American Higher Education

Jun 16, 2017 |  Glynn Custred

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American Higher Education

Jun 16, 2017 | 

Glynn Custred

NAS member Glynn Custred, professor emeritus of anthropology at California State University East Bay, has written a six-part reflection on the anti-free-speech movement at the University of California Berkeley. His essay combines his conversations with Berkeley students with his wide-ranging knowledge of the historical and political contexts of Berkeley’s February 2017 riot. 

The Ideal and the Real

Robert Gordon Sproul, after whom the UC Berkeley administration building and the plaza are named, was the president of the University of California from1930 to 1958. During that time the university transformed itself from a regional university to a nationally respected institution of higher education. UC then exemplified the ideal of what a first-rate university should be. Since the 1960s, however, UC and its peers across the country have abandoned that ideal. Universities today, says Victor Davis Hanson, are Potemkin villages: “their spires, quads and ivy-covered walls are facades” that mask a crisis not only of free speech but also of university finance, plummeting test scores, grade inflation, and student debt. UC is scarcely worth attending any more.

R. R. Reno, editor of First Things, writes that, “American elite universities today are cold, soulless places” because “they’re run for two purposes, both of which treat students as means, not ends in themselves.” One of those purposes is to “provide legitimacy to the American ruling class,” and the second is to “promote the greater wealth and glory of the university itself.” At one time the best American universities were quite explicitly for the social elite. During a brief meritocratic interlude these universities sought out and welcomed the most qualified students, regardless of their background. After the 1960s, the elite universities returned to group consciousness in the form of affirmative action admissions—a policy designed to legitimate the university on the grounds of “social justice.”

Elite universities continue some meritocratic recruitment; if they didn’t they couldn’t maintain their status as premier academic institutions. They also continue to serve America’s elite, recruiting their less stellar children via the rubric of legacy admissions. The extension of meritocratic recruitment to foreign students now helps these universities to brand themselves for the global marketplace. Publicly funded universities also often give preferences to out-of-state and foreign students, since they pay higher tuitions than in-state students.

The problem with racial and ethnic preferences, however, is that far too many minorities have been brought up in conditions where education is not emphasized and where schools are poor, thus putting promising minority students at a disadvantage in the faster paced elite institutions. Thomas Sowell coined the term “mismatch” for such policies, policies which assert the social virtue of the university at the expense of students. Professor of law and economics at UCLA Richard H. Sander and legal journalist Stuart Taylor conducted a study that showed that mismatch indeed very often works in that way.

Reno says that admissions, therefore, serve the university’s purpose, not necessarily that of students and the public, by ensuring that “the establishment’s power remains legitimate,” and that the elite university itself remains “supereminent”—and well funded. Universities, he says, are thus on a trajectory to “becoming rigid, mechanical and artificial communities dominated by rent-seeking faculty, populated by alienated students, and governed by administrators,” and thus unable to “attract loyalty” or to “create a culture for the future.”    

Student alienation manifests itself in several ways. One is when the doctrine of permanent victimhood and identity politics (which the university promulgates) leaves many minority students seething with resentment rather than focused on the advantages that American society offers. This doctrine orients minority students towards divisive race-based identities rather than towards a unifying identity as Americans. Since these alienated students know quite well that university administrations will yield to their demands because of their privileged position within the institution, many have banded together in organizations determined to impose their will on compliant institutions. The latest example at UC took place this April at UC Santa Cruz.

There, the African Black Student Alliance (ABSA), a racially defined organization, occupied the administration building, while accusing the university of fostering “a hostile climate.” The protesters locked the doors and plastered the windows with posters, saying that they would disrupt university administration until their demands were met. Those demands centered on segregated campus housing and ABSA-designed mandatory propaganda sessions for all incoming students. Chancellor George Blumenthal was willing to negotiate. He was afraid, however, to go near the occupied administration building. Instead he met with ten representatives of the group in another building, where he submitted to all of ABSA’s demands. 

Press interviews of students revealed other forms of alienation. Some who supported the protesters identified with their cause, saying in essence that the climate on campus was indeed hostile, no matter what the administration, faculty, and students did to make them feel welcome. And some white students who agreed in principle with diversity ideology were puzzled by the fact that certain groups wanted further special treatment when so much is already being done for them.

In sum, universities have become institutions run by the administration for the administration’s own purposes, much as corporations are run by their managers and boards of directors, while the politicization of the faculty and the resultant student alienation remain unaddressed. The high costs of college education and rising student debt also remain unaddressed. With every passing day the taxpayers of California are given further reason to doubt the value of a UC college education—for which they pay so dearly.            


April 27 was a pleasant day in Berkeley: pleasant not only for the nice spring weather, but also because a peaceful rally in favor of free speech had taken place in a center of political correctness. In a place where free speech is routinely suppressed, the forces of violent censorship had finally been discouraged by a belated and reluctant show of force on the part of the authorities. I hope that such days may be repeated in Berkeley and on other campuses, but the prospects are slim. The long march of the authoritarian left has succeeded in capturing the institutions of higher learning, and they have imposed their anti-liberal and anti-intellectual agenda upon institutions that once supported a free market place of ideas. Illiberal administrations and boards of directors disregard the missions of the institutions they are charged with governing. These institutions are financed by student tuitions and fees, by donations from alumni, businesses, and philanthropic organizations, and by taxes, government subsidies, and tax-funded grants. Perhaps it is time to rethink our unquestioned support of institutions that are failing to fulfill their missions in so many ways.


The events reported here were taken from first-hand observation in Berkeley and from reports published from February to May 2017 by The East Bay Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. Sources cited in the text are:

Bernstein, Richard. 1994. The Dictatorship of Virtue: Multiculturalism and the Battle for America’s Future. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. Pp. 7-8.

Ellis, John. April 2012. Crisis in Competence: the Corrupting Effect of Political Activism in the University of California. National Association of Scholars.

Hanson, Steven F.. May 15, 2017. “The Crisis at Berkeley: The Rot Goes Deep.” The Weekly Standard.

Hanson, Victor Davis. 2017. “Potemkin Universities.”

Newsom, Gavin. 2017. “Statement: Lt. Governor Newsom Regarding Free Speech at the University of California.”

Orwell, George. 1984. “Politics and the English Language”. I, The Orwell Reader: Fiction, Essays and Reporting. New York: Harcourt Brace and Company. Pp. 355-366.

Reno, R. R. 2016. “Liberalism’s Future.”  First Things.

Reynolds, Matthew. 2016. Translation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rossman, Sean. February 2, 2017. “What is a Black Bloc? The Tactic That Unleashed Violence in Berkeley.” USA Today.

Sanders, Richard H. and Stuart Taylor. 2012. Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It’s Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won’t Admit It. New York: Basic Books.

Shrag, Peter. May 7, 2017. “Berkeley and Free Speech Lose as Agitators Dance”. East Bay News Group.

Taylor, Otis R., Jr. April 28, 2017. “A Civil Discussion Where Some Expected Rioting.” San Francisco Chronicle.

Image Credit: Falcorian, adjusted.

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