Much ink and many gigabytes have been spilled on the topic of Claudine Gay’s defenestration from the presidency of Harvard University. The commentary ranges from the tedious and predictable gnashing of liberal teeth that racism and sexism somehow were the cause, orchestrated—naturally—by Republicans, who have made plagiarism a “weapon” in their “war on education.” More sober voices have laid out the objective case for Gay’s ouster: the plagiarism, the absence of moral clarity, her scholarly mediocrity, and her vigorous advocacy of a destructive ideology. And, it must be said, there is an air of unseemly triumphalism wafting through the air—“TWO DOWN.” Understandable, maybe, but still.
Gay’s ouster will not turn the tide on the illiberal rot that permeates our universities. Gay is a symptom, not the disease. The Gay affair was significant, however, because it brought a deeper problem into stark relief. Faculty—who are supposedly the academy’s raison d’etre—have become utterly irrelevant. Even worse, there is no credible way that faculty can pull the academy out of its malaise.
From start to finish, the Gay affair was an inside job.
It was not the faculty but Harvard’s board that appointed her. Following Gay’s inept performance before Congress, the board was digging in to defend her. They went out of their way to pre-empt the plagiarism allegations that had been swirling around Gay before they went public. The board threatened ruinous legal action against journalists who were reporting on Gay’s malfeasance. They retained high-priced spin doctors to make the allegations go away. And in the end, it was the governing board, not the faculty, that decided to pull the trigger.
Missing from the action? Faculty who might have opposed the Gay cat’s-paw. It’s not that opponents weren’t there; they were simply outside the— mostly performative—structures of faculty governance. Indeed, sentiment among the Harvard mainstream faculty appeared to solidly support Gay—a faculty petition calling for the board to defend her garnered more than 700 faculty signatories. Where contrary voices played a role at all was through two informal exchanges, one at a closed-door meeting at the Harvard Club, and another at a private dinner, involving a small group of dissident faculty and two skeptical board members who were initially supportive of Gay, but had their minds changed. The good news here is that integrity and respect for academic freedom still exist at Harvard. The bad news is that its win was a close-run thing—the dissidents were overwhelmingly outnumbered by the hundreds to one.
The irrelevancy of faculty is not limited to Harvard, nor is it a recent phenomenon—it has been growing for many years. The Gay debacle merely highlighted it. In 2011, for example, Benjamin Ginsberg ascribed faculty irrelevancy to the rise of the “administrative university.” That project has continued without interruption, to the point where administrators now outnumber students at some campuses. The rise of the administrative university is a pricey endeavor, sucking up slightly more than $700 billion annually. Roughly half of that bill is covered by federal, state, and local governments.
The enormous revenue streams and the power they represent have dramatically changed the landscape of incentives and disincentives throughout the academic landscape. In the sciences, for example, incentives no longer reward discovery. Rather, rewards flow to “scientific productivity,” assessed by metrics such as numbers of publications, grant dollars, and so forth, all of dubious relevance to scientific discovery. 
The incentives for college administrations and their governing boards have likewise changed but for different reasons—they have abandoned an important component of their fiduciary duty. In so doing, colleges are reverting to an older and deleterious conception of trustees’ fiduciary duty. Through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, college boards and administrations regarded their duty to be solely to the institutions they governed. Faculty irrelevancy was part of this—faculty were regarded primarily as employees of the institution, which meant they could be fired at will. The contemporary term for this was the “hired man” concept of the faculty.
This changed in the early 20th century when an influential group of prominent professors argued that college trustees and administrations had not only an institutional fiduciary duty but also a unique duty to the public. Colleges were not like any other institution, like a corporation, primarily because colleges conferred public benefits that derived from their faculties’ intellectual and administrative autonomy. Out of this emerged the regime of faculty autonomy, academic self-government, and tenure protection that prevailed through much of the 20th century. Faculty autonomy was not simply a perquisite for a privileged class of scholars. It was a public good, and failure by trustees to take that public good into account constituted a violation of a public trust.
In recent years, this public fiduciary duty has eroded, so boards are reverting to their traditional focus on institutions rather than the public. Along with this has been a reversion to the “hired man” concept of the faculty, although perhaps it should now be called the “hired diverse and inclusive persons” concept. The result is a university where faculty are essentially compliant tools implementing the political agendas of their administrations and trustees—those “700” signatories being a case in point.
The drama swirling around Gay’s departure exemplified this shift of focus. When the head of Harvard’s board, Penny Pritzker, called Gay with the bad news, she asked whether there was a “path forward” for Harvard with Gay as president. Not, “How did Gay’s occupying the presidency advance intellectual freedom of the Harvard faculty?” It was what was good for Harvard, not what was good for its faculty.
The sobering question posed by the Gay affair is how the loss of public trust came about. Like everyone else, college trustees, administrations, and faculty respond to a landscape of incentives and disincentives. The loss of public trust did not change on its own—it was forced by money and power, lots of it, and growing every year. A host of perverse incentives spin from this, including trustees losing sight of their unique role as public trustees. Once that is understood, the diagnosis is clear—the present regime of disincentives will persist as long as we are subsidizing it, to the tune of several hundred billion dollars annually.
Once the diagnosis is clear, the treatment also becomes clear—treat the landscape of perverse incentives that are driving our universities to their present sorry state. There’s bad news all around on that, I’m afraid, because no one gives up power and money voluntarily. Governing boards won’t change, and neither will faculty because there’s simply no rewards to return to universities’ primary mission of scholarship. Those that hold to that ideal, like the small group of faculty that met furtively with those two skeptical board members, are rare, and often powerless.
This is likely to become worse over time, not better.
As demographics and the actuarial tables cut their merciless path through college faculties, older faculty who sustain the academic ideal are being replaced by younger faculty who have grown up in the climate of perverse incentives and see no reason to change it. After three generations of subsidized perversity, the transformation of college faculties is nearly complete.
Does this mean that reform must be imposed from outside?
There are many such proposals floating around, the most recent being Christopher Rufo’s call for a “new right activism.” I suggest those will not fix the problem. Restoring the universities will be a multigenerational project, and it is doubtful that political activism will have more than a transitory impact. Given our tumultuous politics, the temptation will be to impose “solutions” that are draconian in their own ways.
What is needed, rather, is the academic equivalent of Rod Dreher’s “Benedict option.” Academics who still value free inquiry and autonomy should recognize that universities are no longer friendly places to be, nor will they likely be for the foreseeable future. Rather, the essential virtues of the intellectual life will be better defended when its adherents can find and build sanctuaries. This will mean scholars taking their destinies back into their own hands, building sanctuaries for intellectual integrity and freedom. Let the universities wallow in their pointless dramas. Drop the illusion that universities are a friendly place for scholarship. Stop being driven by the relentless search for the next big fix of fiscal cocaine. Figure out other ways to be scholars again, recognizing that intellectual independence always carries with it a responsibility to sustain it and that no one will give it to you but yourselves.
We’ve done it before, and we can do it again.
 Ginsberg, B. (2011). The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters, Oxford University Press, USA.
 Turner, S. P. and D. E. Chubin (2020). The Changing Temptations of Science. Issues in Science and Technology 36(3): 40-46.
 Park, M., E. Leahey and R. J. Funk (2023). Papers and patents are becoming less disruptive over time. Nature 613(7942): 138-144.
Photo by Jared Gould — Text to Image — Adobe