Reforming Our Universities Introduction
This book tells the story of a campaign I began in September 2003 with the goal of restoring academic standards to liberal arts programs in America’s universities. The idea was to persuade universities to adopt an “Academic Bill of Rights” for students, which was based on academic traditions that had been allowed to atrophy and fall into disuse. It was designed to ensure that instructors 1) provide students with materials reflecting both sides of controversial issues; 2) do not present opinions as facts; and 3) allow students to think for themselves. These are not only educational rights; they are rights basic to a republic created by dissenters, whose political system is founded on respect for the pluralism of ideas.
In terms of resources available, our campaign was relatively modest. I never employed more than three full-time staff people to assist me, and for several years there was only one, my National Campus Director, Sara Dogan. By contrast, our opposition—mainly teachers unions and academic guilds constituted an immensely powerful political lobby. They were able to draw on hundred million dollar treasuries and rely on operatives based in every college and located in every congressional district. In addition, they could count on the support of the Democratic Party, the education media, and the local press in every university locale.
Despite the odds, my assistants and I were able to recruit hundreds of student volunteers and organize them in chapters on 135 college campuses. Together we managed in a relatively short time to achieve tangible results, bringing our issues to the attention of the public and effecting actual institutional reforms. An early assessment of our efforts by Professor Stephen Aby, a member of the American Association of University Professors and an unfriendly critic, provides a reasonable summary of our accomplishments. His account appeared in the preface to a 2007 book devoted to our campaign and titled The Academic Bill of Rights Debate. “In just three short years,” he wrote, “the debate over the Academic Bill of Rights has become one of the most controversial issues in America’s colleges and universities. By November of 2006, it had already generated over 74 articles in major newspapers, at least 143 articles in all newspapers nationwide, 54 television and radio broadcasts, 47 news wire articles, 20 articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education, 73 articles in Inside-HigherEd.com, dozens of articles in major magazines, and some 150,000 hits in the obligatory Google search.”
There were other accomplishments as well. Within the first five years of its creation, the Academic Bill of Rights or some version of its principles were 1) written into the federal “authorization act” for higher education and passed through the House of Representatives; 2) unanimously endorsed by both houses of the Colorado legislature; and 3) incorporated in a formal statement by the American Council on Education, an organization that represents more than 1,800 colleges and universities. Pressured by our legislative efforts in Ohio, all of that state’s public universities, acting through the “Inter-University Council,” agreed to implement the Council’s statement and to provide students with formal grievance procedures to protect their academic freedom rights. This included seventeen universities, including Ohio and Ohio State. In 2005, the Academic Bill of Rights inspired legislation in the Pennsylvania House leading to formal academic freedom hearings—the first such on record. These hearings resulted in the adoption of academic freedom provisions for students at Penn State and Temple universities. Along with the Ohio schools, these are the only universities in the United States today with academic freedom rights for students.
The campaign we launched can only be understood in the context of previous developments in higher education. The modern research university was created in the second half of the nineteenth century during the era of America’s great industrial expansion. Its curriculum was shaped by two innovations: the adoption of scientific method as the professional standard for knowledge, and the extension of educational opportunity to a democratic public. Before these developments, America’s institutions of higher learning were primarily religious and moral schools of instruction. In the words of James Duderstadt, president of the University of Michigan, “Colleges trained the ministers of each generation, passing on ‘high culture’ to a very small elite.” The explicit mission of these early collegiate institutions was to instill the doctrines of a particular religious denomination. The teaching of non-religious liberal arts subjects was not designed to foster the analytic skepticism associated with modern science but to pass on the literary and philosophical culture that supported a specific faith.
By contrast, “the core mission of the research university,” as recently summarized by one of its leaders, “is… expanding and deepening what we know.” In pursuit of this goal, “the research university relies on various attributes, the most important of which are the processes of rigorous inquiry and reasoned skepticism, which in turn are based on articulated norms that are not fixed and given, but are themselves subject to reexamination and revision. In the best of our universities faculty characteristically subject their own claims and the norms that govern their research to this process of critical reflection.” This open-minded approach has been the credo of American higher education throughout the modern era and is still the norm in the physical and biological sciences and most professional schools throughout the contemporary university.
Liberal arts colleges are the divisions of the university through which all undergraduates pass, and have been traditionally viewed as cornerstones of a democratic society, where students are taught how to think rather than told what to think. The curricula of liberal arts colleges within the modern research university supported these objectives. They were designed to inculcate pragmatic respect for the pluralism of ideas and the test of empirical evidence, and thus support a society dependent on an informed citizenry.
All this began to change when a radical generation of university instructors were hired onto liberal arts faculties in the 1970s and began altering curricula by creating new inter-disciplinary fields whose inspirations were ideological and closely linked to political activism. Women’s Studies was one of the earliest of the new disciplines and remains the most influential, providing an academic model emulated by others. The curricula of Women’s Studies programs are not governed by the principles of disinterested inquiry about a subject but rather by a political mission: to teach students to be radical feminists. The formal Constitution of the Women’s Studies Association makes this political agenda clear:
Women’s Studies owes its existence to the movement for the liberation of women; the feminist movement exists because women are oppressed. Women’s studies, diverse as its components are, has at its best shared a vision of a world free not only from sexism but also from racism, class-bias, ageism, heterosexual bias— from all the ideologies and institutions that have consciously or unconsciously oppressed and exploited some for the advantage of others… .Women’s Studies, then, is equipping women not only to enter the society as whole, as productive human beings, but to transform the world to one that will be free of all oppression.
As a result of the political pressures from feminists, ethnic nationalists, and “anti-war” activists, and the curricular innovations they were able to institute, the academic landscape was transformed. In 2006, state legislators in Pennsylvania gathered at Philadelphia’s Temple University to hold hearings on academic freedom. Among the witnesses to appear before them was Stephen Zelnick, a former Vice Provost for Undergraduate Studies and a member of the Temple faculty for thirty-six years. Zelnick told the legislators of his concern that Temple faculty had grown increasingly monolithic and politically partisan in the years he had been there. “The one-sidedness of the faculty,” he said, “in their ideological commitments and a growing intolerance of competing views [has] resulted in abuse of students, occasionally overt and reported, but most often hidden and normalized, and the degrading of the strong traditions of intellectual inquiry and free expression.”
Zelnick then spelled out what this meant in terms of the instruction he had personally reviewed. “As director of two undergraduate programs, I have had many opportunities to sit in and watch instructors. I have sat in on more than a hundred different teachers’ classes and seen excellent, indifferent, and miserable teaching__ In these visits, I have rarely heard a kind word for the United States, for the riches of our marketplace, for the vast economic and creative opportunities made available for energetic and creative people (that is, for our students); for family life, for marriage, for love, or for religion.”
Zelnick’s experience reflected a shift in the academic practices of liberal arts schools that was national in scope and a transformation as dramatic as the changes that took place at the end of the nineteenth century. If those changes have been rightly perceived as an educational revolution, the current academic turn represents a counter-revolution—the resurrection of a curriculum that is doctrinal rather than analytic, and the return to a method of instruction in which knowledge proceeds from authority and is designed to instill sectarian truths rather than pursue skeptical inquiries into the facts.
While the new academic orthodoxies are secular, they are no less intolerant of opposing views than their religious predecessors. Their faculty adherents also assign texts to reinforce orthodoxies, while treating dissenters as unbelievers and dismissing their views as not requiring serious consideration. The new academic orthodoxies teach that America is an oppressive society governed by hierarchies that are “racist,” “sexist,” and “classist.” Far from being academic in the dictionary sense of “theoretical” and “not leading to a decision or practice,” the new curriculum is designed to provide cultural support for doctrines that are sectarian and political and that have immediate practical implications. Engagement in political activism is often incorporated directly into the lesson plan.
For example, a course description at the University of California Santa Cruz explains, “The goal of this seminar is to learn how to organize a revolution.” The character of the revolution is then specified as “anti-capitalist” and “anti-racist,” and the only texts provided are those that articulate and support these specific revolutionary agendas. No skeptical examination of revolution or of the critics of capitalism or of the left-wing perspectives on racism presented in the course is incorporated into its syllabus.
Similarly, a sociology course in “Collective Behavior and Social Movements” at the University of Arizona offers students credit for political activity and provides them with a menu of left-wing organizations to serve. In the words of the official syllabus, “Here it is, activism for credit. Give four hours to a social movement organization and I’ll give you 200 points.” The instructor elaborates,
Tucson has a bunch of great organizations that could use your help. For example, Wingspan has loads of things you can do for lesbians, gay men, transgendered and bisexual people right here in the Old Pueblo. Maybe you’re more interested in endangered species and ecosystem protection—check out the Center for Biological Diversity, an important and influential organization that just happens to be based in Tucson. Consider the Brewster Center, Society of Friends (Quakers), Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Border Action Network, Humane Borders, or Food Not Bombs.
The political corruption of the academic enterprise is hardly confined to a single university, or to one academic field. Three articles in a recent issue of PMLA, the official journal of the Modern Languages Association, give an indication of the scope of the problem. With forty thousand members, the Modern Languages Association is the largest academic professional organization and is ostensibly concerned with literary scholarship. One of the articles in this issue, however, is titled “Get Up, Stand Up: Teaching Civil Disobedience in the Literature Classroom.” A second is titled, “Using the Civil Rights Movement to Practice Activism in the Classroom.” The third, a dissent from these two, is by Gerald Graff, the outgoing president of the Association. Graff notes mournfully that “it is no longer controversial that a goal of teaching should be to ‘challenge oppressions and advance social justice.’ The only pertinent questions now are technical ones about how to achieve this goal.” In short, according to the testimony of the president of the largest organization of literary scholars, classroom indoctrination in left-wing political ideologies by professors of literature is now an accepted educational practice.
Graff is himself a political progressive but is distinguished by his professional dissent from progressive orthodoxy, in particular his view that teachers should not preach one side of the ideological argument in the classroom but “teach the conflicts,” allowing students to draw their own conclusions. This was the norm in the recent academic past, so it is not surprising that someone like Graff, who belongs to an older academic generation, should defend it. I myself am a contemporary of Graff, and it was my own collegiate experience that prompted me to begin the academic freedom campaign, the goal of which is to provide institutional support for a student’s right to receive a modern scientific education and not be indoctrinated in any orthodoxy, whether it reflects the political prejudices of the Right or the Left.
Because the campaign I organized was about process, it was viewpoint neutral. Consequently, I began it under the assumption that I would be joined by others, liberals such as Gerald Graff among them, and not just conservatives. But for reasons that will become clear in the ensuing narrative, I received almost no support from those quarters, and Graff himself never endorsed my campaign, but only suggested that the concerns it raised were important and deserved consideration.
I was disappointed by this response, but not surprised. What I was not prepared for was the reluctance of many conservatives to support our campaign. While conservatives had long been precise and insightful in recognizing the problematic developments in the university culture, they remained determinedly passive in their response to it.
More than fifty years earlier, William F. Buckley had published God and Man at Yale, a jeremiad lamenting the transformation of Yale from a college whose founders intended it to instill Christian values into a modern research university, the attitudes of which were secular and increasingly liberal. Buckley’s book was the first in a series of critiques of the university that conservatives were to write. These eventually included Alan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind, Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education, Richard Bernstein’s Dictatorship of Virtue, Neil Hamilton’s Zealotry and Academic Freedom, Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals, and Daphne Patai and Noretta Koertge’s Professing Feminism: Education and Indoctrination in Women’s Studies, which was an analysis of Women’s Studies as an ideological rather than an academic discipline.
But among these knowledgeable and perceptive texts, there were none that formed the basis for an effort towards institutional reform. Conservatives were content to argue against the educational status quo in the hope that others would be persuaded to do something about it—or not. Perhaps this reflected a fatalism inherent in the conservative outlook, leaving many of its adherents content to describe and then regret a cultural fall, but not to support a movement to correct it. Conservatives ably made their case, but little action seemed to follow.
Three years after the appearance of God and Man at Yale, Buckley became the first president of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, an organization founded by Frank Chodorov. The Institute was designed to teach the curriculum that Yale and schools like it were in the process of abandoning. Its target audience consisted of conservative students whom it intended to reach during after-school hours. It was a plan of action typical of the conservative campus organizations that followed—the Young America’s Foundation, the Leadership Institute, Accuracy in Academia, the Eagle Forum Collegians, the Clare Booth Luce Institute, College Republicans, and various conservative Christian groups. All of these sponsored conservative speakers on campus and recruited on-site representatives to distribute conservative literature. But with exception of the College Republicans, whose principal focus is electoral politics, they did not create student activist organizations or conduct efforts to alter campus structures. Their intent was to develop alternative institutions, not reform existing ones; to foster a traditional culture among conservative college students and develop future conservative leaders. The agenda was to educate individuals, not change the existing educational system.
This was also true of the adult organizations involved in higher education. The National Association of Scholars focused on legitimizing dissenting voices in the academy rather than altering the structures of university governance, although this attitude began to change under the impact of our campaign. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni was organized to uphold academic standards and support a quality education, but did not promote system-wide reform, although it too began to propose institutional changes under the influence of our efforts.
While I was influenced by Buckley’s work, my concern in organizing our campaign was different. Since Yale was a private institution which had been specifically created to transmit a Christian heritage, I was sympathetic to Buckley’s distress over its transformation into a secular university at odds with the values of its founders. Moreover, Buckley was justified in his claim that Yale had severed its religious ties without a formal divorce. But unlike Buckley’s efforts, the campaign I organized was not at odds with the research university itself, nor with its secular foundations or intellectual pluralism. The research university was now an established institution. More than 85 percent of American college students attended publicly funded schools which, unlike Yale, had been created as secular institutions. These schools were not dedicated to the transmission of religious doctrines but to the pursuit of knowledge through disinterested inquiry. My goal in launching the academic freedom campaign was to stop the erosion of these academic standards and the steady transformation of liberal arts departments into sectarian indoctrination centers for ideological causes.
The intellectual foundations of the modern research university were enshrined in a famous document called the “Declaration of the Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure,” which was issued in 1915 by the American Association of University Professors. In the words of an authoritative account by two law professors, “The draftsmen of the 1915 Declaration sought to establish principles of academic freedom capable of ensuring that colleges and universities would remain accountable to professional standards…. ” In other words, the cornerstones of both academic freedom and the modern research university were one and the same—the commitment to professional standards, based on scientific method, which were above party and faction.
The system created was self-policing, with faculty in charge of enforcing the standards. The two law professors warned that academic freedom “will collapse if faculty lose faith in the professional norms necessary to define and generate knowledge,” and could only be sustained if academic peers “interpret disciplinary standards in a way that maintains the… legitimacy of these standards.”17 Thus, the academic freedom protections in the Declaration were limited only to professors “who carry on their work in the temper of the scientific method,” and thus only to professors who practice theoretical skepticism and encourage respect for empirical evidence. The Declaration denied academic standing (and academic freedom) to those who use it “for intemperate and uncritical partisanship.”
The impetus for our reform campaign was the erosion of these time-honored standards and consequent development of academic faculties whose political agendas were made possible by the failure of universities to enforce the principles in the Declaration. These faculties were concentrated in the newly created inter-disciplinary fields, which were based on the social critiques of the political Left. In place of the traditional disciplines—history, economics, philosophy—whose standards had evolved in the course of more than a century of scholarship, the new fields were inspired by ideologies such as feminism, whose intellectual scope was all-encompassing and whose methodologies were newly invented. An immediate consequence of this academic revolution was an epidemic of amateurism in academic classrooms.
Newly minted courses on “global feminism”—to take one example— now focused on the workings (and evils) of the international capitalist economic system, but were taught by professors whose academic credentials were not in economics or even sociology or political science, but in Comparative Literature, Education, and Women’s Studies. The primary credential for teaching such courses was not an academic expertise, but familiarity with left-wing ideologies.
This academic amateurism in the service of ideology wasn’t confined to new fields like Women’s Studies, moreover. The course “Marxism and Society” at Duke University, for example, is offered (and overseen) not by the Department of Economics or Sociology, but by the Department of Literature and—jointly—by the Education Program, which trains teachers for K-12 schools.20 The course is taught by Michael Hardt, co-author of the book Empire. This is a text popular among academic radicals and has been described by other Marxists as “a Communist Manifesto for the 21st Century.”21 (Hardt’s co-author, also a Marxist, is Antonio Negri, a convicted Italian terrorist.) According to the official Duke catalogue description written by Hardt, “The course considers the basic concepts of historical materialism, as they have developed in historical contexts. Topics include sexual and social inequality, alienation, class formation, imperialism, and revolution.” Hardt is a professor of comparative literature and has no peer-reviewed academic credential that would qualify him as an expert in history, sociology, economics, political science, or human sexuality.
The campaign I undertook in 2003 was an attempt to address these abuses by restoring the academic principles of the modern research university to liberal arts faculties. Its basic premise was that professors were obligated to behave professionally in the classroom, and that students had a right to expect them to do so. These were simple propositions that I spelled out in the “Academic Bill of Rights,” which was based squarely on the 1915 Declaration. Where Buckley wanted to preserve the religious character of Yale, my concern was to defend and restore the professional standards of the modern research university that had been abandoned in its liberal arts divisions. In that sense, the reform I was proposing was conservative as well.
What follows is the history of the campaign—the obstacles we encountered along the way, the successes we achieved, and the prospects for making further progress. It is in some ways a personal story, because the campaign arose out of my concerns, and I have been its spokesman and the chief target of those who oppose it. But it is also a narrative that describes a disturbing development in America’s liberal arts colleges and provides a guide for those interested in reversing it. This is a narrative, in other words, about the fate of higher education in America.
The possibility that this history might be of service to other reform efforts is the most important reason for publishing it. I am convinced that our campaign would have been able to achieve far more if liberals and conservatives interested in the health of our universities (and our democracy) had joined our cause. Of course, I was aware that the political climate would make the recruitment of liberal allies difficult, even though our campaign was based on well-established liberal principles. For liberalism had undergone significant changes since radicals had mounted a systematic assault on the academic culture in the 1960s, seeking to make its curricula “relevant” and to politicize its educational programs. In the decades since, many self-identified “liberals” ceased to be committed to institutional process, or even to fairness. Many came to regard standards themselves as oppressive. So it was not difficult to understand why recruiting liberal support for the academic freedom campaign should be problematic.
On the other hand, I did not expect the lack of support we received from conservatives and libertarians, particularly since they had the most to gain from the restoration of these academic principles. Conservative texts and the viewpoints that inspired them were excluded from the newly politicized academic curriculum, and conservative and libertarian professors had become a vanishing presence on university faculties as a direct result of the newly politicized approach.
Opponents of our campaign, however, were quick to portray me as a “pawn” of larger forces and to characterize our effort to restore liberal principles as “a well -funded project of the far Right.”25 This accusation served their political interests, but in the real world, the campaign we waged never became part of any conservative agenda. While Republican elected officials supported our efforts to pass legislative resolutions in more than a dozen states, they retreated quickly after the initial engagements, and only one such resolution in Colorado—passed both houses of the legislature. Only one Republican Party (Maine) actually incorporated the Academic Bill of Rights into its platform, and only one Republican candidate (also in Maine) ran a campaign on our issue.
More inexplicable was the failure of conservative policy organizations the Heritage Foundation, the CATO Institute, the American Enterprise Institute—to embrace or promote our cause. For example, when the American Enterprise Institute held a conference on “academic freedom” well into our campaign, and later published a book, I was pointedly not included. Although once a speaker at annual meetings of the National Scholars Association, the invitations stopped once our campaign was launched in 2003, despite the personal support of two of its leaders, Stephen Balch and Peter Wood. Even the California Association of Scholars, a branch of the NAS operating in a state where my offices are located, declined to invite me to its convention.
In the seven years of our campaign, not a single report on our efforts appeared in National Review or the Weekly Standard, the two most widely read intellectual journals of the Right, despite direct appeals to their editors. Imprimus, a publication of Hillsdale College with a million-and-a half conservative subscribers interested in higher education, ignored us while the president of Hillsdale publicly criticized our efforts. Only one of the four books I wrote on universities, documenting the abuses addressed by our campaign, was reviewed by Commentary or National Review, and none were reviewed by the Claremont Conservative Review of Books, the Weekly Standard, or the Wall Street Journal. The Journal did, however, publish an editorial attacking the Academic Bill of Rights on the libertarian grounds that we appealed to legislatures for endorsements, which the writer regarded as a bad idea. The libertarian journal, Reason, printed several similar attacks on our campaign, but no report on the abuses we had uncovered or the progress we had made.
By contrast the Chronicle of Higher Education, a liberal publication unsympathetic to our cause, published a lengthy and reasonably balanced cover story on our efforts, as did USA Today. Both assigned reporters to follow me on campuses and report what they saw. Both the New York Times and the Washington Post published substantial and fair-minded articles as well, although the Times’ “Education” supplement studiously ignored our efforts. In October 2005, an issue of the Weekly Standard did focus on higher education reform with a 10,000-word cover feature titled “The Left University: How It Was Born, How It Grew, How to Overcome It.” The Standard even used our campaign logo featuring the three hear-no-evil, see-no-evil, speak-no-evil monkeys dressed in cap and gown for its cover design. But the story failed to mention our campaign or the Academic Bill of Rights, while the Standard’s editors did not even bother to request permission to use our image.
The calculated distance which the conservative establishment took towards our efforts reflected the same disposition that lay behind Buckley’s failure to organize a campaign for reforming the university system, despite his prescient critique of its curriculum at Yale. While precise in their diagnosis of what is wrong with the university curriculum, conservatives have remained reluctant to pursue a course of action to correct the abuses. Conservatives are uncomfortable with organized movements generally and institutional reform efforts in particular. They are especially uneasy with conflicts that might bring them into collision with the intellectual establishment, or that would invite unscrupulous ad hominem attacks from the opposition. Ours involved all three.
There were significant exceptions. I did receive generous and important support for my campus appearances from the Young America’s Foundation and the Leadership Institute, while the conservative publication Human Events gave attention to our efforts. The talk radio network and FOX News Channel did feature our cases and played an important role in raising the visibility of scandals such as the one involving Professor Ward Churchill, which greatly helped our cause. Sean Hannity, co-anchor of the Hannity & Colmes show, devoted an unprecedented five segments to my book The Professors, helping to put our concerns before the general public and induce our opponents to take us more seriously. But these media outlets were also viewed at a distance by the conservative intellectual establishment, and were regarded with ill-concealed contempt by the university audience we were attempting to reach.
The forces ranged against our university reforms were formidable, and regularly—even relentlessly—resorted to gross misrepresentations of the facts and personal smears to prevent a reasonable consideration of our proposals. Chapter nine, describing the academic freedom hearings in Pennsylvania, is particularly instructive in documenting the determination of teacher unions and the Democratic Party to block even an inquiry into whether academic freedom protections for students existed at any of the seventeen public universities in the state and then to obscure the committee’s findings that at fifteen of those schools they did not. Chapter ten describes the faculty resistance to one student’s efforts to use these protections at Penn State University.
While the facts presented in this narrative may seem discouraging, the campaign’s successes suggest that if conservatives had embraced the Academic Bill of Rights and made curricular reform an integral part of their agendas, we would have been able to secure academic freedom protections for students not at two or ten universities, but throughout the higher education system. We would then have been able to proceed with the more difficult task of seeing that these protections were implemented as well.
I am convinced more than ever of the feasibility of the measures we have proposed as I am of the imperative of restoring integrity to the academic curriculum. This book is an effort to persuade Americans in general and conservatives in particular that the reforms described here can be achieved, to explain the difficulties involved, and to show how they can be overcome.