Modern universities are corporations. When under stress they often betray their moral and educational obligations toward students in favor of the priorities of their generous benefactors, corporate donors or government funding agencies. In exchange for their ongoing support these corporations and government agencies are particularly interested in ideas developed in universities and often seek to hire newly minted graduates as eager recruits to “solve” practical problems they feel they must address to protect their corporate competitiveness or “national security.” The corporation has become the most pervasive and dominant institution in the modern world so it is not a surprise that universities have become preoccupied with corporate priorities, often forsaking their educational mission or moral responsibilities to society at large.
What has happened to the educational process in universities as they have shifted their attention from educational obligations toward corporate priorities is not always clear. Corporations generally value compliant and obedient employees, and the American educational system has performed well for them. Within universities deciding upon research priorities and changes in the curriculum can frequently be the battle ground where tensions emerge both within the faculty itself and between the students and the faculty — and, sometimes more significantly, between the students and teachers on the one hand and the administration on the other.
In some cases both faculty and students have objected to the increasing corporatization of higher education on climate issues, focusing as it has on techno-scientific “solutions” while side-stepping larger systemic climate dilemmas. They point to the relative lack of attention given to the integrative perspectives of history, political economy, sociology, psychology or the growing racial inequities of climate change, and they emphasize instead that there is crying need evident need to expose students more broadly to a full range of social sciences and humanities to prepare themselves for the dislocations already underway in large parts of the world.
Students at universities that continue to let external grants and short-term corporate funding schemes orient their curriculum and research priorities toward “applied” fields in line with corporate priorities often find themselves ill-equipped to face the integrated climate challenges that as a human community we all now need to confront. Reputed “breakthroughs” in computer delivery of teaching and online learning have compounded the problem. Students can easily lose focus on the larger goals of education and become distracted with the immediate gratification afforded through hand-held devices and the 24-7 accessibility of whatever it is that grabs their attention in their “chosen” fields of interest. Rarely do students stop long enough to reflect upon the purpose of their education, or why they ended up choosing a particular topic to research or — more generally — the direction and values that the newly convenient technology is committing themselves to throughout their future lives.
This presents a major educational problem. It produces in many cases what has been labeled as the “sophisticated myopia syndrome” — a common outcome of higher education in elite schools. A recent and embarrassingly public example of this was on display in the panel discussions taking place in Davos, Switzerland. On January 23, 2019, Michael Dell, the CEO of a major U.S. corporation was asked what he thought of raising taxes on multi-millionaires and billionaires. His response demonstrated a remarkable ignorance of history in a field which he was ostensibly an “expert.”
It took only the casual comments of an M.I.T. professor of economics delivered to the same panel a few moments later to correct this embarrassing “mistake.” In reality, anyone with even a minimum understanding of American post World War II history would have caught this egregious error immediately, but without exposure to the inclusive and integrative disciplines of social history, many graduate students are currently very prone to this kind of moral myopia stemming from their incomplete education. Among other things, this Davos exchange revealed to the world the potential danger of allowing CEOs of corporations to have any significant say in the setting of public policy, or for that matter, any influence whatsoever on the research priorities or curricula within universities. Nevertheless, the mounting evidence indicates that the priorities of corporations are having increasing influence on both the hiring policies and educational curricula within many American universities.
Perhaps more ominously, the sophisticated myopia syndrome fostered by the increased influence of corporations on campus has manifested itself with even more devastating impact when it comes to climate issues. Noam Chomsky has alerted the public to this myopia for decades. He has drawn particular attention to the structural contradictions involved in the role of business leaders in the face of their complicity in the use and promotion of fossil fuel consumption. As he and many climate psychologists have pointed out, it is very difficult to see the truth of any proposition or set of facts when your livelihood depends upon their continued denial.
It was this kind of myopia that Chomsky points out was responsible for ignoring the “systemic risk” in the financial world, which, in turn, led to the global financial collapse of 2008. As the record makes it clear, many of Harvard’s “best and brightest” (its former President and members of its Board of Overseers ) were implicated in this meltdown. The world was given a “warning,” but few schooled in the “economics of comparative advantage” heeded the warning of Brooksley Born, and the Harvard’s sophisticated myopia syndrome ruined scores of economies around the world, touching the lives of tens of millions of people.
It is too early to write a general history of Harvard and climate change awareness. This will be the subject of a very compelling monograph in intellectual history — once a more complete set of documents is available. These longer-term questions about the role of schools like Harvard and Yale in the evolution of public understanding are important, but they take considerable documentation and extended time for analysis. The Yale Class of 1968, for example, graduated over 50 years ago, but its members are only just beginning to come to terms with the role that Yale played in the tumultuous times of the civil rights movement and the anti-Viet Nam war struggles. The fundamental misunderstandings, the outright lies, the myths and the intentional misrepresentations promoted by Yale professors and the members of the Class of 1968 continue to have an impact on millions of people to this day.
The half-truths and misrepresentations about climate change rampant on college campuses today will have no less of an impact for generations to come. Indeed, now that the scale of the crisis is global and the impact of current behavior will last for millennia and determine the survival of industrial civilization, the importance of truth in higher education has never been more urgent to clarify. It is little wonder that contemporary students — like those of the late 1960s — are demanding a fundamental reassessment of what a university education means in a time of global crisis. On the Harvard campus, a wide variety of professors, including Harvey Cox, Michael McElroy, Jim Anderson, James J. McCarthy, Paul Epstein, Eric Chivian and scores of others have worked diligently in their classes over several decades to teach students how to penetrate the mystifications proffered by the fossil fuel industries and their sympathizers.
Many students over the years were moved to organize direct action from what they had learned in these classes. Recognizing the depth of the global climate crisis, students staged numerous public demonstrations, sponsored open panel discussions and “teach ins” with faculty and presented a clear case for Harvard to divest its holding in fossil fuels. While other leading universities in America had publicly changed their investment strategies in response to similar student requests, President Drew Faust refused on several occasions to meet with the student divestment groups, preferring instead a strategy of arresting individual students on campus and taking them to court.
While a measured synthesis about Harvard and climate change awareness would be premature at this moment, nevertheless, some of the broad outlines of Harvard’s climate legacy can now be sketched. The “Drew Faust Years” stand out in particular because of Harvard’s persistent refusal, under her Presidency, to respond to student demands to cease its investment in fossil fuels. Those familiar with Harvard’s long history of relationships with government and corporations were not surprised by President Faust’s intransigence on the divestment issues because in many respects it reflects part of a larger pattern in Harvard’s actions on global issues in the past.
Ironically, perhaps, one of the more surprising features of President Faust’s collapse of moral leadership on the question of divestment stemmed from the fact that she was a professional historian, who many expected would have some understanding of the broad sweep of events and the need for institutions to change in the face of new imperatives.
Yet despite appeals from figures like Senator Tim Wirth, Bevis Longstreth, Bob Massie, Desmond Tutu and nearly one hundred Harvard Faculty who signed a letter of protest, Drew Faust persisted in her obstinacy, simply reiterating what the corporate investment managers were telling her to say.
By contrast, students heard the clarion call of one of Harvard’s most honored and distinguished alumni — Bill McKibben — as he spoke on many platforms throughout the world. The clarity of moral purpose and sense of urgency has moved millions to act on the divestment issue across the globe. Sensitive Harvard students, concerned about the education they were being offered were among those to respond.
It is the kind of global leadership that the Harvard Undergraduates for Environmental Justice (HUEJ) may well want to hear more about in their forthcoming “Heat Week.” It remains to be seen whether Harvard’s new appointed President, Lawrence Bacow, can meet their expectations.
- Can the “Grown Ups” Catch On and Catch Up with the Youth?
- Before All the World the Youth Challenge the Fatal Myopia, Greed & Childishness of the Trump Generation
- Needed: An Honest Cost-Benefit Analysis of Fossil Fuels to Avoid Extinction
- We Are Harvard – Veritas