Many people complain about American universities, but almost nobody does anything about them. Anyone interested in the subject knows that American colleges and universities increasingly prefer promoting leftist social change to seeking objective truth in their research and teaching. Professors, students, outside speakers, and any others with opinions that contradict a consensus that moves ever-leftward are ostracized for their supposed racism, sexism, heteronormativity, binarism (believing that people are either male or female), ableism (regarding disabled people as disabled), species- ism (valuing people more than animals), and other prejudices thought so noxious that many students, professors, and administrators refuse them even a hearing. Rigor and objectivity in teaching and research have steadily given way to indoctrination.
Writing from my own perspective as a professor of ancient and medieval history and literature—fields to which leftist ideology might once have been thought irrelevant—I recently published a book, The University We Need, describing the long slide of American universities into intolerance and academic mediocrity. My book’s approach to the problem is mainly tactical, analyzing the situation and making specific proposals to improve it. This essay will deal more with strategy than with tactics, showing how my proposals could offer some hope of reversing the decline of quality and tolerance in American higher education.
Some proposed solutions have already been tried, without success. The most popular and aggressively pursued measure has been for state and federal governments to cut funding for higher education drastically. So far, the principal results of those cuts have been further declines in educational quality, big increases in tuition, and correspondingly large increases in student debt. Another tactic, attacking professors’ tenure—primarily by hiring temporary and low-paid adjunct professors in place of tenured or tenure-track professors—has resulted in more decline in the quality of teaching and the dismissal of adjuncts who showed signs of lacking commitment to leftist policies. Neither cutting funding nor hiring adjuncts has even slightly slowed the spread of intolerant campus leftism.
Sometimes donors and state legislatures have tried to attach conditions to their money that would encourage or force universities to appoint academically rigorous professors and create better academic programs. Occasionally, the universities refuse the money along with the conditions, as when Yale declined $20 million offered by the philanthropist Lee Bass for a program in Western civilization. More often, the universities accept the money but subvert the conditions—for example, by appointing a Classics professor who condemns the Classics as elitist or creating a conservative-studies program that condemns conservatives as bigots. When professors and students denounced efforts by the Charles Koch Foundation to promote conservative and libertarian ideas at George Mason University, including naming its law school for Antonin Scalia, the university’s administrators promised not to be influenced by donors in hiring and teaching. Even when donors do establish substantive professorships and programs, these can hardly be more than small ghettos of dissenters from leftist academic dominance.
Several members of Congress have considered a federal law to force the wealthiest universities to spend larger percentages of their huge endowments, which they make a fetish of increasing and hoarding as emblems of their prestige. Yet since no one has proposed dictating how the universities should spend the money that they would be forced to withdraw from their endowments, such a law would probably just lead them to boost their already-large spending on fund-raising and administrative staff, without bringing any reductions in tuition or improvements in education. Largely as a punitive gesture, the 2017 tax-reform act included an excise tax of 1.4 percent on investment income from university endowments that average more than $500,000 per student. Though this tax annoyed administrators of the best-endowed universities, the small amount of money involved made no real difference to them. In my book, I propose legislation that could have a major impact on higher education, such as capping academic administrative spending and creating a board to investigate fraudulent or plagiarized academic research. Unfortunately, passing such laws has ceased to be feasible for at least two years, now that Democrats control the House.
An optimist might think that as things get steadily worse in universities, more professors will speak up; but so far, professors have brought about little, if any, change for the better. In 2015, some professors, alarmed by the growing dominance and intolerance of leftism on campuses, founded an informal association, Heterodox Academy, which now has more than 2,500 members (including me). But this number, which includes graduate students and members from outside the U.S., is tiny compared with the 1.5 million or so professors in the United States. Significantly, only 15 members of Heterodox Academy are tenured professors in the humanities and social sciences at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, and Berkeley—the universities that really count in American higher education.
Worse yet, every year more of the dwindling number of professors who are conservatives, moderates, or liberal critics of leftism retire or die, and practically no new conservative, moderate, or critical professors replace them. Led by state universities in California, colleges and universities increasingly demand of applicants for professorships—and of assistant professors being considered for tenure—a commitment to “diversity” or “social justice,” which (as everyone in the profession knows) means commitment to excluding opinions that differ from leftist orthodoxy. Few applicants for academic jobs are conservatives or moderates, anyway, since few conservatives or moderates go to graduate school or get doctorates. Most dissenters from leftism learn as undergraduates that they are unwelcome in universities and would have almost no hope of getting academic jobs or tenure. As long as practically all new professors are committed to leftism, critics will remain heavily outnumbered in universities.
America’s roughly 4,600 colleges and universities do include a handful not dominated by leftists, like Liberty and Ave Maria Universities and Hillsdale and Wheaton Colleges. Most are small and emphasize teaching, rather than research. None grants degrees that carry anything like the prestige of those from elite universities, but some offer good educations to a few thousand students (out of some 20 million now in higher education). As leftists have come to dominate graduate teaching and academic publications, the belief has taken hold that the only intellectually respectable positions are leftist. While some academic books and articles, especially those in the natural sciences, are not explicitly ideological, very few oppose this orthodoxy. The elite universities with real influence have established leftist norms that no prudent professor or administrator can ignore.
Every year more professors who are conservatives, moderates, or liberal critics of leftism retire.
Nonetheless, in some important ways, leftist academic dominance is vulnerable. It has no true leaders, and—despite much talk of “theory”—no coherent ideology. One of its basic tenets today is “postmodernism,” the belief that nothing is objectively true and that alleged facts are merely constructs used to oppose or support social justice. Most professors are careerists who joined the leftist herd reflexively because they wanted to get hired in a bad academic job market. Most professors also consider themselves underpaid and undervalued, especially by administrators who determine faculty salaries and overall spending and policies. Many campus leftists are lazy thinkers who rely not on arguments but on assertion, indignation, and intimidation. They know what they oppose—capitalism, religion, Republicans, moderate Democrats, and the rest of traditional American society—but not really what they favor, since they can find no satisfactory models in Russia, China, Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea, or anywhere else. The intolerance of today’s campus leftists is a sign of their fear that they cannot prevail in a free exchange of ideas without stigmatizing their critics as oppressors and critical arguments as oppressive. Since they have mostly succeeded in eliminating opposition on today’s campuses, any effective challenge will need to come from outside.
The most promising and viable proposal is to found a new private university designed to rival America’s most influential and prestigious institutions. This project, which, if carefully planned, could largely pay for itself, would be feasible if donors who care about academic excellence and free speech in education would give the new school as much money as they currently give other universities that misuse their contributions. (In 2017, donors gave American colleges and universities a record $43.6 billion, more than Harvard’s endowment of $36 billion.) The new university could also attract donors who now give little or nothing to education because they realize that their money will probably be misspent. Only founding a new university can solve the problem that faces all reformers of American higher education: getting administrators and professors to do things that they are unwilling to do. A new university could select its administrators and faculty to ensure that they were committed to the goals that the university was founded to pursue.
While avoiding the intolerance and leftism of many leading universities, the new school should adopt some features that have made them influential. Like Oxford and Cambridge in Britain, the most important American universities are located in university towns, within easy reach of a politically and culturally important metropolis but not so near that they are overshadowed by it. Oxford and Cambridge are near London but not in it; in the U.S., Harvard is near Boston, Stanford and Berkeley are near San Francisco, and Princeton and Yale are within reach of New York City. The most culturally and politically important American metropolitan area that lacks a leading university is Washington, DC. Its outer suburbs would be the ideal location for a new leading university, which could influence the federal government, attract the attention of the national media, and exploit the capital’s many cultural resources, including the Library of Congress and government archives. The school could be part of a newly planned university town, which would be such an attractive real-estate venture that it could cover much of the university’s costs. (The Washington metro area already includes the successful planned towns of Reston, Virginia; and Columbia, Maryland.)
The modest size of the university and town of Princeton shows that a new university could be influential without being big. The town of Princeton has a population of about 29,000, and the university has about 1,000 professors, 5,000 undergraduates, and 2,500 graduate students. (Like most other universities, Princeton has far too many academic administrators—roughly 1,000—who consume some 30 percent of its budget.) A school of this size is big enough to offer a full range of departments, professors, and courses but small enough to foster a sense of intellectual community. A new university of similar size could limit its hiring to truly excellent professors and restrict its admissions to truly excellent students who want to study a rigorous curriculum. At first, the university would not need a law or medical school (Princeton has neither) or a large endowment.
Writing in the Winter 2019 issue of National Affairs, Frederick M. Hess and Brendan Bell of the American Enterprise Institute advocate founding an elite conservative university that strikingly resembles what I proposed in my book, though we arrived at our ideas independently. They propose a university with about 4,200 undergraduates, 2,400 graduate students, and 500 professors, at an estimated cost of some $3.4 billion. We basically agree on the school’s size, though I favor a somewhat larger faculty to assure the university’s excellence and elite status. The cost they estimate, which could be offset by profits from selling real estate in a new university town, would be well within the means of many wealthy donors. Hess and Bell leave the university’s location open, suggesting, however, that it be “on the periphery of a metropolitan center.” Metropolitan Washington is the location most likely to attract potential students, faculty, and residents and to give a new university a central place in American political and cultural life.
Do the 1.5 million professors in America include 1,000 who are distinguished, opposed to leftism, and ready to join a new elite university? Around a tenth of American professors still identify as conservatives in confidential polling, even if most have learned not to voice their opinions publicly. Most would be delighted to join a new university that valued excellence and rejected leftism, if it offered them tenure and salaries set on a meritocratic pay scale, which few schools now use, and on or above the pay scale of elite institutions, as Hess, Bell, and I agree that it should. Tenure would be essential, because most accomplished professors already have it and consider it necessary to their independence and prestige. Formally dedicating the new university to traditional Christianity and Judaism would also be vital because many professors and students are now being accused of bigotry for defending traditional Christian and Jewish beliefs, though the university should also welcome professors and students of other faiths (or none).
The new university’s administrators, including the chairmen of each academic department, should be distinguished professors already known for their opposition to assaults on academic freedom. The best way to choose the rest of the faculty would be through general advertisements for all ranks and fields. Hiring should include scholars from outside the U.S. and thinkers from beyond academia. Few leftists would apply, and since most leftist academics openly reject the idea of academic merit as elitist and the idea of objective truth as oppressive, they would seldom, if ever, deserve to be hired on their merits. A new university that hired on merit should be able to recruit faculty significantly better than those of older elite universities, most of which now give overwhelming preference to leftists.
For donors, financing a major new university is the most promising way to change American higher education—and American history. Donors have already learned how little influence on universities they can gain by paying for outside speakers, who are often shouted down, and are defended (if at all) only with the argument that they should be heard in order to learn how to refute them. Nor has it proved effective to pay to attach the names of donors (or those whom they admire) to buildings, professorships, or programs at universities that take the money while insisting that the donors’ views cannot affect hiring or teaching. Giving grants to excellent traditional professors isolated in dozens of colleges and universities can have only a limited impact, since those scholars will either need to mute their opinions in a hostile environment or see their work dismissed because their schools have a mediocre reputation. Many Americans today have more money than Senator Leland Stanford had in 1891 when he founded Stanford University (and the town of Palo Alto). What has been missing for over a century is not the means but the vision and will to found a new leading university committed to excellence and traditional education.
Such an institution would have a powerful effect not only on American colleges and universities but also on the country as a whole—an effect at least as great as that of the founding of National Review on journals of opinion, the founding of the Heritage Foundation on think tanks, the founding of Fox News on media, or the founding of the Federalist Society on the judiciary. Universities created by donors named Harvard, Yale, and Stanford exert vast influence over American culture. Higher education shapes the beliefs of the majority of young Americans, at an age when most are poorly informed but beginning to take some interest in culture and politics. Professors also make up the majority of the country’s researchers, thinkers, writers, and opinion leaders; by teaching that America is neither great nor good, they are steadily degrading our culture. Changing the outlook of American youth and the direction of American culture without help from universities is practically impossible.
One institution, of course, cannot change everything, but the influence of a community of hundreds of carefully chosen professors and their students, concentrated in one elite university, would be multiplied not just by their freedom to speak and write but also by their association with one another. What makes a civilization great is in many ways mysterious, but it indisputably depends on small groups of brilliant people who exchange ideas in specific places. Such groups formed in Periclean Athens, Augustan Rome, and Medicean Florence—none a large town by modern standards, and all with only small minorities who were educated. Other examples of small but influential groups include Isaac Newton’s Royal Society in science, Samuel Johnson’s Literary Club, and the Chicago School in economics. In computer technology, Silicon Valley, which includes Stanford, began with another small group. We can glimpse how the process worked at Athens in Plato’s Symposium, which describes a circle of talented men who gathered together often, exchanged ideas, and challenged and improved one another’s thinking. A handful of the right people in the right place can change the world.
Simply the news that a new elite university was being founded would shake American universities to their foundations. Just by existing, the new school would allow an important group of professors to speak, write, and associate freely, would encourage many of the best students to pursue academic careers now practically closed to them, and would offer an excellent traditional education to talented undergraduate and graduate students. The university would take some time to reach its full size and would, at first, likely hire many professors near retirement, but it should soon have jobs available for its best graduate students when they received their doctorates. Its undergraduates would find internships, and its graduates would find jobs at all levels of government and in politics, think tanks, the media, the law, business, and at least some other colleges and universities. The university’s influence on government and politics, and on conservative and moderate political thinking, would likely be rapid, powerful, and lasting. The impact of the new university on other universities might be more gradual; but eventually, it, too, would be profound.
Professors who criticize leftism—a small, embattled, and diminishing minority today—would grow in numbers and confidence as professors at the new university spoke out freely and as some at other universities joined them. Outside speakers critical of leftism would cease to be isolated among professors who condemn them or decline to defend them. Foundations opposed to leftism would find vocal allies in the new university, who could be called upon to defend their colleagues at other schools. Professors at the new university and elsewhere could develop ideas for federal and state legislation based on their own experience, such as laws creating government agencies to punish academic dishonesty, to evaluate doctoral dissertations, and to measure academic effectiveness, and could provide personnel to staff such agencies. In such ways, a new university could provide the leadership, guidance, and coordination missing from current efforts to reform American higher education. Optimism about higher education would once again become justified.
What stands in the way of such a strategy? Probably the most important obstacle is the widespread but unexamined assumption that universities, like the weather, are a force of nature that cannot be changed. Many private donors have the means to found a new leading university; collectively, they have more than enough money to make such a university a success. Most have probably never considered founding a new university because they have yet to grasp just how bad the academic crisis has become. This is understandable; many people inside universities (including me) have come to this realization only in recent years. Something needs to be done quickly to prevent leftists from consolidating their dominance over universities for years to come. Any solution must be part of a large-scale and long-term strategy. A new leading university in the United States should be the linchpin of such a strategy.
Photo: Those looking for a new direction in higher education need to muster the will and determination of men like Leland Stanford, who founded Stanford University in 1891. (GRANGER / GRANGER — ALL RIGHTS RESERVED)