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The Customer Is Not Always Right: A Reply to Elliot Berkman

It’s a disheartening time for academia. Our cloistered world is beset by a number of existential challenges. Many of our once-venerable institutions are suffering from mission drift, saddled with administrators who have no idea how to navigate interfering voices on all points of the political spectrum. At the same time, the university’s business model has been under pressure from disruptive online competitors whose products are becoming more sophisticated, more attractive to students, and cheaper, making the high cost of a university education increasingly difficult to justify. Wide swathes of the general public are losing faith in higher education, both for partisan and practical reasons.

Here at Quillette, University of Oregon psychology professor Elliot Berkman recently offered an intriguing analysis of some of the self-defeating actions taken by academics. Berkman argues that academics need to take the social impact of scholarship more seriously, step out of our ivory towers with greater frequency, and otherwise work harder to earn the trust and respect of the broader world. We need to craft research that is more accessible and less prone to the biases of our specializations, spend more time and effort teaching undergraduates, and do a better job of disseminating the knowledge we generate.

On the surface, these seem like reasonable solutions to some of the major challenges facing our universities. Undergraduates are the group we are likely to lose first, and in the greatest numbers, to online substitutes. Emphasis on the practical implications of research findings should quiet the critics who see our work as ideologically-motivated or simply naïve. And wider dissemination of our prescriptive work should reinvigorate public support for the academic mandate.

Yet I would argue that these proposed solutions have been tested and shown to fail. My own research suggests that a focus on reach, impact and, if you will, customer ‘buy-in,’ actually can have surprisingly dangerous implications for academics—especially on issues of critical social importance, such as applied ethics and policy development.

In my dark corner of the academic world—strategic management and business policy—we have always made sure that our research would present itself as relevant to the practice of management. And despite the fact that many of us quietly believe that future managers would best be served by a humanities education at the undergrad level, we have been expending great effort on seeking the best possible learning outcomes in our undergraduate management programs. Most importantly, we have privileged and celebrated impact above all else. The teaching rock stars of our field have lucrative consulting practices, and spend as much time in boardrooms as they do classrooms.

And what has emerged from these dedicated efforts to closely shape our work for ‘real-world’ impact? We have probably done more to encourage business crises and immoral managerial behaviours than prevent them, a fairly insane outcome considering how often we speak of corporate social responsibility.

But for academics, being ‘practical’ often means being amoral. So, to those hoping to spread the gospel of reach and impact in your own field, I say this: If you want to know what will happen to disciplines such as philosophy and psychology after a few decades of close focus on mass-market interests, you need look no further than their damaged cousins in the management field.

*     *     *

It has become common for the media to report every now and again on the silly topics or obvious research conclusions that have managed to receive funding. And Berkman lists some pretty hilarious academic studies in his own field. But I would much prefer to endure low-level researchers engaging in scholarship of dubious merit that may break through into something substantive and surprising, than have star researchers engage in practical work that contributes to (as I see it) social ruin. I’d much rather laugh at my colleagues than fear for the future.

In case you think I am overstating the danger, let me share the research implications of two recent articles published in one of the most prestigious journals serving the management field.

In the first instance, an article entitled “A Behavioral Theory of Social Performance: Social Identity and Stakeholder Expectations” argued that if a company is getting positive feedback about its social performance from large customers or close partners, they need to view this development as an efficiency risk. Investing in social-performance activities beyond what the firm’s most loyal allies expect of them should be viewed as a waste, in other words. Put another way: When you get positive feedback on efforts to do some good, take it as a signal that you are doing too much good.

This is the sort of work in business ethics that will indeed have ‘reach’ and ‘impact.’ We are telling CEOs who already buy into the idea of corporate social responsibility that they may be going overboard, a message they are all too happy to hear. In order to reach a wide audience, we are using the economic language of ‘efficiency’ to describe projects that may, in fact, have been guided by principles that go beyond any desire for material gain. Complexity makes research confusing. So we craft simple messages that every CEO can understand: If folks are praising your efforts to be nice, you are being too nice.

And yet that wasn’t even the most eyebrow-raising paper published this summer. In an article entitled “How Applying Instrumental Stakeholder Theory Can Provide Sustainable Competitive Advantage,” some of the top scholars in my field argued that because robust, ethical trusting relationships with stakeholders are strategically valuable only if they are rare and difficult to imitate, most firms should not even bother trying to build them. It’s just too hard.

A little bit of background: Both of these papers were published in the Academy of Management Review, and constitute part of the ‘stakeholder’ research tradition. Stakeholder theory emerged in the management field as an effort by scholars with humanities training to bring a more humanistic angle to a discipline that was otherwise dominated by economic thinking. The hope was that if managers talked about the need to meet the expectations of a broad group of ‘stakeholders’ within the community, instead of just the narrow interest of their ‘shareholders,’ this shift in vocabulary and thinking would open the door to more ethical discussions.

Unfortunately, this sort of scholarship provided little reach and impact, and stakeholder theory struggled to find its place in management research, amid fears for firms’ bottom lines. So in the name of reach and impact, stakeholder theorists shifted course, and began working to convince managers that those who treat their stakeholders well would establish a competitive material advantage over those that did not. The aforementioned pair of articles demonstrate what the consequences are of linking ethical behaviors to competitive advantage

I know several of the co-authors who wrote these two articles. They are talented, idealistic scholars who care about their students and the field more generally. But they have become so focused on finding ways to make their work relevant to Fortune 500 CEOs, so interested in positioning their work as having a consulting angle, that they are incentivized to advance the arguments that powerful CEOs love to hear. Pursue ethical business strategies, we tell corporate leaders—but not so ethical that it becomes an efficiency risk affecting your bottom-line. Build trusting relationships, we tell them, but only because it will give your firm a competitive edge. The more successful we are in persuading academics to focus on reach and impact, the further will go down this same road.

In a recent New York Times review of Anand Giridharadas’s new book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, Nobel-prize winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz chastised “thought leaders” in the management field for pushing buzzy but ineffectual concepts such as social entrepreneurship, social impact investing, and sustainable capitalism. CEOs prefer these strategies because truly “doing the right thing—and moving away from their win-win mentality—would involve real sacrifice; instead, it’s easier to focus on their pet projects and initiatives.” But it is the pet projects that, at least superficially, provide reach and impact. If management scholars instead focused on “real sacrifice,” they wouldn’t be invited to Davos because their message would be too challenging for business leaders to hear.

On the teaching side, we are not fairing much better. In our maddening desire to signal real-world practicality at the expense of innovation and creativity, our deans insist on course outlines that take the form of binding ‘contracts’ with undergraduate students. We are quick to embrace experiential learning in order to ensure our students have real-world exposure. We outsource critical facets of our teaching to technology companies. Our corporate partnerships are so vast that it’s no longer even clear that our administrators believe that their faculty know what it means to run a classroom in the digital age.

Consider Riipen, a company that provides a digital platform for potential employers to post challenges for students to work on. The performance of the students is then ranked and assessed by the posting company. Which would be fine, were it not for the fact that the exercise is undertaken under the auspices of a university course.

I remember sitting in on a pitch meeting in my capacity as member of the undergraduate program steering committee. I listened as the millennial founder lectured me on the meaninglessness of “made up examples” and “cases from the past”—as opposed to the “real time” challenges his company provided for students. I was schooled on how they offer the ultimate CV, giving students a chance to display a “portfolio of real-world projects,” which are of course so much more meaningful to employers than our assessments of how they performed on academic projects or exams. And don’t worry about what it means to give up on the unique pedagogy individual universities have spent decades developing: Riipen were offering branded portals: Our school’s intellectual capital would be cast aside, but we would still retain our marketing identity.

I think the problems facing academia go deeper than Berkman realizes. Because whether you have been socialized as an academic on the Left into a narrow echo chamber of specialized expertise and social justice, or socialized as an academic on the Right who believes the customer is always right (with Wall Street usually being our customer), I don’t think very many of us still believe the academy remains a bastion of free inquiry or a space for youngsters to develop intellectually. Even fewer believe that the assessments contained in student transcripts offer meaningful information. And, perhaps the saddest truth: Almost nobody really believes that sitting in a lecture hall is still time well spent.

Some years back, I was fortunate enough to attend a session at a conference with Harvard Business School professor Clay Christensen. He was giving a talk on how disruptive innovations that already destroyed certain industries were now threatening the viability of universities through a technology enabler (online learning) and business model innovation (non-credentialed learning facilitators, experiences instead of degrees, and rock-bottom pricing). He was worried about the future of universities.

As a consequence of his concern, Christensen spent time talking with Harvard donor-class alumni to discover what in their experience was so meaningful that it created a life-long bond of loyalty to the institution. Perhaps unsurprisingly, nobody spoke of the courses or the lectures. What they valued most about their time at the university was the personal relationships that were cultivated. The one time they met informally with their professors outside of class and were challenged, off the record, to think—that was more valuable and memorable than a semester of lectures.

Christensen said that these findings made him nervous for the future, because when Harvard conducts faculty recruitment, they don’t look to hire folks who students would want to hang out with or who would want to hang out with students. This is true of every university I’ve visited, and the problem is getting worse. Between our rush to create a virtual classroom in response to technology pressures, and our fear of social relationships between students and faculty, we are killing what may be our only meaningful path forward—the consecration of the traditional university as a place for human connection.

I agree with Berkman that academics need to engage in serious introspection. I also agree that it is incumbent on us to change, and to change fast. But I don’t think we need to embrace reach and impact in a way that makes us more palatable to the business elite or the average citizen.

I think our job is to challenge the kings and queens of industry, not act as courtiers. I think it’s okay to say that we have little to offer an American political class that supports a president who said he “love[s] the poorly educated.” I actually want to hear more from the folks in disciplines that offer relatively little in reach and impact. I think we need more philosophers, ethicists, theologians, literary critics, visual and performing artists—and fewer consultants. I also want to hear more from scientists with a sense of humour, an infectious curiosity, or a controversial finding, and less from the dogmatic careerist or researcher chasing funding from a major corporation.

In the course of researching my forthcoming book, I spent a year talking to my counterculture heroes. I learned more from these exchanges than I ever had at any specialized academic conference. As the philosopher Richard Rorty has explained, wisdom is found in keeping a conversation going. Our mandate as academics should be to converse with as wide a diversity of thinkers as possible—including our own students—forging real human connections in the process.

That’s our job. To keep the conversation going. Our primary mission as members of the academy is not to sell a simplified educational product. There are disruptors who are better positioned to offer that. And let’s acknowledge that our ‘customers,’ such as they are, aren’t always right. What we offer as universities is a space for unique human interactions, not a proving ground for bought-and-paid-for ideas. And while the spaces we inhabit are not always safe, they are essential for the health of our society and the future of wisdom.

 

David Weitzner is an assistant professor of management at York University. His new book Fifteen Paths will be published on March 5, 2019 by ECW Press. You can follow him on Twitter @WeitznerDavid

27 Comments

  1. Aaron from Green Bay says

    Thanks for sharing this story. With 2 kids completing college in the next 2 years, I have urged each to lead “device free” movements on their campuses where students feel free to engage another without fear of being tweeted to death for saying something dumb, or being doxxed for saying something controversial.

    Even if it’s just one day a week, this is something the tech industry ought to support. They should advocate that in the universities and high schools, putting down your phone and unplugging your earphones for at least 1 day a week is health for the student body and society.

    When you watch 3 girls on a couch and the two on the outside are texting each other about how the girl in the middle is a horrible biatch…you know it’s time for the adults to take back control of the room.

    Don’t let the students blackmail or extort your integrity away from you and your peers. Defend what is right and what is real. If human beings cannot interact intelligently (in spite of ideological differences), what hope does society have in 20-30 years?

    Device Free Wednesdays! Come on FB, Google and Twitter….get behind it.

  2. God save us from any more “management scholars” from the many, many universities of Portlandia in the Anglosphere.

  3. Farris says

    “I think we need more philosophers, ethicists, theologians, literary critics, visual and performing artists—and fewer consultants. I also want to hear more from scientists with a sense of humour, an infectious curiosity, or a controversial finding…”

    Excellent point and hopefully sincere.

    Currently few Universities tolerate opinions, speakers , writings, ect… that deviate from the Left’s agenda.
    Is there room on campus for students on the right side of the spectrum?
    Are Christian and Jewish students made to feel welcome or free to offer opinions?
    If the professors are predominantly liberal with whom do students on the right commensurate?
    How should religious students or students on the right feel when they witness a professor participating in a violent protest against their point of view?
    How should these students react when their view point is subject to hostility in the classroom?
    How many graduates believe they survived college by keeping their view points hidden?

    Tolerance is not accepting view points like your own from different peoples, that’s congeniality.
    Tolerance is accepting of view points from an out group.
    More frequent dialogue between students and professors should be encouraged. But without diversity of opinion on campus, student/professor comradery will foster the creation of an echo chamber.

    • I teach at a community college in rural Minnesota. When we talk about colleges, I think it’s important to remember that nearly 40% of U.S. undergraduates are educated at two-year schools, which tend to be much less leftist than four-year universities. I teach philosophy and would place myself in the center-left of the political spectrum, with strong libertarian views (including an absolute commitment to free speech). In my classes, I encourage students to share their perspectives without fear of censure and think carefully about the issues we discuss so they can arrive at their own conclusions. I assure them that they will not be penalized for disagreeing with me or other students, and tell them that they should report any instructors who do abuse their power to the Dean. Some of my top-performing students have held political views that are diametrically opposed to my own. In my 14 years of teaching, I’ve only known one instructor (he taught Sociology) who actively tried to indoctrinate students and punished them for disagreeing with his far-left views. Fortunately, he did not receive tenure and no longer teaches at my school. In addition to classes on ethics, I also teach a World Religions course. Although I’m an agnostic myself, Christian students have consistently told me that they feel comfortable expressing their faith in the class, both in person and via anonymous surveys which I only see after grades have been turned in.

      This is obviously anecdotal, but I suspect the atmosphere is similar at most other community colleges and many non-elite, non-coastal colleges and universities across the country.

      • I too teach at a community college over in the east coast. The only disagreement I have with you is that you seem to believe this has to do with being ‘on the coast’ (you write ‘many non-elite, non-coastal colleges”…) . It doesn’t. It has to do with social class, both of the student body and, maybe more importantly, administration. I think this infection stems from upper or upper middle class intelligentsia, the arts, and the very wealthy who want to feel noble about their gains and who want cheap imported labor.

        Admin matters a great deal. If a tiny fraction of students are far left, and most are not, admin can make their power very disproportional to their numbers by falling to punish them, even encouraging them.

        In community colleges, the vast majority of students are working class and/or first generation/supporting themselves. They want practical learning for a job. They don’t care about politics or virtue signaling. They’re far too busy.

        In regular colleges, I would wager a lot that the higher your social class the louder your virtue signaling. This too is anecdotal…

  4. Circuses and Bread says

    This article reminded me of Bastiat’s “candlemakers petition.”

    While I understand that those who are associated with universities and university-political complex complex would be opposed to the demise of universities, It’s cause for celebration for the rest of us who pay the taxes that subsidize them. Universities are incredibly inefficient when it comes to delivering research and educational services. I doubt that our children in 30 years will be lamenting the demise of universities anymore then we lament the demise of the stagecoach industry.

    A couple of the arguments that the author made I think deserve note. Frankly because I found it very funny. First, the author argues that universities have some special place in the teaching of ethics. As compared to whom? Congress? Further, the author argues that universities are special places for socialization and intellectual discussion. Well, so are bars and coffee houses. And for what universities cost we could easily afford to pick up the tab.

    • @ Circuses and Bread

      “Universities are incredibly inefficient when it comes to delivering research and educational services.”

      That is a big statement. Would you care to back it up?

      “It’s cause for celebration for the rest of us who pay the taxes that subsidize them. ”

      Yes… now are universities when all is totaled up in the pluses or minuses?

      “I doubt that our children in 30 years will be lamenting the demise of universities”

      In one way shape or form, universities will always be there. Things are clearly not going to change for the next 100-200 years never mind 30.

      “Well, so are bars and coffee houses.”

      You are not serious are you…

      • Circuses and Bread says

        @reading nomad

        Thanks for the reply.

        You’ve asked for “back up.” While I don’t have the time to provide an in depth study with footnotes and cross references, here are some interesting statistics. In the US, the 2014–15, total expenses per full-time-equivalent (FTE) student at nonprofit 4-year postsecondary institutions was $54,157, at public 4-year institutions $41,074, and at private for-profit 4-year institutions was $15,470 (source: National Center for Education Statistics). I bring that up for a couple of reasons. First, to show that even within the existing university paradigm, there are drastically more efficient providers, in this case for profit universities have a much lower cost per student. Second, just as a matter of overall cost, these figures demonstrate how expensive universities are in absolute terms. And keep in mind that the annual expenses do not include other related costs such as books or living expenses. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to quickly find a good cost per student comparison to educational disrupters such as Khan Academy, but I was able to find some old information indicating that the Khan Academy was receiving north of 10 million unique page views per month, while their more recent financials indicate total annual expenses are just slightly north of $37 million. In any case, I think it safe to assume the costs per student are essentially negligible.

      • Circuses and Bread says

        @reading nomad

        Part 2. As for your point about “universities will always be there.” That reminds me of the whistling past the graveyard comments that we usually see on the cusp of a major technological disruption. Universities as we know them will easily see their demise in less than 30 years. Will they still exist in some form in some places? Sure. They just won’t be relevant for the vast majority of the population. In much the same way that if you want to see people using horses and buggies you can find them in parts of Ohio and Pennsylvania. It just isn’t all that relevant though for the rest of the population that drives cars.

        One sidebar comment I would make is that the demise of universities will be slower and later in the industrialized west than it will be in developing countries. I believe that disruptive technologies that drastically reduce educational costs will be embraced by developing economies much more rapidly.

        Finally, to address your comment of whether I’m serious. My comment on bars on coffee houses was of course facetious. My underlying point is not. The original authors argument that universities will provide value as places of socialization is absurd given the cost. I found it reminiscent of the oft quoted remark by opponents of home schooling: “B-but what about SOCIALIZATION?!” there are many ways people can have rewarding social
        and educational experiences that don’t require the expense of a university infrastructure.

    • Caligula says

      Universities perform three basic functions: they create new knowledge (research), they transmit knowledge (instruction), and they confer credentials.

      Research can (but need not) be performed on-campus. At a minimum, the internet has made it far easier for geographically dispersed scholars to collaborate.

      Instruction can be done as it was in Socrates’ day, but there are alternatives. Overall, we live in a world in which education itself has become inexpensive, yet educational credentials have become increasingly costly. At the very least, there is vast opportunity for online instruction to replace lecture halls, and comprehensive exams to replace seat-time (aka credit-hours) for credentialing.

      Yes, there are fields where hands-on instruction is required, but, also vast areas of instruction where it is not. It’s true that online interaction is not the same as face-to-face, but those massive auditorium-sized classrooms that have become the norm for undergrad. instruction don’t facilitate face-to-face interaction either, other than occasional interaction with often-disinterested teaching assistants.

      The academic establishment will fight tooth-and-nail to retain control over credentialing, especially via the accreditation process. My prediction would be that countries with less investment in the current system (such as India and China) will achieve workable low-cost, high-quality systems to deliver higher ed. to all who can benefit from it long before the USA or Europe do so.

      But, no one should think the present system can or will survive. At a minimum, the cost of a 4-year degree has been rising well above inflation for decades now, and if this were to continue then eventually the cost of higher ed. would consume the entire GDP. Is it necessary to point out that if a thing can’t continue then it won’t?

      • Circuses and Bread says

        @caligula

        Your comments on the credentialing process are spot on. Like you, I believe we will see the developing world take advantage of the disruption of higher education much sooner.

        And here is something folks who are lamenting and wringing their hands over the coming demise of universities are forgetting: with big change comes big opportunity. For example, most of us have heard of medical tourism. Who is to say that we won’t see educational tourism? Why work in a university in a high cost area when you can work in some really nice place at a lower cost overseas? Teachers with talent will still be needed. And with the lower costs that come with disruption, we will see a larger customer base for educational services.

        The educational system is dead. Long live the (new) educational system.

        • Cerastes says

          @ Circuses & Bread

          First, I think you dramatically over-estimate the usefulness of online courses without an associated instructor. It’s not that students can’t find the content on their own, it’s that what students really need is a guide to put things into a coherent framework, answer questions, forestall mistakes, etc. You can buy maps of Everest, but without a local guide, you’ll just wind up a frozen corpse. For some simpler subjects, this may not be needed, but it’s definitely true for all of STEM.

          Second, and related to that, hands-on experience is indispensable, at least in STEM (my area). A chemist who’s never run a reaction, a physicist who’s never done an experiment, a biologist who’s never dissected anything, an engineer who’s never built anything – none of these are worthy of their names. And many of these experiences are inaccessible outside of a university because they require expensive equipment, volatile/dangerous chemicals, human cadavers, etc.

          Third, teaching and research should not be seen as separate. Schools need to make many more strides in this area, but if an undergrad isn’t in a lab doing research, they’re wasting their time.

          However, these don’t make you wrong for most fields. I suspect that universities will survive, but postsecondary education will be a mix of modern community colleges (for instruction in the basics and remedial stuff), online sources, and universities with names ending in “Institute of Technology” (like my first school, which had >90% of students in STEM fields).

    • Nick Ender says

      It’s a tough spot. He’s trying to save the institution he loves and he’s decided on the double down strategy. Don’t be more practical, be even more impractical. The problem is, there’s no solution to save universities. They’re going to have to radically change soon.

    • There is a meta-question that is not being asked.

      We, the society, places high value on the university and college education. Are we collectively compelling too many to go to these institutions when they should not be there and would be better served by say a two year program, trade programs, etc.

      Perhaps one reason why colleges and universities are becoming detached from reality is that they have too many captive customers?

  5. So, powerful CEOs love to hear immoral arguments, and Joseph E. Stiglitz said so in the NYT.
    The author seems to view himself and those he agrees with as father-confessor figures to the CEOs and other business people, as guardians of their consciences. I think we already have enough such priestly castes.

    If donor-class alumni want universities to be talking-shops then by all means let them foot the bill, relieving taxpayers and students of that burden. Circuses and Bread is right about bars and coffee houses, not to mention online forums like Quillette.

    Incidentally, this is the first time I have heard it suggested that ‘the customer is always right’ is a Right wing view. So much for consumerism!

  6. “We have probably done more to encourage business crises and immoral managerial behaviours than prevent them”

    How’d you arrive at that conclusion? Confirmation bias? I would think that intellectuals would be aware of this and account for it, but it’s shocking how many people with advanced educational credentials are blind to it.

    There have always been immoral behaviors, and there always will be. Today is better than any time in human history. Tomorrow will be better. This conclusion is founded on a faulty premise.

  7. The higher education sector appears to me to have become predatory on its students. It sucks away years of their lives so the staff can get funded, whether from student loans or government subsidy.

  8. ga gamba says

    … “doing the right thing—and moving away from their win-win mentality—would involve real sacrifice….

    So, they’re supposed to return to win-lose zero-sum game tactics?

    Frankly, Stiglitz’s comment perplexed me. Emerging from game theory win-win, as presented in business management and negotiations, hit the bookshelves and the B-schools in the ’90s, if memory serves me right. It was a process to reduce adversarial interactions by getting both parties to focus on how they stand to benefit from the relationship. Stiglitz may find the phrase win-win buzzy, but the studies supporting it are sound.

    Of the ‘real sacrifice’ he wants companies to make, Stiglistz writes: In order to really have an economy with the greatest opportunity for all, the kind of economy they seem to champion, the MarketWorlders would have to pay high levels of corporate and personal income tax, offer decent wages to their workers, allow unions, fund public schools (instead of pet charter projects) and support some form of single payer health care and campaign finance reform. One simply can’t arrive at a more economically equal reality when the rungs of the ladder are so far apart.

    The Scandinavian countries, the ones people like Stiglitz admire, have some of the lowest corporate tax rates in the OECD – about 35% less than the US until Trump’s tax reform reduced US rates to that of Scandinavia’s. In the US unions are allowed. What pro-union advocates demand is the return to the closed-shop system where every employee was required to join the union. I think employees are wise to organise, but I don’t support unions’ insistence they be the sole representative of workers. They have to prove their value and work daily to continue to earn it. The closed-shop system took workers and their compelled membership fees for granted. Right-to-work laws address both the workers’ and employers’ views, and it’s up to them to sort their relationship without interference by the state. As for ‘decent wages’, neither Scandinavia nor Switzerland have minimum wage laws; it’s left to the workers and employers to negotiate. At 3.2% of GDP the US funds public schools at the same level as Australia, Canada, Switzerland, and the Netherlands and above that of Germany, Ireland, Japan, and Luxembourg. US funding is less than Scandinavia, but it’s also less than Brazil and South Africa, which tops the list. “Throw more money at it” is not the only solution; often it’s the most stupid one. In egalitarian Sweden 18 percent of students are enrolled in charter schools (called friskolor); in comparison, charter schools enroll 6 percent of American students.

    It appears to me Stiglitz failed to do his fact checking.

    The problem of Stiglitz and other field levelers fixated on equality is they fail to see those unequally placed rungs also offer opportunities to the innovative. These gaps and seams, the missing pieces, the asymmetries and imbalances are challenges to be solved through human ingenuity unleashed by dynamic free enterprise regulated to prevent abuses, such as dumping mercury in the rivers, and corruption, such as bribery and price fixing. But employers ought not be required to fix their employees’ lives. As an employer I’m hiring you to code; I’m not hiring you so I’m compelled to take care of your baby. The levelers fail to realise that as they are adjusting the rungs new inequalities for others arise or are revealed. The ladder metaphor is ill-suited because it’s a closed system; trying to impose a closed system on the open system that is society is bound to end in grief and misery, as we have seen time and time again.

    The inequality that must be corrected is that mandated by government. Apartheid was an example of this. Malaysia’s policies favouring bumiputeras and India’s set asides for tribals and the scheduled castes are other examples. Subsidies and protection from competition given to businesses also establish inequality.

    As for the customer always being right, I’m mixed on it. It was coined by Harry Selfridge of Selfridge’s Department Store, which was a luxury retailer whose customers paid top prices for the very best. Yet, businesses have different market niches. Kia isn’t actively wooing Ferrari’s customers. People wanting an energy efficient electronic car don’t visit the Hummer showroom. If I demand to have a burger that looks exactly like the one presented in a McDonald’s TV advert, McDonald’s is the last place I visit.

    Our problem isn’t so much the customer is always right, rather it’s the assertion by some, who are often non customers, that some other customers are wrong and demand policies or laws be made to restrict, prohibit, or conversely mandate the availability of the product or service. There’s a large group of busybodies who have taken it upon themselves to decide what’s good for everyone else. I’m old enough to remember when the social justice groomers used ethics as a pretext to worm their way into the business and engineering schools and forced them to mandate courses tailored to advance their agenda. I have no opposition to it be being an option, but often there’s little genuine demand for the slop being served, hence the courses being required.

  9. Steve Phelan says

    Thank you for your article, David, I am also a professor of strategic management with a humanities/social science background and it was a pleasant surprise to see the Academy of Management Review being cited on Quillette this morning!

    You make a lot of points in your article but your conclusion seems to be that universities have a competitive advantage with human connection and challenging the status quo – molding young minds so to speak. I think we have a duty to expose students to different viewpoints, presenting alternatives to instrumentalism being one example. I don’t think we have a duty to advocate for a particular point of view. As you know, we are different from a coffee shop or bar because we have the ability to curate content and assess the quality of reasoning.

    That being said, I am currently reading Bryan Caplan’s book “The Case Against Education”, where he argues that 80% of higher education is signaling ability, conscientiousness, and conformity. In this view, our course content is not our source of competitive advantage rather it is the ability to issue a credential that is valued by employers. He points out that students don’t retain much knowledge post-graduation (and I would point out that most academic research is not cited very much). The good news is that online learning is currently a poor substitute for this credentialing process so we are safe for now.

    Caplan also argues that we are over-investing in education as a society because it has an arms race dynamic. Education is literally “too much of a good thing” and the massive resources we dedicate to this activity might be better used elsewhere. Of course, that would not be a good outcome for ivory tower academics. Luckily, I’ve been cultivating my impact in the “real world” so hopefully I will be OK!

  10. peanut gallery says

    Hmmmm, why would I take a management course, when I can just listen/watch the Jocko podcast?

  11. As a consultant in the E-commerce industry we are continually challenging the customer and questioning their views and goals for the future. Often they are not right in their quest to reach the their goals and they actually (most of the time) appreciate when we are telling them counter arguments and giving them alternate solutions to their view points. In a first perspective it is not obvious why highly successful companies hire consultants, but it becomes apparent when we really have to challenge their views as outsiders. In many trades of life things comes down to very details and specifics, and this where free speech, trust and confidence comes as the ultimate success factor. Always when it has a strong backbone of objective benefits behind it!

    I’m really curious to see how major companies that exists due to shareholders investments and promise of future growth and sustainability will fare when they start to pursuing for ideologies instead. I fear badly both for the workers and the shareholders.

  12. ccscientist says

    in the paper: “A Behavioral Theory of Social Performance: Social Identity and Stakeholder Expectations” the idea is put out that a company can go too far in doing social good. This is in fact correct. The job of a business is to make money. By doing this they give people jobs and provide a product or service that people need. Getting engaged in social justice is a distraction from that mission that can lead them to go out of business. They have a responsibility to shareholders and employees to resist the temptation to “do good”. There are oodles of charities that can do this. So, sorry, your first premise for your essay is wrong. There is actually a phrase for this: “get woke go broke”.

  13. Bumbling Bee says

    @ga gamba
    Thank you for a well thought out response.

    … “doing the right thing—and moving away from their win-win mentality—would involve real sacrifice….

    When I first read the article I had to review that sentence several times to make sure I had read it correctly, what did the author leave unsaid behind the word sacrifice. Thank you for the additional information.

    Milton Friedman’s well reasoned critiques come to mind whenever I hear an emphasis on large wealth redistribution policies.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p31-xQ2Rrz4&t=0s&list=PLZ_XJRxWXNEbsXUWxqt7GwvqbTsvOFdO4&index=3

    I often find someone in history has already said it better than I ever could.

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  17. Forty-odd years ago there were 2 sections for Developmental Psychology, a ‘required’ course. In one, a mini-skirted professor lectured to a set textbook with slick slides and slick delivery to a packed auditorium. I went to check out the other, arriving in the middle of the third lecture. This weird guy with seriously crossed eyes was talking, not particularly fluently, about ‘little Han’s widdler’ to a small group of students scattered in a large hall. When I checked out the reading list, I discovered it was how Freud was translated. I picked the weirdo. After a very interesting course, Jon and his wife became close personal friends until he left for Penn. It turns out now, he was to be Jonathan Haidt’s PhD supervisor.

    When the grades were submitted, Jon’s 30 students did much better than Betty-Ann’s 200. She wanted to have us ‘curved’ down. Jon analysed the GPA’s of his and her students, and found all the marks of his 30 were higher.

    I submit that part of the problem faced by universities is that a large fraction of the students are only there for the credential, and want to be spoon fed stuff that looks like the TV programs they watch. The ones who want to learn do develop relationships to profs; they do hash over course material with the prof and others; they are exciting to have in your class. These days the cost of fostering the development of this lot is having to cater to all the others – maybe there should be a degree you could just buy, and one you work for.

    As for the rude things said about University research programs above, colleagues who were deeply involved in research were also the ones who cared most about the students who really use their university time. Then there were a few who were vastly popular with the crowd, Basic science research is a problem for people who cannot conceive the complexity of the world. Its the rigidity of mind that some are born with and others develop as they age. My own father thought it was all a waste of tax money, and never recognised what it takes to make, for example, the heart-lung machine that permitted his bypass surgery. If he had had his way, he would have lived 20 years less. Now the Chinese are working on technology to do the bypass without stopping the heart.

    I speak from 30 years as a prof and basic scientist.

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