L. Song Richardson, the next president of Colorado College, is an extraordinarily impressive and accomplished woman. She’s well suited to take over our homegrown liberal arts college, particularly in these fraught times.
On the surface, all is well for CC. It has smoothly and efficiently taken over the Fine Arts Center, the Robson Arena is nearing completion on the once-quiet corner of Nevada and Cache la Poudre and its endowment is hovering around $1 billion. The building spree that started under former President Dick Celeste seems to be slowing down, allowing Richardson to focus on the more immediate problems that face CC and similar institutions.
And what would those problems be? The college’s press release announcing Richardson’s selection hint at a few.
“CC’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, its initiatives to increase access for students, and its dedication to sustainability and innovation drew her to the college,” according to the release. Board Chair Susie Burghart welcomed Richardson with a torrent of eduspeak.
“Dean Richardson embodies the curiosity, dedication, spirit, commitment, and joy that are the essence of CC,” said Burghart. “She is authentic and accessible, a scholar committed to building the resiliency, depth, and breadth of students, and a changemaker who will shift CC and our future graduates forward on the path toward antiracism, access, and even greater academic excellence.”
That’s fine, but what’s really going on here? It’s not just about access, cost, racial issues or political correctness. The cheerful optimism that has buoyed elite colleges such as Yale, Harvard, CC and Wesleyan for generations seems to be receding, as the very concept of elite education may have passed its sell-by date.
Earlier this century, mathematician/historian Peter Turchin suggested that “elite overproduction” would contribute to radical destabilization in the United States, leading to political turmoil and violence. He predicted that this new age would begin in… 2020!
In an interview with Graeme Wood of The Atlantic, he cited “…a dark triad of social maladies: a bloated elite class, with too few elite jobs to go around; declining living standards among the general population; and a government that can’t cover its financial positions.” Turchin also opined that increased income and wealth disparity contributes to such destabilization.
The “bloated elite class” are educated at institutions such as Colorado College. Get admitted to one of them, and it’s a lifetime meal ticket. As a member of the hyper-educated elite, you’ll always be able to make a buck, unlike your less-promising high school classmates who’ll end up at UCCS or Pikes Peak Community College.
The difference between CC, Harvard, Yale and public institutions such and PPCC and UCCS is stark. One group prizes selectivity and inaccessibility, while the other seeks increased growth and enrollment. CC admits 15 percent of applicants, UCCS admits 91.5 percent and PPCC admits all applicants.
Elite colleges produce the powerful people, those who will dominate the arts, business, law, government and education. They’re America’s aristocracy — the rest of us are leftovers, the penurious peons of mediocrity.
I went to Wesleyan, failed to graduate and finished my education 30 years later at UCCS. I still get Wesleyan’s quarterly alumni journal, a slickly produced brag sheet, highlighting the manifold successes of students, faculty and graduates. No mediocrity here — everyone is brilliant, successful and comfortably well off.
Elite colleges run on money, with massive endowments that shield them from interruptions in the revenue stream. Can they dodge Turchin’s dark future?
Not if the future’s harbinger is 50-year-old Amazon co-founder Mackenzie Scott, the 18th richest person in the world. In the last four months Scott has given over $800 million to dozens of non-elite private colleges and universities. She didn’t make the recipients jump through the usual hoops, or name buildings after her — she just made unsolicited gifts to institutions like $50 million to Prairie View A&M, a historically Black Texas university. She may have changed educational philanthropy forever — giving money to elite colleges may become socially unacceptable.
Richardson is among the hyper-elite; A.B. Harvard, Yale Law ’93, an accomplished concert pianist, UCI Law School dean. Can she reframe CC, grow the landlocked college and even make room for students who will live ordinary lives?