Moneysynthesis and the Changing Ecosystem of Higher Ed

Where I live in Vermont, there’s been a big move to control farmland runoff into streams. The issue is that all of the fertilizers and nutrients in the soil wind up in the lakes (especially Lake Champlain), creating an imbalance in the plant population that privileges some kinds of growth and inhibits other, longer established communities. It’s not uncommon in ecological systems that the sudden presence of a new nutrient is as jarring a change as the sudden presence of a new predator.

In colleges and universities, as in any business, the fundamental nutrient is money. Just as plants absorb sunlight and create food energy through photosynthesis, organizations absorb money and create employment through a form of moneysynthesis.

Historically, colleges had fairly few varieties of economic nutrients. Tuition was fundamental, of course. Sponsorship was another, whether by a state government or a religious community. And for the more successful colleges, a combination of thrift and gifts led toward the establishment of capital pools that became self-sustaining.**

These three nutrient streams had predictable effects. The first, tuition, fostered fealty to the families who provided it, an assurance that their sons (and later, daughters) would be “properly finished.” The second, sponsorship, fostered responsiveness to the social and philosophical goals of the larger agencies. And the third, endowment, fostered independence—a pool of “f^#@-you money” that allowed a little breathing room from consumer demands.

These nutrient pools were pretty reliable for a long time, and the collegiate landscapes that developed were responses to the particular local proportions of these three feedstocks. But sudden infusions of new nutrients have changed the ecosystem.

  • In 1950, Congress established the National Science Foundation, dumping a vast reservoir of money that privileged the bench sciences. The National Institutes of Health formed a second input stream, and Sputnik scared the bejezus out of everybody. Our fetish for STEM has a direct lineage to this nutrient, the normalization of funded science research as part of higher ed.
  • About that same time, the Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, and Carnegie Corporation (among others) responded to the post-war landscape in a different way, funding the study of international affairs so that we could win hearts and minds during the Cold War and deal with the aftermath of colonial control as Asia, Africa and South America emerged from European rule. So we got Latin American Studies and Islamic Studies and dozens of others, along with lots and lots of language programs.
  • The Higher Education Act of 1965 made various forms of financial aid available to a broader array of students, substantially increasing the demand for college services, and breaking the direct consumer linkage between colleges and their satisfied families (and state or religious sponsors).

The higher ed ecosystem has been fundamentally reshaped by these three sudden, immense runoff streams, and others like them. The resulting balance of species would be unrecognizable to a scholar working in the 1920s. These new resources have all led in their way to the contingency of the enterprise. Adjuncts are neither accidents nor victims of evil; they are the starving overpopulation brought about by shifts in resources.


**Just a note, by the way… We think of the elite colleges as being impossibly well off. But, this guy Zuckerberg who developed what was essentially a fancy message board? He’s worth more as an individual than all of Stanford University, including its real estate. The guy who screwed a video camera onto his bike helmet has a net worth about as much as the endowment funds of the University of Kentucky. Rewards are rarely rational.