Bad News for universities?

I met Justin Fox, an excellent economics columnist at Fortune for many years, at an April book party for Bad News: How America’s Business Press Missed the Story of the Century. (It was an odd book party, in that there were almost no books.) I made an off-hand remark about how modern American universities were like the pre-Reformation Catholic church, with their own priesthood (tenure after a monkish period of study, no retirement age, faculty clubs), self-serving yet largely unverifiable dogma (I liked college, but am I really better for having gone?) and system of indulgences (to wit, buildings named after rich people convicted of felonies). He told me he might play with that in a blog post he was working on. I checked his blog at Harvard Business Review a couple of times, and then forgot about it.

Two months later, I get a note from Justin that he posted his item, Synthesis: Disrupting Higher Education. It turns out he was working on a review essay for HBR, drawing on six books. It has all his hallmarks as a columnist and author: clever and wry yet thorough, clear and pointed. He did reference my remark, and graciously did not claim it as his own (I am the nontenured Harvard newcomer mentioned towards the end).

His piece is timely because one of our shibboleths is the strength of our universities. That was true of journalistic institutions a few years ago — in 1991, when I moved to Massachusetts as the Massachusetts Miracle was unwinding, a colleague at Computerworld told me I didn’t need to worry, it wouldn’t affect me. She was right, then. Today, it’s almost unthinkable that American universities will fall by the wayside — one professor at Harvard this year talked about how places like Harvard still exist because the subjects are hard to learn unless you are someplace where you are immersed in them.  I don’t buy it, though I liked being immersed here. Justin’s piece shows that universities are vulnerable, too.
Btw, when I was able to get a copy of “Bad News” it left me more puzzled than chastened. I do feel like I am part of the complacence that emerges in the book, in that I wasn’t out there trying to push stories about how the real estate bubble made no sense, or derivatives were really dangerous. But there clearly was great and prescient reporting happening. The book’s main complaint seems to be that journalists did not rise up as a pack and follow along. The pack instead was being laid off, and those who remained were trying to keep up with the wild antics of the speculators who were distorting the economy (and often getting very rich).

“Bad News” does not bother itself about why journalists were going to do a better job of explaining the perils of CDOs than economists, when in fact economists who consulted on CDOs didn’t understand them — I have attended panels where this was confessed. Nor does it look at how we were supposed to do the economics research economists weren’t interested in, banking being a backwater of economic research at the time, overwhelmed by Freakonomics and other fads.  The “Bad News” essays also relied too heavily on the views of a few very liberal economists, which in places causes it to seem unbalanced. One of those very liberal economists is Joseph Stiglitz, Schiffrin’s husband, who contributed a chapter to the book. Yes, he’s a Nobel Prize winner and often writes persuasively about his views on how economies work, and dramatically about how institutions fail to do the right thing. But those are still his views, and he didn’t win the Nobel for them.

In the end, I found myself agreeing with Chris Roush, who wrote the chapter on how the business press wasn’t as bad as its reputation.

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