All posts by William Voegeli

William Voegeli is a senior editor of the Claremont Review of Books and the author of Never Enough: America's Limitless Welfare State (Encounter Books).

Here’s Why Public Colleges Could Face Defunding

Is America about to embark on the “mass defunding of public higher education”? Fredrik deBoer thinks it’s a real, horrifying possibility. In a Los Angeles Times op-ed and on his blog, he argues that the political basis for this defunding now exists.

The problem, according to the Pew Research Center, is that the list of truths self-evident to members of both political parties no longer includes the institutional value of higher education. On the question of whether colleges and universities have a positive or negative effect on the country, Pew found that Democrats had a favorable view of colleges by a wide margin, 72% to 19%, while Republicans had a negative view, 58% to 36%. Democrats’ support for higher education, always strong, has grown more pronounced since 2010. Only within the last year, however, have Republicans gone from favoring to opposing colleges and universities.

Identity-Politics Departments

This loss of bipartisan support constitutes a “crisis,” deBoer contends. Not only is America closely divided between two parties, but Republicans are especially powerful at the state level, where funding decisions about higher education are made. No, he doesn’t expect that the Republican governor and legislature of Wisconsin, for example, will shut down its flagship state university. But he does think that the Republican voters’ new consensus—higher education no longer merits deference or the benefit of the doubt—portends that states will start to close down identity-politics departments like Women’s Studies, and make taxpayer support contingent on enforcing “harsh restrictions on campus groups and how they can organize.”

DeBoer writes as an academic—he holds three degrees from three different public universities, and is Academic Assessment Manager at a fourth, Brooklyn College of the City University of New York—and as a leftist—another of his recent articles makes clear that he doesn’t want to regulate profit, but do away with it entirely.

Censoring Mainstream Views

Especially interesting, then, that he assigns a large share of the blame for public higher education’s crisis to the academic left. DeBoer “grew up believing that most professors live by” a “philosophy of non-coercion and intellectual pluralism.” The long list of recent incidents where campus activists have attempted to “censor completely mainstream views,” with the encouragement of some faculty and administrators and the acquiescence of others, has convinced him otherwise.

The professors and activists who used to insist that allegations of anti-conservative bias in academia were factually wrong, deBoer argues, have pivoted without pause or embarrassment to insisting that such anti-conservative bias is morally right. As a result, the “defenders of public universities” who “now mock the concept of public debate as a conservative shibboleth” have “created the conditions for the destruction” of these universities.

DeBoer’s opinion of this prospective destruction is particularly equivocal, which makes it particularly interesting. He certainly does not welcome the disaster he expects. The conservative movement incensed by campus radicalism “has one and only one remaining impulse,” he alleges, “which is to destroy its perceived enemies.”

Nevertheless, the victimhood studies associate professors and diversity office administrators will find the principal culprit for their coming unemployment in the mirror. There is, as the literary scholar John Erskine argued a century ago, a “moral obligation to be intelligent,” to “find out as far as possible whether a given action leads to a good or a bad end.” Accordingly, any system of ethics that excuses people from this duty is “vicious.” Erskine was restating the essence of Aristotle’s idea of prudence, practical wisdom, which called for pursuing moral outcomes by shrewdly assessing concrete situations.

Though he sympathizes with the campus activists’ social justice goals, deBoer also criticizes the willful blindness of educators who refuse to live in the world as it is. The fact that “public universities are chartered and funded as non-partisan institutions” makes the practical necessity to conciliate rather than anathematize one of the two major political parties into a moral imperative. Rather than confront this reality directly, however, the academic preference to strike poses of ironic indifference to it will, deBoer believes, “make it easier for reactionary power, every step of the way.”

Misinvesting in Higher Ed

Those who are reactionaries, or merely dubious about the social justice project, face a prudential question of their own: would the defunding of public higher education that deBoer fears lead to a good or a bad result? Several considerations deBoer does not consider argue in favor of it. Most importantly, there is a case to be made, one having nothing to do with academic politics, that we are over- and misinvesting in higher education, rather than under-investing. A bachelor’s degree used to set people apart in a way it no longer does.

Only 7.7% of American adults held one in 1960, compared to 33.4% in 2016. As economist Richard Vedder has repeatedly made clear, the growing ranks of bartenders, waiters, hairdressers, and letter carriers with undergraduate and graduate degrees argues that too many young people, not too few, are steered into the 120-credit-hour slog for that one credential. The resources, including public money and private time now squandered on that quest, would do more people more good if redirected to training programs that match the jobs actually attainable and emerging in the 21st century.

We’re also over-investing in higher education if too many college students receive degrees despite not learning anything in particular. In Academically Adrift (2011) Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa described precisely that situation: large numbers of recent college graduates are “failing to develop … higher order cognitive skills.” Specifically, 45% of the students Arum and Roksa studied were no better at critical thinking, complex reasoning, and written communication after two years of college than they were at freshman orientation, and 35% were no better after four years. This is a particular problem in large public institutions, where many students become “maze smart,” figuring out how to accumulate credit hours without really learning anything, and students and professors tacitly enter into a “mutual nonaggression pact,” exchanging good grades, easily earned, for students’ favorable evaluations of their instructors.

There is, in short, a strong case apart from anti-conservative bias for state legislatures to make far more skeptical, rigorous, and targeted funding decisions about post-secondary education. The political question all but cinches it. And the political question is not about exerting power or exacting revenge but affirming fairness. Non-coercion and intellectual pluralism really are valuable principles.

The fact that, with little optimism, deBoer appeals to self-preservation to get professors to respect these standards shows how contemptuously they are regarded in the academy. Elected officials who fail to uphold academic principles in the only language academics understand—by eliminating faculty lines and slashing budgets—will vindicate academia’s contempt for intellectual freedom, and for the taxpayers who subsidize higher education.

Tenure, Kipnis and the PC University

Some coincidences are less coincidental than others are. Northwestern University recently investigated professor Laura Kipnis, regarding complaints that an essay of hers had violated students’ legal rights. Meanwhile, a committee of the Wisconsin state legislature voted to let the University of Wisconsin choose, as a matter of policy, whether its professors would enjoy the protections of tenure, removing that guarantee from state law, where it has been established for many years.

At no point do the two sagas intersect. The universities are in different states. One is private; the other is public. No actor in either story has even a walk-on part in the other.

The Public’s Rising Contempt

There’s a connection, however. Northwestern’s bizarre, egregious treatment of Kipnis strengthens the case against the credentials-industrial complex that MTC and other critics have been making for years: zealots, frauds, and cowards are turning the citadels of academic freedom into indoctrination camps.

The Kipnis story didn’t cause, but strongly reinforces, growing popular contempt for higher education and its denizens, whose vast self-regard rests on academic ideals they do so much more to flout than uphold. That contempt, in turn, makes it possible, even irresistible, for politicians to curtail prerogatives that serve academics’ private interests but no longer advance the public interest in ways voters can discern or believe.

The Wisconsin professors defending tenure are saying all the right things. (Despite being a little hysterical: tenure protects academics throughout the country without being enshrined in state law. Wisconsin has been the exception.) “Work in higher education, and in education more generally, depends upon the ability to have critical conversations,” said one. “I can’t stay where I can’t speak,” another declares. “And believe me, I cannot speak without tenure.”

Noble Words, Ignoble Deeds

The president of Northwestern University, Morton Schapiro, also says the right things. “Freedom of speech doesn’t amount to much unless it is tested,” hewrotein March. “And if the First Amendment doesn’t matter on college campuses, where self-expression is so deeply valued, why expect it to matter elsewhere?”

Despite the noble words, the deeds have been contemptible. In February, Kipnis published an essay, “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe,” in the Chronicle of Higher Education. It argued that restrictive university codes of sexual conduct amounted to “feminism hijacked by melodrama” about “helpless victims and powerful predators.”

Evidence justifying her lament that students “were being encouraged to regard themselves as … exquisitely sensitive creatures” came within days. Campus protesters denounced the Kipnis article, which one found “terrifying.” A public letteraccused her of “spit[ting] in the face of survivors of rape and sexual assault everywhere.” A petition, claiming that the essay had “caused tremendous hurt,” called on Northwestern to issue “a swift, official condemnation of the sentiments expressed by Professor Kipnis in her inflammatory article and we demand that in the future, this sort of response comes automatically.”

Northwestern did not officially condemn the article. It did, however, open an investigation after two graduate students formally complained that Kipnis had violated Title IX, the 1972 legislation prohibiting colleges from discriminating based on sex. In a follow-up Chronicle essay, Kipnis reported learning—eventually; the outside lawyers investigating her case did not reveal the charges against her until after she had asked repeatedly over several days—that one student alleged her article had had “a ‘chilling effect’ on students’ ability to report sexual misconduct.” The other, mentioned in passing and not by name in the first essay in connection with a sexual misconduct claim already filed, asserted that Kipnis had retaliated against her and created a “hostile environment,” compounding the initial act of gender-based discrimination, and thereby committing a new one. The charges were based on the essay and a single tweet by Kipnis.

A Clown-Show Inquisition

Denunciations of what Kipnis called her “Title IX Inquisition” were ferocious. Liberal blogger Josh Marshall denounced the “Kipnis clown show.” (Having earned a Ph.D., Marshall is familiar with circus life.) Geoffrey Stone, a University of Chicago law professor, argued that since the case against Kipnis was “ludicrous on its face,” Northwestern should have “dismiss[ed] it as quickly and decisively as possible.”

The university’s official position was that its only option was to pursue a case against Kipnis. “Northwestern University is firmly committed both to academic freedom and to free speech,” it said in a statement, “but it is also required to investigate and respond to allegations made by complainants that particular actions or statements might violate Title IX.” (Emphasis added.) The U.S. Department of Education’s determination to make Title IX a vehicle for policing campus sexual behavior is indeed a big part of the problem, but doesn’t sustain the claim that universities have no choice but to run kangaroo courts. When federal policies are unpopular on campus, like sending military recruiters during the days of don’t-ask-don’t tell, the universities’ posture is righteous disdain, not meek acquiescence.

Treating Her Fairly 

After Northwestern determined there was no basis for pursuing the Title IX case against Kipnis, one particularly obtuse blogger (a philosophy professor at another university) argued that the investigation she had been “demonizing” turned out to have treated her fairly. This assessment ignores the obvious fact that undergoing the investigative process was a punishment. Despite its president’s platitudes about valuing self-expression, Northwestern’s risk-averse faculty members will inevitably self-censor rather than increase their exposure to such investigations.

The fact that Kipnis has tenure belies Wisconsin professors’ claims about the impossibility of speaking freely without it. Tenure, as understood by one of the country’s most prestigious universities, is no longer a sufficient condition for exercising freedom of speech with confidence there’ll be no professional drawbacks.

But l’affaire Kipnis shows, strangely, that neither is tenure a necessary condition for free speech. In the midst of the controversy, a Northwestern graduate student wrote a Huffington Post article claiming the university was treating Kipnis too leniently, not too harshly. Its preposterous argument about how the school’s “hostile environment” had made it impossible for students to “flourish” led Josh Marshall to suspect it was a parody: an attempt, like the Alan Sokal hoax, to write something so idiotic that readers would quickly realize that even academics aren’t that crazy.

More importantly, as Kipnis argued, the fact of the Huffington Post article demolished its thesis. “If a graduate student can publicly blast her own university’s president, mock his ideas, and fear no repercussions, then clearly the retaliatory power that university employment confers on anyone—from professors to presidents—is nil.”

The First of Many?

What is, then, both necessary and sufficient to speak your mind in the modern academy without risking career turmoil is to affirm, rather than question, the reigning, strengthening political-identity orthodoxies. That reality mocks the pieties about tenure’s societal benefits, created when professors have the confidence to express their ideas boldly and pursue their work freely. And that reality reduces academic tenure to a job-protection racket sustained by tax and tuition payments from people who will never have guaranteed lifetime employment. Until academic life and governance is re-principled, the Wisconsin vote against tenure is likely to be the first of many.

ARE SCOTT WALKER’S UNIVERSITY BUDGET CUTS A WIN FOR STUDENTS?

Should college professors teach more? Specifically, should professors at public research universities devote more time to teaching undergraduates, and less to research?

In two states this, um, academic question has become a political controversy, one likely to crop up elsewhere. Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, a Republican presidential candidate, has proposed a tuition freeze and budget cuts that would reduce the University of Wisconsin’s revenues by 13%. “Maybe it’s time for faculty and staff to start thinking about teaching more classes and doing more work,” he said when discussing how the university could function with less money.

In North Carolina, state senator Tom McInnis, also a Republican, has introduced legislation that would require all professors in the University of North Carolina system to teach eight courses per academic year. (Tenured professors currently teach an average of five, according to the Daily Tarheel.) In a statement criticizing the reliance on graduate student teaching assistants, McInnis said, “There is no substitute for a professor in the classroom to bring out the best in our students.”

Genuine Ignorance or Spite?

Predictably, educators are livid. Walker’s proposed cuts “will absolutely savage” UW’s “infrastructure and quality of teaching and research,” one Madison history professor said. A UNC Charlotte physicist, Greg Gbur, argued the “charitable” explanation was that McInnis is motivated by “genuine ignorance” about the amount and value of professors’ work. (Another possible explanation is that he’s motivated by spite and ideology.) Slate’s Rebecca Schuman adds that mandating an eight-course teaching load would “accomplish nothing less than the wholesale obliteration of the public research institution.”

These heated reactions suggest the weakness—political, financial, and logical—of the status quo. In an open letter to McInnis, for example, Gbur goes through a detailed explanation of the time needed to teach an undergraduate course: preparation, delivery, testing, grading, office hours. His conclusion? Teaching four courses a semester would be impossible without … working 40 hours a week.

The calculation omits some details, however. For one thing, the arduous 40-hour workweek unfolds, for professors, over a less arduous 36-week work year. Throw in the lifetime employment guarantee of tenure, and most civilians paying taxes and tuition to support public universities are going to find professors’ terms of employment enviable, not exploitive.

What about ‘Adjunctification?’

Furthermore, teaching four courses a semester is not unusual in institutions primarily devoted to undergraduate education rather than research. In particular, American colleges of all types have come to assign more and more of their teaching to untenured adjunct professors hired, on a course-by-course basis, from the vast reserve army of underemployed Ph.D.’s.

Many adjuncts teach four or more courses per semester, sometimes at more than one institution, and even then struggle to pay the rent. Jonathan Rees, a Colorado State University-Pueblo historian wrote, in response to the McInnis proposal, “As long as we [tenured and tenure-track professors] accept the idea that it’s OK for our adjunct colleagues to toil away with four or more courses and no living wage, we don’t have a leg to stand upon when they inevitably try to do this to the rest of us.”

Gbur’s threat—the eight-course teaching load will force many UNC professors to “pull up roots and look for employment elsewhere”—is not credible. The existing professoriate is complicit not only in what Schuman calls the “adjunctification” of college teaching, but in the perpetuation of redundant graduate programs, which turn out doctoral recipients who have little hope of ever landing tenure-track professorships.

As a result, there is not a single faculty opening, no matter how remote the location or obscure the institution, that does not draw dozens of highly qualified applicants. (Schuman has written that 150 Ph.D.’s apply for every opening in her field, German literature.) Professors and administrators can choose to either close down or maintain unnecessary graduate programs … but they can’t go on producing an excess supply of scholars and insist that the rest of the world treat this abundant resource as if it were a scarce one.

Tuition Supports Light Loads

What about the “flagship” public research universities, like UW Madison and UNC Chapel Hill? Won’t heavier teaching loads render untenable the model created by Daniel Coit Gilman, who turned Johns Hopkins into America’s first research university almost 140 years ago by insisting that teachers make the best researchers, and researchers the best teachers? Schuman points out that the McInnis bill applies to “all” UNC professors. As a result, she says, it will compromise the work of researchers finding cures for cancer, new treatments for burn victims, or doing cutting-edge work in molecular biology and engineering.

Her parade of horribles is selective, though. There’s not a single mention of the scholarly work undertaken by professors in social science and humanities departments. This omission reveals a vulnerability: if McInnis were to change his “all” to “some,” scholars in fields where the research does not yield clear or even comprehensible benefits would struggle to demonstrate why the flourishing of life in America requires the unabated flow of tax and tuition dollars to spare professors from teaching undergraduates 40 hours a week.

Most voters, in other words, have no trouble making a distinction between curing cancer and publishing an article in the Journal for the Study of Peruvian Folk-Dancing. Even if Gilman’s research university model is crucial for the former, we are not compelled to revere the way it sustains the latter. As Megan McArdle has argued, original scholarship in many hyper-specialized liberal arts fields is valuable only to a handful of other scholars in the same field. “Basically, these people are supporting an expensive hobby with a sideline business certifying the ability of certain twenty-year olds to write in complete sentences.”

If that sideline business were a roaring success, there would be an if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it argument against requiring liberal arts professors at public institutions to teach more and research less. But the business is far from successful. A survey of 400 employers conducted last year for the Association of American Colleges & Universities found that only 27% considered recent college graduates “well prepared” in the area of written communication. Similar proportions, between 24 and 29%, were impressed with graduates’ ability to analyze and solve complex problems; locate, organize, and evaluate information; think critically; and work with numbers and statistics.

On the bright side, the survey also found that solid majorities of college students about to graduate rated themselves very highly on every one of the qualities the employers found lacking. It appears that when young Americans spend several years in the presence of our professors, they end up with very little in the way of useful knowledge and skills, but a robust, unwarranted sense of entitlement. That’s a funny coincidence, one some professor should investigate during a sabbatical.