What Can Be Done About Campus Decline?

The following is an excerpt from Roger Kimball’s introduction to the third edition of his classic book on the humanities, Tenured Radicals.
One of the great ironies that attends the triumph of political correctness is that in department after department of academic life, what began as a demand for emancipation recoiled, turned rancid, and developed into new forms of tyranny and control. As Alan Charles Kors noted in a recent essay,

under the heirs of the academic Sixties, we moved on campus after campus from their Free Speech Movement to their politically correct speech codes; from their abolition of mandatory chapel to their imposition of Orwellian mandatory sensitivity and multicultural training; from their freedom to smoke pot unmolested to their war today against the kegs and spirits—literal and metaphorical—of today’s students; from their acquisition of young adult status to their infantilization of “kids” who lack their insight; from their self-proclaimed dreams of racial and sexual integration to their ever more balkanized campuses organized on principles of group characteristics and group responsibility; from their right to define themselves as individuals—a foundational right—to their official, imposed, and politically orthodox notions of identity. American college students became the victims of a generational swindle of truly epic proportions.

What, as Lenin memorably asked, is to be done?

As with any disease, the malady besetting academia requires two stages of therapy: first accurate diagnosis, then effective treatment. In some ways, the diagnostic stage is the most difficult, because it is the hardest to sustain. One corollary of society’s natural obedience to the unenforceable is the tendency to assume that those institutions in which we have invested great trust are inherently trustworthy. “Academic institutions are expensive, socially respected bodies whose imprimatur is a powerful door-opener and tool of accreditation, ergo they must be doing a good job.” Some such sentiment is the prevailing one, so when someone like Ward Churchill comes along to remove the scab, the shock is great—and unwelcome. One of the chief tasks for critics of what has happened to academic life in this country is to show the extent to which Ward Churchill, the Kirkland Project, the transgender follies at Smith College and elsewhere, and similar deformations are not exceptions but the predictable result of institutions that have gradually abandoned their commitment to education for the sake of radical posturing. The prime difficulty of facing the aspirant diagnostician is not the elusiveness of symptoms—they are florid and ubiquitous—but the patience required to set forth chapter and verse repeatedly and in language that effectively conveys the depredations on view.
The bright side of the Ward Churchill affair was the fact that public scrutiny brought dramatic, if local, changes. The melancholy side of the affair lay in the fact that the scrutiny had to be enormous and unremitting and that, as the media’s attention wandered so did the public’s interest. If real change is going to come to academic culture, criticism must be ceaseless, pointed, and deep. It is not enough to expose Ward Churchill. The academic culture that breeds and rewards such figures—and their name is legion—must be exposed for what it is: a thoroughly politicized rejection of the principles that inform liberal learning.
In one sense, the diagnosis of the calamity that has befallen academic culture is inseparable from the task of treatment. Which is to say that the job of criticism is never finished. Basic questions, the answers to which one could once have assumed were taken for granted, must be asked anew. To whom is the faculty accountable? To the extent that it holds itself accountable to its pedagogic duties, it is accountable to itself. To the extent that it repudiates those duties, it is accountable to the society in which it functions and from which it enjoys its freedoms, privileges, and perquisites. Faculties often take it amiss when critics appeal over their heads to alumni, trustees, or parents. But ultimately teachers still stand in loco parentis, if not on everyday moral issues then at least with respect to the content of the education they provide. Many parents are alarmed, rightly so, at the spectacle of their children going off to college one year and coming back the next having jettisoned every moral, religious, social, and political scruple that they had been brought up to believe. Why should parents fund the moral de-civilization of their children at the hands of tenured antinomians? Why should alumni generously support an alma mater whose political and educational principles nourish a worldview that is not simply different from but diametrically opposed to the one they endorse? Why should trustees preside over an institution whose faculty systematically repudiates the pedagogical mission they, as trustees, have committed themselves to uphold? These are questions that should be asked early and asked often.
It is time to revisit several large issues—the issue of tenure, for example. An arrangement that was intended to protect academic freedom and intellectual diversity has mutated into a means of enforcing conformity and excluding the heterodox. And for those representing establishment opinion in the academy, the institution of tenure has the added advantage that, like a virus, it tends to be self-perpetuating. In July 2008, under the headline “The ’60s Begin to Fade as Liberal Professors Retire,” The New York Times reported that “there are signs that the intense passions and polemics that roiled campuses during the past couple of decades have begun to fade.” But the truth is, pace The New York Times, what has happened is that those passions and polemics have been institutionalized, not abandoned. Faculties attract, promote, and grant tenure to candidates less on the basis of intellectual vigor or scholarly accomplishment than because they exhibit ideological like-mindedness. Indeed, one recent study suggests that faculties are if anything more left-leaning today than was previously thought. At one elite university, fully 87 percent of the faculty identifies itself as liberal. For those few conservatives who have managed to obtain tenure, it doubtless functions to protect them. But for the faculty in general it seems to have become a prescription for political correctness and intellectual lassitude: get tenure, stop working.
Of course, the American academy is not entirely bereft of positive examples. Indeed, the task of reforming higher education has become a vibrant cottage industry, with think tanks, conferences, and special programs, institutes, and initiatives cropping up like mushrooms after a rain. I think, for example, of the Manhattan Institute’s Center for the American University, The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, Robert George’s Madison Center at Princeton University, The Tocqueville Forum on the Roots of American Democracy at Georgetown University, the Center for the Study of Western Civilization and American Institutions at the University of Texas, and the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization in Clinton, New York.
Naturally, many of these initiatives—those whose home is at a college or university, anyway—run into stiff resistance. For example, when a couple of dissident professors at Hamilton College wanted to start a center named for Alexander Hamilton and dedicated to “excellence in scholarship through the study of freedom, democracy, and capitalism,” the roof caved in on them. Hamilton was only too happy to invite the “post-porn feminist” Annie Sprinkle to campus to demonstrate sex toys for the young scholars; it wanted Susan Rosenberg—the former Weather Underground member whose 58-year sentence was commuted by Bill Clinton on his last day in office—to be an “artist- and activist-in-residence”; and it endeavored mightily to bring Ward Churchill to enlighten Hamilton students about 9/11 and American culture. But just let someone try celebrating the achievements of America and, bang, the predominantly left-wing faculty at Hamilton, terrified that there might be an initiative they didn’t control, began whining about “governance” and “accountability.” Fifteen minutes later, the administration capitulated and killed the center.
This particular story has a happy ending, however, because the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization went ahead anyway—but not at Hamilton College. It’s just down the street in Clinton, New York, in the old Alexander Hamilton Inn, a separate educational entity with no official ties to the college.
I applaud all of these initiatives—indeed, I am involved in one way or another with some of them. But I wonder what lasting effect they will have on the intellectual and moral life of the university. They are important in any event because, even if they remain relegated to the sidelines of academic life, they demonstrate that real alternatives to reflexive academic left-wingery are possible.
I suspect, however, that they will remain minority enterprises, a handful of gadflies buzzing about the left-lunging behemoth that is contemporary academia. Why? There are several reasons.
One reason is that the left-wing monoculture is simply too deeply entrenched for these initiatives, laudable and necessary though they are, to make much difference. For the last few years, I have heard several commentators from sundry ideological points of view predict that the reign of political correctness and programmatic leftism on campus had peaked and was about to recede. I wish I could share that optimism. I see no evidence to support it. Sure, students are quiescent. But indifference is not instauration, and besides, faculties nearly everywhere form a self-perpetuating closed shop.
It is the same with the fashion of “theory”—all that anemic sex-in-the-head politicized gibberish dressed up in reader-proof “philosophical” prose. It is true that names like Derrida or Foucault no longer produce the frisson of excitement they once did. Yet that is not because their “ideas” are widely disputed but rather because they are by now completely absorbed into the tissues of academic life. (Something similar happened with Freud a couple decades ago: it’s not that his silly ideas were no longer influential; on the contrary, they had merely become commonplace assumptions: still toxic but by now taken for granted.)
In September 2002, American Enterprise magazine created a small stir when it published “The Shame of America’s One-Party Campuses,” providing some statistical evidence to bolster what everyone already knew: that American colleges and universities were overwhelmingly left-wing. You know the story: out of 30 English professors at college X, 29 are left-leaning Democrats and 1 is an Independent, while in the economics department of college Y, 33 profs are left-leaning Democrats and 1 is, or at least occasionally talks to, Republicans. Etc., etc.
Well, that’s all old hat now. As the 2008 presidential campaign was gearing up in the fall of 2007, The Yale Daily News ran a story revealing that faculty and staff at Yale contributed 45 times more to Democratic candidates than to Republications. “Most people in my department,” said the one doctor known to have contributed to the campaign of Rudolph Giuliani, “are slightly to the left of Joseph Stalin.”
The key issue, I hasten to add, is not partisan politics but rather the subordinating of intellectual life to non-intellectual, i.e., political imperatives. “The greatest danger,” the philosopher Leszek Kolakowski wrote in “What Are Universities For?,” “is the invasion of an intellectual fashion which wants to abolish cognitive criteria of knowledge and truth itself. . . . The humanities and social sciences have always succumbed to various fashions, and this seems inevitable. But this is probably the first time that we are dealing with a fashion, or rather fashions, according to which there are no generally valid intellectual criteria.” Indeed, it is this failure—a failure to check the colonization of intellectual life by politics—that stands behind and fuels the degradation of liberal education. The issue is not so much—or not only—the presence of bad politics as the absence of non-politics in the intellectual life of the university.
At the end of Until Proven Innocent, their masterly account of the Duke lacrosse scandal, KC Johnson and Stuart Taylor describe the “assault on excellence” currently taking place in the academy. They quote from Excellence Without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education, a study of Harvard by Harry R. Lewis, a former dean at Harvard College:

There is absolutely nothing that Harvard can expect students will know after they take three science or three humanities courses freely chosen from across the entire course catalog. The proposed general-education requirement gives up entirely on the idea of shared knowledge, shared values, even shared aspirations. In the absence of any pronouncement that anything is more important than anything else for Harvard students to know, Harvard is declaring that one can be an educated person in the 21st Century without knowing anything about genomes, chromosomes, or Shakespeare.

Johnson and Taylor comment that “Absent outside intervention—from alumni, trustees, parents, the media—academic culture is likely to grow more, not less, extreme.” I suspect that they are right about the ideological drift and “dumbing down” of the academy, the “assault on excellence.” Consider, to take two interrelated examples, the decreasing popularity of merit scholarships and the increasing popularity of “diversity” initiatives and “open” curricula in which students approach education as if it were a smorgasbord. But I am not so sanguine about the remedy they propose. I used to think that appealing over the heads of the faculty to trustees, parents, alumni, and other concerned groups could make a difference. I have become increasingly less confident about that strategy. For one thing, it is extremely difficult to generate a sense of emergency sufficiently alarming that those groups will actually take action, let alone maintain that sense of emergency long enough to allow action to develop into meaningful, large-scale reform.
What’s more, those groups are increasingly impotent. Time was when a prospective hiccup in the annual fund would send shivers down the spine of an anxious college president. These days, as James Piereson pointed out in an essay on the Left University in The Weekly Standard, many colleges and universities are so rich that they can afford to cock a snook at parents and alumni. Forget about Harvard and its $30 billion, or Princeton or Yale, or Stanford, or the other super-rich schools. Even many small colleges are sitting on huge fortunes.
Consider tiny Hamilton College once more. When I reported on the Susan Rosenberg case in The Wall Street Journal, the story appeared on the day that Hamilton kicked off a capital campaign at the New York Historical Society. My article was highly critical and generated a lot of comment. Donations to Hamilton, I am told, simply dried up. But so what? The college enjoys an endowment of some $780 million. That is more three-quarters of a billion dollars. So what if the annual fund is down a few millions this year? Big deal. They can afford to hunker down and wait out the outcry.
Deep and lasting change in the university depends on deep and lasting change in the culture at large. Undertaking that task is a tall order. Criticism, satire, and ridicule all have an important role to play, but the point is that such criticism, to be successful, depends upon possessing an alternative vision of the good.
Do we possess that alternative vision? I believe we do. We all know, well enough, what a good liberal education looks like, just as we all know, well enough, what makes for a healthy society. It really isn’t that complicated. It doesn’t take a lot of money or sophistication. What it does require is candidness and courage, moral virtues that are in short supply wherever political correctness reigns triumphant. The bottom line is that those who want to retake the university must devote themselves cultivating those virtues and perhaps even more to cultivating the virtue of patience, capitalizing wherever possible on whatever local opportunities present themselves.

Roger Kimball

Roger Kimball

Roger Kimball is editor of the New Criterion.

8 thoughts on “What Can Be Done About Campus Decline?

  1. No doubt it was Charles Knight who said with gusto the phrase – Anybody who accepts mediocrity – in school, on the job, in life – is a person who compromises, and when the leader compromises, the whole organization compromises.

  2. Keeping the parents of prospective students informed of PC activities will probably backfire because many of those parents are late Baby Boomers and early Baby Busters who are in full sympathy with PC values themselves. We are on the third generation of this rot.
    I suppose if those parents are of sufficient means that they can pay the way of their offspring to major in the likes of “critical queer studies” at Podunk State, then let them have at it.
    Otherwise we may yet see alternatives to American higher ed brain-washing over the next twenty years. Perhaps your readers have heard of “medical tourism”? Coming soon: “higher education tourism”!

  3. Roger correctly says change will require patience.
    PC developed over a period of decades.
    The civil rights movement took decades.
    The anti-smoking campaign took 25 years of slow progress.
    It took 25 years for the ideas of the Federalist Society to become widely accepted.
    But it can be done. A persistent multi-pronged plan is needed.
    My thoughts are:
    ? Current trustees need to be made aware by groups outside the university of what?s really going on in the classroom and, conversely, what is not being taught.
    ? Parents of current freshmen should be given ? or develop themselves ? an internet chat room where they can compare what their children say to them with what other freshmen are telling their parents, and where parents can communicate among themselves about what, as a group, they might do about what concerns them.
    ? Parents of current students need to know that the themes of I Am Charlotte Simmons are not entirely fictional.
    ? Students need to know their rights and be defended when needed as FIRE does. Indeed an even more effective part of FIRE?s work may be on changing the climate of opinion among college administrators.
    ? Alumni need a giving device with which they can satisfy their generous impulses in a way that promotes a decent curriculum and rewards good teaching. A national donor advised fund devoted to giving only to desirable university programs is needed. Perhaps ACTA and Donors Trust could do this together.
    In History Lesson Prof. Mary Lefkowitz tells of a PC situation at Wellesley which, horrible though it was to any serious academic, was ignored until anti-intellectualism morphed into anti-semitism and thereby aroused a particular interest group outside the college. Perhaps the economics of higher education will be a similar galvanizing event.
    All in all, little will happen until the climate of opinion changes. This happened with smoking and PC. It can happen again. But it will require persistent talking with the various university constituencies and not only with the already convinced.
    It is a familiar tale ? institutions which don?t reform themselves will be reformed by outraged outsiders who, in the process of change, will do harm which could have been avoided had the institution reformed itself in time.
    Robert L. Freedman
    Petition Candidate for Harvard?s Board of Overseers

  4. You don’t have to reform all of the academia at once. What is needed is one or two places that are changed significantly! These will provide the examples for change. Until this happens, nothing will happen. So carefully pick one well known public university and one well known private school. And then go to war. Be prepared to abolish departments and fire faculty that insist on politicizing the university. For example, Churchill’s department should have been abolished. There are many reasons for delisting a department. You can get this rolling by delisting journals that are simply political rags. Courses that offer nothing can be deleted from the catalog or have their hours of credit reduced to zero. Clever and dedicated administrators (down to the chairman level) can make change work. The barbarians are not particularly smart. Pretty much all they have on their side is shouting and agitation and perhaps guilt. This can be easily offset by reasoning and an insistance on civilty enforced by police power if necessary. Obviously this would require a new set of administrators. Carefully selected outside review boards can be very helpful. They might suggest a core curriculum that is rigorous and worthy. The barbarians will fight to the death, because they know that even a small begining is the begining of their end. So before you go to war make sure you are willing to do what it takes to win and you have the forces to win.

  5. Roger Kimball ranks as one of this country’s most astute cultural critics. Let us hope that in providing us with this wisdom–which I could reinforce based on my experience of 28 years at Hamilton College–he does not end up playing Cassandra. Despite the growing rot at the core of the academy, administrators, faculty, and trustees continue to act like the three monkeys–hearing no evil, seeing no evil, and speaking no evil. Instead of a Japanese proverb, perhaps we would be better served to consult Aesop and his tale of Hercules and the Wagoner: Time for all of us, given the stakes, to put our shoulder to the wheel.

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