Why Campus Craziness Never Seems to End

In 1986, economist Herbert Stein proposed what is now known as Stein’s Law: “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” This may have been true 35 years ago, but we’d be hard-pressed to apply this law to today’s colleges and universities. The parade of crackpot ideas is unending, and one can only wonder why ostensibly smart people are seduced by one harebrained scheme after the next. What is behind this apparently interminable folly?

The answer lies in human nature—specifically, man’s powerful urge to do something to gain control in the face of frustrating failure. Doing something helps overcome the feelings of depression and despair that attend helplessness, and thus serves as a means for self-medication. These psychological benefits have been demonstrated in countless studies. As a review in The New York Times puts it, “the feeling of being in control, of having a say over what happens in one’s life, has far-reaching consequences for physical and mental health, for achievement at school and work, and even for sex, researchers are finding.”

This urge, moreover, need not be rational. Indeed, the ease of reacting, not its logical connection to the obstacle at hand, may explain the allure. Consider the popularity of prayer during troubling times or the widespread medical quackery among those facing death from incurable illness.

Those in the grip of this “do something” passion might well admit that the odds of success are slim, but they will surely, and correctly, aver that at least doing something soothes the psyche. After all, God may take pity on you to escape the black death if the self-flagellation is correctly administered. Yes, the odds of this divine rescue might be one in a million, but self-mutilation is better than doing nothing. Evolutionary biology might also suggest that action, no matter how inane, may provide survival benefits, and, thus, those inclined to self-flagellation or similar ineffectual gestures pass their genes down to the next generation.

[Related: “Canceled by the University He Helped Found”]

So, what motivates all this entirely therapeutic, albeit crackpot, behavior? Answer: creating a campus, top to bottom, across all disciplines, in every academic nook and cranny, that perfectly mirrors America’s demography. The term “obsessive compulsive disorder” might be appropriate here. Why else do universities on average need 45 administrators to promote Diversity, Inclusion and Equity (DIE), while those who doubt this egalitarian mission are punished? Why else would American colleges spend $14 billion on DIE alone? Just listen to the endless student demands—those calling for “racial justice” drown out all others. In a nutshell, the contemporary social justice mania is self-medication on a colossal scale.

Achieving this vision may well take eons, and so setbacks are only momentary. The Energizer Bunny is the model. Yes, initial affirmative action programs failed, as did “diversifying” the faculty, but that is just the predictable hit-or-miss beginning. Just wait until we exorcize the names of universities’ racist founders, purge all “hateful” books from our libraries, and otherwise eradicate the toxic, white supremacist culture that professors impose on their students. The woke paradise will finally arrive.

Three factors feed this cycle of blatant nonsense. First, decades of failure serve as a powerful force to keep going. Success is, true believers tell us, just around the corner, so we need to double down and resist surrender. It’s hard to imagine canceling Charles Murray if past egalitarian schemes had performed as initially guaranteed. What else could possibly explain the return of campus segregation? Or ever-more draconian speech codes? Desperation and persistence despite endless failures become signs of moral virtue.

Second, the modern university supplies near-unlimited opportunities to egalitarian dreamers willing to devote their lives to the cause. “Barriers” to progress are everywhere, many of which were never understood as “racist” until the woke cognoscenti discovered the truth. Every day, professors utter offensive words or assign toxic readings. For those who no longer embrace the pursuit of knowledge, uncovering alleged evils provides lifetime employment.

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Third, in today’s university the monetary cost of promoting nonsense is often negligible, and when fresh funds are needed, Uncle Sam or mega-rich foundations come to the rescue. This is not the private sector, where markets punish ineptitude—being uber-woke may even attract students and donations. For weak-willed administrators and those anxious to expand bureaucratic empires, the egalitarian agenda is a gift from heaven. Tops schools won’t go bankrupt in their pursuit of egalitarian Utopia, so this virtue-signaling is an all-you-can-eat buffet for the morally famished. Even those schools struggling to pay the bills hardly want to be left behind in the rush to the equitable promised land.

What is particularly exasperating about this endless, ill-advised crusade is that it is impervious to scientific reason. It is an embrace of theology, not science. Forget about swaying the zealot by demonstrating how past efforts have failed, how no logical connection exists between the nostrum and the perceived problem, or how deeply rooted cultural obstacles impede his Quixotic quest. The same goes for the challenges of illegality or totalitarian overreach. Again, past failures only seem to energize true believers.

Short of universities going broke, it should be clear that the only way of stopping this nonsense is to accept a harsh reality: academia will never precisely reflect the general population. Happily, this awakening may not be as hopeless as it might initially appear. Yes, fervent egalitarians may never reject the divorced-from-reality true faith, but everybody grows older and will, eventually, retire. Time is the great enemy of those seeking to transform the university; who knows, events may also play a role. Recall when religious disputes were fundamental schisms and millions died. Ideologues can jump ship—think of those dutiful Marxists who opportunistically embraced capitalism when the Soviet Union collapsed. But meanwhile, human nature is human nature, and the cost of indulging fantasies is minimal compared to the sugar-high of doing something. The parade of nonsense will likely continue as the academy stumbles from one failure to the next.

Image: Jake Weirick, Public Domain

Robert Weissberg

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

5 thoughts on “Why Campus Craziness Never Seems to End

  1. Comrade Bob, your POV certainly has much validity. But I do not think the DEI efforts are as cynical as you do. I have plenty of colleagues who are well-intentioned. Some of them really are concerned about the underperformance of so many people, including not just the underperforming minorities, who are rapidly growing as a share of the American population, and also lower socioeconomic status whites. What is going to become of our country if we can’t do something about this? And the universities are rightly concerned about their revenue base if the population continues to imbecilicize.

    Unless guys like you (and me) can come up with a positive alternative vision, and successfully promote it, I think the crazies are just going to continue to win. You can’t beat something with nothing, as they say.

  2. Oh, this will eventually stop but it’s about 10 years off before major changes will become obvious. What is the first thing a company cuts when sales drop? The research department. The reason why is research may or may not pay off in the long run; it can, however, be a net drain on company finances. Research is the easiest thing to cut without affecting production, sales and other areas that do bring in revenue.

    This same will happen to the universities. People aren’t having as many kids any more. Sorry, but the illegal aliens coming in may be having kids but, if history is any guide, few of them will go to college. Companies are begining to see that, other than STEM or business majors, a college degree is not only becoming a joke, but it often does not translate into a quality employee.

    The point is colleges are starting to see a steady decline in the number students enrolling. This has almost nothing to do with the Wuhan virus either. Companies won’t value the degrees—nobody really needs someone with a womens stuides or race theory degree—and nobody wants to spend big bucks only to come away with nothing but debt.

    Fewer bodies means less tuition money and less state funding. Cuts are going to be necessary. So what’s the first thing to go? The diversity, equity and inclusion bureaucracies. Like the research department in companies, you first cut that which is the least likely to affect the money coming in. DE&I is a net drain; it doesn’t add revenue. This will soon be followed by the demise of the grievance studies departments because few students will see any value in those courses. Getting rid of DE&I and eliminating grievance studies departments will go a long way towards stopping this woke nonsense on campuses.

    Meney talks. And Stein’s law will be fulfilled.

  3. “Academia will never precisely reflect the general population”

    And why should it? Why should we care? I don’t complain that East Asians are overrepresented at Harvard’s physics department, while we Irish are underrepresented. It would sound ridiculous. Yet when black activists complain, we take them seriously.

  4. I find Robert Weissberg’s assessment to be spot on. I say this as a middle American parent currently watching this real time at the college my daughter is attending. I must confess—this is really depressing!! One bright spot—she may not return to college next fall because she has caught on to the utter lunacy of the wokeness on campus–primarily dished out by staff—maybe there is some hope after all.

  5. Thanks to my friend Robert Weissberg for this wonderfully witty diatribe. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries American universities discarded Christian theology, claiming that their motivation was to replace theology with Darwin. By the mid-twentieth century, the change was veering instead toward Marxist theology, replacing a Christian theology that had created American liberty with one that has destroyed economies and facilitated mass murder.

    The mistake of McCarthyism was to allow the left to claim that it represented academic freedom, which implicitly meant science, but the cared even less about academic freedom than it cares about science; this was evident by the 1930s in its endless apologies for the USSR, the USSR’s suppression, and its mass murder. Since the 1980s the campus left has felt confident enough to discard its always-fictitious free-speech claims, but it continues to use the word “science,” only now to refer to faith in failed socialist and egalitarian theories and quack medical ones. Universities are forces for darkness and ignorance in a society that is “progressively” entering an age of darkness and ignorance.

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