly feature in their speeches, if not the institution's central goal of making its students independent moral agents?

University-educated people are distinguished above all by their ability to be autonomous, and to use reason at a high level. Yet some of our highest-profile universities refuse to account for their actions in the very terms by which they understand the justification of their own institutional existence. From presidents who throw up their hands and say Sure, I've got an unconscionable salary, but it's what the trustees think I'm worth, to coaches who say Alex Rodriguez gets big bucks so why shouldn't I? to overseers who say We have $36 billion dollars because you never know when you'll need a little extra for a rainy day, our universities increasingly represent outposts of irrational or indifferent greed. Hoarding billions, or spending millions on sports stadiums and coaches, these same universities raise tuition and fees every year on students.

Students! The indifference, of course, wounds them most of all.

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UD

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