The University of Cambridge appointed a new vice-chancellor earlier this month: Deborah Prentice, the current provost of Princeton University. Prentice brings degrees from Yale and Stanford and thirty-four years at Princeton with her across the pond, but no experience of the United Kingdom, let alone of Cambridge. As both a Princetonian and a Cantabrigian, I’m here to tell you that this is not good.
On the one hand, Cambridge can, perhaps, benefit from Prentice’s acquaintance with Princeton’s finances. As Malcolm Gladwell recently explained, with its $37.7 billion endowment, Princeton is the world’s first perpetual motion machine. Cambridge has over 500 years on Princeton, yet its endowment is a measly £3.6 billion.
Then again, Cambridge’s endowment pales in comparison in part because Cambridge is a very different institution from Princeton. While Princeton has one central administration calling the shots, Cambridge is a confederation of thirty-one self-governed colleges, each with its own resources, fundraising and endowment.
To an American, there is much about this system that is bewildering. High-schoolers do not apply “to Cambridge”: they apply to a particular college, where they are interviewed and selected or rejected by “fellows” (i.e. faculty members) in their chosen subject. And it really does matter which college you end up in. Teaching staff, scholarships, housing, travel funds, libraries, food, “May Balls” — all differ dramatically from college to college.
Compare this with Prentice’s alma mater, Stanford. As reported in a devastating article this past summer, Stanford has seized the many houses where students used to live in distinct and quirky social groups and rebranded each with a meaningless number. The French, Italian and German theme houses, for instance, are now called 610, 620 and 650. All personality has been stripped in the name of “fairness” and “community.”
Stanford’s actions reflect a broader phenomenon of homogenization in American higher education. Universities aren’t simply trying to ensure that every student’s experience is fair in relation to other students at the same university: they are also trying to ensure that every student’s experience is fair in relation to students at other universities.
This means that at Princeton, notoriously robust grading standards have in recent years given way to the same grade inflation visible on every other campus. Gone, too, is the university’s idiosyncratic academic calendar, beloved by many (myself included): exams now take place before winter break, as at nearly every other institution. Likewise Harvard this year ended a “decades-old scheduling quirk.”
From the abolition of standardized testing requirements, to the mind-numbing proliferation of bureaucrats, to the implementation of irrational Covid-19 policies: what happens at one secular, elite American university tends to happen, sooner or later, at them all.
And increasingly, what happens in American higher education spreads to the United Kingdom. There is a grand tradition of Americans spending a year or two at Oxford or Cambridge. Ostensibly they’re there to earn a Master’s (or MPhil) degree; in practice, they’re there to drink port and take weekend trips to the continent. During Covid, though, with black-tie dinners and travel suspended, the Americans had to find a new way to spend their time. And so within weeks, if not days, of matriculation, they began demanding that nearly thousand-year-old foreign institutions conform to their will, or else.
Two examples in my own field. An American Rhodes Scholar was behind an open letter that called on the Oxford Classics Faculty to “acknowledge explicitly its own role in the proliferation of racist, colonialist, and white supremacist attitudes.” And when Cambridge senior lecturer David Butterfield penned a response to the Oxford letter, another American graduate student — who had been at Cambridge for less than a month — campaigned for him to be punished (he was not).
Blessedly, the Brits are not very good at being woke. They do their best to parrot the language of their American peers, but their statements on anti-racism often seem laughably quaint in comparison. I found myself in the “most progressive” Cambridge college, King’s (I picked it for the decidedly un-progressive music and architecture); what passes for progressive there would hardly raise an eyebrow on most American campuses.
But what will happen with Prentice at the helm? Will she stand athwart the winds of “fairness” blowing across the Atlantic and defend Cambridge’s quirks? Or will Cambridge, in its ongoing quest to decolonize, be the next victim of American cultural imperialism?