Looking Backward: Parting Reflections on Higher Education Reform from NAS’s Founding President

Stephen H. Balch

Twenty-five years at the helm of the National Association of Scholars have left me with vivid memories: of knocks and bruises, peaks of exhilaration and, especially, unforgettable characters—the geniuses and fools, saints and sinners, eccentrics, lovable and otherwise, who populate academe’s teeming menagerie. But as for lessons learned, that’s a very different story. As with all action sports—and academic reform is definitely one of them—learning tends to be of the “process” kind, subliminally muscular, of bob, weave, duck and grasp, and therefore resistant to easy articulation. Still, a quarter-century in the NAS’s vineyard hasn’t been wholly without some yield in communicable wisdom, so allow me a moment to squeeze out a few of the hard-wrung drops.

* * *

Although academics, on average, have higher IQs than their fellow citizens, and far eclipse them in mastery of the accumulated understandings of their chosen fields, they’re no less human. All the failings, all the self-interested or parochial prejudices, all the twistings of pride are as much theirs as they are the “laity’s” with but one exception: when it comes to things intellectual, vanity and self-service are likely to count a great deal more for the academic than the man on the street. Stated more bluntly, there is nothing about an academic that makes him more naturally attached to truth than anyone else, even though its pursuit is at the very core of his job description. When a truth is “inconvenient”—as when professional standing, self-regard, or ideological alliances seem somehow menaced by it—academics are perfectly capable, sometimes highly delighted, to give it the old deep six.

What makes academics truth-seekers (when they are) is neither their character as people of unusual intelligence, nor their interest in intellectual discourse—both more than compatible with dogmatic utterance, sophistical argument, and meaningless hair-splitting—but their disciplined commitment to rational method and intellectual significance, to making and testing arguments about matters of consequence by sifting evidence and subjecting it to rigorous analysis. This kind of truth-seeking, always tenuously sustained, can only be preserved in an academic culture that relentlessly demands it. And such a culture ultimately depends on incentive systems that recognize and reward intellectual integrity and substance. Over the last few decades, for a variety of reasons, these incentives, and the culture of rigor they’ve supported, have been gradually deteriorating.

Refurbishing them, especially in those sectors of the humanities and social sciences where they’ve most decayed, should be reform’s leading intellectual goal. In the natural sciences, the incentive systems that sustain good research remain generally healthy. Propositions are tested with replicable precision and sufficient disinterestedness to keep things fairly honest, while the world’s appreciation for science’s demonstrable bounties ensures ample reward for genuine discovery. Neither of these conditions comparably hold in the study of things human.

There is, needless to say, humanist inquiry that is better and humanistic inquiry that is worse, investigation that generates insight and investigation that encourages illusion, research of consequence and that which strains at gnats. Given the complexity of their subject matters, the methods and incentivizing structures that have made the natural sciences so fruitful could never be as strong in humane studies. But in an age of publication glut, empowered politicization, and postmodern subjectivity they’ve become weaker still.

One promising possibility for strengthening scientific, or at least a “science-like” culture, would thus be the import of natural scientists into the professional decision-making of intellectually soggier fields. They’ll be unfamiliar, of course, with much of the substance of those areas, but will likely know poor practice when they see it, and if sufficiently assertive, be able to call it out. Disciplinary imperialism? Perhaps. But in a form that might help restore academe’s more underdeveloped regions to something closer to their full epistemic potential.

Taxpayers and their representatives can also play a legitimate role in strengthening academe’s scientific culture. At the least, they have a right to insist that the expenditure of public funds in public institutions is accompanied by a commitment to exacting, objective inquiry on the part of those receiving them. Trustees would be well advised to send the same message at the private ones.

Concentrated university efforts to socialize younger academics into the operating principles of scientific culture and remind those already career-launched of the need to stay allegiant to them, might also do wonders to assuage public qualms. Mandatory graduate courses for future researchers and teachers, periodic symposia and lectures on thorny conceptual and philosophical questions (the issues aren’t invariably pat), even university VPs for scientific integrity, are worth considering, too. If such initiatives were seriously undertaken, citizens, university fiduciaries, even hardened critics of all things academic could take some reassurance.

* * *

Productive inquiry requires imagination as well as rigor. And imagination thrives on intellectual variety. It is the give-and-take of debate among champions of rival ideas that exposes unexamined assumptions, forces the rethinking of venerable nostrums, and creates the fertile mix of possibilities from which epiphanies spring. A fertile intellectual culture is also a vibrant one.

It was once taken for granted that this kind of creative, boisterous mélange would be the inevitable outcome in an academic community free from political intrusion. Threats to intellectual freedom were seen as exclusively originating from without, from overweening politicians, greedy plutocrats, or the “great unwashed.” Experience has shown this to have been a tad optimistic.

By the very nature of their vocation, orthodoxy has some powerful attractions for intellectuals too. In a world of doctrine one knows where one stands and what it takes to get ahead. Orthodoxy is also a sovereign remedy for cognitive dissonance, leaving a “thinker” free to enjoy the comforting and ennobling experience of embracing an unproblematized intellectual cause. Under systems of academic governance where dominant ideological factions can progressively squeeze out unpopular dissidents a monotonous uniformity can thus easily emerge.

And so it has often come to pass on many of our campuses. The majority rule principle, as applied in hiring and tenure, has led to the disappearance or minimization of viewpoints strongly out of sync with dominant “progressive” opinion. The intensity of the phenomenon varies from field to field, and from institution to institution, but generally speaking, in scholarly domains whose subject matter is social, political, or cultural, many serious perspectives, deservedly alive and well in broader public debate, have become endangered species.

This is a tragedy both for the academy and the public that supports it. Views that need to be heard, if only to provoke deeper reflection and clarifying inquiry, are reduced to whispers. Favored perspectives, trapped in resounding echo chambers become bloated grotesques of their original selves. Rather than thematic interplay one hears a bellowing brass. Rather than experiencing the moderating effects of personal interaction, the opposing camps—those holding the citadel and those cast out of it—demonize each other at a distance.

Reform needs to provide answers to this problem, and since a variety of possibilities present themselves experiment will be necessary. An appealing one, long encouraged by the NAS, is the development of new academic programs centered on the study of free institutions, Western Civilization or other currently underserved themes. In addition to shaping novel course offerings and injecting fresh ideas into the curriculum, programs like these can also serve as vehicles for pluralizing academic hiring.

Another option worth exploring is the introduction of non-majoritarian ballot systems, like proportional and cumulative voting, into hiring, tenure, and promotion decisions. What’s good for Sweden might well prove good for Berkeley as well. (And without getting more deeply into the vexed question of its future, there is also reason to believe that tenure, whatever its merits in protecting the dissidents who have already passed its gates, works—because of its once-and-for-all-time character—against them while they’re still outside.)

The periodic conduct of intellectual pluralism self-studies by academic departments, or larger university subdivisions, is another idea worth considering. Simply by raising questions about the status and value of intellectual pluralism, this kind of introspection, perhaps as a part of the accreditation process, could serve to make remedial action, when needed, more likely.

Working up the ladder of responsibility, formal pluralism “audits” by administrations and governing boards, provided they were conducted under careful academic guidance, could also prove worthwhile exercises in question-raising. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni has even raised the idea of periodic reports on intellectual pluralism by state universities to state legislatures, creating a continually updated, publicly accessible database.

Finally, intellectual pluralism should be recognized as a central academic value. Indeed, the American Council on Education, along with the AAUP and a host of other mainstream academic organizations did just this in a 2005 Statement on “Academic Rights and Responsibilities.” Not surprisingly, few institutions have followed up on the declaration, leaving it up to reformers to keep it from sinking into oblivion. If diversity has any true academic value, intellectual diversity is the realm in which it could best be shown.

Equally important would be the full and final repudiation of campus speech codes, along with the notion that speech should be punishable when it “offends”—a cause that has been impressively advanced over the last thirteen years by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

It was once an academic bromide that a good education unsettled, and that by allowing cherished certitudes to be challenged one opened minds and strengthened critical capacities. The hoary maxim is still vociferously invoked, but almost always to justify the questioning of the traditional moral, religious, and political beliefs that students bring from home to campus. On the other hand, when something—“affirmative action bake sales” have been the most conspicuous recent examples—offends progressive opinion, or offends individuals designated by progressive opinion as members of “victim groups,” laryngitis ensues. And it is not only students, but even more so faculty, who understand that there are certain subjects that can be broached only at peril—the possibility of behaviorally relevant genetic differences among human groups is probably the leading example. There is much to be said for civility, interpersonal courtesy and good manners in scholarly debate, but ruling topics off-limits because some find them disagreeable is 180 degrees at variance with what genuine academic pluralism demands. Reformers are vindicating classic principles of liberalism in seeking to stop this, a fact most Americans understand.

* * *

The campaign for individual merit standards, and against discriminatory practices based on ancestry, remains critical to reform. There have been real successes on this front in recent years, partly in the courts, but mainly through a series of state referendum victories the NAS helped set in motion during the early 1990s.

Judging individuals as individuals is a simple matter of justice, but it is also another means of constructive incentivization. When people know that they’ll be judged on the basis of achievement they achieve. When they know they’ll be judged on the basis of group membership, they tribalize. And a tribalized academy is bad for learning and America.

A tribalized academy encourages individuals to shape their opinions in group molds rather than working them out for themselves, dividing the marketplace of ideas into an assemblage of mental ghettos. It also leads the susceptible to believe that the best way forward is to complain rather than to learn. And for all its preoccupation with “otherness,” a tribalized academy fosters the very stereotyping, suspicion, and reciprocal hostility that affirmation of “the other” is supposed to overcome. Knowledge is the only thing that can be shared without diminution. Tribalism is the quintessence of the zero-sum.

The struggle against the new forms of academic discrimination has wisely focused on their most vulnerable point, undergraduate admissions. Discriminatory practices at this level have wide impact, deep unpopularity, and, as a result of FOIA efforts, discomforting visibility.

Americans of all backgrounds prize fairness and generally understand it to be a matter of individualized treatment. What’s more, a growing body of research shows that admissions preferences impede rather than promote the educational and professional aspirations of many who receive them. The admissions statistics of competitive universities, readily quantifiable, easily comprehended, and in the case of public institutions, legally accessible, make plain how much discrepancy in treatment currently exists, and the degree of academic mismatch between students and institutions it produces. By contrast, discrimination in academic hiring affects only a handful, involves decisions that are relatively opaque, and has consequences for its beneficiaries that are frequently favorable—at least in a material sense.

Federal courts have followed a wavering trajectory in adjudicating the constitutionality of preferential admissions, but the landmark cases have tilted toward constraint. In Bakke, Powell’s deciding opinion envisioned “diversity” as no more than one among many admission-relevant factors and rejected quotas outright. In Grutter, O’Connor’s majority view gave a qualified endorsement to race-based admission as a last resort, only lawful when other diversity-seeking policies had been tried and failed. Many observers see the pending Fisher case as likely to raise the constitutional bar even higher, or decree absolute prohibition. Thus far, however, academe has mostly ignored the judiciary’s limiting language, making each successive case an agony of suspense that pits the pleadings of elite opinion in favor of continuing discrimination against a line of contrary and presumably governing precedents that would disallow it. What gets tested in these cases is much less constitutional logic than strength of juridical will.

A definitive SCOTUS ruling against admissions preferences, should it finally come, would not only permanently change the admissions landscape, it would have unsettling consequences for identity group policies across the academic board. Their legitimacy would immediately be called into much deeper question. Take discriminatory hiring, for instance. The courts have never provided it with a specific legal rationale, but concessions to bias in admissions have, by implication, lent it a certain cover. Cover removed, hiring discrimination would be more readily exposed to philosophic and legal assault. Why, after all, should the members of affluent, academic elites enjoy preferments constitutionally denied students?

A redirection of litigation would also likely begin. To be sure, no single Supreme Court decision, however definitive, will immediately sweep even America’s public campuses clean of admissions discrimination. As post-Proposition 209 experience in California attests, there are numerous dodges to be employed, “holistic admissions” as an example, whereby “rounded assessments” of applicant life experience, special interests, and personality traits manage somehow to yield admissions outcomes amazingly similar to those produced by the straightforward assignment of ethnic bonus points. Mopping up actions targeting these subterfuges will likely fill state and federal dockets for many years to come. Still, some of the energies of the handful of attorneys who have pursued admissions cases will be emancipated, and interest in new theaters of civil rights litigation stirred.

Plaintiffs, too, might begin presenting themselves in greater numbers, as lawyers give more attention to discovering them, and optimism about outcomes grows. Admissions preferences, by virtue of the moral high ground they’ve claimed to defend, constitute a kind of Maginot Line for academe’s kingdom of preferments. Those the line supposedly shelters—struggling students—are proper objects of sympathy. But with the line turned, the kingdom’s far less prepossessing interior, populated by cosseted intellectuals engaged in what seems little more than self-serving favor trading, lies exposed. Whether such a vulnerable territory can long be defended is an open question.

* * *

Like any investment education is subject to the law of diminishing returns. All else being equal, increasing the numbers of students involves a decrease in the average quality of their work, and this also true with respect to the number of scholars and the quality of their scholarship. As with everything else, there are limits on academic interest, talent, and financing, though sad to say, none on opportunities foregone.

Americans have been oversold on higher education’s universal virtue, too often buying no more than a bill of goods (“the bill,” nonetheless, being all too real). Higher education is not for everyone, and when it tries to be so, length, not height becomes its most conspicuous feature. Currently about 50 percent of Americans have had some encounter with college (including community colleges), a misuse—if not an outright waste—of much of their time and money. Instead of being liberated by knowledge, many finish shackled by debt.

Career-minded students mechanically routed through a system originally designed to cultivate the arts and sciences, are, at best, needlessly encumbered, and at worst, bored to distraction—“academically adrift” as Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa have put it—with little intellectually to show for their experience. But better to drift than to sink, the peril faced by the overladen, all-things-to-all-students colleges and universities whose revenue streams have come to depend on these under-involved undergraduates.

The obvious moral here is that “less can be more.” But precisely how does “less” incentivize, and how can it invigorate reform?

First, if the “less” is less subsidy of those who don’t really need it, the same middle-class families from whose pockets the subsidies ultimately come, it will instantly do a quite stupendous thing—materialize a massive new cohort of higher education reformers in the persons of these very students and parents. When spending money they know to be theirs, students and parents will be far more insistent on getting something for it. Mere credential, price tag now visible, will deflate in value, and careful comparison shopping become the rule. This will, in turn, pressure providers of every stripe—public, private, even the most crassly propriety—to toss excess baggage, cut costs, and focus on what they’re best equipped to deliver, liberal or professional education that’s as “high” in fact as in word.

The effects of such reform would rapidly flow downward, pushing high schools to justify their distinguishing adjective, by providing in twelve—as once they did—the same liberal and civic learning now conferred at far greater expense, and often less adequately, in sixteen. Moreover, a reduction in the size of university faculties will materially assist high schools in so doing, downwardly redistributing teaching talent to where it can be best and earliest employed (and justifying thereby increased remuneration for secondary and middle school teachers). Mirabile dictu, less would yield more.

A higher proportion of motivated learners at the university level could also stimulate a renaissance in college teaching, with more professors again regarding it as the fulfilling center of their professional lives, and more administrators rewarding it as a major institutional asset in student recruitment. Even better, professors might begin to widen their intellectual horizons to fit their revalued roles as pedagogues, reconsidering the merits of broad learning, and the address of big questions, against those of overly confining specialization.

* * *

Perceptive readers will have detected what they may regard as a bubbly stream of optimism running through these reflections. This is, after all, a valedictory, and I’m doing my best to be inspirational. But, to be frank, most of my proposed reforms, while more than vain hopes, will probably require undertakings few will readily or even sensibly embark upon. Will scientists wish to plunge themselves in the intramural arcana of literary studies, making legions of enemies for their pains? Probably not. Will administrators seize upon the study of free institutions as an exciting new interdisciplinary project? A few have, and more may yet, but under prevailing circumstances the majority will probably see the threatened blowback as a career risk worth avoiding. Yes, the courts may eventually deliver us from group preference and speech codes. But who can be sure in an age where hanging judges have been replaced by swinging ones? And to expect universities to voluntarily downsize their student bodies and resulting revenue streams is akin to hoping for daffodils in December.

But there are some things that can throw even the most firmly established trajectories off course. For example? Well, as British PM Harold MacMillan once wryly observed when asked what politicians feared most, “Events, dear boy, events!” Reformers must be prepared to take advantage of the opportunities events afford—particularly with respect to the problems that appear most entrenched and intractable.

So what sort of academe-shaking “events” might we in fact expect (admitting, of course, that it is in their shattering nature to be unexpected)?

A few sweeping decisions by the Supremes are among the leading possibilities, hardly bankable, but a lot more likely than a lottery win. But these aside, there is an unparalleled “virtual” event—the advent of online learning systems without campuses, classrooms, or corporeal contact—that is already wreaking havoc on established ways of delivering higher education. Called forth by the cyber-world’s savage gods, online learning opens the door to academic coarsening and even fraud, but also to huge economies of scale, possibilities for exquisite niche marketing, and creative recombinations of academic capital and labor. As a force for reshuffling academic power and incentive nothing like it has ever before occurred, and its consequence for the future of higher education reform is immense.

Shifts in cultural climate, also “events” in an encompassing sense, could help reform as well. Anything that steadies national mood, turns it in a more serious direction, and renders it more mature will add to the leverage of educators who possess the same qualities. Cultural history, like political and economic history, is full of deep-driven alternations of abandon and repentance, from which salutary and lasting changes sometimes spring. The excesses of the early factory system fostered a sharpening of social conscience in early industrial Britain, the morally sordid profits of slavery “a new birth of freedom” in America. No one wants national misfortune, and the sobering factors need not be as distressing as these, but if dark clouds loom, reformers should be watchful for silver linings.

There’s little here I haven’t said in NAS and other venues many times over. May it not have grown too stale! I now ride off into the sunset (depending at least on where, with respect to West Texas, you take your bearings), not to retirement but professional adventures anew. So hail and farewell (in part at least), to all my colleagues in the common and honorable cause in which we’ve long together labored. And fear not, that part of it vouchsafed to the NAS has been left in most excellent hands.

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