Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Frank Rich Indicts Finance's Takeover of Higher Education

As usual, Frank Rich captures the zeitgeist like no other in his column on Larry Summers. While most commentators have focused solely on any potential conflicts of interest Summers might have in his role as chief economic advisor after his comfy job at DE Shaw, Rich draws attention to how finance has effectively hijacked higher education. From Rich:
But perhaps I’ve become numb to the perennial and bipartisan revolving-door incestuousness of Washington and Wall Street. I was less shocked by the White House’s disclosure of Summers’s recent paydays than by a bit of reporting that appeared deep down in the Times follow-up article on that initial news. The reporter Louise Story wrote that Summers had done consulting work for another hedge fund, Taconic Capital Advisors, from 2004 to 2006, while still president of Harvard.

That the highly paid leader of arguably America’s most esteemed educational institution (disclosure: I went there) would simultaneously freelance as a hedge-fund guy might stand as a symbol for the values of our time. At the start of his stormy and short-lived presidency, Summers picked a fight with Cornel West for allegedly neglecting his professorial duties by taking on such extracurricular tasks as cutting a spoken-word CD. Yet Summers saw no conflict with moonlighting in the money racket while running the entire university. The students didn’t even get a CD for his efforts — and Harvard’s deflated endowment, now in a daunting liquidity crisis, didn’t exactly benefit either.

Summers’s dual portfolio in Cambridge has already led to one potential intermingling of private business and public policy in his new White House post. He tried — and, mercifully, failed — to install the co-founder of Taconic in the job of running the TARP bailouts. But again, Summers’s potential conflicts of interest seem less telling than the conflict of values that his Harvard double-résumé exemplifies.

In the bubble decade, making money as an end in itself boomed as a calling among students at elite universities like Harvard, siphoning off gifted undergraduates who might otherwise have been scientists, teachers, doctors, entrepreneurs, artists or inventors. The Harvard Crimson reported that in the class of 2007, 58 percent of the men and 43 percent of the women entering the work force took jobs in the finance and consulting industries. The figures were similar everywhere, from Duke to the University of Pennsylvania. Dan Rather, on his HDNet television program in December, reported that at Penn this was even true of “over half the students who graduated with engineering degrees — not a field commonly associated with Wall Street.”

I couldn't agree more. Maybe now we'll get a more rational allocation of our human capital. Instead of piling all of our best minds into conniving new ways to pile leverage on top of itself, we'll devote more attention to addressing the structural issues we face in energy and healthcare.

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