The Moustache of Wisdom is having the vapors. In “Hillary, Jeb, Facebook and Disorder” he moans that huge disruptive inflections in technology, the labor market and geopolitics have the 2016 presidential candidates in a leadership quandary. He launches into his piece with a whine that the candidates don’t want “to engage with major issues of the day.” Gee, Tommy — maybe if someone in your cohort of “journalists” would, you know, actually ASK them to address issues we could find out what they think, or if they’re even capable of thinking. Christ… In “Platinum Pay in Ivory Towers” Mr. Bruni says that the excessive salaries of some college presidents send a message at odds with higher education. Here’s TMOW:
For a presidential campaign that has started so early, it’s striking how little most of the candidates want to engage with major issues of the day, let alone the future. Hillary Clinton won’t take a clear stand on two big issues she helped to negotiate as secretary of state: the free-trade deal with Pacific nations and the nuclear deal with Iran. Jeb Bush’s campaign seems stuck on whether he is or is not his brother’s keeper. Marco Rubio was for comprehensive immigration reform before he was against it. While Senators Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders are motivated by clear ideologies, the others, so far, evince much more compelling ambitions to be president than compelling reasons for why they should be.
That can’t last. Just follow the headlines. We’re in the middle of some huge disruptive inflections in technology, the labor market and geopolitics that will raise fundamental questions about the future of work and the social contracts between governments and their people and employers and employees. These will all erupt in the next presidency.
What are the signs of that? Well, my candidate for best lead paragraph on a news article so far this year goes to Tom Goodwin, an executive at Havas Media, whose essay March 3 on Techcrunch.com began: “Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate. Something interesting is happening.”
There sure is. We’re at the start of a major shift on the question of what’s worth owning. What all of the above companies have in common is that they have either created trust platforms that match supply and demand for things people never thought of supplying: a spare bedroom in their home or a seat in their car or a commercial link between a small retailer in North Dakota and a small manufacturer in China. Or they are behavioral platforms that spin off extremely valuable data for retailers and advertisers or they are behavioral platforms on which ordinary people can generate reputations — for driving, hosting or any skill you can imagine — and then market themselves globally.
This is a result of the exponential growth in computing power, storage, networking, sensors and software generation and interoperability, which is allowing us to both gather massive amounts of data and apply software to that data to see patterns at a speed and scope unknown before. And it is taking friction out of so many things at once: from hailing a cab to reserving a room in someone’s home in Timbuktu to buying groceries to learning from anyone anywhere to designing an airplane part on a 3-D printer in a week instead of six months. Complexity is becoming free.
A recent study by the Oxford Martin School concluded that 47 percent of U.S. jobs are at high risk of being taken by smart machines and software in the next two decades. And what is interesting, notes James Manyika, a director of the McKinsey Global Institute and co-author of “No Ordinary Disruption,” is that, contrary to expectations, “knowledge workers at the middle and the top” may be more threatened than those doing physical work. For example, The Associated Press now uses computers, not reporters, to generate more than 3,000 financial reports per quarter. This can free up workers to do more creative work, but they have to be trained for it.
On geopolitics, we still have great power rivalries, but the most relevant divide in the world will no longer be East-West, capitalist-communist. It will be the World of Order versus the World of Disorder, as environmental, sectarian and economic pressures are pulverizing weak and failed states. Every day now you read about people fleeing the World of Disorder for the World of Order. Rohingyas, a mostly Muslim group, from Myanmar and Bangladesh are trying to get into Thailand and Malaysia; Africans and Arabs are trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe; Central American parents have sent thousands of their kids to the United States. Israel’s government has started sending letters to 45,000 Eritrean and Sudanese refugees — who walked, rode and sailed to Israel in search of order and work — telling them they have 30 days to accept $3,500 in cash and a one-way ticket home or to an unnamed third country in Africa or face prison,The Washington Post reported last week. Last year, the U.N.’s refugee agency said there are more displaced people worldwide — some 50 million — than at anytime since World War II.
But here’s the rub: We don’t know what to do. We used to rely on empires, colonizers and dictators to control a lot of these places, but we’re now in a post-imperial, post-colonial and, in many places, post-autocratic age. No one wants to touch these disorderly zones because all you win is a bill. And most are incapable of democratic self-governance. Who will control these areas? What if the answer is nobody? It will be one of the big leadership challenges of the next decade.
So, to paraphrase Trotsky once more: Our presidential candidates may not be interested in talking seriously about the future yet, but the future will be interested in talking to them.
Gee… Maybe the Times could program a computer to generate columns about the flat earth and Tommy could be trained to do something creative… Here’s Mr. Bruni:
Gregory Fenves recently got a big promotion, from provost to president of the University of Texas at Austin. A raise came with it. Instead of his current base of about $425,000, he was offered $1 million.
And he rejected it — as too much.
“With many issues and concerns about administrative costs, affordability and tuition, such a salary will affect the ability of the president to work with the Texas Legislature,” Fenves wrote to a university official, in an email obtained by The Austin American-Statesman and published last week.
He suggested, and agreed to, $750,000.
That’s hardly chump change. But in the context of the shockingly lucrative deals that have become almost commonplace among college presidents, the sum — or, more precisely, the sentiment behind it — is worthy of note and praise.
Too few presidents give adequate thought to the symbolism and dissonance of extraordinarily generous compensation packages, which are in sync with this era of lavish executive pay and glaring income inequality but out of line with the ostensible mission of academia.
Ideally, higher education is dedicated to values different from those that govern Wall Street and corporate America. It supposedly calls students to more soulful concerns, even to sacrifice.
But that message is muddled when some of the people who run colleges wallow in payments and perks that would once have been considered vulgar.
For E. Gordon Gee’s final year as the president of Ohio State University, which he left in 2013, he got a package of more than $6 million, as waswidely reported. It was a one-time bonanza, including deferred payments and severance, but he’d earned roughly $2 million annually over the previous years.
The Chronicle of Higher Education analyzed salary information for private colleges from 2012, the most recent year available, and found that Shirley Ann Jackson, the president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, received a package worth over $7 million.
John L. Lahey of Quinnipiac University: about $3.75 million. Lee Bollingerof Columbia University: almost $3.4 million.
Fenves’s salary as the president of the University of Texas puts him well behind that of his counterpart at Texas A & M University, who has an annual base of $1 million plus $400,000 in additional compensation, according to The American-Statesman.
Each profligate compensation package breeds more like it, as schools’ trustees convince themselves that they must keep pace in order to recruit, retain and receive the precious fairy dust of the heaviest hitters.
They reason that “this is a winner-take-all society and that people with extremely high levels of talent are richly rewarded,” said Richard Vedder, the director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.
“But I think that things are getting out of hand, especially given the tax-exempt nature of universities,” he told me. “They’re in privileged positions, and they were given these privileged positions not to enrich themselves but to serve society. These presidents are expected to live quite nicely but not exorbitantly and not extravagantly.”
Their extravagance strikes an especially discordant note in light of the challenges confronting higher education today, and it undercuts their moral authority.
How do you defend the transfer of teaching responsibilities to low-paid, part-time adjuncts when the president is sitting so pretty? How do you cut administrative costs, which indeed need cutting? How do you explain steep tuition increases, mammoth student debt and the failure to admit more children from poor families?
How do you summon students back to the liberal arts and away from mercenary priorities?
The high salaries are frequently defended on the grounds that a university president’s job is all consuming. But if it is, how do so many of them find time to serve, for hundreds of thousands of extra dollars, on corporate boards? Rensselaer’s Jackson was at one point on five boards simultaneously.
The high salaries are also defended in terms of the fund-raising that certain presidents reputedly excel at, covering their compensation many times over. But do they deserve sole credit for those donations? And at nonprofit institutions, should money be the main yardstick and currency? Shouldn’t ethics compete with economics, as they sometimes do when a school invests its endowment?
The lofty pay of college presidents is part of higher education’s increasingly corporate bent, of the blurred lines between the campus and the marketplace.
And like the private enrichment of many political candidates who speak of “public service,” it’s not just a mirror of our pervasive money culture. It’s a green light for it, from precincts of principle where a flashing yellow would be more appropriate.