For decades, conservatives have lamented the rise of activist academic departments that push left-wing ideology in the guise of dispassionate scholarship. In 1989, Claremont McKenna scholar Harry Jaffa described the process of his university buckling, under threat of violence, to the establishment of a left-wing black studies department. In 1998, Roger Scruton scoffed at the same activist disciplines, which he called “mock subjects that will in time destroy our universities.” In 2012, Bruce Bawer documented the “victim’s revolution” that had laid waste to humanities departments in nearly every elite university.
All these writers decried the rise of the new departments but seem to have accepted them as part of an inevitable process of decline. But the conservative position has been too fatalistic. The activist disciplines are not inevitable, and decline is always, in part, a choice—one that can be reversed with sufficient courage, insight, and will.
For conservatives, the first step in reforming the universities is to expose the abuse of “academic freedom,” which has been used as a defense of intellectual license, and to propose a clear policy that any academic departments that pursue activism instead of scholarship will lose their taxpayer funding. Administrators, faculty, and students can advance left-wing ideology in their private capacity, but the First Amendment is not an entitlement to state support and taxpayer subsidies. Lawmakers are well within their rights to demand that public universities focus on rigorous academic work over partisan polemics with a scholarly veneer. Any program that violates this compact will be abolished.
What would shutting down activist academic departments look like in practice? Here, we don’t need to speculate; we can look to the past as a guide. Some of America’s most prestigious universities have shut down academic departments that strayed too far from their mission. Two case studies are particularly notable: the decision by the University of California, Berkeley, to shut down its criminology department in 1974 and the University of Chicago’s decision to close its education department in 1998.
At Berkeley, the story is familiar. In the late 1960s, university officials capitulated to activist faculty associated with the Black Panther Party and left-wing revolutionary movements. They assented to the transformation of the criminology school, which had previously trained law-enforcement officials in the latest management techniques, into a hub for “radical criminology,” which advocated defunding traditional police departments and fomenting left-wing “prison action.”
As the department grew more radical, Berkeley administrators pushed back. First, they fired four activist assistant professors who had undermined the university’s mission. Then, in 1974, Chancellor Albert Bowker shut down the entire School of Criminology, ignoring large-scale student demonstrations, which supporters described as “militant and spirited.”
Bowker justified the closure by citing the need to make budget cuts due to an economic recession, but the political subtext was clear: the radical criminologists had degraded the university’s scholarly mission. After the chancellor’s announcement, students occupied an administrative building, but Bowker sent in law enforcement, armed with shotguns and grenade launchers, and the students were removed.
The process of shutting down the education department at University of Chicago was more orderly. The department’s pedigree was impressive: it was founded by reformer John Dewey and had been home to prominent scholars such as Bruno Bettelheim and William S. Gray, creator of the “Dick and Jane” reading series. But in the 1970s, the department turned away from educational practice and focused more on left-wing educational theory. Over time, the quality of academic work declined, and external funding began to dwindle. Finally, in 1996, after a formal review, the dean of the social science division, Richard Saller, recommended that the university close down the department, citing “uneven” research and “low expectations.” It was officially shuttered soon afterward.
These examples establish an important precedent: it is not a violation of “academic freedom” to close down ideologically captured or poor-performing academic departments; it is, to the contrary, part of the normal course of business. Legislators in states such as Florida and Texas, which will both be considering higher education reform this year, should propose the abolition of academic departments that have abandoned their missions in pursuit of shoddy scholarship and ideological activism.
It is time for the “victim’s revolution” to be met with a meaningful counter-revolution. Legislators have an opportunity to abolish academic programs, such as critical race theory, ethnic studies, queer theory, gender studies, and intersectionality, that do not contribute to the production of scholarly knowledge but serve as taxpayer-funded sinecures for activists who despise the values of the public whom they are supposed to serve.
Enough is enough. It is time for principled action, not fatalism and defeat. Conservatives have an opportunity to move beyond critique and enact meaningful reforms that will restore the pursuit of truth as the telos of America’s public universities.
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