What Elon Musk’s Takeover of Twitter Can Teach Academia

In October, Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter was finalized, and he quickly made changes to the social media service. Musk built his reputation as an innovator, first in online commerce and later with SpaceX and Tesla. His reforms at Twitter follow a historic pattern of diagnosing problems and quickly working to implement a vision that overcomes structural deficiencies in a company’s goals and operations.

In watching Musk’s reforms at Twitter, I saw a few lessons for leaders who wish to reform other organizations. In particular, I believe that university presidents can learn a lot from Musk.

Trim the Fat

Musk’s first move after taking over Twitter was to reduce its workforce. He claims that the company was losing $4 million per day, making a reduction in expenditures necessary. He laid off about half of its staff. Among the casualties was its entire human rights team, most of its curation staff, and nearly all of the ethical AI team. Its public relations team shrank from about 80 employees “to just a few members.”

Many of these employees had duties that did not contribute to the site’s core function of allowing people to interact in real time. Why a commercial company would put itself in charge of human rights, for example, is not clear. “Ethical AI” is a euphemism for an effort to prevent computers from noticing politically inconvenient patterns of human behavior. And it’s hard to justify employing 80 people in public relations at a company that has just one product—especially when that product can reach millions of people in a few seconds.

Academia, too, is administratively bloated. The number of non-faculty employees at American colleges and universities has exploded in recent decades. Some of this increase is justified, as it allows institutions to comply with new legal mandates or to respond to technological changes. (A cybersecurity staff in charge of protecting student and employee data would not have been necessary 30 years ago. Today, it is essential.) The number of administrators, in particular, has grown rapidly. Even in the 1990s and 2000s, the number of administrators grew nearly four times faster than the number of faculty. This trend shows no signs of reversing. By 2015, administrative expenses were over 40% of all higher education costs.

Like some of those laid off from Twitter, many non-faculty employees have jobs that do little to contribute to the central mission of the university: generating and disseminating knowledge. An easy target is the diversity industry. Economist Mark J. Perry has identified 126 diversity administrators at the University of Michigan alone; their payroll costs total over $15.6 million per year. Firing all of them would save the equivalent of in-state tuition for 932 undergraduate students. But there is other low-hanging fruit. Do universities need a Greek Life office? The many private universities (including my undergraduate alma mater) and community colleges that function perfectly well without one indicates that the answer is no. My former university employer existed for 50 years without an Office of Teaching and Learning; now this office employs 36 individuals, most of whom don’t do any teaching.

[Related: “How Junk Citations Have Discredited the Academy: Part I”]

The athletics department is another source of cost overruns. Very few university athletics programs are financially independent; most are subsidized by student fees, tuition, and (for public institutions) tax dollars. A 2015 audit showed that in Utah, the average public university student pays nearly $500 per year to subsidize his university’s athletics department, and that such subsidies are 45% of athletics departments’ budgets statewide. In 40 states, the highest-paid public employee is a university football coach. In addition to the potential cost savings, slimming down or eliminating the athletics department focuses a university on its identity as an academic institution. Outside of the United States, universities thrive without intermural athletics departments. And it is hard to argue that universities should serve as farm teams for the NFL or the NBA.

Restore Trust Through Transparency

For years, conservatives and those with unorthodox opinions have been suspicious of Twitter’s policies. Its blue checkmark was elusive for many centrist and right-of-center thinkers, such as Wilfred Reilly, and the platform banned Jordan Peterson, the Babylon Bee, and feminists who questioned the transgender rights movement. Yet, thousands of accounts could spew hatred toward white people with impunity. Antifa-related accounts regularly threatened the physical safety of journalist Andy Ngo and the owner of the Libs of TikTok account. It was easy to see why conservatives and centrists saw a double standard at work.

The peak of distrust in Twitter’s moderation policies occurred weeks before the 2020 election, when the New York Post published a news story about a laptop abandoned by Hunter Biden. This laptop, the Post alleged, contained information that was damaging to Joe Biden’s presidential campaign because it proved that he met with his son’s Ukrainian business partners and used his political influence to benefit their company while vice president. This contradicted Biden’s claims that he never had any interactions with his son’s foreign business partners. The laptop also contained embarrassing photos and a 12-minute video that Hunter Biden took of himself engaging in illegal drug use and sex acts.

Twitter quickly worked to smother this October surprise. Within hours, the company banned the New York Post’s account and prevented other users from sharing links to the story (which turned out to be completely true). It was obvious that the company wanted to suppress knowledge about the connections between Biden and his son’s shady business dealings.

Musk understands the trust deficit that Twitter has developed. He tweeted that “Transparency will earn the trust of the people” and, later, promised to publish an account of Twitter’s suppression of free speech, a process which has begun with the revelation of company communications about such suppression. Referring specifically to the Hunter Biden laptop controversy, he stated that a full account of Twitter’s discussions of the incident “is necessary to restore public trust.”

Universities, likewise, have experienced a loss of trust. From 2015 to 2018, the percentage of American adults who have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of trust in higher education declined by 9 percentage points to 48%, with declines occurring among Republicans, Democrats, and independents. Another survey, from 2022, shows that trust is lowest among Gen Z adults (41%), indicating that this may be a long-term trend with which higher education must grapple.

The loss of trust in universities and at Twitter has some of the same causes. Political bias (inevitably in favor of Democrats and leftists) within both groups undercuts their credibility. At Twitter, 98.7% of employee donations to political candidates went to Democrats. In higher education faculty, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 10:1. Such severe political imbalance inhibits an organization’s ability to act fairly.

Musk has stated that conservative candidates were disadvantaged on Twitter. In higher education, a lack of conservative voices meant that social psychologists were publishing research on “right-wing authoritarianism” for 70 years before the field discovered that left-wing authoritarianism even existed. Collective ideological blind spots inhibit scholarly understanding in other areas and have real-world consequences. In one survey published in 2012, over one-third of psychology faculty at universities said they would discriminate in hiring decisions against someone with whose opinions they disagreed. Given how political imbalance leads so frequently to unfair treatment, it is a miracle that any conservatives trust higher education or use Twitter.

A lack of transparency has also caused a loss of trust for both Twitter and higher education. Twitter’s algorithms, being proprietary business secrets, are inherently shrouded in mystery. But accusations of “shadow banning” (where the visibility of a person’s social media content is quietly limited) and manipulation of trending topics were widespread. Musk’s pledges to transparency may help alleviate concerns about Twitter and encourage trust.

[Related: “Dos and Don’ts for Higher Ed Accountability”]

American universities have their own secrecy problems, most notably in admissions decisions. Affirmative action has made the admissions process secretive because many universities administrators are true believers in the gospel of diversity, even though the American public is strongly opposed to racial preferences in college admissions. That opposition forces administrators who use racial preferences to do so sub rosa.

The problem that diversity-minded administrators face is that there simply are not enough black or Hispanic applicants with high academic qualifications to go around. According to the College Board, only about 2,000 black students and 8,000 Hispanic students in the high school graduating class of 2022 scored 1400 or higher on the SAT. These two groups, combined, represent just 7% of all students scoring in that range, yet they make up 22% of examinees and 37% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24. It is mathematically impossible for any university to have both (1) a representative student body and (2) equal admissions standards for all groups. Any university that wants its student body to reflect its applicant pool or the nation at large must dip into a population of Hispanic and black applicants that are less academically elite than white or (especially) Asian applicants.

However, university administrators will not publicly admit this fact. No American university willingly publishes data on SAT, ACT, or high school grade-point average statistics for different racial groups of students, and the suggestion that students from different racial groups are not always equally qualified is met with outrage. Yet, university administrators never seem to publish data showing that such a claim is incorrect.

On the contrary, the available data show that differing admissions standards are widespread. When Harvard University was forced to disclose admissions data by applicant race in response to an anti-Asian discrimination lawsuit, the data were “astonishing.” A black student with median academic qualifications had a greater chance of admission than a white or Asian student in the top 10% of applicants. Nationwide, the disparities in standards at medical schools and law schools are similar.

Hiding the practice of an unpopular policy (which, even in California, can’t win at the ballot box) fosters suspicion and mistrust. Universities should take a page from Musk’s playbook and be more transparent in their decisions and policies. If racial preferences are such good policy, then university administrators should be able to defend affirmative action to the public and be transparent regarding how race is—or is not—used. If those arguments do not persuade the public, then such practices should be eliminated to recognize that an institution designed to seek and spread truth cannot engage in deceitful and/or clandestine policies.

Improve the Product

The most long-lasting of Musk’s reforms at Twitter may be his improvements to the product. He claims that the site already runs more quickly. Twitter has launched a greater variety of verification badges to help users better distinguish between public officials, media outlets, and other personalities. Musk has also opened the “blue check” (a signal, to some, of elite status) and identity verification to all users—for a price, of course—to democratize Twitter and encourage a new revenue stream. Although Twitter performs a fundamentally simple service of disseminating short messages to a user’s audience, Musk seems to see a lot of potential for that service to improve.

Likewise, universities have room to improve. In addition to decreasing costs and improving transparency, the “product” of universities—teaching and research—can get better. The curriculum at many universities has become diluted by trendy ideas that lack intellectual rigor. Postmodern thinking has replaced traditional scholarly analysis. Nowhere is this more true than in the humanities, and students are voting with their feet. In 2012, 25% of bachelor’s degrees in the United States were awarded in the humanities; in 2020, just 10% were. When the leaders of a discipline publicly say that it is fundamentally racist, don’t be surprised if the students believe them and choose to study something else.

[Related: “Administrative Bloat and Biden’s Student Loan Forgiveness”]

Universities can also improve the research they produce by implementing high standards. Research evaluation often is based on the number of articles a professor publishes. But this evaluation system encourages professors to cut corners and produce many short-term research projects at the expense of making a long-term impact with fewer, better studies.

Universities are also obsessed with the perceived prestige of journals. This is flawed, however, because more prestigious journals do not publish better science, and prestigious journals in psychology are actually less likely to publish results that replicate successfully. The problem of journal prestige also exists in the humanities; some of the papers in the grievance studies hoax were accepted by the most prestigious journals in gender studies.

An administrator who takes a Musk-like approach to improving the research at his university would resist the temptation to delegate quality control to experts within a field. Instead, he would hold scientific work to high methodological standards that apply across disciplines and reward work that replicates, that is grounded in logical positivism, that subjects theories to falsifiability tests, and that generates new hypotheses. In the humanities, research that expands understanding about worthwhile topics and that does not start with an assumed answer should take primacy. This would mean more research on Milton than Marvel and more textual criticism than critical theory.

What the Future Holds

It is unclear how successful Musk’s reforms will be. A month after his takeover, he claimed that Twitter usage and new sign-ups were at an all-time high. But advertising revenue on the site is down, mostly due to companies responding to activist pressure. His paid-authentication strategy resulted in new accounts paying $8 for the “blue check” and then impersonating well known figures. Fixing that goof required backtracking and new policies that seemed to be invented on the fly.

Additionally, Musk’s admirable commitment to free speech conflicts with the realities of running an online community. Many forms of speech are protected by the First Amendment in the United States, including most types of pornography, “hate speech,” some forms of harassment, conspiracy theories, Holocaust denial, and many types of misrepresentation. But a social media platform where this speech proliferates can quickly become an unpleasant place for users and advertisers. And most countries—including Western democracies—place more limits on speech than the United States does. A company ruled by American absolutist views of free speech may find its reach limited.

University reformers have their own challenges. Tenure commitments, employee unions, and governance structures make rapid change much more difficult than it is at a privately owned tech company. But the lessons are still there, even if they cannot be implemented with the speed or efficiency with which Musk can make changes at Twitter. University administrators that keep costs down are popular, and students who pursued rigorous postsecondary education had fewer regrets about their college major. Academia moves slowly, but administrators who apply the lessons of Twitter will find that their institutions improve.


Image: Adobe Stock

Russell T. Warne

Russell T. Warne is a quantitative psychologist and former tenured university professor. His research specialties include education, differential psychology, and social science methodology. His popular writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Quillette, The Conversation, and Psychology Today.

One thought on “What Elon Musk’s Takeover of Twitter Can Teach Academia”

  1. OK, but the problem is that the people in charge do not care about education. Two groups of people are in charge. One is customers: students and parents. Most care only about social advancement and job opportunities. They will not reject Harvard no matter how racist its admissions policies are and they will not reject Stanford no matter how low-class its law school administration behaves. The second group is the trustees, and, in the case of public universities, politicians. They don’t care about education either. Rick Perry and Greg Abbott could have cleaned up UT long ago if they cared. Logically, this means voters do not care either.

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