Left vs. Right on Higher Education

John K. Wilson, editor of The Academe Blog, severely criticized Peter Wood’s January 13 article, “What Candidates Can Do for Higher Education Now.” His text is below, followed by Peter Wood’s reply.

By John K. Wilson

National Association of Scholars president Peter Wood has a column at Minding the Campus today arguing for an 7-point plan for what he calls “a real program for reform” of American higher education that would “take back the campus from those who are intent on making it a 24-7 taxpayer-subsidized indoctrination camp.” The notion that colleges are all run by people turning them into 24-7 “indoctrination camps” is laughably absurd, but Wood’s proposals are far from a joke.

First, Wood calls for “independent standing committees on free expression” (which is a good idea), and follows it up with a very bad idea, that if colleges “shelter students in ‘safe spaces,’ they forfeit any claim to public respect—and public support.” This talk of banning government funding for colleges that dare to provide “safe spaces” for students is alarming. It’s also hypocritical.

Would conservatives want to banish the chapels common at private colleges that are “safe spaces” for Christian students, and instead make them subject to heckling by atheists? What about Christian student groups who seek to create safe spaces by banning gay students from serving in leadership roles? The call for “safe spaces” is often a bad idea, but banning funding to colleges that respond to such requests is a far, far worse idea.

Second, Wood wants to amend Title IX because it is responsible for “reducing men to a minority group on most campuses.” Does Wood seriously believe that the absence of hundreds of thousands of men in college is due to a male boycott caused by Title IX, rather than, say, the large number of men in prison or the better job opportunities for men? Virtually all colleges already give preferences in admissions and athletic scholarships to men over women (in spite of Title IX). Wood doesn’t explain how he would amend Title IX to impose his twisted idea of equality.

Wood calls on politicians to “end higher education’s destructive focus on race” by, ironically enough, requiring colleges to report the racial differences in their students’ test scores and GPA.

Fourth, Wood wants to fix the student loan debacle by putting limits on total borrowing for students—that is, to limit opportunities for poorer students.

Fifth, Wood wants to “bust the accrediting cartel” (that is, open up higher education to more for-profit colleges that dumbed down education and worsened the student loan debacle) and also punish the College Board for being “politically correct” in the AP tests and SATs.

Sixth (continuing the theme of punishing his political enemies), Wood wants to put controls on the NSF and other federal funders to “end sycophantic science—the bribing of scientists to produce ‘findings’ meant primarily to advance political causes.” Of course, what Wood proposes is actually the creation of sycophantic science, by bribing the scientists who hold views on denying climate change that Wood thinks are right.

Seventh, Wood wants politicians to tell colleges they should require more study of Western civilization.

Wood concludes, “higher education should never be political indoctrination, welfare for special interests, or back scratching for politicians.” But that’s exactly what his proposals are: political indoctrination, welfare for corporate interests, and universities forced to serve politicians.

Wood’s proposals would involve massive political repression: he wants to change federal law to end equality for women in education. He wants to ban all government funds for colleges that he deems are responding to student activists and providing “safe spaces” for the types of students he doesn’t like. He wants to ban all government funds for researchers he thinks are engaged in “advocacy” by disagreeing with his views about science.

Wood apparently believes that trusting the government to suppress political ideas on campus is more likely to help his political wing than allowing academic freedom to prevail when many faculty are too liberal for his tastes. And that may be a bet that he would win, that his political side would prevail if today’s politicians were able to impose their ideological beliefs on colleges. But it’s not a principled decision. It’s not a decision on the side of academic freedom and free speech on campus. It’s a purely political stand made by someone who pretends he wants to eliminate politics on campus but is really imposing political tests on government funding.

Peter Wood replies:

My friend John K. Wilson offers some of his usual strictures about my advice to presidential candidates.  That he finds my counsel “deeply misguided” is not exactly a surprise.  He is an ardent supporter of several of the developments in higher education I criticized.  It’s entirely fair for him to defend his position.  But I do have a few observations.

Mr. Wilson has a tendency to paraphrase mischievously.  He quotes accurately my sentence about campus bullies who seek to make the campus “a 24-7 taxpayer-subsidized indoctrination camp,” and in the very next sentence transforms it into “the notion that colleges are all run by people” who would do this.  He calls this “laughably absurd” and indeed it is, but it isn’t what I wrote.

The technique of mischievous paraphrase runs through most of his published reply. Another example: I wrote that colleges “forfeit public respect—and public support” when they accommodate mob action and shelter students in “safe spaces.”  Mr. Wilson deftly transforms this into my calling for “banning funding” to colleges that respond to calls for safe spaces.  Banning funding is certainly one way to forfeit “public support.”  But you can generally get the attention of college officials with something less drastic.  The key question is how to end the sense among some college presidents that they are entitled to public support regardless of what they do.

Mr. Wilson wonders if I believe that the disproportionately low number of men attending college is “due [to] a male boycott caused by Title IX.”  Mischievous paraphrase again.  I stand with a great many observers of the campus scene who recognize that the invidious interpretations of Title IX of the Higher Education Act that have come from the courts and from federal bureaucrats have made colleges and universities less attractive to many students.  Disincentives are one thing; a “boycott” is something else, and I know of no evidence that men are boycotting college.

Mr. Wilson seems to think there is a contradiction between wanting to end racial preferences in higher education and requiring colleges to divulge the magnitude of the preferences they use. Hardly.  Colleges and universities hide this data because they know the public would be outraged.

Mr. Wilson continues in this vein of refutations that refute something other than what I wrote, and in the interest of avoiding tedium, I won’t go through the rest.  I do take as heartening that he responded at all.  Generally campus progressives refrain from any comment about views and opinions expressed by critics who do not share their premises.  Mr. Wilson is among a very few who persist in paying attention and responding.  He doesn’t do it especially well, but I make allowances for that.  He is stuck defending doctrines that are, at a deep level, indefensible.


One thought on “Left vs. Right on Higher Education”

  1. I don’t know how my direct quotes of Wood are a “paraphrase,” but I am glad that he is clarifying and rejecting at least some of what he wrote, about public funding. I don’t know what Title IX policies are actually causing men not to enroll in (or “boycott”) college (and I await any evidence that this has happened). Nor do I know of any college that is a 24-7 indoctrination camp, nor anyone who advocates such a thing.

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