Alchemists and Alloys

Where have all the Ivies gone?

David Burnham, a partner at the Boston-based Burnham Rosen Group, says only six percent of our nation’s leading businesses are currently headed by graduates of Ivy League schools. It was once forty percent. The decline might due to our elite educational institutions practicing alchemy more than producing alloys.

That’s not a play on words—it’s reality. Alchemy is an ancient art where diverse metals are mixed with the illusory aim of creating gold. It’s a daydream that produces nothing more than a diverse mix. An alloy on the other hand is a composition of one or more diverse metallic elements strategically mixed in such a way that they create a stronger product. Brass is an alloy of zinc and copper. Steel is an alloy, stronger than iron.

There is a great deal of evidence that our elite educational institutions have become alchemists’ labs. The slavish adherence to diversity along demographic, gender, or racial lines overlooks the reality that mixing diverse metals doesn’t necessarily yield a strong alloy. Steel requires a precise mix of iron as well as carbon. We’re all for diversity but many of our elite schools have forgotten that they’re supposed to be in the business of developing leaders. Leadership is more a meritocracy than a celebration of diversity. Simply mixing and matching metals is likely to yield a porous or pockmarked product leading to structural failure. It overlooks the difference between alchemy and alloys.

Diversity for the sake of diversity is “Orwellian,” writes Victor Dale Hanson, a fellow at the Hoover Institution. “The university is the most politically intolerant and monolithic institution in the country,” he charges, mainly because the “emphases on racial diversity is entirely constructed and absurd.”1 That’s a telling word—absurd. It means senseless. Absurdity conflates product with process so that diversity trumps the goal of developing leaders. When the goal is garbled, inane ideas such as “celebrate diversity” gain currency. No wonder Philip Rieff described our elite educational institutions as the “higher illiteracy.”2

It’s also no wonder that reality is catching up with these schools. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Teri Evans reports on how state universities—not Ivy League schools—“have become the favorite of companies recruiting new hires.”3 According to a Journal survey of top corporate recruiters (whose companies last year hired 43,000 new graduates), big state schools such as Pennsylvania State University, Texas A&M University and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign were the top three picks among recruiters surveyed.

“Recruiters say graduates of top public universities are often among the most prepared and well-rounded academically,” Evans reports, “and companies have found they fit well into their corporate cultures and over time have the best track record in their firms.” That’s another way of saying the education at these state universities produces a better product. The graduates are strong alloys. And where are Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and other elite schools? Trying to spin gold from an assortment of diverse metals.

“While many companies that answered The Journal’s survey say they recruit and hire Ivy League graduates,” writes Evans, “far fewer ranked them as top picks.” Recruiters and companies said big state schools best prepare students to land jobs that are satisfying, well-paid and have growth potential. Even Claudia Goldin, a Harvard economics professor and lead researcher on a study tracking Harvard graduates’ career paths, admitted, “We have none of the basic bread-and-butter courses that serve you well in much of industry.” She does however note that, at Harvard, more than 55 percent of graduates go on to a doctorate degree, many times in academia, so an Ivy League education might simply delay those who eventually enter the business world.

At some point however all this cannot go on. Hanson warns that parents will no longer choose to take on $200,000 in debt to send their children to elite schools where “they will be likely indoctrinated that they should oppose the very American institutions that created the wealth and freedom that fuel their colleges and pay their faculties.” Current research at Ivy League schools “increasingly has almost no relevance to the general public or applicability to teaching or even scholarly merit,” Hanson charges. Is it any surprise then that businesses have no interest in hiring its graduates?

There’s a second way that reality is catching up with our elite universities. In any given society there is a limited supply of leaders. Again, leadership is based more on meritocracy than diversity. Ed Keller and Jon Berry suggest influential leaders make up no more than ten percent of any population.4 Keller and Berry work for Roper, a major survey and polling company. In their 2003 book, The Influentials, the authors found that a mere ten percent of the adult population enjoys disproportionate influence over the other ninety percent. When schools elevate diversity over meritocracy, leaders smell the alchemists’ lab. They go elsewhere to school, to become an alloy.

In one sense, education at our elite institutions is not absurd. The better word is obscene, which means without story. The gospel has always been understood as a story. In scripture, it’s creation-fall-redemption-restoration. On the street, it’s heard as ought-is-can-will. The objective of education is to learn how things ought to be so that whatever is broken can be strengthened so that life will be improved. Ought-is-can-will. In the real world, the stakes are high so the end game requires alloys, not alchemists. When our elite colleges get back in the business of making alloys, they’ll once again produce the most prepared graduates. Then we won’t be wondering where all the Ivies have gone.

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1 Victor Dale Hanson, “From the Unbelievable to the Passé,” Pajamasmedia.com, September 30, 2010.
2 Philip Rieff, My Life Among the Deathworks: Illustrations of the Aesthetics of Authority, Kenneth S. Piver, General Editor, Volume I, Sacred Order/Social Order (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006), p. xxiii.
3 Teri Evans, “Penn State Tops Recruiter Rankings,” The Wall Street Journal, September 13, 2010.
4 Ed Keller and Jon Berry, The Influentials: One American in ten tells the other nine how to vote, where to eat, and what to buy (Mankato, MN: Free Press, 2003).

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6 Comments

  1. Another interesting essay, Mike. I agree with your main point that leadership can only be produced with an alloy process, but the essay left me with questions about the reduced number of business leaders who graduated from Ivy League schools. For one, any parent with children in high school or college knows how much merit it takes to get into an Ivy League school. I believe that only 4 percent (perhaps less) of all applicants land a spot at Yale, for example. I understand that it’s almost impossible to get into MIT with an SAT score that’s lower than 2100. Certainly meritocracy is still a high value at the Ivy League schools. Secondly, the essay leads the reader to believe that big state schools aren’t as interested in diversity. I’m curious if you have found any evidence showing that to be the case. Having raised these doubts, I wonder if the reduced number of Ivy League business leaders has more to do with other factors not related to diversity or meritocracy. My guess is that there are many other variables at play.

  2. Mike, well said. Many find themselves watching in disbelief as decisions are made to embrace ideas that are nothing more than political correctness at its very worst.
    However, corporate america’s movement to state universities is simply a movement to a place where the problem has not yet reached its zenith; but it will soon. Academia in general has an elitist philosophy, and while the problem first started in the Ivy League schools, the rest of academia is not far behind.
    What we need is a movement of students and professors who are willing to pursue truth and excellence rather than post modern existentialism; and I believe this can only be done if the Gospel is at the center of the movement.
    Well done!

  3. Glenn: I agree that there are certainly other variables at play. But Peter makes a good point. The diversity movement is more pronounced at elite schools. They are ahead of a rather unfortunate (downward) curve. A 2007 study revealed that only 1.7 percent of Harvard graduates enter the business world that operates on Main Street. They instead go into finance and Wall Street.

  4. Mike –
    I wonder if the students at the Ivy’s also have an enhanced sense of entitlement as many come from privileged backgrounds while the top performers at State schools may well have qualified for the Ivy’s but have had to work harder for what they have acheived.

    Diversity as a goal is the result of the systemic sin of racism and exclusive policies over hundreds of years. We are very far from having gained a level playing field. You and I probably agree that diversity should not be gained by admitting unqualified applicants to elite schools. Instead, the church should be highly engaged with students from disadvantaged backgrounds so that they can realize their God-given potential and qualify for admission and be resourced to attend.

  5. Danny:

    Without a doubt, the “better” the school, the higher the sense of entitlement. UCLA’s longitudinal study of hundreds of thousands of incoming freshmen since 1969 bears this out. Yes, we would agree that the problems are systemic, requiring systemic solutions. These solutions will be diverse and need to overlap, a strategy not easily achieved. Assisting students from disadvantaged backgrounds is a step in the right direction.

  6. There are allegations that surface asserting that ivy leagues schools no longer teach business ethics in part because the schools cannot agree upon what ethics to teach. Could that omission be part of the problem described in your essay? How might you address this in future articles?

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