Defending Against the Jacobins

Peter Wood

  • Article
  • June 12, 2020

In a recent article for The American Conservative, Senior Editor Rod Dreher quotes at length a sobering email sent to him from a professor in the southern Appalachian mountains. The unnamed faculty member relays the rather dire state of affairs at his institution in this excerpt:

Instead of figuring out how we are going to deal with a second wave of coronavirus, or how to replace international students who shore up enrollment while getting to play sports they love (and enriching a fairly cornbread corner of America) and may not come back after the pandemic, or the myriad other problems big and small that plague us, we are putting together a “social justice initiative” whose purpose as yet remains vague.

A general call went out to everyone. If you join, you’ll be expected to trumpet a hard-Left reading of woke ideology. If you refuse… well “silence is violence.” …

If you just want to teach, scratch out a living and make a difference, hoping the furies will forget about you: you are wrong. …

“An hour of wolves and shattered shields…” It is here.

Dreher shrewdly identifies the closing quote as part of a rousing speech from soon-to-be king Aragorn in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Return of the King, in which the heir to the throne exhorts his fellow men to stand up and fight against the forces of darkness that threaten to extinguish all that is good in Middle Earth.

This is in some ways the very same fight we presently face within higher education. On one side are those who, like our anonymous professor, resist the ideologically-driven profligacy within colleges and universities and stand for a substantive education grounded in the liberal arts. On the other side are the encroaching hordes of woke faculty and administrators who, despite the COVID-19-accelerated financial disaster their schools face, continue to push for even more activist programs to supplant traditional education.

The email Dreher quotes confirms my guess as to how colleges would initially react. It and other similar responses have led some to believe that our colleges and universities are a lost cause. Common-sense recommendations for reform, it is claimed, such as those presented in our report Critical Care, will be brushed aside by university officials who have long since blurred the goal of educating students with the dream of transforming them into loyal supporters of progressive ideals.

These university officials, faced with the unprecedented financial crisis, would rather do almost anything other than shrink the apparatus aimed at promoting “social justice” in the name of education. They have already frozen salaries (and in some cases reduced them); indefinitely suspended searches to fill open positions; and halted construction projects. Discretionary spending has been curtailed and many of the perquisites of university life have gone missing.

These steps fall far short of what will be needed to balance their budgets at a time when every stream of revenue has turned into a trickle. Tuition revenue is drastically diminished; room and board revenue is gone; summer programs are cancelled; the fall semester may be COVIDed into oblivion as well, and it is not clear what percentage of new and “returning” students will simply stay away. The prospect of paying big dollars for the chance to take online courses isn’t stirring much enthusiasm among would-be matriculants. Will enrollments drop by 15 percent? Twenty? Thirty?

How cutthroat will the competition be? After all, colleges and universities derive a large portion of their operating budgets from students, and if the students stay away, disaster awaits all but the most richly-endowed institutions.

The prospect of hanging is supposed to concentrate the mind, and you would think that college presidents and their boards of trustees would be poring over their budgets trying to figure out how to jettison every unnecessary expense. But they aren’t. The emergency declarations issued by almost every college president in the country in the last two weeks focus on the need for each institution to acknowledge its history of “white privilege” and become more focused on promoting “anti-racism.” Black Lives Matter is in ascendency over every other consideration.

If history is any guide, that means these colleges and universities will commit to spending more money on diversity, multi-culturalism, and what might be called mea-culpa programs. Where will the money come from?

Two possibilities. First, the higher education establishment is dreaming of a colossal federal bailout, something in the range of $50 billion—to start. Second, colleges and universities are considering dramatic changes to their curricula, including abolishing whole academic departments and eliminating the positions of many full-time and tenured faculty members.

I can imagine the approbation that some will feel on learning the Marxist-dominated sociology department is going away and the soi-disant revolutionaries will have to move to the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone of Seattle. Indeed, liberal arts departments across the country have made themselves vulnerable to such a purge by their plunges into intellectual triviality and ideological pandering. If they are winnowed, who will care?

Well, the National Association of Scholars will care. Once the traditional disciplines are wiped away, so will be the hope of genuine educational reform. Sociology isn’t all nonsense. Durkheim and Weber count for something. And the same can be said of other departments in this fallen age. Can we clear cut the English departments and expect anyone will be left to teach Shakespeare?

What will replace the vulnerable disciplines is the winning combination of vocationally oriented programs and more ideological posturing. Or so the college presidents now think.

More likely, what will replace them is empty campuses. Many college presidents appear to be betting on balancing their budgets by sacrificing the faculty to sustain their fleets of diversity deans, identitarian counselors, social justice peace workers, Title IX enforcers, and BLM appeasers.

It is a formula that will drive these colleges out of business even faster than COVID hysteria. As much as the public may feign enthusiasm for the anti-racist revolution, few will be willing to sacrifice their only opportunity for a college education to pay extravagant fees for training in White Guilt and Black Grievance.

I’ve heard from NAS members who are worried about the instant reflex of most college presidents to save the political orthodoxy at the cost of educational coherence. The worries are justified, but the question remains: What happens next? Will boards of trustees walk with their college presidents over the edge of the cliff?

Trading in whole academic departments and cashiering full-time faculty in order to save the sinking boat, while doubling down on diversity programs, has little chance of working. Our college presidents and other administrators will want to do this. Some will want desperately to do this, in order to be "the right side of history." But they also have a strong desire to save their own skins. Running the college into the ground is not a good career path.

My more precise forecast is this: the administrators will start out on the path we fear. Low-enrollment social sciences and arts programs will be proposed for outright elimination, consolidation, or deep cuts. Some of these will happen. But the college's financial analysts, auditors, and—let's hope—trustees will observe that the college is still in a deep deficit.

Efforts will be made to rouse alumni support, and elected officials will be besieged with lobbyists explaining how crucial colleges are to the local economy and to their future election plans. Bailouts will be proposed. College presidents, like gamblers on losing streak, will bet everything on the bailouts coming through.

Who knows? The bailouts may come and may save many colleges. A lot depends on coming elections. But if this plan falters, the only way out for dying colleges will be to abandon the old business model. Diversity Inc. will have to go, along with a host of other student "services" and amenities.

NAS doesn’t know exactly how students and parents will respond to the situation. Nor does anyone else. But I doubt that their "wokeness" will lead them to matriculate in large numbers to colleges that have given up the pretense of general education, let alone liberal education, in favor of non-stop indulgence in the moral panic.

The moral panic itself simply cannot endure that long. People get exhausted. They move on. Even Melanesian cargo cults had an expiration date. Global warming hysteria still has proponents and lots of people financially dependent on keeping it alive, but much of the public has moved along—even Michael Moore and the German government. Black Lives Matter moral panic will likewise subside. The colleges that have over-invested in it will pay a heavy price.


Peter Wood is President of the National Association of Scholars.

Image: Public Domain

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