In 1970, after campus antiwar protesters ransacked and set fire to the administration building at the University of South Carolina, the school’s president appointed a task force to find a solution to student unrest. Many meetings, workshops, and encounter groups later, the university came up with an answer, and it was nothing so simple as expelling vandals and arsonists. No, the key was to teach students to “love their university,” starting with a new semester-long orientation course for freshmen.
An industry was born. John Gardner, an assistant professor of history and a social activist, made the course into an institution. He called it the Freshman-Year Experience, until he decided that the name was sexist and renamed it the First-Year Experience, now known commonly as FYE. He and his disciples promoted it so diligently that it has spread to 90 percent of American colleges and is rapidly growing overseas.
The programs often start with a “common read,” a book sent to everyone the summer before school starts, and proceed with lectures, discussion groups, seminars, courses, exercises, field trips, art projects, local activism, and whatever else the schools will fund. The programs are typically run not by professors but by “cocurricular professionals”—administrators lacking scholarly credentials who operate outside the regular curriculum. They don’t need to master an academic discipline or impart an established body of knowledge. They create a cocurriculum of what they want students to learn, which usually involves a great deal of talk about “diversity” and “inclusion.”
These professionals seem to lean even further left than the faculty, and in some ways they have more influence. They get to the students early, before classes begin, and they’re inescapable. By choosing your courses carefully, you can avoid the progressive sermonizing that passes for scholarship in some departments, but everyone has to undergo the orientation and first-year programs. You may have come to study computer science or literature or biochemistry, but first you’ll have to learn about social justice, environmental sustainability, gender pronouns, and microaggressions. You may have been planning to succeed by hard work, but first you’ll have to acknowledge your privilege or discover your victimhood. If you arrived at college hoping to broaden your intellectual horizons, you’ll quickly be instructed which ideas are off-limits.
Many professors are unhappy with the results of this training: the students primed to complain about imagined slights, the snowflakes who report their teachers for discussing “unsafe” topics, the mobs who shout down visiting speakers with dissenting views. Many scholars resent diverting so much time and money to a non-scholarly cocurriculum, but they’re losing the budget battles. For university presidents and treasurers, the selling point of these programs is the promise to keep freshmen happy enough to stay in school, because each dropout hurts not only the college’s budget but also its U.S. News & World Report ranking, which is based partly on the first-year retention rate.
Given the increasing number of freshmen ill-prepared for college, there’s no doubt that they could benefit from learning basic skills—but then, why do they so often get a mix of trivia and social activism instead of something useful academically? Why are these programs expanding while the tenured professoriat stagnates? To find out, I went to the industry’s trade show, the First-Year Experience annual conference, which attracted more than 1,700 academics from 20 nations to San Antonio earlier this year. I don’t recommend the experience—the jargon was maddening—but I made some sense of it by keeping in mind a principle known as the Iron Law of Bureaucracy.
The Iron Law was promulgated by Jerry Pournelle, an American essayist and novelist, who maintained that any organization has two kinds of people: those dedicated to furthering the organization’s original mission—like academics who want their university to turn out well-educated students; and those dedicated to furthering the bureaucracy by expanding their budgets and staffs. Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy holds that the second group will inevitably take over the place.
Which authors should every college freshman read? If this choice were left up to serious scholars, you can imagine the candidates they’d suggest: Homer, Plato, Dante, Shakespeare, Austen, de Tocqueville, Dostoyevsky, Du Bois, Faulkner. And that’s why professors usually don’t get to make the choice. They don’t understand these authors’ limitation. Sure, Plato and the rest did fine work in their day, but they all suffer from a fatal flaw: none is available to speak on campus.
You need a live author with a rousing speech to appeal to today’s freshmen, or at least to the administrators of first-year programs who choose each year’s book. That’s why, when they convened in San Antonio, they were feted at lunches and dinners by publishers eagerly promoting not timeless wisdom but the fall catalog. Getting chosen as the common read means big sales—5,000 copies at a big school—and the publishers trot out their authors to perform 15-minute auditions during the meals.
The ideal is a dynamic speaker with an inspirational story, provided it’s the proper sort of inspiration. Julie Lythcott-Haims, an author with a singularly savvy grasp of this market, was a hit at this year’s conference. As an undergraduate at Stanford, she had been required to take a course called Western Culture, but she and other students succeeded in eliminating the requirement by joining with Jesse Jackson in protests where they chanted, “Hey-hey, ho-ho. Western Culture’s got to go!” She went on to Harvard Law School and a brief career in corporate law before returning to Stanford as the dean of freshmen, which enabled her to put her cultural philosophy into practice.
When a professor on Stanford’s common-read committee recommended Possession, the bestselling novel by A. S. Byatt that won the 1990 Booker Prize and was made into a film, she acknowledged its literary merits but rejected it as too complex for Stanford’s freshmen (never mind that Stanford is one of the world’s most selective colleges). As dean of freshmen, she insisted on choosing books that fostered “a sense of community and belonging.” And now, after leaving academia, she has written just such a book herself, Real American, which she calls “a post-poetry memoir.”
“Mine is a memoir of being black and biracial in a country where black lives weren’t meant to matter,” Lythcott-Haims tells the audience in the packed ballroom. But before going into details, she makes a confession. “I am privileged,” she says. “I have privilege that I’m aware of and more privilege that I don’t even know.” The daughter of a white British immigrant and black American doctor who was once assistant surgeon general of the United States, she grew up in good neighborhoods and thrived at school academically and socially. In high school, she was a cheerleader and president of her class as well as the student council. But despite those successes, despite the degrees from Stanford and Harvard, despite the well-paying jobs and a bestseller she published on how to raise children, her memoir is a saga of oppression.
She has discovered the awful cloud behind all those silver linings by dredging up an incident from her high school days. The great pivot point of the book, the moment that would haunt her for decades, was her discovery of graffiti on a birthday card that a friend had taped to her locker. Someone, presumably a classmate jealous of her achievements, had defaced the card by scrawling the N-word, misspelled as “Niger.”
“This is the story of how despite all that privilege and opportunity, America made me loathe my black self, my brown skin,” she tells the audience. It’s not clear why one semiliterate teenage bigot should represent America, but Lythcott-Haims quickly segues into denunciations of the police, Donald Trump, Sarah Palin, and whites in general, to repeated applause from the (mostly white) audience. She explains why she has left a wide margin on each page of the book (“As a black woman I do not have access to the full page”) and reads a passage: “You think your whiteness makes you better than the rest of us. You make us your scapegoat. Your excuse for your violent rage.”
In her memoir, the well-meaning liberal whites are continually guilty of unintentional slights. Don’t try suggesting that she overlook them, because she classifies “Get over it” as yet another microaggression. The nonliberals in the book are simply evil. When Peter Thiel and other classmates of hers launched the conservative Stanford Review, she is “scared to death of these unhooded whites printing their disdain for our existence.” When she sees Clint Eastwood speak to an empty chair representing President Obama at the Republican National Convention, she believes that it “symbolizes the chair underneath the Black man about to be hanged from a Southern tree.”
Yes, it’s all part of her mission to foster “a sense of community and belonging,” as long as the community doesn’t include any Republicans. The writing is dreadful, but you have to give her credit for knowing her audience. The first-year administrators give her a standing ovation, and afterward they wonder to one another what she charges for a campus speech. The intercollegiate competition for black authors has driven up their speaking fees—and maybe even induced that nasty feeling of privilege.
“Racism has been the most popular theme for common-read books for the last three years.”
Last year, when the University of Oregon assigned Between the World and Me for the common read, it paid Ta-Nehisi Coates $41,500 for a campus appearance (while also meeting his contractual requirement to be supplied with Nature Valley Oats ’n Dark Chocolate granola bars), and afterward students complained that the university hadn’t gotten its money’s worth. Coates was scheduled for a speech and question-and-answer session lasting 75 minutes, but he left the stage after 40 minutes without taking questions. Somehow, it didn’t feel very inclusive.
For colleges that can’t afford Coates, the first-year conference is a chance to scout for cheaper alternatives. Besides Lythcott-Haims, there’s another autobiographer, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, who gets a warm reception for her book When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir. The administrators pack another ballroom to hear about All American Boys, a novel written to protest the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. The protagonist is an amalgam of the two martyrs, with a few details changed. Instead of pounding a white man’s head against the sidewalk, as Martin did, or shoplifting and then assaulting a police officer, as Brown did, this young African-American man is a peaceful, law-abiding customer at a convenience store, wrongly accused of shoplifting by a white police officer who slams his head against the pavement. The novel’s coauthors, one white and one black, extol their collaboration as a model for how the races can learn to communicate with each other—or at least communicate in one direction, as the white author, Brendan Kiely, tells the audience. “The most important thing I can do as a white man is listen, listen, listen to the truth coming from communities of color across the country,” he says. “I especially want to reckon with whiteness. Because as a white person I can’t talk about racism or dismantle the system that supports it or eradicate racism itself without first grappling with whiteness. It is whiteness that perpetuates racism.”
The crowd applauds and listens raptly as Kiely sketches the possibilities for using this book on campus. “We should be talking about race consciousness in all our disciplines of higher learning,” he tells the administrators. “You can talk about it in your math classes. You can talk about in your education classes. You can talk about it in your humanities classes.”
He doesn’t explain the connection between calculus and Trayvon Martin, but then, he doesn’t have to. This audience knows that racism is the all-consuming topic in higher education. It has been the most popular theme for common-read books for the last three years, according to the National Association of Scholars (NAS), which has tracked these programs across the country for the past decade. The latest report by the NAS, a group dedicated to reviving traditional liberal arts education (and a haven for nonprogressives in academia), analyzes some 350 schools’ common-read books and finds a “continuing obsession with race” as well as an “infantilization of students.” The three most frequently assigned books are by Coates, Bryan Stevenson, and Wes Moore, all dealing with America’s mistreatment of African-Americans. The rest of the top ten books almost all deal either with African-Americans or another social-justice identity group, whether it’s women, immigrants, Muslims, Latin-Americans, or Asian-Americans.
“Multiculturalism” is a buzzword in the mission statements of the common-read programs, but their version of it doesn’t include past cultures or foreign authors. Virtually all colleges choose books by current American writers, mostly from the past decade. In the NAS national survey, only 6 percent of the common reads were published before 2000, and fewer than 2 percent before 1900. And the contemporary authors are rarely literary heavyweights. There are young-adult novels and graphic novels, but nothing from Martin Amis, Annie Dillard, Alice Munro, V. S. Naipaul, or Tom Wolfe.
Seventy percent of the common reads are nonfiction, much of it mediocre. If the theme is gender, students will read Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, or Janet Mock’s transgender memoir, Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More, instead of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. As the NAS report sums up, the common-read genre is not introducing students to great literature, but then, that’s not the point.
To an ambitious first-year administrator, assigning the common read to freshmen is just the beginning. The book’s message and other progressive themes must be amplified in “cocurricular programming” that fosters “peer-to-peer dialogue” and “civic engagement” through a “social-justice-based learning experience,” to quote from the PowerPoint presentations in San Antonio. During orientation, the students reflect on the book in discussion groups, essay contests, and exercises, such as filling out a “white privilege checklist.” The lessons continue during the academic year in workshops and lectures, and ideally in a separate first-year course, like the one at Texas Tech Honors College, enthusiastically described by its team of leaders at the conference.
All Texas Tech freshmen are required to get a passing grade in a weekly “Learning Community Group” devoted to topics like “Gender and Sexuality,” “Sexual Assault Scenario,” “Microaggression and Privilege,” and, of course, “Race and Ethnicity.” After doing exercises like the “race card project,” in which students write down six words on what race means to them, they demonstrate their mastery of the subject by filling out questionnaires asking if they agree or disagree with statements like, “I understand how ethnic minority groups in the United States still experience underprivilege.” (Can you guess the right answer?) The students take the implicit attitude test (IAT), which supposedly detects their unconscious racial bias by measuring their reaction time to words and pictures.
The reliability and applicability of this test have been so thoroughly debunked in the social-science literature that even its developers now concede that it doesn’t predict behavior. Its limitations seemed obvious even to the Texas Tech first-year administrators, who ruefully told of how an otherwise enlightened student—“very much pro-feminist, left-wing, pro-race stuff”—was devastated to discover that she scored high for unconscious bias against blacks. The administrators explained how they reassured this student: “It’s like, it’s okay, Farrah, that’s not what that means. You’re not a racist.” They didn’t offer any coherent explanation of why the test should be inflicted on freshmen in the first place.
Once students have studied social justice in the classroom, the lessons are expanded in field trips and “service projects.” If the common-read theme is unjust incarceration, freshmen can visit a prison and collaborate on art projects, using pieces of inmates’ uniforms. For sustainability themes, they can set up composting piles at their dorms and take a field trip to the farmers’ market to buy local food. If the common read deals with the harsh treatment of immigrants—like Enrique’s Journey, by Sonia Nazario, a popular choice—they can participate in a hand-holding session with immigrants and create T-shirts expressing support for the Dreamers bill in Congress.
How does this activism help freshmen succeed in their college courses? The conference offered some wonderful rationales. In a session titled “Understanding and Supporting Student Activists in the First Year,” Carli Rosati and Quan Tran of Ohio University presented a study using “interviews, photo elicitation and heat maps” to analyze activists’ “feelings of belongingness.” They triumphantly reported that “involvement in student college activism encourages personal, professional, and identity formation,” which led them to a much-welcomed conclusion: “Higher education professionals need to view themselves as allies to the cause of activism.”
Whatever it’s doing for the students, the activism is definitely good for the administrators. Just as in 1970, when the riot at the University of South Carolina inspired the initial program, college presidents’ first response to student protests is to throw money at first-year programs and their colleagues in the cocurricular bureaucracy—the offices with names like Student Life, Student Success, Diversity and Inclusion, and Multicultural Affairs. That’s one reason that the number of campus administrators has grown ten times faster than the number of tenured professors in recent decades, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The professors and students can’t escape the Iron Law of Bureaucracy. While scholars worry about the lack of full-time jobs and students complain that half their courses are now taught by part-timers, the bureaucrats go on expanding programs to create more activists—and thus more protests—to expand their staffs.
This cycle was nicely illustrated with a chart, “Campus Activism Timeline,” presented by the administrators of the first-year program at the University of Kansas. The timeline began in late 2015 with a series of protests by students as well as by bureaucrats from the university’s Office of Institutional Opportunity and the Office of Multicultural Affairs. The protesters took over the stage at a town-hall meeting, barged into classrooms, and occupied the chancellor’s office, with predictable results. The university created yet another bureaucracy, the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Advisory Group, which issued a report concluding that combating the university’s deep-seated racism required “additional resources.”
“The student activists really opened the door,” said Howard Graham, one of the Kansas administrators. “We’ve seen tremendous growth in our program.” The school sponsored faculty and staff workshops in “Difficult Dialogues” and “Deconstructing Privilege.” It paid for dozens of speakers to come to campus for talks about race. The first-year program worked with the university art museum to put on an exhibit based on the next year’s common read, Coates’s Between the World and Me, and persuaded professors to incorporate the book into almost 200 class sections. The next year saw another art exhibit celebrating the common read, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, a book of poetry about microaggressions against blacks, which was incorporated into even more classes. “Facilitators” from the first-year program were sent out to dorms to lead discussions about the book, with optional sessions exclusively for students of color.
The Kansas administrators were clearly proud of their efforts, but they confessed to being disappointed by one result. In surveys taken after the group discussions about the Coates and Rankine books, more than 80 percent of the facilitators agreed that the “discussion taught things that students could use in campus life,” but a majority of the students disagreed. They didn’t think that they had learned anything useful. Some even volunteered comments that “race was a subject they were simply tired of talking about,” which just proved to the administrators how much work remained to be done.
“We know that students are not great at identifying their own learning moments,” explained Sarah Crawford-Parker, another of the Kansas administrators. They’d seen similar student ignorance in a survey a few years earlier, when the common read was Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. This unorthodox choice was rated a failure by the facilitators, who objected to Hemingway’s “misogyny” and “hypermasculinity.” Yet somehow, the students considered it a success. Most reported learning something useful from a book by a dead white male. How was this possible?
If there’d been an award for the least popular speaker at the San Antonio conference, David Randall would have won hands-down. He is the author of the National Association of Scholars’ report on common-read programs, which concludes with recommendations anathema to first-year administrators. It urges universities to let professors, not cocurricular bureaucrats, choose the common read. Promote intellectual variety instead of progressive dogma. Emphasize fiction, and choose books based on literary quality instead of their “accessibility” or “relevance”—or the availability of their authors to speak on campus.
“College students are capable of reading classical works,” Randall told his audience, citing the few examples that have been used in common-read programs: The Iliad at Columbia University, The Winter’s Tale at Utah State, Pericles’ Funeral Oration at Florida College. “If it works for them, it can work for you,” he urged, and added recommendations for works by Dickens, Twain, and Tolstoy. But he didn’t get anywhere. Just a few dozen people showed up to hear him, and the only comments they had for him were hostile, like the lecture he got from a British administrator. “It’s all books by white men,” she said. “We want students to feel empowered, to gain a sense that they can do this, too. You’re not offering a diverse experience.”
Randall insisted that he was offering a diverse experience. “To talk about diversity among modern audiences is as nothing compared to getting into the head of an ancient Greek warrior,” he argued, and pointed out how little ideological diversity there is in the common-read programs. “There are some conservative books, but they are remarkably few. You have the autobiography of Sonia Sotomayor. You never have the autobiography of Clarence Thomas.”
No one disputed the ideological bias in the book choices, but no one seemed bothered, either. Progressivism’s virtue seemed beyond debate, as I learned when I tried discussing it with people at the conference. I asked if they’d ever considered addressing racial issues by choosing nonprogressive black authors like Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, or Jason Riley. I was met with occasional hostility—“Why would we promote the conservative policies that put minorities at a disadvantage?”—but the main response was puzzlement. They looked at me blankly: Who?
The ideological monoculture reminded me of another organizational principle, this one promulgated by conservative journalist John O’Sullivan: all organizations that are not actually right-wing will, over time, become left-wing. O’Sullivan’s Law is essentially a corollary of the Iron Law of Bureaucracy, because left-wing principles so wonderfully promote the growth of bureaucracy. “The problem with socialism is that it takes too many evenings,” Oscar Wilde famously complained, but to leftists, those long evening meetings are a feature, not a bug. They thrive at meetings. They love forming committees to examine problems, real or imagined. With their zeal to reform and regulate, with their passion for empathizing, they have the stamina to outtalk and outlast everyone else—and then be put in charge of a program to solve the problem. If their solution creates even bigger problems, well, they’ll just have to hold more meetings.
That’s the story of the first-year experience industry and the rest of the cocurricular bureaucracy. Academia has been taken over by leftists promising to solve problems that they created. The activists of the 1960s and 1970s demanded ethnic and racial fiefdoms on campus with the promise of promoting harmony, but instead they’ve accentuated divisions, promoting poisonous tribalism and intolerance. Affirmative-action programs were supposed to help minority students flourish, but instead they’re setting up the students for failure by admitting them to schools where they’re competing against better-prepared peers. As demonstrated repeatedly in studies (and in Mismatch, by Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor, Jr.), if minority students go to college planning a career in science or engineering, the ones admitted through racial-preference policies are disproportionately likely to drop out of those majors because of their difficulty with the competitive introductory courses in science and mathematics.
Similarly, the progressive vision of higher education for everyone has left campuses with many students of all races who aren’t ready for college, a problem that first-year administrators readily acknowledge. It’s their first line of defense when explaining their choice of lowbrow books for the common read. Some of their incoming freshmen, they point out, have never read an entire book in their lives. What’s the point of assigning them a literary classic that they’d never finish?
But then, what’s the point of collecting tuition from students unprepared for college-level work? The answer, as usual, is the Iron Law of Bureaucracy. Students may not be learning anything useful, and they’re wasting time on discussion groups and field trips and activism instead of studying, but their tuition is paying for bigger staffs and programs to keep them on campus. The more they struggle, the bigger the cocurricular budget.
Faculty and students can dream of diverting that money to more full-time professors teaching smaller classes, but the bureaucrats have other ideas. John Gardner, the founder of the first-year industry, urged his colleagues in San Antonio to attend a separate conference of his, the Gateway Course Experience, dedicated to helping more minority students pass introductory science and math courses. This effort, he explained, would require new programs to combat the “institutional racism” responsible for their low grades. So maybe freshmen calculus professors will end up using that Trayvon Martin novel after all.
It was also obvious to Gardner and his colleagues that students’ need for help doesn’t end after the first-year experience. Fortunately, there’s a whole new program to rescue them: the Sophomore-Year Experience. So far, it exists at just a few dozen colleges, but the rest are sure to catch up. It’s the Iron Law.
Top Photo: You may have come to study computer science, but first you’ll have to learn about social justice and microaggressions. (HERO IMAGES/GETTY IMAGES)