What Trustees Must Do

Trustees face a quandary in trying to figure out their role in academic governance. As a matter of law, institutional responsibility is squarely in their hands. On the other hand, while few challenge their oversight in matters managerial and financial, they are routinely warned that when it comes to intellectual content, the heart of university life, they should keep their distance.

Trustees should generally avoid getting involved in judgments about intellectual specifics such as individual personnel decisions, the content of courses, and the structure of particular programs, etc. Usually they will be out of their depth here. But they should be actively engaged in matters pertaining to overall intellectual climate, especially the degree to which such core principles of rational discourse as objectivity, disengagement, meritocracy, civility, and pluralism are honored and institutionalized. Here trustee fair-mindedness, ideological coolness, and intellectual distance, can help keep the ideological passions of academics from running discourse off reason’s rails.

Like judges, trustees should see themselves as having a responsibility to ensure that the rules of sound intellectual discourse are recognized, that the academic cultures of the institutions they supervise are “lawful” in a manner that preserves the free and effective exercise of reason. This, of course, is a matter of faculty responsibility too, but since the nature of these rules, in many essentials, simply follow the operating principles of a liberal social order, citizens of that order should be able to understand them well enough to backstop compliance. Trustees need not be scholarly experts to participate meaningfully in the university’s intellectual governance. They need only be intelligent and watchful products of a free society.

What types of rules are we speaking of and why should members of a liberal society be able to recognize and help enforce them?

The Rule of Objectivity:

Rigorous intellectual endeavor, embodied in science first and foremost, but in all good scholarship to the extent it can, demands that evidence and logic trump opposing claims of creed, sentiment, or authority. Without objectivity academic freedom has no point , since it is only the comparatively strenuous exercise of this virtue that justifies scholars telling laymen to keep off their backs.

Objectivity is easier to sustain in some academic fields than in others. In the natural sciences, a decisive resolution of competing hypotheses is frequently possible. In the realms of humane learning the complexity of phenomena and limitations of methodology leave things more opaque. But whatever the obstacles, good practice in all fields entails that all do the best they can.

Objectivity is hardly an arcane concept to be grasped solely by academics. It is a commonplace demand in a competitive, liberal order. Winning and losing in relatively free competition requires getting things right. Laboring under delusions won’t serve the bottom line. Although few trustees will come to their posts having studied the history of science, as successful business-people and professionals most will understand the necessity of scholarly objectivity, and with little stake in academic turf fights, blow the whistle when the ancient verities of feeling, faith, and power get resurrected in new forms. It should be particularly easy for them to do this when intellectual authoritarianism rises to, or near, the status of a disciplinary principle. Areas of study impacted by constructivism and identity scholarship, like women’s studies, ethnic studies, together with spheres of cultural studies, “science studies”, and anthropology, have experienced just this kind of devolution, with practitioners often dismissing objectivity as a hegemonic charade in the service of power and privilege, or declaring that one’s truth depends on social status, race, or sex. In the real world, people know better, and should feel entitled to set such epistemological perverseness aright.

The Rule of Disengagement:

Smirks about ivory towers notwithstanding, the laity can readily appreciate the importance of academic disengagement. It is, after all, nothing less than a recognition of the principle that conflicts of interest should be avoided. Although observation is far from perfect, financial disclosure and blind trust requirements for politicians and Hatch Act restrictions for civil servants, reflect the principle’s application in government, while a welter of internal auditing and managerial safeguards, recently reinforced by Sarbanes-Oxley, constitute the corporate sector’s counterpart.

Academics avoid conflicts of interest, among other ways, by steering clear of political involvements where the emphasis is on victory not truth. Scholars are, of course, citizens and remain personally free to enter politics, though this may not be particularly wise when their fields have political relevance. Early AAUP statements certainly took great pains to stress the need for academic prudence and reserve in politics. But however this may be, academic programming that openly proclaims a commitment to political advocacy and/or activism, as is frequently the case in fields like social work education, women’s studies, and teacher education, crosses a key line, which, when unimpeded, bids others to follow. So too do a growing number of residence life programs committed to psychologically coercing students into accepting “progressive” dogmas about “white guilt”, “patriarchy” and “heteronormativity”. Trustees are more than equipped by their participation in a free political and economic order to discern such offenses against independent-mindedness and cry foul.

The Rule of Meritocracy:

The meritocratic principle is systemically embedded in the entire order of liberalism, taking varying shapes to suit varying needs. Getting it right in the marketplace means finding the best people to do the job at hand. The boss’s son may shortcut up from mailroom to executive suite, but unless he’s carrying some inherited acumen, profits will likely move in the opposite direction. CEOs of major firms rarely survive sustained falls in base-line indicators. Around the world, meritocratic bureaucracies and militaries are understood to be signatures of effectiveness and modernity. The desirability of meritocracy in general, and its centrality to academe in particular, should thus be second nature to most American trustees. And given their wide experience in the ways of the world, its subversion by institutional insiders should neither surprise nor be beyond detection.

If driven by quotas, admissions and hiring systems are not meritocratic in any genuine academic sense Despite recent judicial meanderings, this should be obvious to trustees. Because of this, trustees need not take faculty (or administrative) support for them to be dispositive on academic freedom grounds, since academic freedom depends on a fidelity to merit. As to their possible defenses as matters of equity, the more traditional liberalism of trustees is likely to be a better guide than the visionary enthusiasms of intellectuals.
The role reversal of faculty and laity in the defense of academic meritocracy ranks as one of the strangest ironies of recent academic history. Faculty, whose professional privileges and intellectual projects rise or fall on merit, have been willing to surrender it to the politics of diversity. The laity, on the other hand, have consistently refused to – at least whenever the proposition has been put to them in state referenda or opinion polls. The clash of insider and outsider culture could hardly be more evident or painfully telling. If the American university is to survive its current peril with intellectual integrity intact, salvation will probably owe more to classic lay liberalism than any current academic sensibility.

The Rule of Civility:

The muting of personalized conflict within institutional settings is also a standard liberal political practice, as in legislatures where puffy honorifics like “the gentleman from…” or “the honorable member”, etc., etc., attempt to divert rhetorical assaults from persons to policy, with deviations open to sanction. The same is true in the courtroom. Obviously there are many, many lapses, but a truly open society cannot endure without them.

While the academy has space for earned deference, civility is also one of its paramount values, related as it is to objectivity. Civility helps preserve objectivity by quelling passion. If you concede that your interlocutor is both a gentleman and scholar, he’s more likely to sit still for your evisceration of his logic. Trustees, familiar with ordinary workplace courtesies, should be able to see civility’s even greater importance to the delicate protocols of reason.

Civility should not be confused with what, both inside the academy and out, is now commonly referred to as “sensitivity”, the disinclination to give any sort of offense. In the battle of ideas intellectual reputations must inevitably suffer. The charge of “insensitivity” has itself become a ubiquitous ad hominem, rebounding against arguments with a force proportionate to their power. The discovery by academic activists of “institutional racism” and “institutional sexism”, concepts which divorce the original sins from any overt action, or even consciousness, has become a particularly potent enabler. Traditional defenses of merit, for example, can now be impugned simply because merit produces differential outcomes among groups. Discussion of possible group differences have become extremely perilous, witness the expulsion of Larry Summers from both Harvard’s presidency and polite academic society for simply hypothesizing gender disparities in high-end science aptitude.

The question is how to enforce civility without suppressing expression, since even concepts like institutional racism have their right to an intellectual day in court. Perhaps trustees should simply insist upon the prohibition of direct accusations, essentially borrowing the ban on pejoratives found in parliaments and, de facto, most office suites. But bans are easily abused. A better remedy might be to attempt the promotion of a culture of civility through admonition and example: Admonition via its topical inclusion in graduate training (a development that couldn’t help but have an immediate influence on senior faculty behavior), and example, at the very least, through the refusal of administrators to join any hues and cries abut sensitivity. Trustee initiatives directed toward strengthening the civility-content of graduate training are entirely appropriate, and since trustees hire (and fire) university presidents, insisting on good “example” is natural to their office. They only need feel empowered to do so.

The Rule (or Perhaps Goal) of Pluralism:

The daily experience of a free society is as effective an education in pluralism as one can receive. For most of us, pluralism has not only become something familiar, but something that we’d find impossible to do without. By comparison, the monotones of simpler, more ordered states are an unendurable bore. But most of us can equally recognize pluralism’s profound advantages, making creativity a necessity and, through its swirling mix of disparate ingredients, an inevitability as well. As creatures of this kaleidoscopic habitat, laity will usually take these advantages for granted when they come to campus.

Once there, however, they may find themselves strangers in a strange land, especially if they care to look closely. Intellectually speaking, our universities have become, within the full range of public controversy, what the reach of the visible spectrum is within the full range of electromagnetism, a veritable sliver. In the natural sciences, and allied domains, where problems and methods yield conclusive tests and expanding consensus, this is little cause for worry – the confinement of serious viewpoints to a few positions among the many generally means theoretical success – actual progress towards truth.

But in the cloudier realms of humane learning, the relative uniformity of academic perspective should set off alarms. There are alternate thought-worlds in these realms, that if not identical in structure to that of academe, are serious enough in content, to provide useful points of comparative reference for judging it. The universe of think tanks is, for example, intellectually diverse, as are the serious media. On the other hand, survey after survey of professorial opinion and institutional commitments proclaim the near monopoly of the “progressive outlook”. With pluralism in their bones, America’s trustees should find all this fishy and disturbing.

And they should not have far to look in locating one of the monoculture’s primary sources. Decisions on hiring and curriculum are generally made in a majoritarian winner-take-all manner, with dissenting views crowded out. What’s more, academic majorities self-perpetuate through cooptation, having no relation to some larger, fluctuating constituency, as do their political equivalents. Heterodoxy’s market opportunities – so available in larger public discourse, where entry requirements, especially in an online age, are rather low – thus get damped. Even worse, once a tipping point has been reached, intellectual coalitions can further entrench themselves by rewriting the rules of play. The real point of “diversity hiring” is precisely this. By recruiting faculty on the grounds of ethnicity and gender, faculty support for the ideologies justifying this sort of ascription is ensured.

Most governing boards are also recruited through cooptation. But trustees know a different sphere, and could make no better contribution to academe’s health than incorporating more of its manner into the university’s operations. Imposing their own judgments about specific hires and course content is not the way. However misguided the rule of scholarly prejudice, trustees don’t have the knowledge-base to second guess. But they can promote an institutional reordering that encourages the intellectual competition capable of keeping scholars honest. Possibilities might include altered decisional systems, replacing majoritarian with proportional voting methods, the sponsorship of formal disputations a la “the more enlightened” Middle Ages, and the introduction of organizational checks and balances embodied in autonomous programs and departments representing diverse schools of thought. In taking such steps, trustees would neither be exceeding their stewardship, nor getting beyond their depth.


For any of these good works to prosper, trustees must believe. They must believe they know something about the ideals of academic life that springs not from academe, but from the lived experience of freedom – the taproot of all liberal institutions. They need not deny that the same lived experience has shaped the sensibility of academics, provided they also bear in mind that (like all institutions) academe generates myopias and refractions blinding inmates to what others can see. Systemic minds, pressured coops, insularity, struggles for status, sweeping visions, irreducible ambiguity, can, insensibly and by degrees, produce a false consensus owing less to truth than social and organizational pressure. As outsiders, conscientious trustees are positioned to detect and remediate such intellectual deformations.

Trustees have repeatedly been told by their university minders that they are incapable of exercising such a role and should, in consequence, leave academe’s intellectual interior untouched. It is trustees, however, who are the true minders. No doubt, in order to assume their rightful role, they must become better studied in the ways of their charges, and more motivated to play their part. This will require a belief that the part is theirs to play as well as a clear knowledge of the reason why they should play it. Fortunately, that reason isn’t hard to state: Liberal citizenship and a liberal higher education are entwined sprouts, rooted in a common soil, each must support the other or both will fall.

Harry Stein

Harry Stein is a contributing editor to City Journal.

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