Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by National Association of Scholars on January 24, 2024 and is crossposted here with permission.
In the aftermath of Claudine Gay’s defenestration as president of Harvard, many conservatives, libertarians, and un-woke liberals see an opportunity to rally public support for an operation to rescue higher education. The idea has caught on that the radical left overplayed its hand in “diversity, equity, and inclusion” (DEI) and is now vulnerable to those of us who seek major reforms.
This is not, however, the first time that the academic left has stumbled or the first time that we reformers have had high hopes disappointed.
If it is our moment, I don’t want to waste it. But I also don’t want to make a foolish move.
The problem is that DEI, despite the extravagant claims made by its supporters, is just a costume. It is a way of dressing up the real cause that animates its partisans: the take-down of American liberty and independence. Properly understood, DEI is about extending state power, rendering it unaccountable, and claiming both intellectual and moral authority for doing so.
I am far from the only critic who sees this deeper cause. The illiberal, anti-Western aspect of DEI is in plain sight and unifies the disparate movements that crowd under the DEI umbrella: anti-racism, transgenderism, climate hysteria, defunding the police, kowtowing to China, land acknowledgements, indigenous rights, anti-Semitism and hatred of Israel, open borders, alternative energy, renaming buildings and tearing down statues, the 1619 Project, pronoun wars, Soros prosecutors, speech codes, dis-invitations, cancel culture, patriarchy, the fight against trans-exclusionary-radical-feminists, anti-colonialism, micro-aggression fragility, and more.
An enormous variety of “harms” lurk in the immutable facts of human existence as perceived through the lens of DEI, and the DEI-inflected university sets itself up ostensibly to shield students from these harms and from any open debate about whether they are indeed real. I say “ostensibly,” because what DEI really does is inculcate fragility in these students. They are taught a combination of resentment and vulnerability that makes them easily led by the DEI demagogues. Led where? Into public protests where their individuality is dissolved into the self-righteous anger of the mob.
The psychological dynamics of this DEI hysteria are perhaps most evident in the sudden re-emergence of mass anti-Semitism. Leftist factions that until now have focused their fury on other causes that seemingly have nothing to do with Judaism or Israel, such as transgender pronouns and fossil fuels, are suddenly ablaze with hatred of Jews, now rebranded as “white colonizers.”
Little is to be gained by searching for rationality in this descent into the maelstrom. It is simply what happens when moral order and guiding principle is abandoned in favor of the visceral gratifications of all-encompassing anger. DEI wears a light veil of reasoned response to the supposed oppression by the traditional authority of the West. But behind that veil is the wild urge to destroy. The atrocities committed by the agents of Hamas on October 7 are the real face of DEI, which is why the DEI movement has defended Hamas and has struggled to hide its glee over the success of the festive spree of murder, rape, torture, and kidnapping.
The National Association of Scholars (NAS) stands across a deep divide from both the outright celebrants of the atrocities and from their academic temporizers and apologists. Many of these have found convenient ground as newly awakened champions of free speech or academic freedom. Claudine Gay, Sally Kornbluth, and Elizabeth Magill, of course, got themselves in hot water by pretending that the issue at hand was the need to protect the right of free expression of campus demonstrators who called for another genocide of Jews. Their stumble was conspicuous not only for its moral obtuseness but also because none of them had shown any interest in protecting the rights to free expression of anyone on their campuses (Harvard, M.I.T., and Penn) who had dissented from the rampant woke ideologies supported by the DEI establishment. Faculty members at their institutions have been driven away because they publicly expressed their conviction that humanity is divided into two distinct sexes, that there are scientific errors in the dominant theory of manmade climate change, or that racism does not explain disparities in academic performance. In these cases, the principle of freedom of expression counted for nothing at all.
The difference between coddling the supporters of terror and the ostracism of dissenters from wokery reflects the capture of the soul of American higher education by the dystopian left. A great many Americans have come to recognize this, but they are still baffled about what can be done. Can our colleges and universities be “reformed” out of anti-Semitism, climate hysteria, sexual perversity, mindless celebration of non-Western cultures, neo-racism, and the like?
Not easily. But that doesn’t mean not at all. Some states have taken strong action to curb DEI. Texas and Florida stand out, but in fact more than twenty states have taken some kind of anti-DEI action. The proponents of DEI are on the defensive.
The trouble is that DEI is now deeply embedded in American education, at all levels, even down to kindergarten in some schools. Early childhood is vulnerable because most of the teachers have attended schools of education, which is perhaps the most radicalized portion of many universities. The teachers may be entirely well-meaning, but they have been trained exclusively by the “social justice” quasi-Marxist, and sometimes full-scale Marxist, ideologues. In colleges and universities as a whole, a generation of faculty members now owe their appointments to their willingness to sign “diversity” pledges. Their peers in higher education administration have climbed the academic ladder by performative exhibitions of ever-more-ardent DEI advocacy. Claudine Gay was the star in this firmament.
Cutting DEI funding sounds like a good recipe for undermining this radical regime—and indeed the NAS favors such cuts—but the effort to starve out the campus revolutionaries will take a long time. That’s because their first steps will be to disguise themselves. They will rename their activities, go underground, and count on their tight-knit connections with one another to make the deception work. “Intersectionality” is, among other things, comradeship in the fight against real educational and civic responsibility.
That’s one reason why I hesitate to join those who declare: “At last! We have our moment. DEI is on the ropes. Let’s finish the job.” Finishing the job will require a lot more than driving figures such as Claudine Gay from the presidency of Harvard.
There are hopeful developments. Wealthy donors—many but not all of them Jewish—have backed away from their naïve support of their alma maters. There are new alliances of Christians, secularists, and Jews fighting campus anti-Semitism. There are legislators in almost every state who realize that public colleges and universities have become home base for those who scheme to replace our civilization with dystopic utopias that would forfeit the gains of the industrial revolution in favor of impossible schemes of Green energy. There is a kindling suspicion among faithful Christian and Jews that they are being deliberately replaced by Muslims, pagans, adherents to apocalyptic cults, and atheists. There is a dawning awareness that all these make-believe ideologies and preference re-sets are somehow connected.
Whether the connection is a shared descent from Marxist and other radical nineteenth-century ideas; whether they are yoked by the cultural disruptions of the 1960s; or whether they are just recently finding their common ground in a shared rejection of “Western” rationality are matters worthy of consideration. But we don’t have to get to perfect etiology of the ailment to reach agreement on the next steps.
These steps are, first, to observe, document, and publicize exactly what is happening in higher education. The academic left is expert in hiding its intentions and disguising its work. NAS is equally expert in penetrating that obfuscation and explaining it to a broader public. We have done so in some fifty significant reports on dozens of subjects over the last fifteen years. Continuing to do so will be crucial to sustaining public support for reform.
Second, is to clarify which problems can be fixed by legislation and to persuade elected leaders to fix them. Historically legislators have been reluctant to intervene in higher education. Their belief was that colleges and universities understood their needs better than outsiders possibly could, and that college trustees could be relied on to guard the public interest. It is now evident that the guardians need guarding. Higher education has been “captured” by the activists of the left and boards of trustees have proved in almost every case ineffective. The time for legislative intervention has arrived. NAS had proposed more than fifty model bills offering legislators ideas about what could be done better. These model bills offer clear guidance for state and federal legislators who are searching for paths to address the malformations of American higher education.
One avenue of legislative action that bears special mention is clearing away the obstacles to innovation and competition. Higher education is the way it is in large part because the barriers to entry by new parties are so high. That’s not because founding a new college is intrinsically expense. It is the result of accreditation and regulatory obstacles. Legislatures should clear away these obstacles.
Third, is to roll back the walls of judicial and regulatory protection that higher education has succeeded in gaining from sympathetic courts and agencies. For example, NAS is proud of its successes in opposing the regime of racial preferences, starting with the passage of the anti-race preference ballot initiative, Proposition 209, in California in 1996—which has withstood numerous court challenges and legislative end runs. But the summit of our efforts in this regard is the United States Supreme Court’s decision in June 2023 in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard and the University of North Carolina, which knocked down the “diversity” rationale for racial preferences in college admissions. Justice Thomas cited NAS’ work in his concurring opinion, and NAS played a significant role in advancing the case.
In addition, the Supreme Court is now weighing action to overturn the “Chevron defense,” which granted almost unlimited power to federal agencies to make up their own rules in the absence of specific authorizations from Congress. This has much deeper bearing on higher education than many realize. American science has been badly compromised by the federal regulatory regime that controls research funding and that can, in effect, order up whatever “scientific” results it needs to arrogate ever more authority to itself. NAS has been documenting the unreliable, irreproducible, and often just plain fake science that these regulatory agencies have used to advance their agendas. If the Supreme Court reigns in the administrative state, we can look forward to an era in which the collusion of big government with big higher education can be significantly curbed.
All three of these steps, I should emphasize, would go far to tame the government-educational complex: the gorging of universities on public funds while enjoying minimal public accountability. The evidence of this is all around us, in ever-soaring tuitions, in Presidential-fiat “loan forgiveness,” which shifts private expense to the taxpaying public; in “Covid” emergency funding, which in fact funded an explosion in the hiring of DEI bureaucrats; in the astonishing growth in student amenities and administrator salaries; and in the proliferation of new degree programs that credential students exclusively for make-work government jobs.
It is the work of NAS to bring all these matters to light in a manner that moves the public, our elected representatives, and our courts to take well-focused action. We don’t call for “activism” in the sense of working up indignation at the failure of our education system. Indignation, in this case, is just, but it must be directed to practical ends with achievable goals.
In the aftermath of Claudine Gay’s defenestration as president of Harvard, that’s what NAS seeks. Let’s seek the restoration of intellectual freedom and integrity in American higher education. Let’s get there by identifying the abuses we can correct and finding the right ways to correct them.
Photo by Maura Healey on Flickr