Who Are Higher Ed’s True Heroes?

Imagine: an academic medical school, without federal support, develops a low-cost, patent-free, high-efficacy COVID vaccine, which is now being widely distributed in India, Botswana and elsewhere across the developing world.

Isn’t that what the academy is supposed to do?

Doctors Maria Elena Bottazzi and Peter Hotez, who run the Baylor College of Medicine’s National School of Tropical Medicine, developed Corbevax, which uses the same recombinant protein technology for decades to vaccinate against hepatitis B. In contrast to the Pfizer vaccine, which costs the US government about $20 a dose, Corbevax costs the Indian government less than $2 a dose.

Denied funding by Operation Warp Speed, the federal vaccine development initiative, Corbevax’s roughly $7 million development cost was paid for by private philanthropy, including the Robert J. Kleberg Jr. and Helen C. Kleberg Foundation, the M. D. Anderson Foundation, the JPB Foundation in New York, and the philanthropic arm of Tito’s Handmade Vodka.

That compares with the $12 billion Operation Warp Speed ​​spent on the development of the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines.

What a powerful example of open science Corbevax offers: Baylor College of Medicine forwent profits and intellectual property rights in the interests of equitable global access.

Dr. Hotez, a pediatrician as well as a vaccine scientist, has long embodied open science. He has played a leading role in tackling neglected and emerging tropical diseases, including blinding diseases like river blindness and trachoma, kinetoplastid infections like sleeping sickness and Chagas disease, and mycobacterial and parasite-born infections like ascariasis, Brugia malayi, leishmaniasis, schistosomiasis and Wuchereria bancrofti that impair the world’s poorest populations physically and nutritionally.

But he is perhaps best known to the public for his ongoing efforts to refute antivaccination conspiracy theories, including those that attribute autism to childhood vaccines.

He and his colleague, the Italian-born microbiologist of Honduran descent Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi, are true academic heroes.

However, Doctors Bottazzi and Hotez’s success, which builds upon their earlier development of vaccines against SARS and MERS, does raise a question: Why haven’t our nation’s other academic health science centers, given their immense wealth and talent, demonstrated the same success in tackling similar global health challenges?

Among the responses to my recent “Higher Ed Gamma” posting asking whether Yale is in decline, were some that insisted that my comments were “over the top,” “scattershot” and perhaps motivated by “envy.” As someone who had the great privilege of studying at Yale during its glory years, the word I’d use instead is “disappointed.”

Had I truly wanted to be scathing, I might have pointed to Yale’s failure to consistently enforce the Woodward Report on free speech, or I might have mentioned the current cheating scandal in which 81 students in an anthropology class have been referred to Executive Committee for academic dishonesty

I believe that this nation’s wealthiest institutions, like Yale, need to justify their existence, not they want to be seen as country clubs that provide education on the side.

As a point of comparison, take Amherst College. Relative to its small size, Amherst is enormously wealthy. That said, the school has doubled down on diversifying its student body and faculty and taken other steps to advance access and equity, including ending legacy admissions.

Or take other small liberal arts schools, like Kenyon College, that have embraced their local communities as a way to show that they are not just pristine preserves of culture atop bucolic hills. Consider what Kenyon is doing to support literature, and especially poetry, through the Kenyon Review, the Patricia Grodd Poetry Prize for Young Writers and its Young Writers Workshops; how it is taking advantage of its location (promoting farm-to-table food and integrating agriculture into its curriculum, etc.); and building an innovation space in the nearby small Ohio town.

(Which, alas, I must contrast to my undergraduate alma mater, which owes some $31 million for “perpetuating false allegations of racism” against a local business.)

So I must ask: Shouldn’t institutions like Yale and its ilk have more to show for all of their wealth, brilliant students and faculty?

In his recent New York Times newsletter, the cultural critic Jay Caspian Kang writes about the pressure that low-income applicants to Yale and similarly elite institutions face to play the “victim card,” to recount in horrific and embarrassing detail the traumas that they have experienced and the injustices they have Encountered, in order to enter these elite enclaves, which, they understand, evaluate “disadvantaged” applicants according to a hierarchy of suffering.

Here let me cite some points that the astute analyst of legal education who goes by the pseudonym Unemployed Northeastern generously shared with me and which should certainly prompt some serious reflection.

We’ve created a supposedly meritocratic higher education system in which the stakes seem so high that it encourages gamesmanship, cheating, payoffs and cajoling teachers and professors for higher grades.

The rewards of attending a “top” institution are perceived to be so great—and in many instances, are indeed so big—that our most ambitious students would be naïve not to try to manipulate the system.

Let’s look at a series of examples offered by Unemployed Northeastern.

  • Less than 50 miles separate Yale, Wesleyan and Connecticut College, all of which are highly selective institutions with a liberal arts bent that provide an absolutely first-rate education and boast exceptionally high graduation rates. Yet their outcomes in terms of jobs, earnings and postgraduation opportunities differ markedly—a difference that derives largely from Yale’s reputation, status, prestige and the social connections it offers.

Or let’s look at the outcomes from three accredited Connecticut law schools. Using College Scorecard data, taken from the IRS (which is far more reliable than the self-reported earnings), here are the median earnings for:

  • Quinnipiac: $61,516
  • UConn: $74,845
  • Yale: $130,669

Here I should note that the Yale figure is significantly lower than Harvard’s or Columbia’s because a higher percentage of Yale Law graduates take prestigious professorships or positions in the Department of Justice or federal clerkships.

Huge differences in earning and employment outcomes help explain the intensity of the competition to get into top schools and the grade grubbing, grade inflation and test cramming that this system produces.

According to the website PublicLegalthe median self-reported salary 10 months after graduation for those in private practice from the top 12 percent of law schools is $180,000 and between $40,000 and $60,000 at the bottom 60 percent.

Of course, only a portion of law students engage in private practice, and of those who work for the public, the overwhelming majority average $60,000 or less. Of the 95 percent of law students who take out loans, the average debt is $165,000, which would generally require, at a minimum, a monthly payment of approximately $1,750.

As Unemployed Northeastern observes, “The difference between the law schools at Northwestern and Northeastern is not just two letters; it’s a difference in median starting salary of over $100,000. It’s also the difference between ‘graduates were just fine in the Great Recession’ and ‘fewer than half the graduates found jobs in the legal profession during the Great Recession,’ not to put too fine a point on it.”

To cite yet another example, the website of the Boston Consulting Group, one of the big three consultancies, shows whether it recruits on your campus. It does, of course, recruit on campus at Yale, but not at Wesleyan or Connecticut College.

Perhaps you recall an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “Brown and Cornell Are Second Tier,” which explained that the entry into top law schools, investment banks or consultancies is through Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Wharton or (maybe) Stanford—or, if not, through family or business connections.

In her prize-winning 2016 study, “Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs,” Lauren A. Rivera, professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern, revealed how elite employers differentiate between seemingly similar colleges. There are “core” schools (like Yale), where these institutions aggressively recruit; “target” schools, like Wesleyan, whose students they’re willing to interview; and everyone else—schools off the gatekeepers’ radar screens.

In Rivera’s words, “Failure to attend a super-elite school was an indicator of intellectual failure, regardless of a student’s grades or standardized test scores.”

Several months ago, Harvard Magazine published an article with the intriguing title “Is Harvard Complacent?” The author, Brian Rosenberg, former president of Macalester College, does not doubt that Harvard and other elite institutions “are performing a profoundly important social function (they are).” But he does wonder whether they could meet their broader functions—educational but also social—more effectively.

“Imagine,” President Rosenberg asks, if Harvard and the other wealthiest and most selective universities were to truly focus on impact. These institutions need to be “willing to step back and look hard at the effectiveness of their current work. Higher education should in its ideal form lead to more economic security for more people, a more equitable and innovative society, and a well-functioning democracy.”

I, for one, don’t think it’s enough for our most richly resourced institutions to claim to produce leaders. Their contributions to society must be more tangible.

Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Honduras, 1989) and Dr. Peter Hotez (Yale, Class of 1980) are true academic heroes who have prioritized the social good and whose work reflects a larger mission above and beyond sustaining privilege and status or protecting an institutional brand.

Those two scientists and their medical school set a bar that other richly resourced institutions have a duty to emulate.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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