Elite universities are becoming more globally focused, and Yale President Richard Levin is a major proponent of the trend.
In his 2001 baccalaureate address, Levin offered a globalist justification for student engagement in local New Haven affairs: "Your experience in giving service has prepared you well for participation in and leadership of civic, religious, and community organizations.… What you have done for this city you must now do for your country and the wider world."
This rhetoric is standard fare for a university whose urban stewardship is decidedly more "glocal" than local. Yale’s local plans are just one element of its global vision. Yale is "contributing to a strong New Haven," claims the slogan of the Office of New Haven and State Affairs which Levin founded, but this primarily refers to its role in converting New Haven from a post-industrial city into a trendy "university city," a node of knowledge production in a larger scheme of entrepreneurialism and capital development. At once, Yale buys up and gentrifies local property, forces the hands of its labor unions, lobbies the city for construction of high-end research labs, finalizes plans for a satellite campus at the University of Singapore, builds partnerships with China and India, pours money into a new foreign policy institute, and remains on the lookout for new global investment opportunities.
How do students feel about all this?
Some commentators sense a toxic trickle-down effect. In a recent post titled "Why Class Matters in Campus Activism," The American Prospect‘s Courtney Martin laments students’ farsightedness:
Many of us from middle- and upper-income backgrounds have been socialized to believe that it is our duty to make a difference, but undertake such efforts abroad—where the "real" poor people are…. I would argue that a modicum of evil is also done by those who make up their minds to be good but neglect to tackle the challenges to which they are directly linked.
The trend that Martin identifies is particularly disturbing at the present moment. At the same time that universities hike tuition costs, decrease financial aid, and use the financial crisis as a means of imposing their economic plans on less solvent local governments, many of today’s high-minded 20-year-olds think globally but disengage from campus protest and local action.
To be sure, everyone loves community service, and President Levin encourages it. After all, it’s a great way to develop global leaders! But service is one thing, and activism—particularly in opposition to university policy—is another. For today’s students, thoughts of protest at the point of knowledge production are eclipsed by enterprising visions of making an impact in the great beyond. Starving children in Africa are more needy than students and campus workers anyway, right?
Simeon Talley of Campus Progress is not sold on this analysis. In his own theory for why campus activism has declined in America—compared to Britain and Canada, where protesters of tuition hikes have turned out in the tens of thousands—Talley shifts the emphasis from globalized moral concern to corporate alienation: