Ecosystem Failure

When I was in grade school, the summers were increasingly marked by massive die-offs of a small fish called the alewife. Through a blizzard of invasive species and other human interventions, the alewife population boomed to the point where annual starvations became normal, and the beaches of southern Lake Michigan had as many as twenty billion dead alewives washed ashore in the summer of 1967.

Dead alewives floating atop the water in Lake Michigan, so many that they cover the entire surface of the harbor.

I’m writing this shortly after the announcement that Green Mountain College, eight miles away from here in Poultney VT, will cease operations at the end of this semester. After the announcement that Hampshire College won’t enroll a new Fall cohort. After the closings of Mount Ida College and Newbury College, after Wheelock merged with BU, after the risk announcements for the College of St. Joseph… I’m seeing dead fish on the beach again.

I think it’s unproductive to ask who’s to blame for this. What we’re seeing is an ecosystem collapse with dozens of contributing variables. In fact, I think it’s even worse than that. The collapse of higher ed comes from an attempt to optimize each individual aspect of the endeavor, with nobody watching the whole. It comes from tens of millions of individually intelligent decisions. We’ve been so smart about the details that we forgot about the purpose. And now the lake is dying, and the fish are washing ashore.