Now that I am retired from teaching (I know, no one noticed), I have a little more time than I did before to pursue various projects. Some are serious: an economic history of Mexico (about 60 percent drafted, but the worst is yet to come); and publications on the Lizardi family of Mexico, New Orleans, London, and Paris (maybe a book, if I can make things cohere. God forbid I find their business records in one piece and in one place). Some are just because I enjoy doing them–more jazz stories, lots of jazz reviews (the secret to no price CDs). And some are serious mischief: college internet splash pages. You know, a splash page is where you land when you enter “greatuniversity.edu” (I hope that isn’t a porn site). I’m just itching to see what colleges and universities think will bring them skipped heartbeats among prospective scholars. Attracting students is serious business these days. There’s always a suit who does “Enrollment Management.” There are other, less polite terms for these people, but this is a PG site.
Now, as an econ wannabee, I know something about what the guild calls “imperfect competition.” That basically means you try to find a price that makes life worth living. Clearly, different strokes. Some houses of study will have a bit of latitude in this department, because they have, like, ten applicants for each seat. So you figure they could pretty much ask whatever they want. Some do. The “sticker price” (I had a Chair who routinely used such tasteless commercial metaphors) of the University of Chicago is over 60k per year for undergraduates. You read that right. 60K. That’s more than a loaded Alfa Romeo Giulia costs, dude. So, in theory, you could buy four–or maybe five if you are unlucky. My son attended the University of Chicago. He got a fantastic education. He is fearsome in an argument. One of the brightest people I know. Chicago did good by him.
I do not have an Alfa Romeo. Not one, let alone four. I drive a Volkswagen. Draw your own conclusions. Why the Hell would I need four of them anyway? One would have done, but hey, it isn’t a car, it’s a Volkswagen.
Anyway, most colleges are not U of C. Huh? You noticed? Your local red brick doesn’t account for or claim affiliation with 33 Nobels in Economics? Well, sniff, they are overrated. My former employer brings in one a year to hobnob with the hoi polloi. Ain’t that enough? You too can be the Harvard of your Block just by coughing up speakers’ fees. Honestly, the only Chicago dude I was impressed with was Ron Coase. When I pass from this Earth and go jauntily into the next world, aside from my family, I want to hang with Ron Coase. He was every bit as smart as you’d think, and unlike Paul Samuelson, he had a delightful personality. Hell, he had a personality and his wife was a trip. Anyway, Harvard of the South or no, we can’t lay claim to any Nobels. Yet. But we’ll let you know when that happens. We had a week of snow in San Antonio last February, so, yes, Hell can freeze over.
Most other places don’t glitter like Chicago, or Berkeley, or the other Harvard, you know, the Harvard of The Cambridge. They have to make do with the lesser lights of the firmament. And far less impressive installations paid for by various alumnx (no, that’s not an error, you sexist scum) robber barons looking for a tax write off and respectability. They have to make do with an Oldsmobile dealer and not the Pritzker family. And with faculty like, well, like me, who never even rose to the level of Distinguished. I brought no luster to my university. Alas. But this isn’t about me.
Now, econ theory (you’re about to see why I never got a Nobel) says you don’t want to get to far from the center of a distribution–the median, for nerds. Because the median is where the money is. You know, it’s the most convenient ice cream stand on the beach. Or the Most Like To Succeed type. Like Willie Sutton supposedly said, you rob banks because that’s where the money is, so you don’t want to be too different. Or make people walk too far for their ice cream.
On the other hand, you don’t want to be indistinguishable from crowd, because if you are, no one will notice you. Or want to spend 53K to send you off to the wilds of Wisconsin, which is sticker for Beloit College, also, apparently, where “The world needs more imagination, more ingenuity, more humanity. At Beloit, we find a way.” Hell, for 53K a year, they better find a way. They better find lots of ways. That’s ony 7k less a year than Chicago. You’d think Old Beloit would have at least One Nobel on offer. Oh, wait, they do. Elinor Ostrom, who dealt with an aspect of the “tragedy of the commons” problem (why your garage usually looks like Hell) went to Beloit. But, alas, she passed away before she or Beloit could make much of her gong. She shared a NobelEcon. Dude. That’s more than the Harvard of your block can say, right. So shut up.
So what’s an also ran to do in the struggle for warm bodies and even warmer minds (one hopes at least that portion of the anatomy is on fire in your students)? Well, go to the splash pages. Do your own experiment? Now, I’d suggest you compare like with like, so don’t be comparing Berkeley with its “Blue and Gold” Satellites headed somewhere into the Great Beyond with Hofstra’s “cutting edge research.” It’s Long Island, not the Bay Area. And besides, EVERYONE blathers on about their cutting edge research, especially cutting edge research done by students in conjunction with local faculty members–like me, of whom you’ve never heard. You know, that same student who doesn’t know that a complete sentence has a subject and a predicate. They’re gonna turn the world upside with some genius time idea that they can’t even express in a complete sentence. Small matter. Why nit-pick when the general theory of relativity is in that snoring kid’s research gunsite. Eech, poor choice of words. No guns on campus, except in Texas.
One of the big features of this year’s splash page (aside from diversity, oh man, is there ever Diversity) is like, movies. Yeah, they contain animated film clips that walk you around Old Desegregated so you can get a real feel for earnestness in action: idealistic, fresh faced scholars gazing at statues (no, not their pudenda) getting wisdom by osmosis or something, running track in the heat of D3 competition, or looking at some old white guy–the token perfesser from Hell–while the interesting class is being run by some hirsute person of color. Yeah, these clips are everywhere. In fact, I suspect there is an inverse correlation between standard measures of academic respectability and the prevalence of glitz on splash pages, but I have to run some tests first before I can falsify the hypothesis. That’s science, by the way.
The other thing is that it’s tough to distinguish between most colleges and a Chinese restaurant anymore. “We have 50+ majors” to choose from!” Yeah, 50 seems to be some kind of magic number, even if the major is cobbled together by three dudes who never met before this year’s first Faculty Assembly. And, you know, it’s like you have to choose one from Column A and One from Column B, and no substitutions allowed. Is this a curriculum or the menu at Kung Fu? I don’t know, you tell me. They look pretty much alike. So there’s lots of majors–you can have more than one–lots of research, which, of course, will change your life–lots of people who don’t look or think a thing like you, lots of cool facilities that remind you of Gymboree, and lots of seeking after Truth (with plenty of personal attention from that world class scholar who’s just dying to hear from you while he or she is trying to get a paper out to some journal with an acceptance rate of 50 percent). World class.
If you have the feeling that I am a little sceptical of all this stuff, why would you think that. I lived in a world of “sticker prices” “ratings” (the name a particularly Philistine chair gave to student evaluations), “consumer satisfaction,” and “unhappy customers.” Somehow, I never knew I was tasked with imparting the Wisdom of the Ages to curious young minds who were going to think deep thoughts in entrepreneurial companies that would Change the World. Imagine That. Go look at a bunch of splash pages. It’s a kick, for sure.
Oh, “We Share Your World With You.” That was the jingle that WCAU TV used in 1980 in Philadelphia as it tried to induce folks to watch the evening “news” that bore a now suspicious resemblance to the average day in the life a student at a world class, focus on you, university right in your own hometown. God help us, but if you wonder why a nation full of college graduates can’t figure out why masking prevents the spread of an airborne virus, remember the model for a lot of modern American colleges.
WCAU, Channel 10. We share your world with you. Now pay up.