NAS President's Report

Peter Wood

Regular readers of this website have no doubt noticed my scarcity for the last month or so.  Ashley Thorne has stepped up with an almost daily stream of articles, at the same time rolling out the new NAS blog. I’m grateful to Ashley for stepping in while I stepped out.  Here’s what has been happening. 

The National Association of Scholars had its Board of Directors meeting at the end of October.  We met in the Hudson Institute’s office in lower Manhattan, courtesy of Herb London, president of the Hudson Institute and NAS board member.  For several weeks before the meeting, NAS chairman Steve Balch and I were working and re-working our budget report and financial projections.  It has been a tough year for many non-profits, and NAS is no exception.  We cut back, but we still ran an operating deficit.  We may run one next year as well.  We will unless I find ways to make NAS popular with foundations that haven’t previously supported us and also convince individual supporters that our work merits their gifts. 

So one reason I have been less visible on the website is that I have had my head down working on grant applications and solicitations to people who seem likely to help.  But there is more to this.  The October board meeting was my first as president of NAS.  I sought and received the board’s approval on a crucial change in NAS’s by-laws, and I also presented my broader plan for NAS’s future.  The by-law change and the broader plan are connected. 

Opening Up Membership

The official change is this:  we have opened up our membership to allow individuals outside the academy to join.  It isn’t exactly a throw-open-the-gates-we-are-no-longer-an-academic-organization moment.  Rather, we have created a category of “public members,” on the model of the National Endowment for the Humanities’ use of that term.  Public members will pay the same dues (currently $42 per year) and receive the same privileges including an annual subscription to Academic Questions.  But we aren’t changing the academic mission of NAS, and we put some safeguards such as a provision that reserves three-quarters of the seats on the board for academic members.

Why this change?  Why now?  We have been working on this idea for over a year.  The goal is to strengthen NAS as we continue our efforts to reform American higher education.  In that light, we have discovered that we have a considerable base of support among people outside the academy.  We have had numerous inquiries from lawyers and school teachers especially, but also from a fairly broad spectrum of people generally represented what might be called educated men and women who are deeply concerned about the condition and the trajectory of American education, and who are alert to the larger cultural and civilizational implications of what has happened to the university.  

So the first thing is that we know that there is a demand.  People who previously were not eligible want to join NAS.  The board’s action in October authorized us to say “yes” to those members of the public who seek to align themselves with our work. 

When contemplating this step, I had imagined that we would make a big noise about this change in the organization.  After all, if we are going to open up a new category of membership, we would want potential members to hear about it.  But after talking to officers of some of the foundations that support NAS and to board members, I sensed a cautionary note.  Our current members and supporters don’t want to see NAS desert its “niche.”  We speak for members of the academy who uphold traditional academic values and who often feel squeezed out or marginalized by rampant political correctness and the academic Left’s domineering ways.  Too sudden a shift in NAS towards a form of public membership could come at the cost of our credibility as speaking for this academic core. 

So I have opted for a quieter roll-out. We have been contacting individuals we know are interested and trying to get the word out through friendly organizations.  And I am spilling the beans here.  I suppose there is some risk of The Chronicle of Higher Education or Inside Higher Ed picking up the story and re-labeling it something to the effect, “NAS Throws in the Towel.”  But I’ll brave that possibility. 

We hope to attract the kinds of members who help us advance our work, in five ways. 

First, we seek direct, personal involvement with our projects.  Many of our Argus volunteers are non-academics.  They have already demonstrated the capacity of “civilians” to rise to rigorous standards of observation and evidence in helping us keep track of campus developments across the country.  We would like more Argus volunteers and more generally, more members who are willing to put time and thought (and sometimes writing) into our work.  In a similar vein, we expect that some new members would help us with their expertise in areas that aren’t especially well represented in the current NAS. 

Second, we seek to propagate our message as widely as possible.  Our website helps a lot; but it is important that our journal, Academic Questions, get into people’s hands as well.  Chances are that non-member readers of this website have never seen Academic Questions.  That’s because it is published by a commercial publisher that keeps it in limited distribution to maximize its earnings from expensive library subscriptions and really expensive one-off online sales of articles.  The situation of having our key journal locked up like this is the result of an ages-old contract that we can do little about.  I’m frustrated by it, since Academic Questions is an absolutely first-rate journal.  It presents very well-crafted, deeply-informed, and highly readable accounts of what is happening in the academy that you can find nowhere else. 

But to get Academic Questions into the hands of readers, we need first to get people to become members.  It is the only way.

Third, we need more mass.  NAS is evolving to become a more publicly engaged organization.  The academic left has become so entrenched on campus that it successfully controls the terms of the debate at most places and simply precludes the presentation of alternative views.  As a result, critics have increasingly turned to media and venues that the left cannot control.  This website is an instance of that, and our sister organizations have likewise established a presence in the public sphere.  To do that, we need to grow the NAS membership both within the academy and outside the academy.  Also, by opening up new paths to membership, we hope to build our network.  Nothing attracts new members quite so powerfully as other new members.

Fourth, we increasingly see our mission as civilizational, not just academic.  “Civilizational” sounds a little grandiose, and I’d welcome a more modest-sounding term.  But, yes, we are concerned with the large questions of what cultural achievements, dispositions, aspirations, substantive knowledge, ideals, palladian concepts, and moral urgencies ought to be carried forth from generation to generation.  The university cannot do all that work, but for at least 2,500 years, we have had institutions devoted to the task.   If we don’t have a way to bring serious young adults into conversation with the worthy parts of our civilization, that civilization will wither.  Some believe, with justification, that it is already withering.  We don’t want to put NAS in the chorus of mourners.  A great deal of good can still be done.  But we need to rally more people—people who are themselves beneficiaries of that great conversation that extends all the way back to Socrates—to join us.

Fifth, as I said before, we need to broaden the base of our financial support.  We began to discuss opening up the membership before the national financial crisis began to take its toll, but it is clear now that an expanded membership would help.  That’s not because we receive much revenue from dues.  The dues go mainly to cover the costs of Academic Questions and other publications.  But among members, there are always those who are able and willing to give additional support. 

Broader Horizons

During its first 23 years of official life (and several years of informal existence before its incorporation in 1987), the National Association of Scholars grew as an organization that spoke mainly in opposition to ideological trends in the academy.  When it became clear by the early 1990s that critique alone wouldn’t be sufficient to call the academy back to its principles—and its senses—NAS began quietly to build alternative institutions.  The AmericanAcademy for Liberal Education, The Association of Trustees and Alumni, and more than thirty campus-based centers and institutes are the fruit of that labor, and NAS also had a hand in founding the Historical Society and the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics. 

We are proud of this record, and what Steve Balch calls our “behind the scenes” strategy has had important dividends in keeping alive the flame of liberal learning in illiberal times. 

But we aren’t deluded. When Irving Kristol declared that the culture wars are over and “we” lost, he spoke to many in our situation.  We seem ever more consigned to the role of saving remnant.  And frankly, we don’t like it.  We actually speak for the majority, if you allow a voice for the great thinkers of the past and the men and women who aspired for and achieved a place in the larger intellectual conversation.  We recognize a Burkean obligation to those past generations and the generations to come.  And being a “saving remnant” just doesn’t do the job.  We need a more robust approach. 

I am not quite ready to spill all the beans on what kind of robust approach that will be.  We have grant applications going out that harbor the details and it is best to keep that sort of thing close until we know we have the necessary funding.  But the broad picture is this.  I intend to put the NAS in the center of efforts to create a public agenda for reforming the academy.   I want to put forward ideas and strategies that have won the assent of thoughtful people who have a policy orientation and that can play a part in our national political discussions.

Some of those ideas have been abundantly on display on this website; others will have to be winnowed out of discussion. 

NAS is and will remain a non-partisan organization.  We will put forth ideas and policy proposals that anyone in any party can adopt, and we hope that we will find some bi-partisan support.  Realistically, it seems most likely that we will find a hearing among moderates, independents, conservatives, and libertarians. 

The libertarian part of the equation requires special attention. There is a fair amount of reform that can be accomplished through free-market ideas even in the current situation.  But we begin with the recognition that American higher education is currently enmeshed in the government’s regulatory regime.  Reform has to begin with existing institutions. 

We also have a caution for conservatives, who often brush higher education aside as a peripheral issue.  We think that’s a profound mistake.  The social and political elites in the United States get their ideas from somewhere.  Hollywood and the liberal media merely echo those ideas.  The ideas themselves come from the academy.  And, yes, some students learned to see through the one-sided accounts that now fill up the liberal arts curriculum, but many just take in the bland assumptions about identity politics and social justice.  And even those students who grow skeptical typically have little opportunity to learn about the alternatives. 

For liberals, we offer this:  if you are committed to humane values and a government that exercises its power on behalf of the weak, you must also be committed to the need to seek the truth and to ground public policy on well-honed judgment.  No one can look at contemporary higher education, riddled as it is with self-congratulatory bias and intellectually feeble ideology and think that democracy can long thrive on such a base.  We do need a social elite in our complex society, but a elite that has insulated itself from genuine critical inquiry dooms itself to irrelevancy. 

What Else?

The National Association of Scholars has important resources in the form of individual members and our numerous state affiliates.  We also have a deep and continuing investment in building campus programs.  We have this website, which has published over 500 original articles in the last two years, our new blog, and Academic Questions.   We’re a pretty visible organization now, no longer operating just “behind the scenes.” 

But we need to convert readers into members and members into active participants. 

If you hear this call and want to join, go to the blue “Join Now” button on the main page.  And be prepared to work past the categories it offers.  “Public member” isn’t yet listed.  Just sign up as an academic members and we’ll figure it out. 

Sign up now and be sure to get our upcoming issues of Academic Questions on “revisionisms” in the academy and on sustainability.  They are not to be missed.

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