Moving Forward: Is Legacy Higher Ed a Lost Cause?

When a man contravenes his stated principles, through word or through deed, we ought to first give him the benefit of the doubt. But when he does it the tenth, or hundredth, or thousandth time, we must conclude that he holds a different set of principles entirely. In other words, one’s words and actions are the true indicators of one’s worldview. “You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?” (Matthew 7:16, ESV).

This applies to institutions just as well as individuals. If the vast majority of a field talks the talk but walks in the opposite direction, then we ought to question the talk. That’s why, a couple of weeks ago, I argued that most of academia’s alleged hypocrisy, contradictions, and double standards are an illusion. For decades, our colleges and universities have blatantly disregarded their stated principles of academic freedom, intellectual diversity, educational excellence, and the like. The time has long since passed to conclude that most within higher ed have simply abandoned these principles in a raw lust for power. Constant double standards point to one’s real standard.

I also urged conservative commentators to keep their eye on the ball: first, we need to spend way more time exposing the evil of modern academia’s true standard, not simply cataloging the innumerable ways in which its walk belies its talk. As I wrote, “double standards are baked into the cake.” When we act like they’re not, we’re playing right into the Left’s hands. They continue the long march, and we’re stuck writing about the bootprints.

More importantly, we need to devote our labors to building positive solutions to the crisis. We should certainly document the precipitous decline of higher education, but we can’t stop there. Many American students desperately seek higher learning—if and when today’s institutions implode, we must have something there waiting for them. In order to avoid falling into the very problem I described, I plan to compose a series of articles assessing various ways to move forward from the academic status quo, of which this is the first. We all agree that the current state of affairs is unsustainable—but what is the best avenue for reform?

Unwilling to Change, Unable to Heal

For the purpose of this piece, I’ll refer to America’s historic higher education establishment simply as “legacy higher ed.” This includes a vast array of institutions—public and private, religious and secular, two-year and four-year, liberal arts and engineering, conservatories of music and art schools—the reform of which will certainly require a tailored approach when it comes to specifics. But ultimately, all types of schools are facing the same basic problems: ideological conformity, chilled academic freedom, activist “education,” hatred of Western Civilization, administrative bloat, unjust campus proceedings, malign foreign influence, and, most recently, medical tyranny. Is there a single class of American colleges and universities that is exempt from these issues?

Because all institutions face the same basic problems, it stands to reason that they would benefit from the same basic solutions. But what are these solutions, and what is the best way to implement them? Can we trust legacy higher ed to reform itself, or must reform come from outside the ivory tower? Or is legacy higher ed simply a lost cause altogether? The National Association of Scholars, of which Minding the Campus is a part, has examined these issues and more for the past 35 years. At this point, it’s clear that most American colleges and universities are utterly unwilling to reform themselves, choosing instead to continue down the path to educational ruin. While we find it quite important to document this decline, we recognize that the chances for internal reform are in many cases slim to none. Most schools have a small, dedicated minority of faculty, staff, and students who see these problems as the destructive force that they are, but any attempts to sound the alarm, much less to actually implement solutions, are met with an immediate, vicious response. The campus majority expels dissenters outright or makes their lives so unbearably difficult that they resign voluntarily.

[Related: “Academia’s ‘Double Standards’ Are an Illusion”]

Think of this in terms of bodily illness: in many cases, our bodies are perfectly able to heal themselves of the maladies that befall them. This regenerative ability is one of the true marvels of our creation. But in many other cases, external intervention is necessary. Some illnesses are simply too severe, too widespread, or too long neglected for the body to heal itself, so medicine must come into play. It seems plain that American higher education has reached this point—it has allowed its conditions to worsen unchecked and has thereby missed the opportunity to heal itself. Short of a miraculous academic great awakening—something to undo the great awokening of the last several decades—internal reform seems improbable.

Before I move on, I want to clarify that legacy higher ed may still be useful for those seeking higher learning today. I received a solid, albeit flawed, undergraduate education, and I’m currently in a graduate program that does still educate amid the many activist distractions. Aspiring students and faculty who have their wits about them and who won’t be tossed to and fro by the waves of ideology may find legacy higher ed to be a fruitful place for a time. My point is that this time is soon to end at many institutions and has already ended at countless others. Even the most protected members of academia, tenured professors, aren’t safe from leftist assaults on academic freedom. How, then, will the rest of us fare? So yes, go ahead and get your PhD (as I am doing) or a few years of teaching experience for the resume, but be prepared to make a quick exit when things get hot.

The Doctor Is In

Okay, so external reform it is. Legacy higher ed has allowed its health to reach an all-time low, and now the doctor is in. The doctor, in this case, is the state government primarily and the federal government secondarily. We have to leapfrog state boards of regents, which in many cases are in lockstep with the very institutions we’re trying to save. Even when boards of regents get it right, many colleges and universities simply ignore their requirements. For example, the NAS recently published Educating for Citizenship: The Arizona Case Study, in which Senior Research Associate John Sailer documents the wholesale dismissal of Arizona Board of Regents civics mandates by the state’s public universities.

What exactly can the state and federal governments do? I’m glad you asked—here are just a few possibilities:

1. Legislators should require strict intellectual diversity and academic freedom protections for all institutions of higher education receiving taxpayer funding. It’s not enough for an otherwise hostile university to have a discrete center dedicated to free speech or right-of-far-left viewpoints. These ideas and the people who hold them need to be protected on all levels and in all departments of the university.

2. Legislators should immediately ban all social justice “education.” To be clear, this does not include teaching about social justice concepts or other adjacent leftist ideologies. However, it does include required courses and trainings that compel faculty, staff, and students to participate and affirm a particular point of view. As many have said, this is teaching people what to think, not how to think, and is therefore out of bounds for academia.

3. On the flip side, legislators should require robust core curricula in Western literature, philosophy, history, music, art, and more for all undergraduate students. We do live in the West after all, and students ought to know the history and great works of their own culture. This used to be self-evident, but even famed core curricula such as Columbia’s are quickly crumbling. Our students need more, and if their schools will not provide it to them voluntarily, then they should be required to by their state governments.

4. Legislators must cull the administrative herd. Nearly every college and university in America has an extremely bloated bureaucracy, which includes many offices that are entirely unnecessary and that contribute to the very problems legacy higher ed is facing. For example, Penn State’s Office of Educational Equity lists 58 employees in its staff directory. Think of how much taxpayer money is going down the DEI drain—it must be stopped, and our elected officials have the power to stop it.

5. Title IX offices are out of control. What was once a means to guarantee equal educational access for women has become a bludgeon for angry feminists to punish men, often unjustly, completely independent from law enforcement. In many cases, these Title IX staffers have little to no criminal justice experience. The Department of Education must reform Title IX, as Betsy DeVos tried to do, to protect the accused and clip the wings of bureaucratic rule.

6. Legislators must curb the massive amounts of money pouring into our colleges and universities from foreign governments, most notably China, Russia, Iran, Qatar, and the U.A.E. They are trying to do this through the Innovation and Competition Act, but the bill simply lowers the mandatory disclosure threshold from $250,000 to $50,000. It doesn’t take the much more important step of requiring schools to disclose the name of the donor and the purpose of the gift. Without such protections, foreign governments will continue to buy influence and steal research at will.

7. Legislators must outlaw all COVID mask and vaccine mandates (and whatever monkeypox mandates are coming) in higher education. Masks have proven to be utterly ineffective and deleterious for teaching and learning. It is profoundly evil for colleges and universities to force experimental vaccines, which have proven to be quite ineffective and even deadly, upon their faculty, staff, and students. Legislators must stop the medical tyranny in its tracks.

Legislators should make all state and Title IV funding contingent upon complying with these requirements, and they should immediately cut or reduce funding to institutions who refuse to comply. Elite universities with multi-billion dollar endowments (or with unchecked foreign funding) may be able to scrape by without government funding for a while, but they will eventually run out of this money. They will then have to decide between reforming their ways and closing their doors. For more detail on what these reforms may look like in practice, see the NAS’s Freedom to Learn policy proposals.

[Related: “The Wrecker”]

All of this, of course, assumes that all three branches of government are willing to do their jobs with courage, integrity, and endurance. If they’re not, then legacy higher ed may indeed be a lost cause. If our institutions won’t freely reform themselves (which they won’t), and if the powers that be won’t make them reform themselves (which is to be determined), then there is simply no recourse. Those advocating to “burn it all down and start anew” will get their wish, although no one will actually have to burn the institutions down. They are self-immolating quite nicely on their own—all we’ll have to do is watch the wreckage unfold.

I hope we don’t reach this point, but everyday it seems a bit more likely. We need to have a contingency plan (or two, or three) in place. Next time, I’ll consider one of these plans: building new institutions from scratch.

Image: Annie Spratt, Public Domain


  • David Acevedo

    David Acevedo is Managing Editor of Minding the Campus and Communications & Research Associate at the National Association of Scholars.

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12 thoughts on “Moving Forward: Is Legacy Higher Ed a Lost Cause?

  1. On what basis should we trust legislators to decide which programs on campus are “social justice education” and which are not? It can’t be a matter of de-funding all those academic units with the name “studies” in them. After all, many conservatives championed American Studies, and might be happy with military studies, technical studies, and aviation studies (all of which exist on today’s campuses). And if we want freedom of thought, why would you advocate legislators telling us what we are free and not free to research, think, and teach about?

  2. It is clear now that MTC can, as my mother used to say, dish it out but not take it. Two instances critical of Acevedo, and one critical of Naomi Wolf, were scrubbed from the comments. The former for clear conflict of interest, the later for who knows what reason. Instead, we are treated to the lunacy of comments by Mr Ed who seems unqualified to make pronouncements on vaccination.

    This will not end my interest in NAS, which I will check into from time to time, however MTC seems a waste of time. Feel free to scrub this message again, I will remove myself from the mailing list.

  3. I am going to repeat my point, which may have been “moderated” out of the discussion because a conflict of interest may exist between the author and the editor. So, here again, in worse language. It is not consistent to decry intellectual compulsion in position two, then turn around and support state compulsion in position three. This is especially so for many of us who are generally suspicious of state meddling in higher education.

  4. Accreditation has become a bit of a poison apple. The fact that for so many jobs people need a degree from an accredited university and for so many kinds of funding accreditation is necessary means that many of the trends we are seeing are a self-licking ice cream cone: students can’t go elsewhere, so the money is going to keep coming in, and the funding that can only go to accredited universities also creates an inevitable bureaucratic apparatus (if you take public money you have to fulfill all kinds of associated mandates).

    there is a “deal of ruin” in this situation: it can keep getting worse and worse and worse for quite a while. But it’s already noticeable how silly much of the “knowledge” generated within this framework is. Serious intellectual work is moving outside of it already, to whatever extent is possible — more difficult in the sciences, which require a lot of lab infrastructure; easier in the humanities and social sciences, where the most interesting commentators are already para-academics.

    This problem might solve itself as
    (1) it becomes increasingly obvious that “accreditation” and “knowledge-generation” have become uncoupled (already happening)
    (2) accredited degrees stop being tickets to good jobs (also already happening)

    the idea of direct legislative intervention seems to me to bring with it many risks, though it will be interesting to see how it turns out in the UK which has started down that road.

    1. Keep trying. Thinking is hard stuff. I stopped reading when in item two you objected to compulsory affirmation, or some such, then then in item three you introduce government requirements. It is force feeding in either case, not my ideal for freedom of thought.

  5. The wild card is the potential of bankrupting liability from female students forced to receive Covid vaccinations – particularly existing students who would otherwise been expelled.

    Many of these female students will attempt to have children over the next two decades and there is growing evidence that the vaccine will possibly prevent that.

    While Big Pharma is immune from liability, I do not believe the colleges are — and even if they are, imagine the political and social consequences of 10-20 million irate women blaming higher ed for their reproductive problems.


    1. Do you really consider any of the strange positions that Ms Wolf has taken over the years to be in any way sane?

  6. The replacement already exists.

    I have long compared the internet to the Interstate highway and predicted the implosion of higher ed much like the railroad implosion circa 1970.

    In both cases, technology has eliminated a natural monopoly.

    What we need now is deregulation.

    We need to shift from institutional accreditation to the accreditation of the individual. Much like the individual truck and driver is licensed.

    1. A bit naive. The internet has been around for decades. But it doesn’t matter what you learned using it, if you don’t have a degree in engineering—from an ABET accredited degree program—you ain’t going to get hired as an engineer. Sorry, but the internet is never going to replace a degree program. Industry wants the degree.

      1. If I am not mistaken, one must first have a state-issued engineering license — with other laws requiring the employment of a LICENSED engineer.

        And don’t states require graduation from an accredited program as a prerequsite to be licensed?

        Hence its not that you won’t be hired but that you CAN’T be hired. That’s my point about deregulation.

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