The students at Mizzou and Yale caught in twin episodes of contrived campus racial hysteria have been described as narcissists and self-indulgent brats catered to by their parents who told them how special they were and expecting the same judgment from college. Handed what they understand as the attitudinal keys to the kingdom, they’re enraged when challenged.
The two highlights are probably 1) the would-be Maoist Missouri media studies professor calling for “the muscle” to shut down coverage of a protest by a young journalist invoking the First Amendment and 2) the Yale student shrieking “who the fuck hired you” at a professor so foolish as to suggest that the subject of culturally appropriate Halloween costumes for Yale’s overgrown brats was in part a matter of free speech. Like President Obama insisting he “can’t wait” for Congress before overriding the Constitution to impose himself through executive authority, “the snowflake totalitarians” insist that its fears need to be propitiated forthwith. Fortunately, both incidents were caught on camera and have gone viral on YouTube.
These young people in America’s increasingly hierarchical society expect to be obeyed. Treated as important customers by their colleges, their faculty and staff assume the customer is always right. What makes their effluvia different from those of the 1960s student protesters is that the context has changed. Then as now, students, short on experience, are often unable to distinguish between considered political perspectives and their emotion-laden ideologies.
But in the 1960s the faculty still had a few conservatives and a fair number of old-line liberals scarred by McCarthyism and firmly wedded to freedom of speech. But 45 years later academic self-selection has produced faculties and over-staffed administrations that devolve from protestors of 1970. The student protestors are an expression of what academia has been producing over these past decades.
In recent years, academia has done so much to discredit itself that we might have expected calls for reform to be ringing from the halls of Congress. “Federal spending,” notes The Journal, “on loans and grants, on an inflation-adjusted basis, has jumped more than 50% over the past decade to $134 billion last year, and total federal student-loan debt has hit $1.2 trillion.”
On the presidential campaign trail, Hillary Clinton has spoken for new and better subsidies and perhaps even some student debt forgiveness at a time when the national debt has doubled in the past seven years. On the GOP side, Marco Rubio referred in passing, during Tuesday’s Republican debate, to delivering commodified higher education more efficiently. And to be sure, former Indiana Governor and now Purdue University president Mitch Daniels has talked on unbundling the services purportedly provided by higher education so that they can be delivered more efficiently. There are proposals for Contractor model in which “The core business function of the contractor-college would be assembly and quality control rather than running an institution and hiring faculty or holding classes.”
But given the endless scandals and massive failures, there’s been strikingly little political outcry. That’s in part because the average lawmaker has twelve institution of higher learning in his or her district. These institutions are often in close touch with local elected officials who are well aware of how many jobs the colleges account for. Nationally, counting only the four-year operations, colleges are the sixth largest industry in America. They employ 3.6 million people, more than one of every 40 workers in the U.S.
“Higher” education has become a very big business and its size and economic influence has been expressed in its political clout. “Colleges and universities,” explained The Journal, “have become one of the most effective lobbying forces in Washington, employing more lobbyists last year than any other industries except drug manufacturing and technology.” Last year colleges and universities deployed more than a thousand lobbyists at a cost of 73 million dollars. The upshot is that from George Bush the first to Barack Obama’s attempts to rank schools based on supposed outcomes, every effort at accountability has been beaten back.
In the event that reform comes to academia, it will be borne on the wings of competition. On the matter of free speech, the University of Chicago has recently distinguished itself with a strong embrace of traditional notions of free speech. Other colleges like Hillsdale in Michigan, which takes no federal money has made a name for itself by teaching about the genius of the Founding Fathers. If academia is to dig itself out of the hole it’s put itself in to, it will be because many more colleges decide to opt out of the suicidal spiral all too visible at Missouri and Yale.