Moneybox

Actually, It’d Be Great if Elon Musk Built a University

The Tesla founder ought to give his dumb boob joke some serious thought.

SpaceX owner and Tesla CEO Elon Musk gestures with his thumbs.
Thumbs up to this idea! Britta Pedersen/Getty Images

So, Elon Musk tweeted out a boob joke.

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To be fully honest, I did not initially notice the acronym. (Go ahead, spell it if you haven’t.) Someone else had to point it out, at which point I looked at the follow-up tweets and sighed.

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Instead, my first thought upon seeing the words Texas Institute of Technology & Science was that it would indeed be very cool if the world’s richest man decided to build out a new, large, lavishly endowed university, and even better if it inspired his fellow tech billionaires to follow suit. Obviously, this is going to make a certain kind of progressive who would prefer billionaires not exist cringe. But there are all sorts of very straightforward economic, social, and political reasons why it would be healthy for the United States to add a new batch of top-tier institutions of higher education outside of the coasts, and in an era of limited government investment, our current class of plutocrats is in the best position of anyone to do it.

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First, it’d be good for ambitious students. (This isn’t exactly the most important reason but consider it a launching-off point.) The college admissions race has become a brutal gantlet, in part because the supply of seats at top schools hasn’t really kept pace with American and international demand. One way to solve that is by simply increasing the number of spots at existing universities. But Harvard and MIT don’t seem to have much desire to substantially grow their class sizes, so adding new schools (or refurbishing existing ones with some monster-sized donations) seems like the next best practical option.

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Second, it’d be good for academics, who in general face an absolutely brutal, supersaturated job market in higher ed, even in many of the sciences such as biology and physics. I don’t have to tell Slate readers about the nightmarish state of the humanities. And while Ph.D.s in STEM fields can typically find work in the private sector if they’re nudged out of the ivory tower, it’d be nice to keep more of their talents focused on foundational research kept separate from the profit motive.

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Third, it’d be good for the national economy. University-led research and federal funding have been the twin pillars of American innovation ever since the mid-20th century, and at this stage, you still really can’t have too much of either. R&D spending is simply one of the highest-return investments a country can make—something that Musk, who, for all the criticism he gets, does lead two companies that do genuinely cutting-edge work, almost certainly understands. If he wants to prove he’s better at allocating capital than the federal government, then one good way to do it would be to plunk down more of his billions into our country’s scientific infrastructure.

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Fourth, spreading more top research institutions around the country would help alleviate regional inequality. Thanks to the decline of manufacturing and rise of tech and finance, America’s wealth has become increasingly concentrated within a handful of metros, particularly on the coasts, that have become magnets for corporate investment and highly educated workers. Building out universities elsewhere in the country could help spread the innovation economy and its riches around. Now, obviously, Texas isn’t doing too badly in America’s economic derby (see the success of Dallas, Houston, and Austin). The longhorn state is a big place and parts of it could certainly use the investment from its most famous new resident and booster, beyond the new Tesla headquarters.

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Now, a generous philanthropist could also accomplish something similar by making a major donation to an existing university to, say, build out its labs. But billionaires have egos and like to create new things that give them the freedom to experiment, and starting new schools in their own names wouldn’t be the worst way to indulge that desire. It’d certainly be better than another billionaire slapping their name on a building on Harvard or Yale, which only further concentrates resources in the hands of handful of institutions.

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Finally, it’d be good for American politics. America’s educational and economic divides have also become its political divides, with rich metros increasingly voting blue, and the rest of the country voting red. Building out more universities in, say, the Mountain West might help alleviate a little bit of that polarization by bringing more high-tech industries and professionals into conservative-leaning parts of the country. There’s a sort of trollish version of this argument that you sometimes see on Twitter, where someone (like, uh, me) will say that the best way for Democrats to win back Senate seats in North Dakota or Montana in the future is to build out a bunch of colleges. But that’s obviously a pretty unlikely result. Rather, you’d probably just add a bit of political diversity in states that are currently drifting toward an extreme version of reactionary conservatism. Plus, if R&D at these universities helps build out local companies in industries like renewables or electric vehicles, well, that might give a Republican politicians more incentive to back things like clean-energy subsidies that will help keep us from frying the planet.

So yes, it was probably a dumb shitpost. But then again, the Boring Co. started out as a joke, too, before Musk followed though (perhaps it should have stayed a gag, but that’s another issue). And as the New York Post points out, Musk has a history of mixing serious ventures with eighth-grade-boy humor. (“Tesla’s Models S, 3, X and Y vehicles to spell out S.3.X.Y. on the company’s website,” it notes.) Even if he’s just in it for the merch, he should give this idea some extra thought.

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