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Don’t Abandon the University—Save It

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Don’t Abandon the University—Save It

Dissenters from progressive orthodoxy would be wrong to leave the American university to wither on the vine. July 12, 2022
Education
Politics and law

The future of American universities looks grimmer with each passing month. Even as they continue to draw talent from across the globe, their leaders cede control to a small-minded class of left-wing activists who are implacably hostile to free speech and objective academic standards. Surveys document pervasive self-censorship by students and presage even greater political intolerance in the next generation of faculty and administrators. Already, mandatory diversity statements make political views an explicit criterion for faculty hiring and promotion, all but slamming the door shut on outspoken conservatives or nonconformists of any political stripe. As a politically moderate junior professor at a large research university, I am well aware of this dynamic and am writing anonymously to avoid jeopardizing my tenure prospects.

Those who don’t share progressive political commitments understandably feel little enthusiasm for the daunting project of saving academia from itself. Why spend political capital trying to reform dysfunctional institutions in which conservatives have been unwelcome for decades? When progressive journalists justify everything from radical diversity trainings to calls for media censorship with appeals to the authority of ideological “experts,” why lift a finger to help those experts salvage their lost credibility?

But abandoning higher education to permanent progressive dominance would be a calamitous mistake. It would threaten not only to mire scientific progress in muddled groupthink but also to lock conservatives out of many key positions of power and influence. Those without academic credentials cannot prescribe medical treatments, practice law, command an infantry division, or serve on the Council of Economic Advisers. Universities are also the only institutions where young people can receive years of government-subsidized training in demanding technical fields like engineering, medicine, and artificial intelligence, vital engines of our nation’s innovation-driven economy. A few dozen Thiel Fellows notwithstanding, the next generation of American elites will be largely handpicked, educated, and credentialed by American academics.

If surrender is not an option, what else can be done? To date, dissenting legislators and trustees have mostly limited their efforts to sporadic cancellation-style attacks on individual professors whom they find especially irritating. Republican efforts to weaken or end tenure protections at state universities suggest an intention to rebalance academia by picking off liberal professors one by one in headline-generating frontal assaults on academic freedom. This kind of lashing out may be cathartic for the legislators involved, but as a strategy it is futile. It reinforces the GOP’s anti-intellectual image among scholars with wavering political loyalties and dampens public outrage against progressive insiders’ own vastly more far-reaching methods of censorship and political discrimination. Finally, attacks on tenure and academic freedom diminish the prestige of red-state public universities, the very institutions that conservatives have the best hope of reforming.

Policymakers need better ideas. With Republicans favored to win majorities in both houses of Congress this November, they may have a window of opportunity to set the academy on a healthier course. Any good strategy must be rooted in the reality that, even under the best scenario, conservatives will be an embattled minority in academia for at least another generation. Fortunately, scholarly debates are not settled by majority votes. Conservatives who doubt whether their movement can score intellectual victories in the face of numerical disadvantage need only recall the triumph of free-market economics, whose seeds were sown by Friedrich Hayek in the 1940s, at the height of socialism’s intellectual ascendancy, or the originalist theory of constitutional interpretation that now commands the respect of even liberal Supreme Court appointees.

The government’s role is to ensure that these arguments can take place without the minority faction being summarily fired for crimes against sensitivity. Republicans must use their electoral majority to create the best possible terrain for a long and asymmetric battle of ideas. No simple formula exists for defanging dogmatists, but several key actions can have far-reaching effects.

Fortify and extend free speech protections. Universities must be made to choose: either they live up to their noble self-image as fearlessly truth-seeking institutions, or they forfeit the generous federal research funding they enjoy on the basis of that image. The robust case law that delineates public universities’ extensive free speech obligations under the First Amendment provides a natural baseline for the behavior that Americans should expect from every university that receives lavish public research funding. Congress should create a new official category—Free Speech University—designating public and private institutions that scrupulously abide by these same First Amendment obligations. For private universities, which have free association rights, these commitments should be voluntary, but Congress should impose a low ceiling on the total amount of federal research funding a non-free-speech university can receive and direct public funding for such universities only to departments like mathematics and chemistry, where serious scholarship can most plausibly survive in an environment of censorship and ideological conformity. Courts should have the power to suspend a university’s free-speech designation (and freeze the attendant funding) in response to brazen infractions like barring controversial speakers or opening punitive investigations against professors for constitutionally protected speech, and reinstate free-speech-level funding only after the offending administrators are appropriately disciplined and victims made whole.

Deterring administrators from overtly punishing dissent, along with robust due-process protections to foreclose more plausibly deniable methods of retaliation, will give independent-minded students and faculty more confidence that their universities cannot launch frivolous attacks on them merely for exercising their rights. Tying research funding to the administration’s good behavior will also tilt institutions’ internal power balance toward the silent majority of liberal faculty who still prize free speech and open inquiry, motivating them to take more responsibility for the intellectual climate at their institutions.

End race-based affirmative action. The Supreme Court is widely expected to limit racial preferences in college admissions when it decides two upcoming lawsuits brought by Asian students against Harvard and the University of North Carolina. Even if the Court does not ban the practice outright, a legislative or executive ban on racial discrimination in admissions and hiring would be broadly popular with Americans of all races and would reaffirm a core principle of civil rights.

Such a ban, if enforced, will also have the beneficial side effect of elevating the prestige of more politically moderate universities relative to their more rigidly left-wing counterparts. Schools like Harvard lean heavily on the crutch of overt racial discrimination to reconcile their commitment to racial balancing with their commitment to academic exclusivity and prestige. In the future, these schools will be welcome to pursue egalitarian aims by relaxing admission standards for socioeconomically disadvantaged students, but they will need to apply equally egalitarian standards to all applicants regardless of their skin color. Schools that attempt to mask illicit racial preferences by reducing the role of academic measures in their selection process—for example, by dropping standardized tests—will have difficulty identifying the best students in their applicant pools. Faculty and alumni who are invested in maintaining more rigorous academic standards will need to stand up and make their case, even if activists call them unpleasant names. Over time, the schools where these meritocrats prevail will attract more top students and faculty than schools where identitarians’ grip is tightest.

Make red-state public universities paragons of independent and rigorous scholarship. Not all universities can be saved from themselves. Once enough faculty are committed to prioritizing ideology over scholarship, an institution’s intellectual decay may become inevitable. The policies outlined above will amplify the competitive advantages of well-run institutions and accelerate the relative decline of the least salvageable ones, but they will be most effective if the first category includes at least a few top-tier schools. To this end, red-state legislators should ensure that their own states’ public universities embody the highest values of excellence, free inquiry, and meritocracy. By trimming bureaucratic fat, cutting tuition, eliminating diversity statements, nourishing free expression, and instituting transparent and meritocratic admissions policies, top-tier public schools like Georgia Tech and the University of Texas can reap the windfall of students and professors who seek an alternative to the toxic environment at progressive institutions.

Above all, Republican politicians in these states should resist the temptation to indulge in their own unprincipled attacks on academic freedom, even against radicals with repugnant ideas. Let progressives endure the embarrassment of association with the diatribes of their fellow travelers who earnestly advance every progressive platitude. The best revenge is to recall Voltaire’s famous prayer—“O Lord, make my enemies ridiculous”—and govern with confidence from the moral high ground.

Progressive ideologues’ hostility to reasoned argument betrays an insecurity about whether their extreme ideas can withstand open debate. Republicans should soon have the opportunity to confirm their opponents’ worst fears by stripping them of their power to silence and punish critics. Defending free inquiry against leftist busybodies can expose progressive closed-mindedness, earn the gratitude of free thinkers inside and outside the academy and, most importantly, conserve the greatest possible remnant of American intellectual culture through the coming generational storm.

Photo: RoschetzkyIstockPhoto/iStock

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