Higher Ed’s Prickliest Pundit
Scott Galloway is suddenly everywhere, slaying academe’s sacred cows
Scott Galloway believes higher education is overdue for a reckoning. Sky-high tuition leaves too many students drowning in debt. Tenure guarantees lifetime appointments to subpar professors. Elite colleges hoard their vast endowments and brag about how many applicants they reject, while kids from humble backgrounds are left behind “in a civilization that is now more Hunger Games than civil.”
It’s not a novel critique, but Galloway, a serial entrepreneur and professor of marketing at New York University, makes it with particular vigor — and often with a few obscenities thrown in for emphasis. In his 2017 book, The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google, he declares the following ideas “bullshit”: the prediction that “VC-backed technology education companies” will disrupt education; loyalty to organizations rather than people; the sacred divide between advertising and journalism; the value of following your passion. The fact that NYU charges roughly $500 a minute for Galloway’s "Brand Strategy" class is, according to the guy who teaches the class, "ridiculous” — though he modifies that with an F-bomb.
Lately Galloway’s stock seems to be on the rise. The Wall Street Journal recently profiled him, noting his ambition to become “the most influential thought leader in the history of business.” At the end of an interview on CNN, Anderson Cooper declared Galloway’s insights on the coming reshuffling in higher ed “the most interesting five minutes I’ve had in a long time.” He has a new show on Vice TV, which is essentially Galloway ranting and gesticulating against a white background. The show's title matches the vibe: No Mercy/No Malice.
When he’s not sticking it to higher ed, Galloway dispenses advice on a broad spectrum of life topics. In his 2019 book, The Algebra of Happiness, he has thoughts about relationships (“affection and sex are where you can be most who you really are”), working out (“exercise is the only real youth serum”), and financial security (“money can buy happiness, to a point”). Mixed in with those oracular tidbits is a leavening dose of self-deprecation. Galloway cops to dealing with mild depression, insecurity, bouts of anger, and body-dysmorphic disorder. "My biggest fear,” he writes, “is that my selfish tendencies translate to a lack of investment in relationships, and I’ll die alone.”
Galloway spoke recently with The Chronicle about the coming disruption in higher ed, his belief that too many professors merely create debt for young people, and why we should go back to the 1980s.
What has the pandemic exposed about higher education?
It's pulled back the curtain. Like any consumer product, it's created additional transparency around the value-to-price ratio, what people are actually getting for their money. You could have 50 percent of international students not show up and 20 percent of domestic students not show up in the fall. So it's demand destruction. These Zoom classes that everyone has been doing, I would argue it's not as much that people are disappointed in the Zoom classes, it's that they're disappointed in what the Zoom classes have revealed. Everyone knows that Zoom classes are not as good as the real thing, but people understand we're in a crisis. I think what people are most disappointed in, as parents have collectively said, "That's what I've been paying for?"
So it's created two things: demand destruction and a moment in time where families are pausing and asking tough questions about whether or not pricing has finally escalated to the point where many college experiences are no longer worth it.
You've argued that it would be good for Apple to get into the higher-ed business because, as a publicly traded company, it always needs to increase revenue for shareholders, and higher ed is one of the biggest whales out there you can harpoon. You also argue that Apple should make education tuition-free and should instead charge corporate recruiters. How is that going to work?
The latter is what I would call an aspirational vision from a professor. I think Apple and Google could, if they wanted to, decide: "We're making so much money over here, do you want to add a lot of stakeholder value over here?" I think if Google launched a university or some sort of educational program that said, "We're going to train and certify people in programming and computer science, and it's going to be free, and we're going to charge recruiters," I think that would work. I think it would add tremendous value to society. I think it's unlikely they'll do it.
Wait, so you don't think they'll do it, but at the same time you think they have to do it?
If Google and Apple wanted to change the world for the better, they would start certifying people who don't get into the best colleges around design and STEM, and then charge recruiters. I think they could do it. I think they should do it. I don't think they will do it. What I think is going to happen is that universities are going to come under so much cost pressure that they'll do one of two things: They'll either use small tech and big tech just to expand their enrollments, and they won't partner as much as they will just use these products. So it's happening right now. Slack and Zoom — education overnight has become probably their biggest customer.
So education is going to be an increasingly important consumer for tech companies because they're going to have to figure out remote learning, and they're also going to have to figure out a way to deliver education at a lower cost. I mean, that's just coming. And all roads kind of lead to scale.
It's really difficult for universities, because of their high fixed costs, to cut their gross costs. What they can do is cut their costs per student by expanding their enrollments. And one way of thinking of it is if I take 50 percent of my courses online, I effectively double the size of my campus. So I think that's where the University of California, the Texas school system, the University of Michigan, Ohio State are headed. And that will create chaos among the Tier 2 schools that basically fed off the people who didn't get into those schools.
You've been fairly enthusiastic about the side benefits of being on a campus, of making friends and connections and so on. How sanguine are you about the prospect that a lot of students will be exclusively online?
When you're talking about exclusively online, that's an entirely different experience. There's just no getting around it. It's just not nearly the safe, joyous place of self-discovery, empathy, exploration. I mean, in a word, magic, right?
Where I think we might be headed with these universities is the in-person stuff is for the fantastic classes, the stars, the big-burst learning. But a lot of the back and forth will probably take place online because TAs' going through problem sets can be done pretty well online. So it will be a mix of the two. Maybe the experience won't be as good, but it'll be close.
There's just a lot of stuff that can go online without much erosion in value. And at the same time, I would hope that we would still be able to offer a lot of students the opportunity to go see the Badgers play the Wolverines and also live in the dorms.
You write about being a product of big government, attending Berkeley and UCLA back when tuition was low and it was much easier to get in. I'm curious what you think about the responsibility of government -- for instance, the idea of making public colleges tuition-free that Bernie Sanders and others have championed.
The notion of free higher education is nothing but a continued transfer of wealth from poor people to rich people. If you're in the top 1 percent, you're 77 times more likely to get into an elite university. Those kids do not need free tuition.
The key, in my opinion, is how do we expand the number of seats and make it more affordable for the bulk of kids who go to state schools. That's about two-thirds of enrollees right now. With the Ivies, it's more spectacle than it is historic or meaningful. They will likely double down on exclusivity in a campus environment. They have the money to figure out a way to vaccinate their entire staff and create that Dead Poets Society experience. I would say it's not unimportant, but it's really not where the kind of rubber meets the road in education.
What I would like to see is some sort of grand bargain where the university leadership says, "OK, we have lost the script. We take too much pride in exclusivity and declining admittance rates. We have not faced the same economic pressures and cost pressures and efficiency mandates that every other sector has faced in the last 40 years. Is there a way we can reduce the cost of delivery per student by 20 percent?"
You've said of higher education that "the disruption is coming, and to be blunt, we deserve it." I can imagine that a hardworking sociology professor who's making a mortgage payment might feel that that statement is directed at him or her. If this huge disruption comes, there are going to be a lot of casualties.
The hardworking sociology professor who's doing good research and teaching a lot of students, I think he or she is fine. The professor that's been tenured for 20 years and can't teach his way out of a paper bag and hasn't written relevant research and publishes peer-reviewed research that their buddies from grad school, as the editors of an academic journal that we are forced to pay $25,000 a year to give it artificial relevance, and that person is making a quarter of a million dollars a year and senses their declining relevance and shows up to faculty meetings and is obstructionist and antagonistic -- that's 10 to 20 percent of the faculty across America.
I've worked with CEOs, I've worked with government leaders. The most inspiring people you will ever meet are the top decile of academics. These are people who are the best in the world, who are committed to the pursuit of truth, regardless of who it offends. Hardworking, incredible public servants. The bottom 30 percent are nothing but debt on young people.
You’ve called tenure “welfare for the overeducated.” Should we do away with it?
I don't think you can do away with it, and I do think you have to live up to your promises. I think the top business schools don't need to offer tenure. I think that, economically, they could take productive people and pay them more and just stop offering tenure. I think right now it's more of a peer-pressure thing. It's, like, maintain the system. Are you a union guy or a union girl?
At NYU, you have to literally put aside $3 million to give tenure to someone because there's a recognition that person is not going to pull their weight over the course of their lifetime. And to give them lifetime job security is just massively expensive. Now, having said that, I want to acknowledge that tenure in certain domains is really important. In the law school and certain schools in the humanities. The current administration has proven that there will probably be moments in history where you can see political forces trying to intimidate thought.
Tenure is easy to attack. The reality is, though, that the majority of real cost explosion has happened at the administration level, in what I call positions and centers and classes around things like leadership and ethics that have absolutely no measurable outcome.
I can hear a chorus of academics saying that the idea of measurable outcomes is coming from a business guy who wants numbers and stats. And I'm -- whatever my liberal-arts discipline is -- I'm contributing to the general advancement of knowledge, and I can't show you a pie chart to demonstrate that value. I know you're talking about business schools here, but more broadly speaking, what do you say to that reaction?
I do think that you can show that a broad-based liberal-arts education creates curiosity, creates empathy, creates a more well-rounded human manager, whatever you want to call it. I think there's research that proves that. I think we have yet to show that anyone who takes a mandatory ethics class the first year in business school is less likely to go to prison or commit a crime than someone who doesn't.
What I can prove to you is that we have professors who love those courses because they're well paying and have no measurable outcomes. It's even difficult to tell if they're doing this correctly. The notion that we're going to take a 27-year-old and teach them leadership and ethics is ridiculous.
You've talked in interviews and in books about the amount of money that NYU charges in tuition, and it sounds like what you're saying is NYU is ripping students off. Are administrators bothered when you say that?
I think a lot of academics sense that something is wrong in Mudville. When we graduate a young woman and she leaves with a quarter of a million dollars in debt, it creates so much anxiety in her household. And the NYU degree is still worth it. But then the kid doesn't get into NYU and the parents rationalize going into a quarter of a million dollars of debt so they go into a second-tier university because they bought into this American dictum or mandate that all kids must go to college and they graduate with a second-tier degree, few job prospects, and a quarter of a million dollars of debt.
I think a lot of us in the academic world are starting to feel like we've lost the script. But when it's raining money, when it's about your own compensation -- you know, we're all human.
But is there an opportunity to return to where we were in the ’80s, where at $5,000 a year it's an extraordinary bargain that creates this massive lubricant of upward mobility and this time of year becomes a nervous but joyous time of year as opposed to an incredibly anxious time of financial despair and fear. We've gone from nervous and joyous to anxious and in despair across our university admissions system. We need fundamental change from government, from administrators, from our society, from recruiters who stop to fashion a path for kids, even if they don't go to an elite university or maybe get college degrees. A class system needs to be broken.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Tom Bartlett is a senior writer who covers science and other things. Follow him on Twitter @tebartl.