Courageous Conversations?

J. Martin Rochester

NAS member J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Teaching Professor of political science at University of Missouri-St. Louis, has written a case study of the 2015 crisis at the University of Missouri, using it as a window into the declining commitment to diversity, free speech, and academic rigor nationwide.                                

What happened at Mizzou has been replicated elsewhere and is symptomatic of the larger problems found across the higher education landscape. President Botstein of Bard offered the usual pieties invoked to define the essence of a university: a commitment to the scholarly “pursuit of knowledge” and “truth” based on “reasoned argument, evidence, and rigorous verification”; a commitment to “academic freedom” and free exchange of ideas “no matter how uncomfortable”; and a commitment to “nonpartisanship” and avoiding pressures to “create a consensus of belief that can marginalize disagreement and dissent.”1 These are the very core values now at risk, under attack not so much from outside the walls of the ivory tower, as Botstein argues, but rather from within; and not so much from the right as from the left, the erstwhile bastion of free thought.2

The Declining Commitment to Scholarship

Professor Click’s call for “muscle” to censor a journalist exhibited questionable values for someone with an appointment in a journalism school, and a questionable temperament to be a professor responsible for cultivating young minds. One might also question her scholarly credentials, given that her research agenda includes vampires and Lady Gaga. Then again, these are cutting-edge, relatively hi-brow subjects to teach and study these days. Witness the fluff that has passed for “gen ed” at American universities in recent years: “students from Dartmouth to Stanford are getting academic credit for studying Star Trek and Looney Toons”; at Stanford, students can enroll in “How Tasty Were My French Sisters”; at Michigan, coursework is offered on “diva-worship, drag, and muscle culture.”3 Harvard has offered a class called “Anal Sex 101.”4  Zombie studies are particularly in vogue, pioneered by Arthur Blumberg of the University of Baltimore. Blumberg is co-author of Zombiemania: 80 Movies to Die For and the instructor in the “Media Genres: Zombies” course, where students read “Walking Dead” comic books and watch 16 classic zombie movies, which are intended to provide “a back door into a lot of subjects.”5 One of those subjects is my own field of international relations, where one can read Daniel Drezner’s Theories of International Politics and Zombies (published by a prestigious university press no less) to explore how “different approaches to world politics would explain policy responses to the living dead” and can attend panels at scholarly conventions on “How Global Governance Would Deal with Zombies.”6 All this is done in support of student “engagement,” the latest buzzword in campus centers of teaching and learning, designed to maintain student interest in disciplines that no longer provide serious, useful bodies of knowledge and marketable skills.

Why vampire and zombie fiction is worthy of scholarly study remains a mystery. Donald Trump is no more anti-rigor or low-brow than the average professor, at least in the social sciences and humanities. If rigor no longer matters, then it becomes more acceptable for students to dictate changes in faculty hiring, tenure, and promotion guidelines that render merit a peripheral concern.  It also is more acceptable for research and curricula to be driven by ideology rather than by the discovery and dissemination of knowledge. Hence, it is legitimate for a professor of education and program chair for a 2016 National Council of Social Studies professional conference to elicit proposals challenging presenters to “look at systemic racism, white supremacy, Islamaphobia, homophobia, transphobia, voter suppression, socioeconomic disparities, sexism, and environmental destruction (to name a few)” and consider “intersectionality, decolonization, LGBTQ+ Studies, Critical Race Studies, and Environmental Justice.”7  Increasingly, in schools of education as well as in social work, law, communications, history, political science, English and other liberal arts, professors are hired who not only can add entertainment value to a department’s offerings but also can teach political values in a wide range of victimization studies courses.  

There has been general academic slippage as a well-intentioned but misplaced obsession with equity and diversity, along with a “therapeutic” culture aimed at softening life’s hard edges, jointly have undermined standards from beginning to end, from college admissions to granting of diplomas. One would think that “social justice” would entail rewarding people for superior work. However, affirmative action has morphed into race-based admissions, often discriminating against Asian students and others with stronger academic records.8 Universities are considering allowing incoming, unprepared students—weaned on K-12 classes that award trophies to students for registering a pulse—to count “remedial” courses as college credit toward graduation.9  “Retention centers” are proliferating along with “early alert” warning systems designed to support students by sending regular reminders to come to class and perform basic obligations. The growth in online classes may eliminate the need to come to class at all. The hand-holding, “coddling” paradigm has been imported from K-12, complete with enhanced mental health counseling, rec centers that offer yoga and other stress reduction exercises, and wellness areas such as the new “Whole U” at UMSL, which offers “comfy cots” for napping during the day. Mental health is a serious problem among young people, but it is not clear why this generation experiences so much stress and sleep deprivation when the bar for success, at least in school, is being lowered. There has been well-documented grade inflation in undergraduate education for several decades.10 Arum and Josipa, in Academically Adrift, have shown how grades have gone up as expectations and work demands (in terms of  the number of  books read and the length of papers written) have gone down.11  Partying has gone up, with one study estimating the flow of beer at fifteen cases consumed per student per year.12 Meanwhile, learning objectives are being skewed toward college sports as “pigskin and sheepskin collide”13—it is characteristic that the pivotal moment in the Mizzou crisis came when the UM Tiger football team, backed by its head coach, threatened to boycott the rest of the season, depriving the campus of a major raison d’etre. 

In short, the core academic mission of the university, inside and outside the classroom, among students and faculty alike, is being chipped away.


  1. Leon Botstein, “American Universities Must Take A Stand,” New York Times, February 8, 2017,
  2. Early on, Allan Bloom observed these problems developing in academia, in The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987). For a similar, more recent analysis, see Kim Holmes, The Closing of the Liberal Mind (New York: Encounter Books, 2016). Holmes (p. 99) states, “The paranoid style still exists on the far right in America. What is new is not only how pervasive it is on the far left, but also how acceptable it has become in the mainstream mentality and practice of progressive liberalism.”
  3. Tony Mecia, “Is It Weird? You May Get College Credit,” Campus (Spring 1997); William Simon, “The Dumbing Down of Higher Education,” Wall Street Journal, March 19, 1996; “How To Be Gay,” National Association of Scholars, August 13, 2001.
  4. “Harvard University Offers Students ‘Anal Sex 101’Class,” Reuters, November 3, 2014, at The class was offered during the annual Sex Week.
  5. Daniel de Vie, “Exploring the undead: University of Baltimore to offer English class on zombies,” Washington Post, September 10, 2010,; also, see Erica E. Phillips, “Zombie Studies Gain Ground on College Campuses,” Wall Street Journal, March 3, 2014,
  6. Daniel W. Drezner, Theories of International Politics and Zombies (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 2011). The “Zombies” theme panel was held at the annual meeting of the International Studies Association in 2014.
  7. Rich Hess, “A Rorschach Test for Bias in Education Scholarship,” Education Week, February 13, 2017,
  8. Hans von Spakovsky and Elizabeth Slattery, “Discriminatory Racial Preferences in College Admissions Return to the Supreme Court: Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin,” Heritage Foundation, December 3, 2015,;  Jason Riley, “Is the Ivy League’s Admission Bias A Trade Secret?,” Wall Street Journal, March 29, 2017,
  9. For collapsing academic standards in the California State University system, see Chester E. Finn, Jr., “The Collapse of Academic Standards,” Flypaper, March 23, 2017,
  10. See Chronicle of Higher Education, February 14, 1997 and July 25, 1997; Valen Johnson, Grade Inflation: A Crisis in College Education (New York: Springer, 2003). Nearly half of all high school seniors in America in 2016 graduated with a grade point average of A, while A was the single most popular grade in American colleges. Greg Toppo, “A’s on the Rise in US Report Cards, But SATs Flounder,” USA Today, July 17, 2017, 
  11. Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, Academically Adrift (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).
  12. Chester E. Finn, Jr., “The High Price of College Sports,” Commentary (October  2001).
  13. Jere Longman,” At Oregon, Pigskin and Sheepskin Collide,” New York Times, October 20, 2001.

Image: Curtis Lecture Halls interior view2 empty class.jpg by Theonlysilentbob // CC BY-SA 3.0

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