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Most Academic Advertising Is Immoral Bullshit

Summary:
Chapter 3 of Cracks in the Ivory Tower investigates how universities and individual academic departments market themselves. Our basic conclusion: Most academic advertising is immoral bullshit. Universities make big promises they don’t know if they can keep. They don’t test to see whether they deliver the goods they promise. Worst of all, there is strong independent evidence from educational psychology that they systematically fail to deliver the goods, in part because liberal arts education is grounded on a mistaken, falsified theory of learning. Here’s an excerpt. In this excerpt, we set up the ethical problem. You can read the book for a review of empirical research showing that universities fail to deliver the goods they promise to students.: Imagine if Pfizer placed

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Chapter 3 of Cracks in the Ivory Tower investigates how universities and individual academic departments market themselves. Our basic conclusion: Most academic advertising is immoral bullshit. Universities make big promises they don’t know if they can keep. They don’t test to see whether they deliver the goods they promise. Worst of all, there is strong independent evidence from educational psychology that they systematically fail to deliver the goods, in part because liberal arts education is grounded on a mistaken, falsified theory of learning.

Here’s an excerpt. In this excerpt, we set up the ethical problem. You can read the book for a review of empirical research showing that universities fail to deliver the goods they promise to students.:

Imagine if Pfizer placed the following advertisement:

Introducing Collegra! Collegra is a drug unlike any other. If you take Collegra 256 times a year for four years, Collegra will improve your critical reasoning, moral reasoning, analytic, and quantitative skills. It will transform you into a better person with a global mindset. It will make you able to face any challenge. It will prepare you for any job. It will dramatically improve your cognitive skills. It will make you score higher on standardized tests, such as the LSAT or GMAT. Further, it will help you make more money! Indeed, Collegra users on average earn an extra million dollars lifetime income compared to non-users.

The cost of Collegra varies from person to person. Collegra is not covered by your insurance. Pfizer charges rich kids and foreign students on government grants $60,000 a year. But if you can’t afford Collegra, Pfizer may be able to help. Some satisfied previous Collegra users have generously provided us with funds to help new users.

Warning: Taking Collegra is more like undergoing chemo-therapy than like taking a pill. Users need to spent at least thirty hours a week for 30 weeks a year over four years for it to be effective. Most users will be unable to work at a job while taking Collegra.

Side effects include increased tendency to engage in binge drinking, and a tendency to acquire tens of thousands of dollars in debt.

If you want, imagine that as the announcer says all this, we see smiling, pretty 20-year-olds squeezing chemicals into test tubes, then later reading poetry, then later looking spellbound at math equations, then watching a Nepalese dance troop, then finally walking around in black robes and mortar hats. 

Now imagine that Pfizer sincerelybelieves everything it says. But suppose Pfizer has not engaged in anyof the standard testing drug companies have to undergo in order to sell drugs in the US or Europe. They have conducted noclinical trials. They have done norandomized controlled experiments. They haven’t even looked for natural experiments. All they have, at most, are some statistics showing that drug users outperform non-drug users. Suppose, also, that they have good reason to suspect this is a selection effect, because Pfizer itself has explicitly chosen only to administer the drug to smart, conscientious, perseverant, and already successful people. 

Now ask, is Pfizer’s advertisement unethical?

The US government would say so. Indeed, Pfizer would not legally be allowed to sell or advertise for Collegra in the United States unless it went through extensive testing proving that Collegra was both safe and effective. The sincerity of Pfizer’s beliefs would make no difference whatsoever.

In this (hypothetical) case, Pfizer engages in, if not false advertising per se, what we might instead call negligent advertising.

Negligent advertising: Selling a product on the claim that the product delivers certain benefits, despite lackingevidence that the product in fact delivers those benefits.

Here, Pfizer isn’t lying—they believe what they say. The problem isn’t that they’re sincere but mistaken—it’s possibletheir claims are true, but they don’t know. Instead, the problem is that they’re claiming the drug produces certain results, but they haven’t done even the most basic due diligence to prove that it does. Given the evidence available to them, they aren’t in a position to assert causation. They may sincerely believe in their product, but they aren’t entitledto that belief.  

 It’s bad business ethics to sell something by claiming it causes some good effect unless you have sufficiently strong evidence it in fact causes that effect. It’s even worse business ethics if there is good evidence out there that the product does not cause the putative evidence, but you just ignore and evade that evidence. As we’ll see below, when it comes to selling higher education, there is indeed strong evidence againstmany of its putative benefits. In other cases, there’s evidence that higher education does indeed produce some of its putative benefits, but notfor the reason colleges say it does.

Negligent advertising is bad, but just how bad depends in part on the cost of the product. To illustrate, consider two different cases:

  1. Pfizer offers Collegra, as described above. It costs consumers—after income-based price discrimination—on average $100,000 to take the drug, while governments tend to kick in another $100,000 or so on the drug user’s behalf. Taking the drug requires about 4-6 thousand hours of treatment over 1,000 days over four years. Most drug users leave with tens of thousands of dollars of debt. Pfizer again has no real evidence that the drug works.
  2. Rival drug company Eli Lilly and Co. offers Universitalis. They claim Universitalis offers the same benefits as Collegra. Eli Lilly also lacks evidence for their claims. However, their drug only costs $1 and requires 1 total minute to administer.


While both Pfizer and Eli Lilly have engaged in negligent advertising, Pfizer’s behavior is much worse. After all, when patients buy and use Pfizers product, they “pay” not just tens or hundreds of thousands more, but also pay in terms of time and lost wages. The full cost of Collegra is staggering, while Universitalis costs almost nothing. This doesn’t excuse Eli Lilly’s (hypothetical) behavior, but Pfizer’s behavior is far worse than Eli Lilly’s.

  So, what makes negligent advertising wrong in the Collegra case is at least the following two features:

  1. A failure of due diligence. In many cases, sellers owe potential buyers to do due diligence. They may not claim a product has a benefit unless they have good enough evidence to substantiate that claim. But Pfizer lacks this evidence.
  2. Harm: Collegra is extremely costly, and so Collegra users give up a great deal to take it.

If Pfizer did any of this, our academic colleagues would be up in arms. Our business ethics colleagues would write case studies about their negligent behavior. If an auto company claimed that their cars were the safest in the world, but had done no testing and possessed little to no evidence, they’d claim they were dishonest and immoral. 

But, perhaps not surprisingly, we college professors hold ourselves and our employers to far lower moral standards than we hold others. While Pfizer doesn’t sell Collegra, universities do sell a similar product—the degree—and make the same promises. As we’ll now show, they are engaging in negligent advertising.

Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan (Ph.D., 2007, University of Arizona) is Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Chair and Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business, and by courtesy, Associate Professor of Philosophy, at Georgetown University, and formerly Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Research, at Brown University. He specializes in political philosophy and applied ethics.

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