A well-known podcaster has the custom of going “off the grid” for a month each summer, to gain some perspective. I can beat that: I have been retired from academic teaching and research for nearly 14 years and have rarely visited my campus during that time. But last year, I finally encountered the university first-hand, as it is now. Like a 21st-century Rip Van Winkle, I found it almost unrecognizable.
The seeds were sown long ago. American universities have been changing since World War II, and administrations have been complicit. An early signal came from the University of California’s admired president, Clark Kerr. In an engaging 1963 Harvard Godkin Lecture (published as The Uses of the University) Kerr painted an optimistic “new age” picture that now looks rather different. Noting the rise of the modern “research university,” with its incoherent mix of divisions, disciplines, and aims, Kerr seemed to embrace chaos rather than deplore it; he even gave it a cool new label: the multiversity. But a careful reading raises some red flags:
A community should have common interests; in the multiversity they are quite varied, even conflicting. A community should have a soul, a single animating principle; the multiversity has several…
It sure does:
[It should be] as British as possible for the sake of the undergraduates, as German as possible for the sake of the graduates and research personnel and as American as possible for the sake of the public at large, confused as possible for the sake of the preservation of the whole uneasy balance.
Witty, perhaps, but hardly a vote of confidence.
A university president must adapt to these changes, said Kerr. He is no longer a “hero-figure who filled an impossible post,” on the model of the University of Chicago’s Robert Maynard Hutchins or Abraham Flexner, influential in medical education and as head of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study. In the multiversity, a president must be a “mediator…with his first task being to keep the peace.”
At first, Kerr’s vision was received as a wry but optimistic endorsement of a promising technocratic future. But Kerr believed himself to be misunderstood. He was never so sure that the multiversity, inevitable as it seemed to be, was a great idea. In later writings (The Uses of the University went in to five editions) he pointed out some of its flaws, flaws which have in fact led to very serious problems.
Kerr recited a list of the often-conflicting roles of the multiversity and its president in this new age. Three stand out:
- “a seeker of truth where the truth may not hurt too much,”
- “to keep the peace,” and
- “service to society.”
The first of these is a flexible version of Cardinal Newman’s ideal. The second is purely pragmatic; together with the third, it has turned out to be dangerous.
Kerr never really considered the possibility that in the absence of “common interests,” the many large, expanding, and potentially conflicting entities that constitute the multiversity might make the whole inherently unstable. In the absence of “a single animating principle,” a deviant faction may well come to dominate at the expense of all others. In fact, “keep the peace” and a feeble allegiance to truth-seeking has meant that it is not the most rational but the noisiest and most troublesome faction that has the edge. “Service to society” has turned out to be a weak link because it can mean almost anything—like an overriding commitment to social justice, for example.
This trend was signaled by a breakdown in academic standards, first in the humanities and then in the social sciences. There were trivial incidents, so odd that they could be ignored. For example, in the late 1980s there was a report of a Duke professor of religion who tried to get permission to give a new course—but was defeated by his inability, despite repeated attempts, to add enough women to his reading list. “Who speaks?” was already more important than “What was said?”. “Who cares!” I thought at the time, but it was a portent for an accelerating pivot from content to source, from “what is said” to “who said it?”
Soon there were other signs that universities were abandoning their commitment to veritas and free inquiry. A seminal 1994 book was written by Milton scholar and New York Times op-ed writer Stanley Fish, There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech…and It’s a Good Thing, Too, which even allowed speech to be equated with violent assault. A Law and Society review, which also tackled two books by feminist scholars, concluded that “these works argue that the goal of a more egalitarian future can be advanced through state suppression of assaultive discourse.” [emphases added] It seemed absurd at the time: “assaultive discourse”—so “Speech = Violence”? Crazy, huh? State censorship was supported, tolerance was stigmatized as no different from intolerance, and reasoned argument was just another point of view. So much for truth.
Physicist Alan Sokal parodied the problem by submitting in 1995 a hoax-masterpiece of jargon-filled academese—“Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”—to the Duke Press journal Social Text. The article revealed “the ideology of domination concealed behind the façade of ‘objectivity.’” It contained no made-up facts or false physics. What it did display was a “correct” attitude to science and truth —
that the truth claims of science are inherently theory-laden and self-referential; and consequently, that the discourse of the scientific community, for all its undeniable value, cannot assert a privileged epistemological status with respect to counter-hegemonic narratives emanating from dissident or marginalized communities.
—and the right word mix (e.g., hegemonic, marginalized, domination, etc.). The editors deemed it good enough to accept without the peer review Sokal asked for.
Gender was at first the main “transgressive” theme, but it was soon overtaken by race. The Critical Race Theory (CRT) movement, almost invisible a few years ago, has recently joined the fight. CRT, which is activism, not scholarship, is against the First Amendment simply because it protects speech deemed “racist”: “[the] First Amendment can serve to preserve racial status quo, CRT scholars say.” With “race” as an accelerant, Kerr’s forebodings have come to pass. “Keep the peace” and “service to society” combined have allowed the university to succumb to its most troublesome faction: the self-righteous, anti-rational world of progressive activists.
Rip Van Winkle
I confess that I ignored the trend at first because its manifestations seemed so ridiculous. But absurdity is no impediment to religious belief—credo quia absurdum. Working mostly off-campus, I noticed no real change in my own university until the BLM-riot-inspired anti-racism crisis of 2020, when I found that academe, originally a place for the free exchange of ideas, had become almost unrecognizable. Higher education has begun a transformation along the same lines as the 1966 “Cultural Revolution” in Maoist China.
As I pointed out in an earlier piece, the Chinese Cultural Revolution was a reaction of old-guard Maoists to the “bourgeois Western” elements in Chinese society which seemed to be gaining strength—and so must be stopped. In much the same way, the “woke” revolution seems to be a reaction to the improvement in race relations that has occurred since the Civil Rights acts of the 1960s. The signs should have been encouraging. People of color were suddenly well represented in mayoral offices, city councils, police forces, and state and national legislatures; black faces were on many magazine covers and in ads for prestigious products; interracial marriage rates increased; black entertainers and even opinion leaders were beloved. A black president was elected and re-elected. A University of Illinois survey showed a steady decline in objective measures of racism up until 2014.
These improvements did not please everyone. People whose lives had been invested in racial victimhood and white oppression saw their “anti-racist” cause losing to … color-blindness. MLK was prevailing over Black Power! Like the Maoists in China, many committed progressives felt that this drift toward peaceful bourgeois reconciliation must be halted. Given the now-proven receptivity of academe to nonsense, the solution was obvious: color-blindness must be condemned as itself racist!
These racist “antiracist” efforts seem to have worked. A survey published in 2017 showed that from 2014 onwards, people increasingly agreed that “more needs to be done” to achieve racial equality. This tendency was exaggerated in academe. From being relatively content with the color-blind ideal, administration, faculty, and students have become increasingly doctrinaire in their stance against alleged racism. Unable to point to objective measures of increasing racism, they have turned their attention to something much harder to refute: systemic (aka institutional, structural) racism.
Systemic racism in higher education, a petition
My personal Rip-Van-Winkle moment arrived in the summer of 2020, at the peak of public angst surrounding police shootings of blacks. It came in the form of a circulating petition/op-ed, that Science (one of the two leading general-science journals) had apparently agreed to publish, about combating systemic racism in STEM. I first heard about it from an email circulated to the faculty: “Dear [Department] faculty: Please see below the announcement about a commentary in Science (attached) to which you should consider lending your voice. Best wishes…”
After I read the petition I was struck by three things: First, the issue—a rather hysterical reaction to the George Floyd killing and the riots that followed—was totally unrelated to anything remotely academic, let alone to the mission of our department. It was a completely inappropriate cause for any collective action from the university. Second, the claim of systemic racism already struck me as specious; I had explained why in an article a year or so previously, before the idea became fashionable. Third, I could see no evidence at Duke University for any of the racial crimes alleged. Indeed, the only demonstrable systemic racism took the form of “diversity,” “equity,” and “affirmative action” preferences happily accorded to women and people of color.
I reacted with a “Reply all” memo as follows: “Dear [Chair]: If there is a ‘disagree’ column, I would be inclined to sign-up. The cited ‘diversity’ study is questionable as is the whole idea of ‘systemic racism.’” I also added a link to my “systemic racism” piece.
The first responses, which were supportive, came from several faculty who all wished to remain anonymous (one even asked that I not use his university email address to reply). I was horrified to find my colleagues intimidated by their own department, too afraid to publicly express perfectly reasonable dissent. I soon found that their fear was justified. When my objection became more widely known, I was accused of “racist dogma” and being a “bully.” I was also apparently guilty of ignoring the “mountains of evidence” (unspecified) for “persistent systemic racism.” I was told that my “willfully ignorant perspective is not welcome” and (devastatingly!) “You will be on the wrong side of history.” A cultural revolution (with Marxist characteristics, one might say) had occurred.
The multiversity worked pretty well for half a century; but now its structural flaws have caught up with it. It is time to return to higher education’s real purpose: teaching, and discovering truth. “A single animating principle”: one truth, not “personal truth” or “lived experience”—and not just when it doesn’t hurt. Otherwise we shall have no need of universities, which, as many have pointed out, increasingly serve just to provide credentials as other means have been blocked. (See for example Griggs v. Duke Power Co., which forbade employers from testing prospective employees in a way that is not “A reasonable measure of job performance.” For reasons accessible only to legal scholars, a college degree does not fall foul of this prohibition.) If the situation is unchanged, if equality of opportunity is replaced by equality of outcome (aka “equity”) and fact by passion, science may not be destroyed, but it will cease to advance. Nor will a culture dependent on it long survive. Higher education is not worth keeping unless it believes in veritas, rather than “taking a knee” to the noisiest.