Why is so much of the discussion of higher ed driven by elite institutions?

by Corey Robin on March 26, 2015

One of the things that makes me crazy about the media’s discussion of higher education is that so much of it is driven and framed by elite schools. During the 90s, when it seemed like every college and university was fighting over whether Shakespeare should give way to Toni Morrison on the syllabus, it occurred to few pundits to look at what was happening in community colleges or lower-tier public universities, where most students get their education. And where the picture can look quite different.

The same goes today for the wars over trigger warnings and safe spaces: on both sides of the debate, this is primarily an argument at and about elite schools. Which has little to do with a place like Brooklyn College, where I teach. Seriously: just check out Judith Shulevitz’s recent piece on the topic in the Times, which got so much notice. In a 2100-word oped, here are all the institutions that make an appearance: Brown, Columbia, Northwestern, Oxford, Smith, Hampshire, Barnard, and the University of Chicago. There are fewer students in all of these institutions combined than there are at CUNY alone; between them, these institutions enroll less than .4% of all students in America (not counting Oxford, of course, though it wouldn’t really change the numbers).

This is all a long windup to a piece in this morning’s Washington Post by a Columbia philosophy professor who is teaching at a prison in New York. It’s a lovely article about her experience teaching Aeschylus’ Oresteia to prisoners, and it makes all the right points about incarceration and education. I really don’t want to take anything away from it. I’ve noticed that an increasing number of professors at institutions like Columbia, Bard, and NYU are teaching in prisons, and I think it’s a wonderful way to share and spread the wealth.

What caught my eye was this passage:

My incarcerated students differ radically from the ones at Columbia. When I walk into a tidy, well-equipped classroom on Morningside campus, I know my undergrads have spent years preparing for academic achievement, supported by family and teachers. Trained to ask hard questions, they consider diverse perspectives and then expect to get to the bottom of things.

When a correctional officer escorts me into a prison room equipped with rickety tables, tangled Venetian blinds, and no chalk, I know my incarcerated students have been locked away for years – sometimes for decades — with virtually no opportunity for intellectual stimulation.

My main goal as a teacher in prison has been to create a space comfortable enough for exploration and insight. The circumstance does not make that easy. With a heating system so loud we can barely hear ourselves think

As any professor at CUNY will tell you, the telltale signs that the author of this piece attributes to prison—rickety tables, tangled blinds, no chalk, loud heating systems—are ubiquitous features on our campuses. I have a very strict no-gifts policy for my students: at the end of the semester, I only accept emails or cards of thanks. But one day a student gave me a gift, and as I protested to her that I couldn’t take it, she gently pressed it into my hand and said, “Just open it.” It was a box of chalk: I gratefully accepted it. That’s how bad things can get at CUNY.

Now college is not prison; a seminar room is not a jail cell. I’m not making that argument. I’m making a different claim. Two actually.

First, the way that elite institutions dominate our media discussions really skews how the public, particularly that portion of the public that is not in college right now, sees higher education. There is a war being fought on college campuses, but it’s not about trigger warnings or safe spaces; it’s about whether most students will be able to get any kind of liberal arts education at all—forget Shakespeare v. Morrison; I’m talking essays versus multiple choice tests, philosophy versus accounting—from mostly precarious professors who are themselves struggling to make ends meet.

And that brings me to my second point: at Brooklyn College, we have students who have been to prison or who have friends and relatives who are in prison. The wall between the Columbia philosophy department and prison is impermeable and high; not so the walls surrounding CUNY. There’s a lot of talk these days—thankfully—about prisons and carceral institutions. But when the discussion is framed as Columbia v. prison, we get a false sense of the distance many ordinary Americans have to travel in order to get from their everyday lives to jail. It’s often not as far as you think.

My friend and colleague, Paisley Currah, has a paper that he’s presenting today at the CUNY Graduate Center. It’s about how transgendered people are treated in prison, and how that relates to how they, and other people, are treated outside of prison. It’s a complicated and fascinating argument—if you want a copy, email gcpoliticaltheoryworkshop@gmail.com—but the last line hits home:

Prisons aren’t “real life,” but for many, neither is the realm of putative freedom. It’s slow death.




stevenjohnson 03.26.15 at 2:49 pm

And, the community college isn’t so far from the industrial reserve army of labor?


Josh Jasper 03.26.15 at 2:49 pm

“over whether Shakespeare should give way to Toni Morrison on the syllabus”

Now I’m imagining Morrison V Shakespeare in some Highlanderesque scenario.


MPAVictoria 03.26.15 at 3:15 pm

“It was a box of chalk: I gratefully accepted it. That’s how bad things can get at CUNY.”

Yet somehow we always have enough money for bombs. Depressing as hell.


Tim C 03.26.15 at 3:45 pm

Yes! Yes! to each of your main points.

You have me wondering about how the two fit together, though. The institution I work in has a college devoted to “working-adults,” and back when prisoners could receive Pell Grants (I know, this is ancient history) we had a prison program. For a time, after we stopped offing courses, I continued with a “reading group” in the women’s prison, until the Georgia prison system basically shut down “volunteer” programs. So I wonder: How is the tuition for prisoners managed by the elite institutions where faculty are teaching in prisons? Or is that a question only for tuition-driven institutions like mine? Or has the “climate” for education in correctional facilities changed from 15 years ago?


Anarcissie 03.26.15 at 3:59 pm

‘One of the things that makes me crazy about the media’s discussion of higher education is that so much of it is driven and framed by elite schools.’

It seems to me that is completely in accord with the class structure of the social order I see around me, and with the education industry embedded within it. I would be very surprised if any other view of life appeared in The New York Times.


Lirael 03.26.15 at 4:17 pm

Just FYI, “transgendered” is typically dispreferred language these days (usually replaced by “trans” or “transgender”) in sort of the same way that “colored” for black people was in a previous generation – namely, that it used to be the preferred language, and for some middle-aged trans folks who came up using it it’s still what they use, but it’s evolved to be no longer mainstream-preferred.

I agree with your larger point. I have strong feelings (that do not seem to be the majority in academia) about things like trigger warnings, student-run voluntary safe spaces, and whether student activism around these things has anything to do with the infantilization of students, but they also only seem to have come up at an unrepresentative handful of schools. One thing I value about Angus Johnston (from studentactivism.net)’s perspectives on trigger warnings (which he decided on his own to implement in his classroom after learning about them), student activism, the political climate on campus, etc, is that he teaches at a community college, and this adds something not-elite-centric to the debates.


NickS 03.26.15 at 5:44 pm

I strongly agree with your main point and wanted to mention, on the topic of teaching in prisons and non-traditional spaces, that the documentary about Cicely Berry, Where Words Prevail is wonderful, worth seeing, and has a number of lovely scenes of her working with community theater groups.


Dr. Hilarius 03.26.15 at 9:30 pm

Thank you, Corey.


T 03.26.15 at 10:46 pm

Corey, please explain why the Time’s education section is supposed to be different than the real estate section, travel section, business section, or wedding announcements section. Also, take a look at where the reporters and editors went to school. This is not hard.


stubydoo 03.27.15 at 12:16 am

Once I was in a class at a California community college. A couple of county sheriffs (i.e. NOT campus police) walked in, picked out a guy amongst the students, arrested him and dragged him out. Everyone else just waited silently until they were out, then the professor coninued with the lesson, leaving the incident unremarked upon.

I never did find out whether the arrestee was legitimately enrolled in the class or had just gone in to hide (the class was too big for knowing everyone, and I was not inclined to strike up a conversation with the people who had been sitting next to the guy).


Ebenezer Scrooge 03.27.15 at 12:41 am

Of course, Corey is right. But there is a good reason that too many people are obsessed with Harvard. Too many schools are obsessed by Harvard. They ape the Harvard model, which of course isn’t scalable. Not every university can be in the business of producing Ph.D.s to staff every other other university. And not every undergrad school is better off as a megaversity.
And Harvard isn’t even very good for undergraduate education. The people who seem happiest with their Harvard undergrad careers are those who used it to make contacts, or those who acted the same way that bright students behave in enormous state universities: get adopted by an academic department, and act like a baby grad student.


Main Street Muse 03.27.15 at 1:05 am

““Just open it.” It was a box of chalk: I gratefully accepted it. That’s how bad things can get at CUNY.”

We cannot afford chalk either, it seems. NC Republicans have slashed the UNC-system budget to the bone. And Art Pope will likely become its president, or so the rumors say.

Elite schools dominate the discussion because their students become the voice of news, etc. See Vox as an example. (I cannot stand Vox – the juvenile tone and attitudes of the Ivy boys who write for Vox are MOST irritating. They appear to believe they know everything. Too young and ignorant to realize the vastness of the world they survey.)


Rakesh 03.27.15 at 1:39 am

On how permeable the wall is between prison and society, Marie Gottschalk’s new book Caught seems to have a lot to say. From Michael Meranze in the LA Book Review:

“Once arrested, individuals are placed under an extensive network of public and private supervision and regulation. If released or acquitted, prisoners are followed by their arrest records, costing them jobs and places to live. If convicted, prisoners are disenfranchised (except in Vermont and Maine), often even after serving the sentence. As Gottschalk points out, somewhere around 6 million people are disenfranchised as a result of the carceral apparatus. In Florida alone approximately 10 percent of its voting age population are disenfranchised (1.5 million people) while the national rate of disenfranchisement for African Americans is nearly eight percent, and in Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia about 20 percent of Latinos likewise suffer substantial disenfranchisement — especially in states like Arizona and Florida. Mass incarceration alters political power within states, since prisoners appear in the census in the places where they are imprisoned, not where they live. The result — in an eerie echo of the effects of the 3/5 clause of the Constitution of 1787 — is to strengthen the power of rural counties at the expense of urban areas. But the effective burden of incarceration goes far beyond the issue of voting. Former inmates can lose the right to work in certain occupations or receive various social benefits, and in some places cannot take out student loans or live in public housing. One of the most striking of these restrictions concerns veterans’ benefits. Veterans who serve time in prison may become ineligible for their veterans’ benefits, their crime outweighing their service…

Within the federal prison system, immigrants have been the fastest-growing population, and as a result, Latinos are now the largest population in federal prisons. Like mass incarceration itself, the criminalization of immigrants has simultaneously expanded the carceral capacity of the state and enabled private contractors to profit from the confinement of human beings. In light of the recurrent fears of an “invasion” from the south (despite the long-term decline in immigration from Mexico), the support of increased deportation and incarceration of Latino immigrants has been bipartisan (especially since 2001)…


cassander 03.27.15 at 2:16 am

Perhaps because most of the people “having the conversation” either attended elite institutions, professionally associate with them in some way, or aspire to do so?


LFC 03.27.15 at 2:31 am

Corey from the OP:

In [Shulevitz’s] 2100-word oped, here are all the institutions that make an appearance: Brown, Columbia, Northwestern, Oxford, Smith, Hampshire, Barnard, and the University of Chicago. There are fewer students in all of these institutions combined than there are at CUNY alone; between them, these institutions enroll less than .4% of all students in America (not counting Oxford, of course, though it wouldn’t really change the numbers).

And yet Ebenezer Scrooge @12 writes a comment not about Brown, Columbia, Northwestern, Oxford, Smith, Hampshire, Barnard, and the University of Chicago, the schools mentioned in Shulevitz’s op-ed; Ebezener Scrooge writes a comment about Harvard, which is no more representative, in any reasonable empirical sense, of the category ‘elite university’ than is Brown, Columbia, Chicago, Oxford, Cambridge, McGill, the éEcole Nationale d’Administration, Yale, Princeton, Berkeley, Northwestern, the Autonomous University of Mexico, and probably at least twenty other schools one might mention.

Re Ebenezer S.’s point about undergraduate education: I’ll accept for the sake of argument something I happen to think may be true — namely, that a student (of reasonable diligence, etc.) might well get a better undergraduate education at, say, Swarthmore or Amherst or Bard or Williams or St. John’s — or indeed at Brooklyn College, despite the chalk shortage — than at Yale or Harvard or Princeton or Columbia. But so what? What does that have to do with the main points in the OP? Rather little that I can see.


LFC 03.27.15 at 2:32 am

correction: École (messed up the html)


LFC 03.27.15 at 2:39 am

p.s. left out Stanford in my list @15


jjbees 03.27.15 at 4:18 am

You need 3 things for education to go well:

1) Teachers – These are universally good…even at my crappy state school, the majority of the professors had gotten their PhD’s at highly ranked universities. The poor academic job market has been good for undergraduate students for a while now. A major advantage of going to a smaller (as far as reputation goes) school is that a motivated student can get “adopted” by a professor, and not have to fight the horde of strivers at better schools.

2) Students – This is the real separation between elite schools and all the rest. Every. Single. Class. when I was at crappy state university there were stupid defiant students that didn’t belong, and they always walked in 10 minutes late. So I lost 25% of the class time to this distraction…that’s a lot of lost time. Add to that all the really stupid questions that simply opening a book would have solved, professors moving slowly to cater to the worst students, etc. etc. At elite schools, 95% of the students do their homework, go to class on time, and are non-disruptive influences. A significant minority (probably 1/4 or 1/3) at lower tier schools are highly malignant. Of course this is surmountable, and I managed to escape to a professional program with well behaved colleagues, but I look back and think of all I learned…I actually received a wonderful education, but I think- if only I had went to a school where I could actually ask some deep questions in class without the anti-intellectual neanderthals scoffing…but I digress.

3) Quiet. There needs to be ample time to be alone with your books and your thoughts to introspect and grow and read and write. The creep of cell phones and technology and youtube into the classroom has gotten in the way of that…it kind of goes along with disruptive students. But schools need to make sure there are protected quiet spaces where learning can take place. There were a lot of weekday nights (other than thursday or friday) when loud music and parties would keep me up late into the night. Shutting them all down was like playing whack a mole and you eventually just buy ear plugs. But that’s just one more thing that gets in the way.


Meredith 03.27.15 at 5:26 am

I suspect chalk problems are universal. (I have more of these problems at my small “elite” college than does my husband at his small state college. Skimping on the small but basic stuff is VERY New England, as it happens, especially among the “elite.” Make do or do without. You can’t get there from here. And all of that. Think republican NYC, too — a shortage of chalk can be sort of sweet and democratic.) But that’s not really the point here….

As often observed, journalists used to come NOT from colleges, at least certainly not from the “elite” colleges. That’s part of the problem.

There was a time once, not so very long ago, when the ivies and such fed finance and business (among other things — Yale and Harvard and so forth have always provided some share of more modest folks doing real good). Now they feed journalism, too. I think all this is a sign that journalism has become a business first and foremost. Maybe that’s all there is to it.


hix 03.27.15 at 6:55 am

Adds! Its not just socialisation of journalists or our unhealthy human tendency to admire those higher up the social ladder. The last time ive been reading one of those articles that was just to thick, just too much focused on an upper class perspective (newer German magazine), a look at the adds in the magazine explained it all.


John Quiggin 03.27.15 at 7:17 am

All this translates directly into Australian discussion of the US model. The people who run our elite universities appear to be unaware that institutions outside the elite even exist. In a recent policy discussion the VC (=President) of Adelaide University (a major insitution), observed that 50 per cent of US students attended non-research intensive schools, then proceeded to describe these schools in terms applicable to Wellesley or Barnard rather than to the reality of a community college or lower-tier state school



david 03.27.15 at 7:23 am

The present policy movement is over campus policies in handling rape accusations, to which the pro-reform side is generally lobbing for a more aggressive policy of expulsion. Economically this unfortunately ties in with the prevailing trend of increasing corporatization of elite higher ed – the attitude that education, like employment, is a favour to be grudgingly extended conditional on moral rectitude; what happens to the expellees is someone else’s problem.

And elite students are customers who deserve to have dedicated customer service officers on-call to address their complaints; if your college has no funds for additional administrators, well, that’s all very sad and we can join hands in condemning the higher power of neoliberalism/capitalism/imperialism/patriarchalism and then hand you a leaflet for the student union’s sixth picket next week.

Legally this ties in with private higher ed institutions, which have a greater power in pursuing expulsion and therefore a mandate toward noisy internal debate in employing that power, rather than state universities or community colleges. A hotel-like college can be argued to be wholly responsible for the hostile environment of staying in the same dorm as your rapist, but if you’re merely some working single mother being battered at home by a live-in unmarried partner, well, that’s all very sad and we can join hands in condemning the higher power of neoliberalism/capitalism/imperialism/patriarchalism and then hand you a women’s shelter leaflet from the student office reception desk.


Phil 03.27.15 at 9:46 am

I’m genuinely surprised that HE in the States is so under-resourced – and that you’re still using chalk. My institution’s far from elite, but I can rely on every classroom having a PC, a DVD player, a projector and a whiteboard (and whiteboard pens are available). When I started, some classrooms also had a TV/VCR/DVD combo, chained to a trolley; now you just use the DVD player and projector, or else find the video online and stream it (good network speeds, we have them as well). But the privatisation of HE is only just getting going in this country; perhaps I’ll look back in five or ten years and remember these years of plenty.


Brett Bellmore 03.27.15 at 10:32 am

“The present policy movement is over campus policies in handling rape accusations, to which the pro-reform side is generally lobbing for a more aggressive policy of expulsion. ”

I think this underscores just how content free “pro-reform” really is, and why I always replace the term “reform” with “change” when I come across it. Why isn’t it “pro-reform” to afford the accused the normal procedural rights, in place of summary punishment? From a former liberal perspective, it would represent a distinct improvement over the current kangaroo court approach to these matters.

And, why “staying in the same dorm as your rapist,”? Rape is a serious crime, and upon conviction, rapists generally will reside in prisons, not college dormitories. So, shouldn’t that be, “staying the the same dorm as your alleged rapist”? With unambiguously false rape accusations in the news, it seems peculiar to pretend that being accused of rape equals being a rapist.

I suppose next we’ll hear that “one in five” women in college are raped.

I do agree with the general complaint that higher education is discussed as though elite institutions were the norm. Most colleges and universities are vocational schools, They MUST be vocational schools, because most people seeking a college education would have to be mad to spend that sort of money on anything that wouldn’t improve their employment prospects. Only a tiny portion of the population dares pursue an education aimed at anything other than furthering their future earnings.


Philip 03.27.15 at 11:15 am

Yeah Phil, I too was surprised that chalk is till being used. I suppose it’s because in the UK blackboards were phased out for whiteboards from the late 90s (when I was finishing school). Then digital projectors replaced OHPs and TVs being wheeled in on trolleys. Now the difference between whether somewhere is well resourced is if it has a smartboard or just a whiteboard/PC/projector set up.


Cheryl Rofer 03.27.15 at 12:50 pm

Thanks, Corey.

Small liberal-arts colleges outside the magic circle are also represented poorly by the Ivy-centered discourse, for some different reasons and some similar.


CJColucci 03.27.15 at 1:01 pm

Two anecdotes:

1. In my professional life I often represent CUNY and its employees when they get sued. Once, in a hiring discrimination dispute, I wanted to get copies of the files of all the candidates for a history department hire. I wasn’t getting anywhere until the chair sheepishly told me the department had no copy paper. I took three reams from my office and brought them up. The look of genuine joy on the chair’s face was almost frightening.
2. At an institution I attended, someone had read a study on what combination of chalk and board colors was most readable. Green boards and yellow chalk won handily. The black blackboards were replaced with green blackboards, but someone then discovered that yellow chalk cost a lot more than white chalk, so they stuck with white chalk. Guess which color combination was, by far, the least readable?


Ronan(rf) 03.27.15 at 1:43 pm

Is not having enough chalk not more a failure of administration rather than a lack of funding ?Or is it meant to stand as a symbolic indictment of cuts in third level funding in the US ? Or more general administrative incompetence?
Like Phil and Phillip my (non IVY, as non American) University also had mostly draughty, rickety tabled, venetian blinded rooms (also some newer, nicer ones, which are probably the norm now) but the idea that the lecturer wouldnt have the basics necessities to do their job (blackboard, whiteboard, chalk, markers, projector etc) would be a little odd.
What are the larger facilities like in colleges outside of the IVY league? (libraries, student services etc) Better than prisons Id imagine. Which isnt being smart, but Im not sure what ricketty tables and lack of chalk is meant to represent, at a more genral level.


hix 03.27.15 at 5:26 pm

We have a climbing wall and enough chalk, but working projectors e.g. batteries in the remote control, filter replacement are a challenge at times. There seems to be a rule against building enough parking lots even so there is more than enough flat space already owned by the University arround. There also seems to be a rule against doing a lecture in one of the empty rooms next door with enough seats for all students.
When i asked the adminstrative responsible Prof to move the lecture, the answer was a very angry “we have no bigger rooms its the same at all faculities”. But i swear, there were at least 3 empty bigger rooms right next to the room during the lecture, ive checked multipble times during the term if there was at least a lecture every two weaks or something like that in the empty rooms next door.


LFC 03.27.15 at 6:56 pm

White boards and technology are in use in a lot of US classrooms, I’m sure. Perhaps not at Corey’s school or maybe he just prefers the old-fashioned methods — but I think in the OP the chalk shortage is mainly used as a symbol or indication of resource inequalities between different sorts of places.


LFC 03.27.15 at 6:58 pm

p.s. Which is sort of my answer to ronan @28.


LFC 03.27.15 at 8:49 pm

Though I didn’t address Ronan’s question about libraries (and other facilities), which wd be a longer discussion.


Soullite 03.28.15 at 10:17 am

Because the people at elite institutions will be the lawmakers and powerbrokers. Their experiences will shape society’s broader rules. And if this kind of nonsense is considered ‘normal’ to them, these are the rules they’ll try to make for the rest of us.

This isn’t difficult to understand. It’s not even particularly hard to think up for yourself. I can only assume that you’re hoping nobody will point this out.


Austin Loomis 03.28.15 at 7:48 pm

If released or acquitted, prisoners are followed by their arrest records, costing them jobs and places to live.

My direct knowledge of Les Miserables comes from having seen the movie-musical, but isn’t that basically what happened to Jean Valjean after he got out of the corvee galley? One would think that humans would have advanced a little in two hundred give-or-take years, or else one would have to agree with Lemuel Gulliver “that the yahoos were a species of animals utterly incapable of amendment by precepts or examples”.


Eli Rabett 03.29.15 at 2:37 am

Confessions of a Community College Dean http://suburbdad.blogspot.com/ is a good place to start. Dean Dad to his friends.

FWIW one’s choice in the average place is to rail against the disfunction or struggle to work around it.


Sebastian H 03.29.15 at 9:46 pm

“One of the things that makes me crazy about the media’s discussion of higher education is that so much of it is driven and framed by elite schools.”

Part of the reason is inequality. You go to an elite school, you’ve confirmed your ticket to the upper class. The more important inequality is, the more important the question of elite schools are.


Steven 03.30.15 at 10:29 am

I’ve taught undergrad seminars at CUNY that were BYOC, but then again I also had professors who brought their own chalk to Ivy League classrooms out of necessity. Chalk isn’t the measure of anything.

As an aside, who teaches free classes for the guy with no criminal record, not in prison, who works the minimum wage dead end job, an immigrant? This wo/man deserves a free Columbia professor to better her/his life, and yes, deservingness is not an inappropriate concept here.


Ronan(rf) 03.30.15 at 2:52 pm

Thanks for the responses lfc.

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