Few are unfamiliar with the troubles of modern higher education. Tenured radicals like Ward Churchill have given professors a bad name, while pseudo-academic programs like “peace studies” have trampled the line between pedagogy and political activism. But even against this background of eroding standards, the University of California at Santa Cruz stands in a failing class of its own. Though the school handsomely fulfills its academic expectations in the hard sciences—its physics program ranks among the best in the country, while its Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics is a world-class institution—something other than the life of the mind is nourished inside its liberal-arts classrooms. There, UC Santa Cruz is beyond doubt the most radical university in the United States, its curricula anything but academic.
Take Santa Cruz’s innocuous-sounding Department of Community Studies. On its website, the department explains that its courses “are based on the scholarly research of department faculty as it relates to social justice”—“social justice,” of course, being an all-purpose term for left-wing political activism. Consistent with this unscholarly mission, the department’s courses seem premised on the notion that education is politics by other means. The course catalog describes one class, “The Theory and Practice of Resistance and Social Movements,” as follows: “The goal of this seminar is to learn how to organize a revolution. We will learn what communities past and present have done and are doing to resist, challenge, and overcome systems of power including (but not limited to) global capitalism, state oppression, and racism.” Communist revolution may have failed brutally in practice, but inside Santa Cruz lecture halls it thrives in theory.
Revolutionary agendas also form the ideological core of the school’s Department of Feminist Studies, which is at least committed to truth in advertising. Under the direction of veteran communist activist Bettina Aptheker, a Santa Cruz professor of feminist studies and history who considers her teaching a “form of political activism,” the department transparently designs its courses to promote feminist politics. Thus Aptheker’s course “Introduction to Feminisms” is taught “from feminist perspectives,” with the aim of making feminist theory more “accessible” to students. In fact, Aptheker says, she has redesigned the course to make it “more overtly political.” Her efforts to convert her classroom into a feminist training camp have incurred no disciplinary action. On the contrary, Aptheker, who has taught at the school since 1980, is one of Santa Cruz’s most celebrated professors. And it isn’t just Santa Cruz students who suffer from this ideological onslaught: one of the oldest and most influential programs of its kind, the Department of Feminist Studies continues to inspire imitators in universities across the country.
For a particularly egregious example of academic malpractice, look at UCSC’s notorious History of Consciousness Program. Home of former Black Panther militant Angela Davis, the program is a textbook example of an academic curriculum shackled to political and ideological agendas. Davis’s course “Radical Critiques of Penalty,” effectively a for-credit political rally, centers on her conviction that the U.S. prison system exists mainly to target “racially oppressed communities.” A principal text is Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, by the French radical Michel Foucault. A founding text of sorts for the antiprison movement, the book deplores the very “principle of penal detention” and calls for the abolition of prisons.
Even departments less obviously devoted to radical theory fall into its clutches. The Politics Department, for example, states as its animating purpose the creation of an “activist citizenry.” That may sound unobjectionable. But examine the department’s curriculum, which includes courses assailing the U.S.-led war on terror and advocating radical environmentalist politics, and you’ll discover that its aim is nothing so innocent as fostering civic responsibility.
One would never guess it from this assemblage of radical programs, but California’s public university system, of which UCSC is a part, stipulates that its campuses must observe clearly defined academic standards and that political indoctrination is an abuse of students and the classroom environment. For instance, the Standing Orders of the Regents, a contract between the university’s faculty and its administration, make clear that indoctrination and partisan interest have no place in the university curriculum, and that the regents are obligated to maintain its standards.
Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that when it comes to safeguarding standards at Santa Cruz, the regents are largely missing in action. That is not only a disservice to California taxpayers, who must subsidize the political radicalism of the faculty. It is also a betrayal of Santa Cruz students, who enroll to get an education and receive political indoctrination instead.