Why Not Create a Great Conservative University?

In my recent book, The University We Need, I wrote, “A moment’s reflection should confirm how strange it is that no leading university has been founded in the United States since Stanford in 1891.” The reason cannot be that no one has enough money to establish such a university because the United States has more rich people now than ever before. The reason cannot be that everyone with enough money is satisfied with the universities we have because most conservatives and many others are very unhappy with those universities.

Some donors have even spent large sums on founding conservative colleges and universities, including Liberty University and Ave Maria University, which became universities in 1985 and 2003 respectively. But none of these places can seriously claim to be a leading university—that is, an elite institution comparable in quality and ambitions to Harvard, Princeton, Yale, or Stanford.

Not only I but several other conservatives, most recently Frederick Hess, Brendan Bell, and Peter Berkowitz, have argued in favor of founding a leading conservative university. Yet some conservatives are skeptical about the idea. Doubts about it appear in the March 11 Minding the Campus in an essay by Peter Wood, President of the National Association of Scholars, an organization of conservative professors to which I belong. While acknowledging that founding a new university would be technically feasible, Wood warns that it “will only work if we also drastically change the political environment in which it will have to live.” That seems an impossibly high bar for the university to surmount.

All conservatives should want to see the right kind of drastic change in the political environment for higher education. The problem is how to bring about that change. During the last fifty years, the change has been drastically for the worse. Whatever has been tried, including lawsuits, legislation, cutting state funding, forming organizations, and founding and supporting less ambitious conservative colleges and universities, may have helped some but has failed to reverse the steady trend toward academic mediocrity and leftist politicization. If we wait for a dramatic change for the better before founding a new university, it will not be founded any time soon, and if and when such a change finally occurs, it would make a new university superfluous. In my opinion, however, founding a new university is the only feasible proposal likely to make a decisive change for the better.

Drastic Change Needed

Without explicitly arguing against a new university, Wood raises several interrelated objections to it. First, he implies that founding it would mean giving up on existing colleges and universities: “Conservatives have blithely walked away from any real concern for the trillion-dollar higher education we already have. Is that system so far beyond repair that conservatives should simply write it off?”

Second, he argues that since a new leading university would necessarily be a research university, it would be corrupted by federal regulations that are “rife with political impositions.” Third, he argues that given current academic ideologies, the new university “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.” Apparently, since conservatives need to concentrate on fighting leftist regulations and leftist ideas, conservative institutions cannot be committed to research (which would subject them to leftist regulation) or to free inquiry (which would subject them to leftist ideas).

Wood says he regrets his conclusion that a new leading university would be unworkable in practice: “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. … But that cannot happen without the university also fiercely taking up the political battle against its ideological foes.”

Hess, Bell, Berkowitz, and I have made clear in what we have written that none of us disagrees with Wood about the sorry state of American higher education, or about the need to reform government regulation of it. But, contrary to his implication, none of us has advocated giving up on existing colleges and universities. I believe that a new university could itself make a large contribution to reforming existing colleges and universities and government regulation.

I certainly agree with Wood that reforming government regulation is an urgent priority. Last year the National Association of Scholars made a major effort, to which I made a modest contribution, to encourage Congress to pass a reformed Higher Education Act (HEA). I made additional proposals for federal legislation to reform universities. Unfortunately, even when Republicans controlled the Presidency and both houses of Congress, the HEA never passed the House. The Democrats who now control the House are most unlikely to agree to any legislation that reduces leftist dominance over higher education.

Even if Republicans regain the House and retain the Senate and the Presidency in 2020—a result far from assured—I see few signs that they would make higher education reform a priority or could override a filibuster against it by Senate Democrats. In any case, I feel certain that such a reform would not be harmed in the least if plans for a new conservative university were under way at the time.

I take seriously Wood’s fears that a new university might either be captured by leftists or neutered by moderates afraid to combat the leftist ideas that have devastated higher education. Wood correctly identifies those ideas as “multiculturalism, radical feminism, identity studies, the diversity doctrine, the idealization of victimhood, socialism, sustainability, and postmodernism.” In principle, the solution is simple: the new university should hire the right people.

Around 10% of the roughly 1.5 million professors in America still identify themselves as conservatives, and many conservative scholars can be found in foreign universities and outside academia. A national advertising campaign offering competitive salaries should be able to attract at least a thousand professors who firmly reject leftist ideology and embrace academic freedom and excellence. A thousand—the size of the faculty of Princeton—is enough to staff a leading conservative university.

No reason to Disguise

Although leftist academics are usually easy to identify because they have no reason to disguise their leftism, professors dedicated to academic freedom and excellence now have good reasons to hide their views, and academic qualifications in specialized fields can be hard to judge. So hiring the best professors would sometimes be difficult, and some mistakes would probably be made. For this reason, I proposed that at the new university hiring should be the responsibility of carefully selected chairpersons for each department, subject to the approval of a carefully selected president and dean, who should also be ready to replace any chairperson when necessary. This should ensure that no department could be permanently captured by poorly qualified or leftist professors.

Effects on Other Colleges

From what I know of the best conservative scholars, if they were hired and supported at a leading conservative university, they would be delighted to produce research combating multiculturalism, radical feminism, identity studies, the diversity doctrine, the idealization of victimhood, socialism, sustainability, and postmodernism. Such scholars have learned from bitter experience that these doctrines are incompatible with a liberal education and the search for truth. Refuting unsound theories that have become widely accepted is an essential element of sound academic research.

To have a widespread impact outside the classroom, however, such refutation needs to be done through publication, public speaking, and training graduate students, at a university where the results of research are never predetermined by institutional ideology. Only a conservative research university could free conservative scholars to combat leftist ideology in these ways, without the fear of damaging or destroying their academic careers that now makes so many of them reluctant to say and write what they think and know.

Many leftist government regulations of research universities can be evaded with a little ingenuity, especially if the new university takes advantage of religious exemptions from some regulations by dedicating itself to traditional Christianity and Judaism. Other regulations should be found illegal or unconstitutional if the new university appeals to the courts; as I wrote in my book, “The university would need a strong legal department to contest the many government regulations that are incompatible with free speech and academic quality.” The university should lobby strongly to have any remaining leftist regulations overridden by legislation or executive action. If the new university did these things, its impact would exceed that of any likely revision of the Higher Education Act.

Finally, founding a leading conservative university would have a massive effect on existing colleges and universities. The absence of serious competition is the main reason today’s leading colleges and universities can ignore the misgivings they inspire among so many Americans. The best and most ambitious students want to attend colleges and universities with the most prestige and money.

Most major donors want to give money to prestigious universities that do important research. Students thinking of becoming professors now have no choice but to attend leftist graduate schools. If a new conservative research university offered a real alternative to Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford, and Berkeley, those universities and others would have to compete for students and donors by becoming much more accommodating to conservatives and moderates. As it is, leftist academics can pretend that a leading conservative university is inherently impossible. We can prove them wrong only by creating one.

Warren Treadgold

Warren Treadgold

Warren Treadgold is an American historian and specialist in Byzantine studies. He is the National Endowment for the Humanities Professor of Byzantine Studies at Saint Louis University. Treadgold has also taught at UCLA, Stanford, Hillsdale, Berkeley, and Florida International University.

8 thoughts on “Why Not Create a Great Conservative University?

  1. Here’s the core issue: So-called “elite” universities in the West no longer have genuine education or scholarship as their primary mission. They now exist to train the techies necessary to run modern society, credential the (mostly plutocratic) aristocracy that rules it, and provide sociological test tubes for tyranny. After all, today’s censorious ‘activist’ or campus tyrant is tomorrow’s American “business leader” and politician.

    You need to view the creation of your new pro-Western, conservative center of learning as nothing less than the opening of a major new front in the culture war. Because that’s what it must be in order to succeed. I would first find every ally possible. A good start would be teaming up with businesses to initially make one core of your school a new “Bell Labs”- an R&D center that’s worth investing in, and that will become something they have a massive economic incentive to defend. That gives you a clear Phase 1 objective, and an academic “beachhead” that is highly defensible. After all, both Bill the Billionaire and the real scientists in his labs don’t need to be geniuses to spot the “engineer” or “programmer” who spends all his/her/its time bitching about identity politics.

    I’m not sure what the humanities versions of Bell Labs 2.0 would be, but I bet your hundreds of dissident historians, writers, etc. can. Again, teaming up with business (and other) entities in the wider society should be done as early as possible, because there needs to be a clear consensus on what success looks like. I’m sure there are production companies, publishers, etc. who’d all love to have an institution that produces genuinely good writers & editors again. The current schools are producing almost nothing but semi-literate SJW hacks, who’ve now sunk so many major & expensive projects that there’s a catch phrase for it: “Get woke, Go broke”.

    Longer term, eliminating subsidies for the current system is the only way we’ll finally get rid of it. I don’t know why we don’t simply abolish federal student loans. The moment Uncle Sam stops paying for & actively rewarding campus BS is the moment most of it’ll stop, and not before.

  2. … coming back to this, a week later, with two follow-up ideas: first, perhaps beginning with a “college” might be a better start than jumping straight to a “university” – a focus on foundations, from which the professional schools of a university could grow? Second, as a vision, teaching and studying the “permanent things” would be a good direction.

  3. I think there is an even more basic question that we ought to be asking — why do we place such an emphasis on research, and why should we continue to do so?

    The concept of the research university and the focus on research is relatively new — research into the humanities really didn’t arrive until the Federal Government started funding it in the 1960’s. This is when “publish or perish” arose and the untold scandal is that the vast majority of this stuff is never, ever read — by anyone.

    Alan Sokal proved that it isn’t really even read by the people publishing it — as long as one has the proper politically-correct results, editors don’t even bother to check the basic facts. It’s foolishness, indefensible foolishness, and deep down, everyone sorta knows that — it’s why the left struggles so hard to censor us.

    Hence, I argue, we should concentrate on teaching. That’s what the students are paying for, that’s what their parents are paying for, it’s what the taxpayers think that they are paying for — and it’s what will remain when the Higher Ed bubble bursts.

    The term “university” comes from the concept of the universal knowledge of humanity and the goal of exposing youth to all of it. The term “liberal education” comes from the concept of an education necessary to live a life of liberty — to be a self-governing people who are trusted with self-governance. This is what is at risk and as the ISI has repeatedly shown, our college graduates are woefully ignorant of things that they ought to know.

    The modern research university really doesn’t benefit undergraduates — you don’t learn much in a 500-student lecture hall and even less from an International TA who isn’t able to speak coherent English. Nor does it really benefit those graduate students who wish to become professors as they are taught how to research, not teach — and research a very esoteric aspect of the broad field they really need to know if they are to competently teach it.

    Instead of being focused outward, on conveying knowledge out to the hinterlands, the modern research university is focused inward. It’s focused on itself and the research largess (and the “Overhead”) — with lots of people doing quite well spending it. Why should we bother producing research combating multiculturalism, radical feminism, identity studies, the diversity doctrine, the idealization of victimhood, socialism, sustainability, and postmodernism when we can summarize all of it with just one eight-letter word, the more polite version of which is “steer manure”…

    We need to worry about teaching — like the fledgling trucking companies that drove the mighty railroads into bankruptcy, if we focus on pedagogy and curriculum we can drive these bloated ivory gulags into bankruptcy as well.

  4. There is one glaring omission in your analysis. Any such institution would have to completely eschew government funding. A truly conservative university would be funded totally by private donations and tuitions, thus freeing it from government regulations. This is a limiting factor, as Hillsdale College has found. Privately fund several billion dollars, and a conservative university is feasible.

  5. Oral Roberts University, Regent University, and Liberty University were all launched with the vision you describe, but all have fallen well short of the mark. It would be interesting to explore why and how they fell short, and how those flaws could be remedied in a new effort.

    Founding a rival to the leading universities is akin to founding a social media platform to rival Facebook — everyone wants to be where everyone else already is.

  6. The best feature of the essay by Frederick Hess and Brendan Bell is their attempt to actually estimate costs for establishing a new university. Unfortunately, neither they, nor the commenters here, have articulated any positive vision for such an enterprise: they are concerned with resisting the current cultural consensus. That is an ongoing concern, but an insufficient foundation for a new academic institution.

  7. Yes it can be done, and along with it you will have to establish some new academic journals if you are going to continue to hew to the publish-or-perish regime. You will also have to eliminate tenure, so that you can terminate any professor who veers off into post-gender studies or such like. You will have to constitutionally limit the size and composition of the administration. And instead of directly addressing the prevailing leftist nonsense, you will have to merely proceed as if that did not exist or did not matter. Your admission standards will have to be very high–probably administer your own entrance exams–and probably you will have to offer merit scholarships in some abundance in the early years. You will have to establish a core curriculum consisting of history, literature, philosophy and language (Greek or Latin, plus one Romance language or German) that all students must master. Probably a good idea if it is a 2-year curriculum, following which the last 2 years can be all electives. You will have to be willing to fail students out. It should probably begin only as a college, not a university (or maybe a university with a number of different colleges (you could name one after Clarence Thomas, another after Thomas Sowell, as a nod to the fact that merit spans all races)). After 10 years, then add a handful of graduate programs. It will take 50 years, but once it becomes clear that only the real “best and brightest” are admitted and kept, that the standards are high and not subject to dilution in the name of whatever leftist deities then rule, it will achieve its desired effect. Which effect ought not necessarily to be the presentation of a conservative dogma or doctrine, but an upholding of the highest standards of the classical Western canon and episteme.

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