Nothing is Forever … Even Woke Universities

If the proverbial Martian toured today’s American universities, he would be perplexed. On the one hand, elite institutions have never been better. Endowments are soaring, applications for admission are similarly increasing, and families willingly pay ever-higher tuition bills while the schools’ prestige is as unquestioned as always. Yet, our keen-eyed Martian would surely notice underlying problems: a weakening commitment to intellectual rigor resulting from the embrace of identity politics, a bloated administration intent on imposing a far-left political orthodoxy, and a student body often more concerned with being offended than with discovering truth. In short, a mixed bag. Our Martian can’t help but wonder if schools like Princeton and Yale can relentlessly dumb-down and yet still claim to be the best of the best.

But let’s remember: nothing is forever. Recall the trajectory of Transylvania University, a university founded in western Kentucky in 1780 that, after 1818, boasted of its excellent programs in law and medicine. The school graduated countless luminaries—two U.S. Vice Presidents, 50 U.S. Senators, 101 members of Congress, and 34 ambassadors. Jefferson Davis was a graduate and Henry Clay was once on the faculty. Yet how many people today have even heard of Transylvania University?

This institutional decline is hardly unique. Lance Welton offers thumbnail sketches of such deterioration. For example, during the early seventeenth century, English universities became known as finishing schools for the aristocracy. Those seeking serious academics instead enrolled in Scottish universities or in Dutch institutions that stressed science. This decline was further compounded by the English schools’ required religious orthodoxy, and only in the latter part of the 19th century when these restrictions were lifted did Oxford and Cambridge regain their intellectual prestige. In fact, it was only after the Universities Tests Act of 1871 that English universities were opened to Roman Catholics.

Tales from the business world should caution today’s education elite about the wages of horrific decisions, though it may take decades for their full impact to be felt. Remember that GM once had a commanding 50% share of the U.S. market; today it is closer to 17%. Brands such as F. W. Woolworth, Borders, Eastern Airlines, Pan American Airways, and Block Buster Video, among others, were once iconic. Remember when IBM “owned” the personal computer market, and millions regularly shopped at Sears?

Elite schools may slowly decline, though their picturesque facilities will remain. Death by carbon monoxide, so to speak. Smart Asian students are enrolling elsewhere rather than face hopeless odds competing against favored minorities. Less prestigious schools such as the University of Texas at Dallas and Cal Poly Pomona are among the beneficiaries. Bright students from overseas may similarly abandon prestige schools in favor of less politicized venues. Meanwhile, gifted faculty may go elsewhere rather than navigate today’s identity politics.

Particularly as current faculty retire, even top schools will increasingly be staffed by “diversity faculty.” Few families of smart students will pay $75,000 a year to hear woke teachers telling junior about how the Navaho saved the environment. If one wants to hear all about the silenced voices of people of color, the local community college is a better deal. In fact, the exodus from colleges is already happening.

Nor will future employers remain fooled by fakes with glittering degrees. Top firms will eventually notice that their recent Ivy hires struggle to write clearly, and that they respond with “systemic racism” when asked why people cannot make car payments. Ironically, this may bring a return to an earlier era when a few wealthy “Gentlemen C” graduates of Harvard and Yale filled undemanding positions on Wall Street, since everyone knew that they owed their degrees to family ancestry, not brain power.

But perhaps the greatest threat to present-day elite education will come from rivals who offer a better product—just one more example of creative destruction. Take the auto industry, where once-marginal firms like VW, Toyota, and Honda succeeded because Detroit insisted as a matter of faith that it could sell poorly manufactured gas-guzzlers since it had always sold them. A similar mentality undoubtedly informs today’s elite prestige schools—there will always be Harvard, so say the school’s nomenklatura who insist that Harvard cannot possibly screw it up no matter how hard it tries. Perhaps these administrators should study the history of GM.

The Rockefeller University is an alternative model to today’s woke universities, whose towering prestige was built long before the obsession with Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity. Established in 1904, it originally only provided grants to address public health problems, but with the establishment of its own hospital in 1910, it rose to be a world leader in the biological sciences and medicine. In 1955 it became a full-fledged university and granted its first doctorate in 1959. It has since awarded over 1,000 Ph.D.’s. It has also broadened its mission, currently offering programs in physics, mathematics, and several other sciences.

If one distinguishes between “creating knowledge” and “the university,” the possibilities for a robust, unwoke intellectual life abound. Bell Labs, a group of scientists funded by AT&T phone revenue, played a major role in multiple scientific fields (it is currently called Nokia Bell Labs). Similarly, the Thomas J. Watson Research Center, which partners with State University of New York’s Polytechnic Institute’s Colleges of Nanoscale Science and Engineering, has earned acclaim through its work on super-computers. Then there are government-funded research centers, such as the Ames Research Center,that hardly worry about their speakers being canceled by students demanding greater diversity. Ever hear of The Pennington Biomedical Research Center, part of Louisiana State University, that is the largest academically-based nutrition research center in the world? All and all, in 2019 there were an estimated 131 research institutes in the U.S., according to the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education.

Moreover, given the insanity plaguing prestige schools, top-quality science-oriented departments in existing elite schools may legally disengage from their woke brethren and join under-the radar institutions like the Rockefeller University. Though these freshly created institutions may lack the huge endowments of Harvard or Stanford, patent royalties and gifts from wealthy tech entrepreneurs may suffice. Happily, faculty at these hybrid institutions will no longer fear having to undergo hours of anti-racism training as a pre-condition to teaching molecular biology. Think of the enormous boost in productivity!

To be sure, there is no 100% guaranteed protection from the PC Pox, but it seems unlikely that research institutes, even those with undergraduate and graduate students, will fall prey to today’s woke nonsense. Nevertheless, their administrators have better things to do than worry about the allegedly racist names of campus buildings, while faculty doing serious science are trying to save the world. Youngsters wanting to major in “Making a Difference” and minor in “Social Change” will simply not apply to the Rockefeller University. In a sense, these research institutes, some of whom have students, resemble the monasteries of medieval Europe that offered sanctuaries to scholars during troubled times. If today’s elite schools keep it up, they may be the next Transylvania.


Image: TUPictures, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, cropped.

Robert Weissberg

Robert Weissberg is a professor emeritus of political science at The University of Illinois-Urbana.

4 thoughts on “Nothing is Forever … Even Woke Universities

  1. Great article. To the extent identity tribalism overtakes merit, the sciences, and therefore the long-term intellectual health of the US, will be severely compromised.

  2. You can only admit so many “under represented minorities” because of their skin color rather than merit before your academic programs collapse. You can’t populate engineering classes in circuit design or electromagnetics or Fourier analysis—coursework required for an electrical engineering degree—when the majority of students admitted to the university have no math skills and don’t read very well. Business schools can’t survive when the students are focused on social justice policies rather than decision analysis and economic theory.

    Bottom line is private business only cares about diversity and inclusion to the extent it can keep the woke mobs at bay. You still have to make money and under represented minorities whose only “skill set” is fighting oppression and systemic racism won’t cut it.

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