(This is a response to Robert Weissberg’s “Rescuing The University”)
Professor Weissberg’s “Rescuing the University” offers a compact assessment of the frailties of the movement to restore higher education to light and sanity. He also urges the merits of another, he supposes, untried approach. “Guerilla warfare” and “monastery construction” are the unflattering labels he affixes to some of the efforts he thinks futile. His dismissals strike me as too breezy. FIRE and the Center for Individual Rights, which he cites as among the guerilla forces, have some pretty substantial victories to their credit. Were it not for them, our nation’s universities would be far more strangled by speech codes and systems of racial preferences than they are. It is easy to take their victories for granted or to sleight their accomplishments as falling far short of a re-conquest of the university for wholesome respect of academic principles, but I think Professor Weissberg’s gloom gets the better of him here. Things could be worse. Much worse. Those organizations that pursue tactics based on challenging specific transgressions at specific universities have achieved not only tactical victories but have also kept alive ideals that were in danger of being smothered under the academic left’s self-proclaimed “consensus.”
Professor Weissberg cites Princeton’s Madison Center and the Veritas Center as examples of “monastery construction.” He could easily have expanded the list. (Here’s NAS’s count: There are now about 40 campus centers around the country that aim to keep the study of Western civilization and other major ideas disfavored by the establishment left alive during the dark-ish and still darkening age we inhabit. The National Association of Scholars has had a hand in founding many of them. Are they monasteries, holding out against the barbarian horde? We prefer to think of them as beachheads for faculty members and points of embarkation for students, who might never otherwise glimpse what the life of the mind is really all about.
Professor Weissberg dismisses these centers as weak, vulnerable to leftist take-over, and intrinsically unable to “restore the Enlightenment.” Surely there is some truth to all three criticisms. But there is also something blinkered in the attitude. Many of the centers are thriving and are in fact lifelines to thousands of students. I wouldn’t lightly brush aside the University of Colorado, Boulder’s Center for Western Civilization, right there in the heart of Ward Churchill country. The Center for Political and Economic Thought at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania shows that a well-focused program can transform a whole college. Even centers that have hit rough sledding, such as the Hamilton Institute that had to set itself up off-campus near the uber-PC Hamilton College in upstate New York, have proven to be nimble in creating important debates in the face of complacent and self-satisfied orthodoxy.
As for the weaknesses of these ventures, yes, attempts to re-institutionalize classically liberal and traditional academic ideals meet plenty of obstacles. But those of us working within this approach have learned a lot along the way. The establishment of the Academy on Capitalism and Limited Government at the University of Illinois, despite considerable opposition and interference from hostile faculty members, is a case in point. And Professor Weissberg knows all about it.
Professor Weissberg’s alternative to these approaches surely has merits too, although I think his calling his alternative the “covert CIA approach” isn’t especially good packaging. There is nothing wrong with working quietly to get things done. That’s how NAS helped to create many of the centers that now exist, and how we’ve gone about a great many other efforts to foster opportunities for faculty members. Professor Weissberg would like to extend these sorts of behind-the-scenes efforts further into the precincts of the university where future faculty members are gestated. Give promising students a glimpse of the larger intellectual world. Subsidize respectable journals (i.e. journals that are not yet tainted with the suspicion that they treat conservative scholars fairly or that employ neutral intellectual standards in evaluating research.) Make modest grants available to scholars during the lean years at the beginning of their careers.
Who would oppose such ministrant ideas? Like any proposals, these have some weaknesses too. A journal that began to ignore PC shibboleths in its selection of authors, for example, wouldn’t for long retain the reputation of being untainted by “conservatism.” But I see no need to go poking for flaws. The spirit of Professor Weissberg’s proposals is constructive. I am a little surprised, however, by his view that things like this haven’t been tried and aren’t actively being pursued. Consider for example the Bradley Foundation’s Bradley Fellowship Program that ingeniously helps faculty members by empowering them to select graduate students to receive the fellowships (the Olin Foundation did the same). The program strengthens the hand of a faculty member in influencing whom to admit to a graduate program and offers a quiet basis to sustain close ties to promising students. Do we need more such programs? We definitely do.
The Academy on Capitalism and Limited Government at the University of Illinois (mentioned above) seems an instance of another program already doing what Professor Weissberg recommends. The Academy, in which NAS chairman Steve Balch played a significant role, is precisely about awarding research grants and course development support to the sorts of faculty members whose careers Professor Weissberg would like to foster.
In the final section of Professor Weissberg’s essay he identifies my organization, the National Association of Scholars, as among the “self-imposed obstacles” to the changes he thinks are most needed in the reform movement. I’m sad to see that. I don’t think we are an obstacle at all. We seem to have been awarded that designation because we were “indifferent” to his ideas. I don’t recall being indifferent to Professor Weissberg’s ideas during the one conversation we had about them several years ago.
But it is true that NAS has to call its shots. We have a large membership but a small staff and an abundance of work. Would the reform movement be better off without our journal Academic Questions, which offers focused attention to matters that aren’t really addressed anywhere else? (If you have heard about the new global history movement, or read a retrospective on the career of Stanley Fish, or found a rounded assessment of all the books favoring racial preferences, or have been provoked to rethink the relation of liberal arts to the family, or reconsidered liberal education and military history, the chances are very good you did so by reading Academic Questions in the last two years.)
Would the reform movement burgeon if we went full time into black ops and left the campus centers to sink or swim?
Should we abandon a website that has attracted tens of thousands of new readers to our accounts of what has gone wrong in higher education?
Should we give up worrying ourselves and others about the anti-scientific and autocratic “sustainability” movement promoted in dorms and by the 657 campus leaders who have signed the “American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment?” That’s the pledge to put “sustainability” at the center of everything the university does.
Well, I’ll grant that none of these efforts by itself or all of them put together will “take back the university” from a solidly ensconced leftist establishment. But I don’t think covert grants to young professors or secretly subsidized journals will do that either. And in any case, we at NAS are among the mendicants, not among those blessed with their own abundant resources. We couldn’t afford to do the things Professor Weissberg proposes even if we wanted to.
But what really hurts in Professor Weissberg’s essay is the explanation he offers for our supposed lack of interest in his proposal. At least it looks like it is pointed at us, among others: his view that we are “outsiders,” who “just don’t understand how universities operate.” Ouch. Twenty years in academic administration at Boston University, several years as provost of The King’s College, a whole lot of years in the classroom, and an awful lot of academic and scholarly writing, and I just don’t understand how universities operate.
Well, maybe I don’t. There is always more to learn. But still, that seems a little harsh. But we have about 3,000 other members, almost all of whom are academics. Are they also ignorant outsiders in Professor Weissberg’s lofty judgment? I don’t think so. They are, to borrow his phrase, the infantry.