Would a New Conservative University Level the Field?

Should conservatives establish a new university of, by, and for conservatives?

The idea has been relaunched about as many times as the Starship Enterprise. I first heard it in the 1990s, but doubtless, it is older. Most recently Frederick Hess and Brendan Bell at the American Enterprise Institute cast the vision in “An Ivory Tower of Our Own.” Peter Berkowitz writing at RealClearPolitics gives the Hess and Bell proposal a friendly hug in “Creating an Ivory Tower Welcoming to Conservatives.”

The idea is similar to one advanced last year by Warren Treadgold in his book, The University We Need. Treadgold, a renowned Byzantine historian who teaches at St. Louis University, got to the heart of the matter in his stricture that, “The new university should be traditional in character but not specifically ‘conservative’ in politics.” Hess and Bell and Berkowitz say much the same. Hess and Bell: “The institution should be oriented by an intellectual mission rather than an ideological agenda.” Berkowitz: “the creation of a conservative-friendly university embodying the spirit of liberal education [is] an enticing prospect.”

Skip Conservative Orthodoxies

I concur with all four authors. A new university that managed to be “traditional in character” but to slip past the temptations of imposing conservative political orthodoxies would be a splendid thing. Hess and Bell are especially to be congratulated for writing a finely thought-through proposal that is beautifully expressed. I don’t think the case for a new university in America has ever been put so well. I could say to the reader of my own essay, go read theirs post haste. But perhaps you should stay a moment and read mine first.

[The Sad State of Higher Education]

Treadgold, Hess and Bell, and Berkowitz all spend careful effort building the case that contemporary colleges and universities in the United States fail to provide adequate attention to conservative thought. Hess and Bell are gentle in explaining why “it is a mistake to imagine this is a product of a concerted, organized effort…The issue is not one of conspiracy but a matter of rhythms, routines, and behaviors.” The academic left, in this view, sleepwalks into its near total domination of the campus. Hess and Bell are surely too kind on this point. The campus left is often actively vicious in its repression of conservatives, but if we understand Hess and Bell as attempting to persuade an audience many of whose members are unfamiliar with academic blackballing, the understatement saves time and trouble. Berkowitz is less inhibited: “Conservative undergraduates witness the routine ridicule of their convictions and casual derision of their ideas.”

Let’s simply grant as true that higher education in America today is indeed hostile territory for conservatives, and that Hess and Bell’s anatomy of the problem is reasonably complete. Conservative students and faculty members both face a wall of hostility; the path for conservative graduate students makes Pilgrim’s progress to the Heavenly City look like a stroll through the park. And the vast majority of students who are politically innocent are kept from ever having to reckon with serious criticism of progressive shibboleths.

IT Would Take $3.4 Billion

Hess and Bell move on to tackle the questions of whether founding a new university is feasible. Their answer is historically informed and financially astute. After pages of plausible analysis, they come up with a figure of $3.4 billion to build a university that can operate “in perpetuity.” I dispute none of this. They spend their last words gently anticipating some possible objections such as the likelihood that the leadership of such a university “would have to confront hostile, entrenched, tenured faculty.” Their answers are reasonable.

But I harbor doubts of another kind—doubts that go back to the question of whether it is possible to create a university that, in Treadgold’s words, is “traditional in character but not specifically ‘conservative’ in politics.” Can we really have an institution that, as Hess and Bell put it, is “a serious research university” that puts itself above politics and aims to be “an incubator—not a sanctuary”?

[How Diversity Hijacked History 101 and All the Humanities]

When it comes to education, American conservatives are quick to cite the absence of any mention in the U.S. Constitution of a responsibility delegated to the federal government. The most commonly held view among conservatives and libertarians is that the national government has no legitimate role in schools or in higher education. To that end, conservatives tend to disarm themselves in debates over federal policy on education and liberals (or progressives) gladly pick up the slack. The result has been generations of aggressive federal policy that favors both mass federally-subsidized higher education and dramatic asymmetry between support for conservative and liberal interests.

The main reason we are even discussing the creation of a new $3.4 billion university for conservatives is that conservatives have blithely walked away from any real concern for the trillion-dollar higher education system we already have. Is that system so far beyond repair that conservatives should simply write it off? I doubt it. But fixing it would begin with conservatives re-thinking their aversion to the use of federal power to enact educational reforms.

We are in the midst of a terribly under-reported debate on this right now. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee) who chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, and who has decided not to run for re-election, recently spoke to Hess and his colleagues at an event at the American Enterprise Institute. He laid out an anemic proposal for changes in the Higher Education Act, (HEA) which is up for renewal. The National Association of Scholars’ Rachelle Peterson attended the event and reported that Alexander’s approach amounts to preemptive surrender to the House Democrats. He wants to get HEA reauthorized this year no matter what so that he can declare victory and go home.

This is pretty much what we have come to expect from the Republican establishment. Can we escape the consequences of this folly by building a new conservative university that exempts itself from the fads and follies that prevail in American higher education as a whole?

Think again.

[Most Americans Reject Race-based College Admissions]

That new university would be subject to the HEA as much as any other university. Less than a handful of universities have tried to escape the net of federal regulation by declining to take federal student aid. Hillsdale College and Grove City College are the best known, but even they are not totally independent of federal rule, and it’s nearly impossible to imagine a new research university that would swim free of federal financial dependence—and with it federal regulation. To be clear, that federal regulation is rife with political impositions. Try running a federally supported contemporary science lab that does not have to comply with the diversity ideology.

Birth in a Maelstrom?

The new university, in other words, would be molded by the same ideological pressures as the existing university. The only way out of this is for conservatives to realize that their ideal of education kept pure from the taint of politics is, at least in our historical moment, an outright impossibility.

The new university would come to birth in a political maelstrom, and it would survive only by embracing a political identity. I am not happy about that. I would prefer the university that Treadgold, Hess and Bell, and Berkowitz prefer: a university that is conservative in character but eschews politics as such. It should be a university rooted in love of the liberal arts, in the formation of excellent character, in the richness of Western civilization, and in helping students discover their true vocations. But that cannot happen without the university also fiercely taking up the political battle against its ideological foes.

We know what those are: multiculturalism, radical feminism, identity studies, the diversity doctrine, the idealization of victimhood, socialism, sustainability, and postmodernism. These are forces that cannot be excluded by a university simply deciding that we won’t give those doctrines a place in the curriculum. Those doctrines will be imposed, welcome or not, if the university doesn’t make the decision from the outset to oppose them root and branch.

That, unfortunately, and perhaps tragically, means that the new university will have to compromise its commitment to the liberal arts and open inquiry from the very start. It cannot be “open” to the ideas that will destroy it. But if it is not open to those ideas, it cannot be a truly liberal institution.

The only way out of this dilemma is for conservatives to take on the higher education establishment itself. At this stage, we have to admit that education is inherently political. We have a higher education system that is profoundly antagonistic to the American experiment. It regards our nation as illegitimate due to its “racist” and “oppressive” character and teaches American students to disdain their nation in favor of new horizons, such as becoming eco-citizens or citizens of the world. We cannot undo that perspective by creating a one-off university that welcomes conservatives. We can only confront it on its own terms.

This doesn’t mean that I oppose the effort to build that new university. But if we build it, we should understand that it will only work if we also drastically change the political environment in which it will have to live.


  • Peter Wood

    Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars and author of “1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project.”

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5 thoughts on “Would a New Conservative University Level the Field?

  1. History teaching once provided the antibodies to the socialist germ but Howard Zinn’s history seems to have done the opposite in the US. So what to do? Perhaps something like The Black Book of Communism (Stephen Courtois, et.al.) might have done more, but results in France are not encouraging.

  2. How strange…how bizarrely ironic that the question even needs to be asked:
    “Should conservatives establish a new university of, by, and for conservatives?”

    In fact EVERY university should be, by nature, conservative. How can it be otherwise and still be called a University?

    To be conservative is to seek to conserve & protect. To be conservative is to keep in safety … from harm, decay, loss, or destruction. And what should be so conserved and protected? “Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness… Thou foster-child of silence and slow time”. What else is there to conserve but Truth & Beauty?

    “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” Newton.

    Is that not what a University should enable us to do… introducing us to those giants, allowing us to clamber upwards, reaching higher and higher still in endless pursuit of the same Truths, the same Beauty that they themselves pursued? And is not such a quest by nature one of rediscovery made possible by conservation?

    More critically, is not the abandonment of that quest the veritable abandonment of what the University should be all about?

    Andrew Balio, in a brilliant essay on the corruption of music education (https://www.jamesgmartin.center/2015/10/mastery-not-creativity-should-come-first-in-arts-education/ ) put it this way: “the past masters reveal to us through their works something not only relevant but crucial to the vitality and success of all our present and future endeavors.” He emphasizes: “It is a mistake steeped in the antihistoricism of ideology to imagine that (they) saw themselves and their music in (any) particularly modern light—that they imagined themselves as standing outside of and apart from their musical heritage, bound to the times they were living in, and creators of something entirely original.” But it is exactly this modern “break with the past (which) precedes our dismissal of both the canon and the tradition that created and sustains it. If we have no relation to one, then we have no relation to the other. It also justifies and reinforces our (modern) resentment. And for this reason, we should not be at all surprised that the revolutionary program for higher education requires that we sweep away the “irrelevant” works “created in, and for, another time and place.” Dead White Men preserving Dead White Men for the appreciation of what we now see only as Toxic Racist Sexist Oppressive and Dying White Men and their way of life.

    So it’s not really that Conservatives need to establish a New University….rather we ‘simply’ need to recover the Old. We need to become, in word & deed, what we should always have been.

    But to do that we must rediscover the Absolute.
    Balio again: “because we are generally convinced that there is no objective standard by which to judge… We have rejected the traditional standards of Beauty, Truth, and Goodness as purely subjective”.

    Of course such a nihilistic rejection is completely and utterly wrong. And it is the University, the REAL University which should carry this Promethean truth on through each succeeding generation.

    But that was then and this is now, and now that’s simply not happening. Not only is it not happening, the very thought of such a revival is anathema, horrid to contemplate and impossible to do, especially for those who have themselves been suckled (self-expressively) at the teat of post-modern relativism.

    So should conservatives work to establish a new university? One for conservatives?

    Or should we (and all those who seek to learn) simply insist that our University become, once again, a University – for what we have now, is not even close.

  3. There are, according to the Washington Post, 5,300 colleges and universities in the USA. Adding one more, subject to the same pressures, would do nothing to change the nature of higher education/propaganda. Peter Wood is correct in saying that “The only way out of this dilemma is for conservatives to take on the higher education establishment itself.”

    But as difficult as that would be, it would not be enough. Because our entire school system, grades K through 12, is womaned by graduates of radical “social justice” faculties of education. Our children are indoctrinated from the very beginning of their schooling. Our entire education system is corrupt, and needs to be attacked on all fronts.

    1. And K-12 is exponentially worse than it was a decade ago.

      “Social/Behavioral Learning”, “Common Core” and the rest — it’s really becoming quite scary when you look at it objectively. There’s talk of them all having a “strike” this Friday to protest global warming (or whatever we are calling it this week).

      I’m reminded of Stephen King’s Children of the Corn.

      1. Well, you’d have to admit — it’s healthy, organic, non-GMO corn….provided in recyclable paper containers.

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