Assault on Higher Education: A Conservative Critique


Most members of the AAUP, myself included, identify politically on the left side of the political spectrum, as do a majority of American faculty members, especially in the humanities and social sciences.  But the AAUP’s mission is to “advance academic freedom and shared governance” for all faculty members, regardless of their political views.  I have therefore tried occasionally on this blog to call attention to the ideas of principled academic conservatives whose approach and arguments often run counter to the unfortunate hostility to higher education now rapidly gaining credibility on the right, and with whom I hope we in the AAUP might find common ground.  This is why I recently praised Ursinus College professor Jonathan Marks for his forthright and admirable “Conservative Defense of Free Speech for a Black Activist.”  It is also why in March 2016 I called attention to the work of conservative scholars Jon A. Shields, associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, and Joshua M. Dunn, Sr., associate professor of political science at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, whose study of 153 conservative academics concluded that “right-wing hand-wringing about higher education is overblown” and “that conservatives survive and even thrive in one of America’s most progressive professions.”

Russell Kirk

In that latter piece I stressed “the common interest of those on both the left and the right in defending academic values and the professoriate itself in the face not only of external political assaults but also against the steady erosion of educational quality, independent scholarship, and professionalism fostered by corporatizing college and university managers, who increasingly treat higher education as a business producing graduates like manufacturers do widgets.”  I also tried to distinguish between the illiberal conservative assault on higher education originating with William F. Buckley Jr.’s 1951 book God and Man at Yale, and a counter trend in conservative thought represented by Russell Kirk, whose 1955 book, Academic Freedom: An Essay in Definition, offered a quite different and far more sympathetic analysis.

Kirk, I noted, called the scholar “the guardian of the word” and argued that academic freedom is founded on “the enduring idea of a special liberty, or body of liberties, that is attached to the academic institution, the teacher, and the scholar.”  He wrote:

The principal importance of academic freedom is the opportunity it affords for the highest development of private reason and imagination, the improvement of mind and heart by the apprehension of Truth, whether or not that development is of any immediate use to [society].

Adding that

The theory of academic freedom is that the search after Truth involves certain risks: for Truth is not always popular in the marketplace, and there are opinions and fields of speculation that cannot prudently be discussed in the daily press or in the public meetings.

Now comes the Summer 2017 issue of Modern Age, a conservative review founded by Russell Kirk in 1957, which features a special symposium, “The Assault on Higher Education: Reports from the Front.”  Four essays in the symposium are available online (it appears that at least two others may appear in the print version, but these are not accessible from the journal’s website).  The essays assert much with which I disagree, but they also suggest yet again that those of us on the left can successfully find significant common ground with and even learn a few things from some colleagues on the right, despite our differences.

The opening essay in the symposium, “The Threat of Free Speech in the University,” is by the renowned British conservative philosopher Roger Scruton.  It is, sadly, I think, the weakest and most disappointing piece in the group, in some respects even offensive for the blithe callousness of its assumptions.  Scruton, a scholar of aesthetics and religious thought, sees the main danger to free expression today arising from a search for heretics, both religious and secular.  Scruton endorses John Stuart Mill’s classic defense of free expression as essential to the search for truth, but asks, “what if it is not truth that people are seeking, but some other benefit, such as membership, solidarity, or consolation?”  Such are the goals people seek via religion and, Scruton adds, “it is in the nature of a religion to protect itself from rival groups and the heresies that promote them.”

Perhaps unaware of people like Jerry Falwell (Sr. and Jr.), Scruton assures readers that “we Christians no longer engage in those practices,” by which he means heretic-hunting.  But on rather scant evidence (a single tale of the murder of a Glasgow shopkeeper) he fears that Muslims still do.  So apparently do socialists.  Most important, he fears, “this is happening, too, in our universities as the undefined and indefinable heresies are captured by labels and stuck with all the force required on the chosen victim: racism, sexism, ageism, speciesism, and so on, all potentially career-ending offenses.”

Frankly, this all strikes me as, well, more than a bit overblown.  I can’t speak about England, but the notion of Muslim extremists overrunning American universities, much less other elements of American society, implementing Sharia Law, and embroiling the academy in deadly sectarian feuds would be laughable, were it not so transparently prejudiced.  And Scruton certainly exaggerates when he declares that “the ethic of nondiscrimination ends up as an assault on free speech in just the same way as does the ethic of religious discrimination — fear of the heretic.”  In fact, one might well argue that it is Scruton’s unbridled fear of the heretic hunter that poses the greater danger to genuine intellectual freedom.

“Traditional education had much to say about the art of not giving offense,” Scruton writes.  “Modern education has a lot more to say about the art of taking offense.”  Really?  How are these to be separated?  How is one to know how not to give offense if one can’t hear from those offended when they have been?  Traditional education, I should add, was actually extraordinarily effective at giving great offense, just not to people like Scruton.  Ask any African-American student, gay student, or, for that matter, any Jewish student before the 1960s, whether the traditional academy avoided giving offense.  I fear that for Scruton the heretic hunter is simply someone who gores his peculiar ox.

Still, there is something to be salvaged from this.  Here are two statements from Scruton with which I cannot really disagree:

It is my belief—hard to justify and as much the product of my experience as of any philosophical argument—that an institution in which the truth can impartially be sought, without censorship, and without penalties imposed on those who disagree with the prevailing orthodoxy, is a social benefit beyond anything that can now be achieved by controlling permitted opinion.  I can accept that there might be laws, conventions, and manners limiting the expression of opinion in the world at large, in those places where this or that group has staked a claim to its identity.  I can accept that you must tread softly when it comes to religion, sexual mores, and the expression of loyalties that conflict with your own. But if the university renounces its calling in the matter of truth-directed argument, then we not only lose a great benefit from which all of us profit; we lose the university as an institution.

So true, even if this encapsulates more an ideal to which we strive than a reality we live.  Yet it seems Scruton fails to consider that those he critiques are precisely those who may most courageously refuse to “tread softly” when they confront his arguments and ideas.

Then this:

I do not think there is very much censorship in our universities, other than that imposed impromptu by the students and acquiesced in by a weak establishment.  But it has been true for a long time that there are orthodoxies in a university that cannot easily be transgressed without penalty, and that the penalty is not imposed on scholarly or academic grounds but on grounds that could fairly be described as ideological.

True again, and I won’t deny that some of the orthodoxies not easily transgressed or even challenged may well be ones I embrace.  But Scruton fails to recognize that they may also be the orthodoxies, grounded in tradition and Christian religion, that are so dear to him as well.

The second piece in the symposium is by Benjamin Ginsberg, professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University and author of a widely cited evisceration of administrative bloat, The Fall of the Faculty, a work that Martin Kich praised on this blog as “a seminal work in the growing body of scholarly literature dedicated to higher education’s institutional self-examination.”  Ginsberg’s essay, “The Unholy Alliance of College Administrators and Left-Liberal Activists,” argues that the loss of faculty power he documented so dramatically in his book can be attributed to an alliance, rooted in the events of the 1960s, between leftist activists and campus administrations, both “hostile to intellectual freedom.”  There is a kernel of truth to this argument.  Ginsberg is correct, for instance, when he writes that “university administrators will often package proposals designed mainly to enhance their own power on campus as altruistic and public-spirited efforts to promote social and political goals, such as equity and diversity, which the faculty cannot oppose.”  And it is sadly true that sometimes, as he contends, these are unthinkingly endorsed by coalitions of activists.

Ginsberg also offers a useful critique of speech and civility codes, which the AAUP has called into question since 1994.  He writes: “Increasingly, administrators have also come to see speech and civility codes as management tools that might help them intimidate or silence critics and gadflies. . .”   He is also absolutely correct that “college administrators view the regulation of speech less as a philosophical issue than a matter of political expediency.”  Indeed, this has been one of my own most frequent contentions.  Lastly, this conclusion is certainly on the mark:  “When governed by the faculty, colleges tend to develop curricula that are exciting and challenging, as well as research agendas that have changed the world.  From the perspective of administrators, however, only the fiscal bottom line matters. The curriculum is evaluated not from an intellectual perspective but from its capacity to bring paying customers to the store.”

Where Ginsberg goes wrong, however, is in fixing blame for these ills equally on both sides of his “unholy alliance.”  To be sure, it would be foolish to dispute that some left-liberal activists — students, faculty, and administrators themselves — have facilitated the erosion of shared governance and the advance of the corporatized university in ways that Ginsberg recounts.  What is quite disputable, however, is Ginsberg’s claim that such facilitation has been at the root of the problem, rather than a secondary consequence of it.

In his book, Unlearning Liberty, FIRE’s Greg Lukianoff explains it much more persuasively.  As I wrote in a review essay last year, he has documented

how campus administrations, often with the acquiescence and even cooperation of students, work to limit expression through unconstitutional speech codes and harassment policies, heavy-handed orientation and residence-hall training programs, free speech zones, and denial of due process.  Although Lukianoff does identify several faculty culprits, one of the great strengths of his book is his refusal to pin the blame, as many conservatives do, on supposedly weak-kneed liberal faculty members. Instead, his target is “administrators who present themselves as benign philosopher-kings.” To be sure,“many professors have played an unforgivable role in propagating speech codes and seriously undermining the philosophy of free speech, and of course some professors engage in questionable pedagogy.” However, Lukianoff repeatedly stresses that “the actual regimes of censorship on campus are put in place primarily by the ever-growing army of administrators.”

Administrative bloat is, in Lukianoff’s opinion, a major driver of campus censorship. “The rise in cost is related to the decline in rights on campuses in important ways,” he argues. “Most importantly, the increase in tuition and overall cost is disproportionately funding an increase in both the cost and the size of campus bureaucracy, and this expanding bureaucracy has primary responsibility for writing and enforcing speech codes, creating speech zones, and policing students’ lives in ways that students from the 1960s would never have accepted.

Absent as well from Ginsberg’s analysis is the most powerful weapon wielded by the administrative behemoth against both the faculty and academic freedom: the proliferation of contingent faculty appointments and the consequent erosion of tenure and shared governance.  No one can reasonably blame this on the campus liberal left.

By far the best piece in this symposium, its gem, is by John E. Seery, professor and chair of politics at Pomona College.  I have been told that Seery does not identify as conservative, but the fact that a conservative publication like Modern Age saw fit to publish “Somewhere Between a Jeremiad and a Eulogy” is significant in itself.  (In fact, I wish he had submitted it to one of the AAUP’s publications; I would have been proud to see it there.)  Focusing on small liberal arts colleges like Pomona, which serves as a bracing example, Seery’s caustic critique will resonate with faculty members at larger comprehensive and research institutions as well.  I cannot recommend it strongly enough.

Here is how he begins: “We educators today are under siege by roving bands of pauperized parents, skunk-eyed skeptics, bean-counting accountants, dastardly disrupters, cretinous accreditors, mega-moneyed magnates, technology tycoons, pooh-poohing pundits, profiteering politicos, and others.”  (Note the absence from this list of heretic-hunting nondiscriminators and left-liberal activists.)

And consider how Seery describes his students at Pomona, one of the Claremont colleges, where, according to a recent article in the New York Times education supplement, “everything is under attack” by militant student radicals “demanding official recognition of their identities,” Scruton’s nightmare scenario.  Here is Seery’s view: “At my little college, notwithstanding the national noise to the contrary, I find myself surrounded by incredibly hardworking, conscientious, bright, creative, curious students—anything but the slacker or snowflake or sheep-like images of college millennials you see portrayed by professional cynics and anti-education propagandists.”

Nor does Seery situate the problem among his largely left-liberal colleagues, those cowardly liberals intimidated by Ginsberg’s rampaging administrators and politically progressive students.  He writes:

I’m also surrounded by many fellow professors who are intensely dedicated, principled, broad-minded classroom teachers who see their job not primarily as a job but as a vocation (even as that term clinks antique elsewhere).  My on-the-ground, in-the-hallway reality thus contravenes the prevailing narrative depicting professors as a bunch of pampered partisan prigs.  Go ahead, troll me, if you must.  But I know what I know.  Something tremendously right, something inextinguishable, something akin to a spark of sacred sentience or thereabouts, abides in many out-of-the-way college classrooms today, and methinks we need to dwell and build on those quietly catalytic encounters.

Starting from the adage that a “fish rots from the head down,” Seery focuses on what he sees as the “main responsible party” for the mess he describes, college presidents.  Not protesting students, not demanding minorities, not sectarian Muslims, and most definitely not cowardly progressive professors, but college presidents.  These presidents — Seery focuses on those at small liberal arts colleges, but his words apply as well or more to those leading many larger institutions —

don’t know what they are talking about, and yet they talk as if they do.  As a class of professional liars, they shouldn’t be trusted with the truth-seeking institutions with which they’ve been entrusted.  They are to promote the college as a place of teaching.  But they are not teachers.  They are to sing the praises of the liberal arts classroom.  But most of them have never set foot on a liberal arts college campus before heading one up.  Most of them, I dare say after perusing their lifelong track records and educational and career choices, would never have sought out a presidency at a small liberal arts college but for the enormous pay and status that now come attached to those jobs.

Sitting beneath those presidents is a “ballooning bureaucracy,” typified by what Seery experiences at Pomona, where “the number of students . . . has increased 12 percent from 1990 to 2016; the number of faculty has increased 3 percent; tuition has increased 253 percent; the number of administrators has increased 384 percent.  Pomona now employs far more administrators (271) than faculty (186) to fulfill its small college, nonprofit educational mission.”  In Seery’s account small liberal arts colleges — and by implication American higher education more generally — has fallen “sway to the homogenizing influence of a nationalized round-robin network of résumé-padding, best-practices-practicing administration-administering administrators.”

“Critics of American higher education these days frequently call for the entire edifice to be disrupted and dismantled on the grounds that tenured radicals promoting ‘political correctness’ run the show and create an atmosphere that silences dissenting views,” Seery acknowledges.  But, in contrast to others on the right, he points out how “that’s an outdated and misdirected critique.  First, tenure is fading; only 24 percent of undergraduate college courses in the U.S. are taught by tenured or tenure-track professors.”  Moreover, he adds, more in the spirit of Lukianoff than Ginsberg,

If you look closely, the most unabashed forms of politically correct scripting on campus—the hunt to root out microaggressions and supposedly traumatizing speech—originate from the bloated administrative wing of campus, often from the Dean of Students Office(s).  The people ventriloquizing students, through relentless sensitivity campaigns, about safe spaces, hate speech, structural oppression, and diversity imperatives are the deans and deanlets of residential life (as one of my colleagues puts it, the “Residential Life Industrial Complex”).  Such people present elaborate and intensive “orientation” programs for the students.  They have money to hire students to hector other students about the need for making everything warm and welcoming.  On the academic side of things, the deans are constantly hiring outside “diversity trainers” and “leadership consultants” and “workplace bullying” experts to come in and present all-day workshops on said issues.  There’s a whole bureaucratic apparatus in place and it isn’t faculty driven at all—though some faculty members take advantage of it, once the incentives and cues are put so clearly into place.

Seery’s conclusion could come right out of a liberal AAUP-style playbook:

The real reason tuitions are skyrocketing and educational integrity has been compromised is because administrators, not educators, now run the show, all across America.  They call the shots.  They build the fancy buildings.  They call for and approve the costly amenities.  They fund what they want to fund. They hire the people they want to hire and pay them top dollar.  They make the decisions about branding campaigns, and they set the agenda for student affairs staffs.  They fund the kind of curriculum they want.  They control the purse strings.  They hold the power.

That pyramidal model in which intellectual labor is transferred from the faculty to the president and his administrators and their strategic plans systematically siphons money and attention and purpose away from what matters most, the classroom. . . .

It doesn’t have to be this way.  I pinch myself with gratitude after every seminar with my students.  The classroom is and must be the moral center of a college.  That’s where the action is.  That’s where the priorities must be placed.  That’s what must be protected and promoted.  We need college leadership that believes in providing the right kind of modern bang for the buck, with budgetary sobriety starting at the top.

Turning finally now to “Higher Education vs. Competency and Diversity,” editor Peter Augustine Lawler’s summative afterword to this symposium, I must first acknowledge Lawler’s untimely death just months before this issue’s publication.  Lawler was another conservative whose work — specifically an April 2016 essay for the National Review, where he was a blogger — I have previously acknowledged on this blog.  Lawler begins his summation by noting how “Defending higher education is a conservative project, one that conserves the form and formalities that sustain human liberty.  But it is not limited, of course, to those who vote Republican.  Often Republicans are more part of the problem than the solution.”  From here he moves to dispute Marco Rubio’s infamous claim that “America needs more plumbers and fewer philosophers.”  Actually, Rubio’s example was welders, not plumbers, but I’m sure neither Rubio nor Lawler (nor I) see much difference.  In any event, Lawler points out how Rubio’s observation was “not even practical.”

Lawler’s main point is one that I have a hard time disputing, although it might be more questionable with the likes of Betsy DeVos leading federal education policy.  “From a culturally conservative view,” he writes, “the most pervasive trend opposing higher education in America is complacently bipartisan.  It is facilitated by administrators academic and otherwise, foundations, bureaucrats, and experts.  And finally, it is not even so radical, but deeply bourgeois.”  For Lawler, “there’s a lot more to education than technology and justice.”  To be sure, there is a problematic element of cultural elitism here, as Lawler sees education largely as “the counterweight to the somewhat thoughtless uniformity of middle-class thought,” failing, of course, to see the prejudices of a Scruton, for instance, as a perfect example of such conformity.  But the main argument is one that is largely indisputable:

The project of our bipartisan administrative class is to reconfigure all higher education according to the standards of competency and diversity—or to technological productivity and justice. The animating dogma is less political correctness than corporate correctness, although corporate correctness now incorporates political correctness. . . .

Competency means that all higher education must be justified by measurable learning outcomes relevant to the twenty-first-century competitive marketplace.  That means the study of history, literature, philosophy, and so forth can remain in the curriculum only as ways of students acquiring skills such as critical thinking and effective communication.  Competencies are technological means that can serve any ends.  The study of history, literature, and so forth must have technological value, and it’s up to the professor to prove to a skeptical audience that they really have that.

The push for diversity, Lawler contends, is really a push to make education about justice.  Conservatives, he emphasizes, “do or should acknowledge that injustice past and present is a real concern that animates authentic human inquiry.  They object only to reducing all higher education to justice and technology.”  Yet, here again, Lawler stresses that the pursuit of diversity has not “been the special concern of ‘faculty governance.’ It’s been yet another vehicle for transfer of power to administrators, who, after all, are usually in charge of designing the composition of the student body, faculty, and staff.”  Hence,

The conservative and radical takeaway that the reduction of higher education to competency and diversity is all about the sacrifice of controversy to public relations.  They are, after all, the twin standards of our multicultural corporate world dominated by our cognitive elite.  The real point of being guided by those two standards alone is to reduce the amount of real moral and intellectual diversity that has been the saving grace of the American system of higher education. . . .  I’m not dissing the longing of activists to find the way to make a real difference on relatively soulless campuses; it’s just that they’re now serving the establishment cause.

To me the most striking element of this critique is its linkage of the conservative and the radical.  Lawler’s proposed solutions to the problem reflect more the former than the latter, and I, for one, can’t much go along with them.  But at the same time it would be unproductive not to acknowledge the power of his analysis and the points in common that many of us on the left can find in his essay and in this symposium more generally.  If a publication founded by Russell Kirk, author of The Conservative Mind, can publish an essay like Seery’s, there is perhaps hope that more meaningful alliances between elements of both right and left can be forged against the corporatizing destruction of academic freedom and shared governance that today plagues American higher education.  If nothing else, there is food for thought in this interesting symposium.

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