Regents Asleep At The Switch

By Anne Neal

Question: What happens when you take a world-class public university, let political correctness run amok, and give it regents who are asleep at the switch?

Answer: You get the University of California.

Over the last week, UC faculty, administrators and regents have illustrated, in gory and public detail, a principle one would think is common sense: When universities focus on ideology, not excellence, everybody loses.

It’s no secret that UC Irvine’s new law school offered its deanship to Duke professor Erwin Chemerinsky and then retracted it – amidst signs of political interference. Then, to make matters worse, the UC Regents rescinded an invitation to former Harvard president Lawrence Summers after faculty objected to his views.

Now, after a national outcry, UC has apparently re-hired Chemerinsky – but it has not restored its invitation to Summers.
Which of course begs another question: Why would either man even want to come to a place that is run this way? Yet, the events of the past week – however disturbing – are totally predictable in light of UC’s history.

In the 1960s, UC Regents handed vast academic and financial authority over to faculty and staff. The results of this terrific abdication are now on full display. UC boasts what Regents chairman Richard Blum recently called a “dysfunctional” bureaucracy – a bloated administrative system with runaway salaries and perks. It also hosts a faculty senate that voted to eliminate a historic prohibition against “propaganda” in the classroom – on the grounds that it is outdated.

In that kind of environment, is it any wonder that deans and speakers are picked based on whose views are popular?

Likewise, we should not be surprised when a 2004 poll conducted by the University of Connecticut of students at UCLA, Berkeley and other institutions finds a substantial number who complain that book lists and panel discussions are “totally one-sided.” Or when “conservative” students are affirmatively discouraged from taking a course on Palestinian poetics, as they were at Berkeley in 2003.

Given this environment, it’s no surprise that decisions like those involving Chemerinsky and Summers are made. Instead of simply expressing outrage when such violations of fair procedure occur, we should recognize them as the logical outcome of decades of poor oversight and spineless accommodation of special interests.

And we should agree that enough is enough. That’s what the American Council of Trustees and Alumni told the Regents last Friday. In a letter addressed to Chairman Blum, we urged the Regents to put a stop to the degrading, damaging nonsense once and for all.
The Regents can do that by initiating a thorough review to ensure that political and ideological concerns don’t trump free inquiry on UC’s campuses – that personnel decisions are made on the basis of merit, not ideological congeniality, and that the classroom is home to healthy, rounded inquiry rather than proselytizing.

Regents are responsible for the academic and financial well-being of their institutions – and it’s time for UC’s board members to prove they’re up to the task. They must ensure that their university is actually a university – that it is open to multiple viewpoints, and that it fosters the free exchange of ideas. Doing that is not rocket science, and the nation is watching to see whether they get it right.

Anne Neal

Anne Neal is the president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

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