The Unbalanced University

In my last essay for Minding the Campus, I discussed how faculty indifference may have contributed indirectly to the establishment of the University of Delaware’s now notorious residence hall re-education program. If so, we should consider this a crime of omission rather than a crime of commission. This perspective on the problem either differs from or supplements the claims of many critics of higher education, who blame ideological agendas among faculty as the major cause of campus politicization.

A panel discussion/debate in October between Stephen Balch and Harry Lewis at the Pope Center in North Carolina highlighted this disagreement. The panel dealt with the problems besetting liberal education, focusing on education’s aimlessness and failure to instill knowledge and respect for free institutions. Balch and Lewis agreed on several things, but offered two different slants on the ills of higher education. Comparing the views of Balch and Lewis can help us to clarify and refine the problem of politics in higher education today.

Balch, the distinguished president of the National Association of Scholars who recently was awarded the National Humanities Medal in the Oval Office, blamed the ills of liberal education on politicized faculty. According to Jay Schalin’s report of the panel, Balch argued that higher education is failing “because it has adopted a left-wing ideology that is at odds with our traditions. The university system, with its population of impressionable young people, is naturally attractive to people with ‘an inclination toward visionary and utopian thinking,’ and these utopians feel that the purpose of education is to ‘move people toward their visions.”

Lewis, a former dean of Harvard College and recent author of the noteworthy book, Excellence Without a Soul, contested Balch’s assessment. Lewis agreed that liberal education is failing to train citizens who are knowledgeable about the strengths and weaknesses of free institutions, and that this state of affairs constitutes a crisis for the nation. But he does not believe that the fault lies with a politicized left that disdains liberal democracy and American institutions. “The aimlessness problems are not the result of evil faculty or evil presidents, or even left wing conspiracies,” he declared. Rather, they are the “unintended consequence” of the overwhelming emphasis on the production of research at the nation’s leading institutions. “The root cause is the nature of the faculty who have been appointed in deference to research extremism.” With so much attention devoted to research, there is neither time nor inclination to pay attention to the quality of education and academic freedom.

Normally, I disdain splitting the difference between two opposing arguments. But this time both thinkers are onto something in their own ways. If so, then higher education has more than one problem with which to contend.

During the 1990s, I saw things only from Balch’s point of view. Surely political ideology had a lot to do with the prevalence of thought control programs on campus, as personal experience and the accounts of others revealed. But events at my own school, the University of Wisconsin, compelled me to look for further explanations. In 1999, after a long and concerted effort, a coalition of faculty and students succeeded – seemingly against all odds – in convincing the faculty senate to abolish a speech code that applied to faculty speech in the classroom. Further victories for free thought on campus followed in the wake of this pioneering effort. (I have written about this movement extensively elsewhere, and use it here only to make a point.) These successes took place despite the fact that the University of Wisconsin was a pioneer in the pro-speech code movement, and despite the fact that the University is well-known as a redoubt for the left. Indeed, in a widely read October 2005 cover article in the Weekly Standard, James Pierson proclaimed UW the paradigmatic example of the type of institution he called the “Left University”: an institution dedicated to social outreach and activism based on progressive causes.

Whatever successes the Wisconsin movement might have achieved, they required, almost by definition, the cooperation of liberals and other members of the left. It became evident to me that many members of the progressive left believed in academic freedom – often strongly. So ideology was not necessarily the sole problem. The problem was that faculty members who believed in academic freedom were unorganized and, therefore, lacked a public voice. It took a movement engineered by the independent Committee for Academic Freedom and Rights (with members on the right, left, and center) to give shape to this voice, to bring members of the progressive left on board, and to take back a measure of intellectual freedom on campus. (In essence, we split the pro-academic freedom left from the PC left.) In other words, the problem that existed before the movement’s rise was the absence of a sense of campus citizenship. Faculty members who knew better were not minding the campus, leaving a vacuum into which people with agendas flowed.
The absence of a sense of citizenship lies at the center of Lewis’s analysis of liberal education’s woes. There are many causes of this lack, a fact that merits a separate discussion. They include the overarching emphasis upon research, the presence of external obligations in the form of grants and contractual agreements, and the rise of what Lewis (in Excellence Without a Soul) calls the “marketplace university,” which has followed on the heels of what Clark Kerr in the 1960s called the “multiversity.” At so-called major universities, tenure-track faculty members are rewarded primarily for their research efforts, and they are often just too busy to worry about agendas pushed by various administrators and students. (To be sure, research should not be disparaged. Society needs the best research, and somebody has to produce what others teach.) Minding the campus takes time and effort, and it is seldom rewarded financially. When the cat is away, the mice will play.

Stephen Karlson of Northern Illinois University raises a further point in responding to my last essay on his blog Universities are divided between senior faculty members with tenure and faculty members without tenure (most of whom are not even on the tenure track at all). These are the people who usually teach large courses, as many senior faculty disdain reaching out to large numbers of students – another problem of citizenship. Without the protection of tenure, they are more vulnerable if they resist the pressures of staff and others who promote politically correct agendas. At Wisconsin, for example, teaching assistants – perhaps the most vulnerable of all campus citizens – are exposed to sensitivity training that even my most liberal graduate students find exceedingly insulting and bullying. They complain to one another and to associates, but are reluctant to speak too loudly. (Alas, this is an area academic freedom advocates have not dealt with at Wisconsin or elsewhere.)

If Karlson is right, this situation is another structural reason for the lack of citizenship. It is tempting or easy to ignore affronts to freedom and common decency when other peoples’ oxen are being gored, not one’s own. Notably, when Wisconsin administrators tried to impose sensitivity training on all tenured faculty members a few years ago, the faculty senate resisted, and the measure failed. Don’t gore our oxen!
So faculty members’ indifference to minding the campus in matters of free thought is at least partly a function of broader forces that are separate from ideology. But while Lewis deserves his due, so does Balch. Lewis’s book is well worth reading, courageously taking on many campus pieties and teachings that have undermined the character that is necessary for constructive citizenship. But he does not deal with intellectual freedom per se, and a reader is left wondering why he has ignored this 800 pound gorilla in the room. Second, while his analysis supplies an explanation of faculty indifference, it does not explain the motives of those individuals (faculty or staff) who have actively sponsored programs that are detrimental to freedom. Whereas Lewis’ approach might be better at explaining faculty indifference to minding the campus, Balch’s approach is better at explaining the activism that fills the vacuums created by the decline of citizenship among the faculty. Lewis deals with the crimes of omission, whereas Balch deals with the crimes of commission.

Also, there is the problem of political suppression at small liberal arts schools that do not emphasize research, and which are less affected by the broader forces discussed above. No one has conducted a serious empirical study of the status of academic freedom in liberal arts colleges, so we just do not know how extensive the problem might be. But many commentators have written chilling accounts of political correctness run amok on individual campuses. If faculty indifference plays a role at such schools, this indifference is more likely to be based on fear or reluctance to offend activists than on the emphasis upon research and related pressures.

Finally, Balch raises a concern that is related to freedom, but also distinct: the problem of intellectual diversity on campus. The NAS website provides links to several studies that have consistently found a decidedly leftist bias of faculty members in the social sciences and humanities. (See, e.g., the work of Daniel B. Klein and Charlotta Stern) The lack of intellectual diversity need not be a problem for academic freedom per se, for a leftist faculty may still strongly support such freedom. (But political one-sidedness makes suppression more likely, for repression typically will be one-sided.) Regardless, decided political imbalance is very likely to affect the quality of intellectual diversity and education inside and outside of class. This problem certainly weakens liberal education, making the campus much more closed-minded than in the world beyond academe’s gates.

In conclusion, Balch’s and Lewis’s analyses of the problems of higher education supplement each other. Senior faculty indifference to campus citizenship leaves a vacuum into which questionable and damaging agendas by those who do care can flow. In the end, Lewis’s depiction is somewhat more optimistic than Balch’s, for it implies that academic freedom can be retrieved by the right kind of political organization and action on campus. (Whether this can affect the curriculum, which is Lewis’s main concern, is another matter.) If the problem is incentive-based and structural, work to change the incentives and structures. If the problem is largely ideological, however, that would be a different matter, and we might be confronting Sisyphus’s mountain.

The only way to test who is right is to start building constructive networks on campus, and then see what happens.


  • Donald A. Downs

    Donald A. Downs, winner of the 2013 Jeane Kirkpatrick Academic Freedom Award, is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin Madison and Faculty Advisor to the Institute for Humane Studies’ Free Speech and Open Inquiry Project.

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