June 22, 2013

· Obiter Dicta

Monsters University, the prequel to Monsters, Inc, opened this weekend. I brought the kids to see it. As a faculty member at what is generally regarded as America’s most monstrous university, I was naturally interested in seeing how higher education worked in Monstropolis. What sort of pedagogical techniques are in vogue there? Is the flipped classroom all the rage? What’s the structure of the curriculum? These are natural questions to ask of a children’s movie about imaginary creatures. Do I have to say there will be spoilers? Of course there will be spoilers. But really, if you are the sort of person who would be genuinely upset by having someone reveal a few plot points in Monsters University, I am not sure I have any sympathy for you at all. As it turned out, while my initial focus was on aspects of everyday campus life at MU, my considered reaction is that, as an institution, Monsters University is doomed.

First, campus life. As the MU website suggests and the film reveals in more detail, Monsters University is a traditional institution in the grip of a quite problematic organizational culture. Instruction is resolutely “chalk and talk”, with faculty-monsters presenting dull lectures to (often very large) classes of obviously disaffected students. The campus has a machine shop devoted to manufacturing doors, but that seems to be about the extent of its capital investment in anything other than faux collegiate gothic buildings. Lecture theaters are ill-suited for anything but the most direct sort of instruction. The rest of the physical plant has clearly failed to keep pace with the diversity of the student body. Campus transportation seems non-existent, despite the fact that we see slug-like monsters unable to get to class in anything like a timely fashion. Classroom spaces also seem poorly equipped to address the needs of nontraditional monsters, especially giant monsters. Disturbingly, the two giant monsters we see are both depicted playing sports: a lanky giant monster is shown playing giant ultimate frisbee (or possibly ultimate giant frisbee), and a giant slug monster is evidently the key player on the football team. Yet all of the classrooms are either tiny, or accessible only by very small doors that even a moderately-sized student would have trouble fitting through. One has to wonder whether Monsters University recruits these talented young giant monsters for anything other than their athletic ability.

A second problem is more organizational. The role of Dean Hardscrabble in the everyday life of the university is particularly disturbing. She imperiously assumes the right to observe and interrupt lectures in progress, to overrule the teaching decisions of tenured faculty-monsters, and to interfere with the curriculum’s content and standards whenever she feels like it. It is an accepted rule of university governance that the faculty control the curriculum, and yet here we see administrative interference on a very worrying scale. She also is clearly far too involved in the extracurricular life of the school, and in particular with its clearly far too-powerful fraternity and sorority organizations. Moreover, the fact that there is a statue to Dean Hardscrabble placed inside the main lecture theater of the school she administers bespeaks a level of administrative hubris rarely seen outside of certain English universities. It is difficult to see how the faculty could be expected to work under such a dysfunctional managerial style.

Disturbing as these features of Monsters University are, in the broader scheme of things they are of little concern. For the fact is that, when placed in the timeline of Mike and Sully’s world, and the events we already know will take place in Monsters Inc, it is clear that MU has no future. Monsters University ends with Mike and Sully expelled from school but not overly worried by their fate. They head to Monsters, Inc. and take jobs in the mailroom, where they begin a meteoric and frankly implausible upward climb through the ranks of the company. The credits end where Monsters Inc. begins, with Mike and Sully joining the scare floor of the company. This is an enormously prestigious job, and one that Monsters University, as an institution, is supposed to train its most elite students for. This suggests that the credential society these monsters are living in is a sham. Monsters University and its rival Fear Tech might well be ripe for disruption. In fact, we know from the events of Monsters Inc. that this is not just likely, but inevitable. As you will remember, that film ends with Mike and Sully discovering that the laughter of children is a vastly more powerful energy source than screams, thereby revolutionizing energy production in Monstropolis and likely ushering in an era of unprecedented prosperity.

The consequences for the University are obvious, and chilling. Two expelled former students have gone on not only to rise to a level of occupational success that ought to be impossible without an MU credential, but have also discovered new fundamental facts about the world that completely undermine the knowledge base of Monsters University as an institution. It’s as if Jobs and Wozniak were also Fleischmann and Pons. The School of Scaring, which we hear early on is the “crown jewel” of MU, is now completely outmoded and also entirely delegitimated. The plot of the surely inevitable third Monsters movie is thus quite obvious. Mike and Sully take advantage of the huge backlash against MU for getting so much basic science wrong. They join forces with the upper management team of Monsters, Inc. (with the disgraced Waternoose taking the blame for all the bad stuff that happened) and form an edupreneurial startup. Armed with their knowledge about laughter, they return to a Monsters University that expelled them and destroy the credibility of the faculty, and the university besides. MU’s earlier failure to modernize then comes back to haunt it. MU has nothing to offer its students—giant sized or small—in the new Laughter Economy. Instead, Mike and Sully’s new Monstrously Open Online Campus will provide the modest training needed to become a productive and happy member of society. Their startup, Scarecoursa, is launched to great acclaim.

Emeritus Dean Hardscrabble, meanwhile, tries to argue that these events and discoveries do not delegitimate the School of Scaring as a scientific enterprise. Predictions about the human world are extremely difficult to make in a reliable fashion, after all. The citizens of Monstropolis demand to know whether it’s reasonable that the curriculum at MU was for decades riddled with massive errors of fact promulgated by a self-satisfied caste of academics who inflicted what have turned out to be enormous human subjects violations on small children. It’s immediately clear that no academic discipline could hope to survive such a massive empirical refutation of its core principles, basic methods, and fundamental theory. (Except the Economics department, obviously—although what they’ll do in the new post-scarcity energy economy isn’t so clear, either.) With the University in chaos, the faculty fully casualized, and Mike and Sully’s MOOC startup a roaring success, the remainder of the film focuses on the unexpected return of Randall, whose story this really is. Unbeknownst to Mike and Sully, Randall turns out to have been secretly backing Scarecoursa all along. Resentful as ever but now also tremendously rich, he goes public evangelizing the idea that college is a pointless waste of time for talented monsters. Simultaneously, he executes his stock options, forces out Mike and Sully, and announces an acquihire merger with Monsters, Inc. The film ends with Randall as CEO of the new firm. Mike and Sully, meanwhile, join Emeritus Dean Hardscrabble working part-time as content providers for Scarecoursa webinars.

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I am Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center.



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