On April 5, TU announced the selection of our new University president, Brad Carson. Carson is a former Democratic Congressman and Pentagon higher-up, serving as Undersecretary of Defense, among other roles. Carson also worked as director of the National Energy Policy Institute and as a senior advisor with the Boston Consulting Group, which advised the university frequently over the course of its recent transitions.
Carson is far from unaccomplished, but his accomplishments aren’t typical of a university president. He doesn’t hold a Ph.D. and has served only a few years as a professor. His positions did, however, require the management of complex institutions and large amounts of personnel. The choice still feels unusual and begs the question of why someone with more experience in academia wasn’t selected.
Of course, the selection makes perfect sense when put in the context of TU’s shifting focus. Carson’s ties to the Pentagon solidify our growing relationship to the Department of Defense, particularly in the area of cybersecurity. His experience in the energy industry is likewise incredibly relevant to the economy of Tulsa and Oklahoma. A figure well-versed in academia is no longer necessary to TU; academia is not the world we are creating graduates for.
Carson’s political career isn’t particularly unique, though it does bear mentioning. He served on the right-wing Blue Dog coalition within the Democratic Party. He voted for the Iraq War in 2002 and actually served in the war years later as an Intelligence Officer. The defining trait of his time in the government seems to be hawkishness. In a 2015 panel in the wake of the Iraq War, Carson identified the unique role of the army as the force that can “kick in your door and make you stop doing what you want to do […] in a sustained, massive way.” Carson doesn’t seem to regret his support for the war and encouraged further expansion of the Army. This expansion includes the realm of cybersecurity, which is just as often turned into offensive operations as it is used for defense.
Many students are justifiably worried that Carson’s focuses could come at the expense of liberal arts programs at TU. Indeed, if the university runs into financial trouble again, cuts to these non-essential programs are almost guaranteed. They are expendable programs ultimately unnecessary to the university’s mission. The university’s funding of these programs comes only at the insistence of students and out of the programs’ usefulness in addition to more profitable fields. However, the real problem with the selection of Carson runs deeper than a threat to the funding of the liberal arts.
Similar to the “New Strategic Plan,” Carson’s selection indicates a shift in the operating philosophy of the university. TU is, fundamentally, becoming an institution focused on creating graduates that are lucrative for the Pentagon and Tulsa energy and tech companies. Giving these interests increased say in the administrative affairs of the university achieves this transformation. Carson is only the latest in a line of administrators with these goals and priorities.
Liberal arts are not fundamentally incompatible with this mission. Paired with a lucrative major in line with TU’s focus, they can give graduates an edge in securing careers in competitive industries. Cuts will only come when financial trouble is encountered, otherwise, the liberal arts can continue along quietly as cybersecurity and energy grow. Regardless of cuts, though, the university is still ultimately controlled more and more by the interests of corporations and the Pentagon, and less by those with genuine passion for curiosity and enlightenment.
Ultimately, there is nothing particularly evil or unique about what is happening at TU. College’s role is constantly shifting to meet the demands of the economy and government, and the holistic education model many students romanticize seems to be dying. The skyrocketing price of higher education makes education feel more like a product and means to an end, rather than a fulfilling life experience. Even after the pandemic, online technical education may be far more attractive than a costly 4-year degree. Continued funding cuts for public universities only exacerbate this problem for universities attempting to focus on non-profitable fields. For TU, the crisis materialized earlier than it inevitably will for many other universities. The response to this crisis for TU, and soon many other universities, is to acquiesce to the shifting demands of those in power.
Liberal arts programs will still exist, and I’m confident that amazing academic work will continue to be done at our university. I’m also sure Carson genuinely cares about TU and wants to see the university grow and its students find their education fulfilling. What’s upsetting about the situation is the blatant commandeering of the university by outside interests with priorities other than fostering minds. The democratic ideal of the independent university has always been a pipe dream, but it seems especially clear now.