Twenty Years in the Vineyards of Higher Education Reform

Stephen H. Balch

This month the National Association of Scholars celebrates its twentieth anniversary. Twenty years ago, Ronald Reagan sat in the White House. Twenty years ago a wall stood in Berlin. Twenty years ago the World Wide Web was only a flight of fancy in Al Gore’s eye. Twenty years is enough time to have fought all the declared wars of the United States, as well as the Civil War, back to back. Twenty years doesn’t quite count as an era, an epoch, or even a full generation, but it’s not an inconsiderable span, and certainly one sufficient for taking stock. So, after twenty years of struggle for higher education reform, how do things stand, and, more significantly, what has been learned about feasible routes to remedy?

As to how things stand, let’s start with the plus. First, we have a genuine academic reform movement where twenty years ago there was none. A sizeable community of organizations—with distinct missions and partially distinct if overlapping bases of support—now acts in concert. Some, like the American Academy for Liberal Education, the American Council for Trustees and Alumni, the Association for the Study of Free Institutions, the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics, and The Historical Society, came into existence, in large measure, because of the NAS. Others, like that indispensable campus civil liberties watchdog, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, took shape under their own inspired leadership. Another, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, has a productive history reaching back to the fifties, but, over the past two decades, has assumed a great many new and vital reformist roles. Groups like the American Civil Rights Institute, the Center for Equal Opportunity, and the Center for Individual Rights, while not confined in their concerns to higher education, are the vanguard in the fight against academe’s entrenched and emblematic system of ethnic preference. Donor organizations like the Center for Excellence in Higher Education, and the Manhattan Institute’s own Veritas Fund, have also come into being, with the promise of generating the financial resources that any growing movement requires.

This infrastructure has produced real successes. Reverse discrimination has taken a pounding at the polls, leaving its defenders unsure as to how or where to mount a stand. The outcome is not foreordained. The moral mission of the postmodern university has become too centered on rectifying all supposed hierarchies to surrender preferences without a struggle. Most likely is a solution that pays hypocrisy’s tribute to virtue, replacing preferences de jure, but not de facto; that is to say, with policies pretending to be something other than what they actually are. But in a nation largely defined by its ideals, even such a limited victory is no small achievement. Laurel wreaths are due for the great heroes of this battle, Ward Connerly at their head, but also the NAS’s own Glynn Custred and Tom Wood, who, through our affiliate, the California Association of Scholars, drafted Proposition 209, the original anti-preference ballot initiative that California voters approved in 1996.

Victories have also been won on the civil liberties front. Nothing has so kept public awareness alive as to the gap separating basic American ideas about individual rights from academe’s penchant for thought control than the succession of campus outrages against intellectual freedom exposed, and quashed, by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Through its work, victims have been repeatedly succored and restrictive rules revoked or relaxed. Of greatest significance, administrators have been put on notice that there is a high price to be paid in embarrassment, or even in the courts, for coercing conscience and throttling expression. (A second group, the Alliance Defense Fund, specifically devoted to vindicating the rights of religious students, has recently entered these lists as well.)

Heartening developments are also taking place in the realm of what might be called “program creation.” The grounding assumption, which the NAS has played a critical role in fostering, is that reopening the campus marketplace of ideas will require more than just the scattered efforts of individual scholars. To be sustained, it needs institutional anchorage. Want to revive the in-depth study of Western civilization, or the nature of free institutions? Only an integrated program, rather than a course or two, will suffice. Want to encourage more individuals at odds with PC to make scholarly careers? Build programs able to train and hire them. Just getting more dissenting voices into the year’s procession of campus lectures, symposia, and conferences requires the continual pressure that only organization affords.

Such nodes of organization, officially sanctioned and funded, are now multiplying. In size they range from Princeton University’s James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, sponsoring an array of activities and possessing an annual budget of well over a million dollars, to modest efforts spending a few tens of thousands on occasional speakers. One or two programs have modest endowments, most live from hand to mouth. Some offer courses of study, others concentrate on extracurricular events. But all aspire to substantially alter campus climates and provide professional breathing room for academic dissidents. The key will be gaining the authority to hire new faculty and educate graduate students. Nothing less will crack the closed ideological shops that now exist in many fields. Only a few of the roughly thirty existing programs currently enjoy even a smidgen of such power, and then typically with respect to academic temporaries like post-docs. A big breakthrough along this front would constitute an historic event in the progress of reform.

So much for reasons to cheer. Truth to tell, twenty years in the vineyards of reform have let me partake more of vinegar than wine. The chief casualty of this experience has been my early optimism about academic life. The problems of the university are far deeper and more intractable than I, and most of my colleagues, originally imagined.

Many of us began with a concept of the university that could be most neatly encapsulated by the term, “temple of reason.” A naïve equation, perhaps, but one we scholars had long incanted and made our rallying cry when menaced by forces of ignorance from without. It was certainly a flattering assumption, setting us on such a lofty, lovely perch, models of what all humanity could be if only selfishness and the passions were subordinated to the rational faculty. On this assumption or, more accurately, presumption, our initial strategy was grounded. If the academy had gone astray in the sixties and seventies it was but a momentary lapse that with a bit of suasion and the passage of time would be brought right. The sixties and seventies had seen a wave of campus demonstrations, disruptions, takeovers, bullying, and intimidation. The eighties would be (and were) much quieter. With revolution’s specter exorcised, reason’s sweet sovereignty would surely resume its accustomed seat—or so we hoped.

On this premise the most important thing was speaking truth, not to power, but to our fellow truth-seekers in the professoriate, who, attending, would mend their ways. What were thus needed were clear restatements of basic principles, well argued articles and books, pointed letters to the editor, and occasional petitions. While all these were indeed valuable enough—great principles do need constant restatement—they didn’t, and couldn’t by themselves, turn the tide. Confounding expectations, our auditors proved far less the devotees of reason we had imagined them to be. Not only did they have little compunction about the exercise of power, but, in the new spirit of postmodernism, they celebrated its ubiquity.

And why, after all, should this have surprised? What makes scholars any better than the other members of fallen humanity? Why should the professional purveyors of ideas have more interest in their intrinsic quality than the purveyors of automobiles or toothpaste? The latter are assumed to be driven mainly by self-interest—the maximization of profit, and a hankering after monopoly—limited only by competitive restraint. Possessed of like natures, should academics be any different? Shouldn’t they rather, once left to their own devices, prefer goals more cheaply attained than hard-won truth? Why not make work pursuits empty of substance, the scientism and trivialization rife in many disciplines today, or those that win them the leadership of causes—the pathway to politicization?

We thought they wouldn’t so succumb for two reasons.

First, vanity. We were, after all, thinking of folks like ourselves, possessed of virtues innumerable.

Second, science. Our view of academic life took its lead from the natural sciences, the modern university having centered itself upon them. “Cutting edge” in the social sciences, and even in much of the humanities, had come to mean science-like practices, boasting rigor, precision, computation, and “theory.” Since “we were all scientists now,” and since it was well known that science kept itself, by itself, honest—if not quite in every case, than certainly as an overall rule—there was nothing much to worry about.

Vanity is a forgivable sin. So resolving to be better, let’s put it aside. The bigger error was in failing to appreciate how anomalous among the intellectual arts true science actually remains. Physics, chemistry, biology, geology, etc., etc., however distinct from each other, all have characteristics that set them apart from the realms of humane inquiry. All lend themselves to experiment or, at least, to highly controlled observation. All deal with phenomena that, compared to human behavior, are relatively simple. All yield knowledge of broad and incontestable utility. With a few exceptions, mainly in biology and studies of the environment, they avoid rousing lay passions or producing findings that challenge contemporary ideological interests. They are self-correcting because they have dispositive tests generating valued results, and—in consequence—a massive flow of appreciative rewards. As fields they are extroverts, the world awaiting, even hanging, upon their public judgments.

The realms of human inquiry are markedly different. They can produce real knowledge, but with occasional exceptions, not of the kind that is incontestable, or gets clear credit for the solution of real-world problems. In contrast to the natural sciences, they are introverts, authors and auditors often the same, and applause comes almost entirely from the cognoscenti—except, of course, when they tap into the world of political conflict, providing argument, rhetoric, visions, recruitment, and benediction to the warring camps.

Yes, they do some good and are not peas in a pod. Economic analysis has shown genuine advance and attained some theoretical power. History, where the powers of critical description are allied to common sense, is clarifying and instructive. Literary scholarship, putting works and authors in context, can enhance the understanding of general readers. Good work is done in many other fields as well, including some of those otherwise deeply compromised.

But work in these fields is also capable of readily descending into characteristic pathologies. The obvious and immense utilities of natural science produce a self-correcting discipline. When these utilities are less abundant, two things often happen. On the one hand, fields can devolve into mere cleverness competitions in which, against a backdrop of external indifference, assessment becomes entirely internalized. The typical result is scholasticism, trivial disputes, empty jargon, and pretended theory whose maxims describe the rules of a game instead of the rules of the world. On the other, fields can be tempted to generate purely political utilities by finding patrons among interest groups and movements for whom they can flack. Women’s studies, ethnic studies, queer studies, cultural studies, and social work, among other scholarly pursuits, basically fall into this category.

Here then is much of academic life as we presently find it—less a temple of science than an arena of intellectual sport or a church of crusading creeds. In either case, and some fields manage to combine these seemingly disparate aspects quite happily, power overshadows reason. How so? Because their “bodies of knowledge” are inevitably weak and unverifiable. If practitioners can’t submit disputes to dispositive tests, but professional status and political causes nonetheless ride on their resolution, power becomes the natural recourse. The academic appeal of postmodernism, with its equation of knowledge and power, owes much to this fact.

So, one lesson I (and others) have learned over the course of two decades is that successful academic reform entails not just truth-telling but power management and control. If the domains of humanistic scholarship lack the natural correctives embedded in the exact sciences, they must rely on art to fill the vacuum.

Up to now the general assumption about the governance of higher education has been “the less outside interference the better.” Even trustees have been strongly discouraged from involvement in curriculum matters and, except in extremis, personnel decisions as well. This needs to be rethought. For the humanities and social sciences, more outside involvement—if carefully calibrated and directed—may be warranted.

Obviously, the governing norm for scholarship—the goal to strive for—is political disinterest. But in fields where political vices come with the territory, balancing power may be a more sensible expedient than ignoring it. The framers of our constitution set ambition against ambition. Courtrooms, where the importance of discovering truth is second to none, also keep things on track through adversarial encounters. The academy might want to try this as well.

Various expedients could be considered. The academic oversight powers of governing boards, now virtually a nullity, might be substantially strengthened. Perhaps this could be prudently done by allowing boards to rely for independent advice on committees of intellectual visitors—outside scholars who report to them on the integrity and openness of academic discourse. Perhaps procedures for proportional voting could be introduced into departmental decision-making processes, guaranteeing minority faculty faction shares of hiring and programming. Perhaps, through the reduction of red tape and procedural rigmarole, greater freedom could be given faculty entrepreneurs, making it easier for them to develop and seek funds for new, “intellectually diverse” programming. The common denominator among these possibilities is a willingness to look afresh at how the campus marketplace of ideas is organized—rather than taking its current shape for granted—and experimenting with ways to break artificial monopolies and reduce impediments to competition.

An increasing reliance on this approach is gradually strengthening reform. But a second realization, born of the same twenty years tough slogging, is harder to address constructively. There is an immense disconnect between higher education reform and its natural allies in positions of public power. Higher education reform shouldn’t—in some ideal world—be a political matter. Yet, in the world as we find it, centrists and conservatives who ought to be sorely distressed at academe’s culturally corrosive monoculture, rarely act as if they are.

For Democrats who meet this description inaction is easily explained. Since the problem arises from those more or less aligned with their own party, they have little political interest in addressing it. For Republicans, however, the situation is a far more perplexing. Although political correctness may be useful as a source of campaign throwaway lines, it rarely moves them to sustained political effort.

One of my least fond recollections involves an appearance I made in 2005 before a committee of the Pennsylvania legislature investigating the abuse of student academic freedoms in the state’s public university systems. I had an hour and half to present my evidence and, in my modest estimation, disgorged a veritable torrent of damning facts about the overt politicization of a wide range of university programming. Nonetheless, when the question period began, not a Democrat seemed daunted. Each knew his task and stayed on point, denying, minimizing, and using a variety of rhetorical dodges to talk away what to me appeared patently obvious. Passionate intensity, or its reasonable facsimile, was on full display. By contrast, the Republicans, with one heroic exception—later a primary casualty—were meek as mice, posing a few polite queries while anxiously searching for the exits. Perhaps I’m less the effective witness than I’d like to believe, but I think the truth lies elsewhere. Republicans have few incentives to really grapple with these issues, only vaguely understand them, and generally feel out of their depth when they get raised.

If fervent culture warriors find our universities constituted by everything they despise, most elected Republicans see them, first and foremost, as constituted by...constituents—and important constituents at that. Every governor, member of Congress, and most state legislators, have higher education institutions in their districts, supporting the local economy and employing many voters. They’d far prefer to bring home their bacon then give them a bash.

But, more importantly, they fail to grasp the larger significance of what goes on within them, not because they’re a “stupid party,” but because, like most other Americans, they underestimate the influence of words. America’s practical, “can-do” mentality, which Republicans claim to typify, is notably blind to the occult power of scribblers. In its view, the nation’s commonsense forever stands like a rock against all the oceans of blather pointy headed professors can hurl against it.

The truth, in fact, is rather otherwise—Republicans have themselves been deeply affected by the rewriting of American culture this scribbling has already achieved. How many would be willing to defend publicly, or even to themselves, the proposition that the foundations of our society are, and should remain, culturally Anglo-American? How many would be willing to reject “diversity” as a paradigmatic value? How many wouldn’t wince at a positive reference to the word “discrimination”—say as a preserver of moral standards? They aren’t, like those further to the left, real enthusiasts for the new conceptual regime. But they’ve become sufficiently habituated not to know how, or really wish, to confront it.

This is a much deeper problem than that posed by forms of academic governance. And it isn’t clear that there are even solutions that organizations—especially organizations as modestly endowed as those of the higher education reform movement—can help realize without grander interventions. Discrediting the new cultural wisdom, if that, indeed, is to happen, will probably be more a product of events than argument—though argument must be positioned to exploit whatever openings in public consciousness events create. This positioning, secured through institutional frameworks just beginning to be constructed, defines—or so it seems to me—what a realistic and feasible program for academic reform can now comprise.

Will it work? Come back in another twenty years.

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