Politics, Education, and More Politics: NAS’s New Report on the University of California

Peter Wood

Over the weekend the National Association of Scholars published a new research report about the politicization of the University of California. Actually, A Crisis of Competence:  The Corrupting Effect of Political Activism in the University of California deals with a much broader subject than the UC system. It describes phenomena that are familiar in all the state university systems and many independent colleges and universities as well. And it offers a strong thesis to the effect that contemporary American higher education has been badly hurt by the failure of safeguards against using the classroom to advance partisan ideas and loyalties.

Even to name this topic is to risk a fair number of readers stopping dead in their tracks. Oh, another kvetch by conservatives that no one invited them to the prom. Well, yes and no. There are a thousand ways to dismiss the problem of politicization. And the cycle of accusations, defenses, and counter-accusations seems endless. Certainly in one sense A Crisis of Competence is more sand added to the Sahara of academic complaint.

It is, however, possibly more than that. The principal author, John M. Ellis, professor emeritus of German literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz, spent the last three years sifting through every bit of evidence he could find about the interweaving of politics, appointment, curriculum, pedagogy, and learning in the UC system. The report offers an 81-page summation and synthesis, augmented here and there with new material.

But the report aims to be something more than a compendium: It also offers a case that, in principle, the adaptation of college education to political agendas is educationally destructive. In effect, it offers a compact theory—not as an afterthought but in the opening seventeen pages. A Crisis of Competence begins with the question, “Why is it wrong to use the University for political purposes?” and proceeds systematically with moral, legal, and pedagogical objections, and then examines the various rationalizations and justifications for academic politicization.

Catch and Release

Ellis, who is best known for Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities (Yale, 1997), worked with fellow members of NAS’s affiliate, the California Association of Scholars, to write the report and didn’t want to claim sole authorship. In the end, I was listed as a co-author on the title page, but I’m not touting my own work. Anyone familiar with my writing for the Chronicle of Higher Education will recognize that A Crisis represents a very different voice. My main role was to move the document to publication and to secure as much national attention for it as possible. That’s a success story. Peter Berkowitz (who serves on the NAS board of directors) wrote about the report in The Wall Street Journal weekend edition, and we’ve had a good run of stories in both the California and the national papers, including stories in the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Los Angeles Times.

The goal, however, is not publicity for the report per se, but to win serious attention from the University of California Regents. Recently Robert Birgeneau, chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, announced he would be stepping down at the end of this year. Birgeneau has served since 2004 and has not been exactly a bulwark against the university politicization. We think there is a real opportunity for the Regents to move in the direction of getting UC Berkeley and by extension the whole UC system to move in a better direction.

California Thinking

Of course, that’s an implausible idea on its face. The Regents collectively aren’t known for getting in the way of the ideological enthusiasms of the UC faculty and chancellors. Still, the report just might snag their attention. The University of California has long prided itself as being the best public system in the nation and in many ways it merits that reputation. At least in the sciences and medicine, it is unsurpassed. Yet these aren’t great days for public universities anywhere and the public higher education in California is especially hard hit.

A basic question is whether the University of California can afford the risk of graduating large numbers of students in the non-STEM fields who are mal-educated and don’t know it. The most insidious aspect of politicization is not overt advocacy but the invisible bias that takes the form of omission of important books, ideas, and historical content. It is the rare student who has done a great deal of independent reading who is capable of assessing what a politically correct curriculum leaves out. But while the omissions are often invisible to the students, they have real consequences.

Students are self-repairing to some extent. When they enter the workforce after graduation they begin to get lessons in how marketplaces work—lessons that often surprise those who have heard a great deal about the rapaciousness of capitalism and very little about the benefits of voluntary exchange. Perhaps even more importantly, graduates who spent their college educations absorbing a narrative that foregrounds America’s racial and ethnic tensions and the importance of group-based grievances have a lot to learn about the real fluidity of American life. The number of careers that can be made by insisting on the impenetrability of cultural barriers is pretty limited.

Learning to Doubt

The lynchpin of A Crisis of Competence is John Stuart Mill’s dictum that, “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.” To the extent that a university curriculum evolves into a mono-culture, it loses the capacity to teach students to think critically about the ideas they may be disposed to favor, let alone ideas that they find doubtful. I have had my own animadversions on the term “critical thinking.” Paradoxically, the term has been appropriated by advocates of various campus orthodoxies that want anything but open-minded examinations of premises, the cogency of arguments, or the quality of evidence. Taking a hammer to a cultural edifice is not critical thinking, nor is ad hominem attack on your opponents. But if you peel away the fatuous misuses of the idea, critical thinking remains the real goal of liberal-arts education, the form of intellectual excellence that puts the “higher” in higher education.

The University of California has a “critical thinking” requirement for admission. The general-education requirements are meant to ensure that every freshman arrives having already “attained essential critical thinking and study skills,” and students seeking to transfer to the UC system from California’s community colleges need to have taken a course in “one course in critical thinking/English composition.” One would like to think that this entrance requirement is merely a low threshold and that UC students will, after admission, find themselves on a steep upward ascent of demands for more and more rigorous applications of critical thinking skills. But, no, the evidence that Ellis has collected strongly suggests that isn’t what happens. Having passed that initial low-level threshold, UC students are often treated as having completed that part of their education.


The politicization of the University California is not one thing but many. The curriculum is at the center—since that’s where the university most egregiously fails to deliver the education it promises—but A Crisis of Competence peels back other layers. One of them is the now familiar saga of the politicization of faculty appointments.

My friend Robert Paquette at Hamilton College in New York recently struck the happy conceit that that liberal-arts colleges in their zeal to make ecological contributions ought to spare some effort to preserve the endangered conservative professor. Why conservatives are so scarce on college and university faculties is so well-rehearsed a topic that one seldom hears anything new. The usual calumnies are that conservatives are too stupid to succeed in academe; that conservatives are too greedy and materialistic to bother with the more noble self-sacrifices entailed in academic careers; or that conservatives aren’t missing at all—they are just huddled in the business school. These are falsehoods, but the last may be the most interesting, since even a lot of conservatives believe it to be true. But Christopher Cardiff and Daniel Klein’s published study of party registration data on faculty at eleven California universities shows something else. As Cardiff puts it, the “D:R ratio among tenure-track business professors was still hugely in favor of Democrats: UC Berkeley 2:1; UCLA 2.4:1; UCSD 6:1. In Economics, you see similar ratios, except in Berkeley, where it zoomed to 11:1.”

John Ellis appeared the other day on the Patt Morrison radio show on KPCC to talk about the report and Morrison arranged call-ins from several other academics, including Columbia University School of Journalism professor and New York Times blogger Thomas Edsall. Edsall achieved the rare feat of inventing a brand new explanation for the scarcity of conservatives within the professoriate. He freely admitted that most elite colleges and universities are “overwhelmingly Democratic” both in the faculty and among students, and allowed this isn’t an especially good thing. So how to explain it? What follows is my own transcript:

Thomas Edsall: But conversely, why is it that conservatives are not going into teaching? It is not that hostile to them. He [Ellis] may and he probably would argue that they are going to have trouble getting tenure or getting positions. But I don’t think that’s really a fair case. You just don’t get conservatives becoming engaged except in very small numbers. And that those that do, actually do quite well. Robert George at Princeton—who is a very conservative professor there—he has become a national presence. But the real question is why is it that conservatives have basically abandoned academia and given up the fight. It’s not as if it’s been exclusively a liberal takeover. There has also been a withdrawal from the right—in a sense kind of a cowardly withdrawal—giving up the battle. If they think it is so important, they should be in there fighting.

Patt Morrison: So Mr. Edsall so you think that conservatives have essentially conceded the territory. They are not fighting over this factory of ideas that is the university system?

Thomas Edsall: They only fight from the outside like the groups, like the National Association of Scholars, like articles that get published in the Weekly Standard and other conservative publications. It is very easy—it is like going target shooting—you can always find some screwball lefty nut to attack. But you got to get engaged on the ground in the fight which is on campus.

So we have a splendid new calumny: the cowardly conservatives who run away from the battleground but fling mud from a safe distance. Nice work, Professor Edsall.

I don’t think I’m up to answering every bit of humbug he packed into these sentences, but it seems worth picking up a few pieces.

First, I know Robby George. Robby George is on my board of advisors. Robby George is an extraordinary scholar. And if one has to be Robby George to be a conservative with a successful academic career, no wonder there are so few. The existence of Robby George doesn’t disprove the barriers faced by other conservatives. Those barriers are large and formidable. The truth is that, pace Professor Edsall, higher education, especially at the top universities, is that hostile.

And while we are on the subject of target shooting, Professor Edsall also mischaracterizes the National Association of Scholars which isn’t exactly conservative or exactly “outside.”  Most—about 90 percent—of our members hold faculty appointments and a substantial number consider themselves “liberal.” The NAS is traditionalist on academic matters, and we take no stand at all on political and cultural issues outside the academy. I know how easily “traditionalist” translates to “conservative” in the contemporary academy, but that says a lot more about the center of political gravity in academe than about NAS.

But as for accusation of cowardice, I think it is best answered by combining the jeux d’esprit of Paquette and Edsall. Conservatives are like those obstinate Bengal tigers who instead of coming out of the forest where they can be properly shot insist on slinking away. Or they are like those salmon that are just too fainthearted to climb over thirty-foot dams to spawn upriver. It’s their own fault if they can’t adapt to shotguns and power turbines.

Not Required But Offered

We want our report to be widely read and, better still, widely understood. In that sense it is certainly not a bad thing that it has elicited some put-downs such as Professor Edsall’s.  We are provoking conversation where it is needed. Of course, once a report gets into the media, the authors can’t control every use that is made of it. I was alerted this morning that presidential hopeful Rick Santorum may have picked up something from the report and—if so—misunderstood it. On page 45 of A Crisis of Competence, we point out that none of the University of California campuses require a course on American history:

In fact, on four of the nine general campuses, a student can achieve a bachelor’s degree without doing any coursework in science, mathematics, a foreign language, economics, literature, or the history and institutions of their country. Those four include the Berkeley campus. By contrast, every single one of the CSU campuses requires coursework in science and mathematics. To be sure, UC requires a year of U.S. history in high school for undergraduate admissions, but University of California level instruction ought to be on a completely different level—why otherwise would students need to go on to a university at all if high school coursework is equivalent?

Think Progress reported that Santorum said yesterday (Monday April 2) at a speech in Wisconsin that:

“I was just reading something last night from the state of California. And that the California universities—I think it’s seven or eight of the California system of universities don’t even teach an American history course. It’s not even available to be taught.”

Think Progress provides a video link.

Santorum didn’t mention our report by name or identify any of the articles that discussed our report, but it seems likely he had a garbled talking point derived from what we wrote.  To be clear, all of the UC campuses offer American history courses; none of them require an American history course as a general-education requirement. That’s in contrast to the California State University system, where “all but three of the more than twenty campuses” do require students to take an American history course.

Getting Rid of Politics

Mr. Santorum’s remarks usefully underscore that universities necessarily operate in a political world with politicians of every stripe attempting to score points—and more often than not getting it wrong. A Crisis of Competence is a not a call for a utopian world in which colleges and universities would be perfectly insulated from political realities. A public university system especially will be buffeted by political winds and the University of California all the more so in view of the state’s fiscal crisis.

So what does it mean to call for getting politics out of the university? Higher education has been slowly relinquishing for perhaps the last fifty years the old principle that the university ought to stand above and apart from the political fray. At this point, the only experience that many academics and almost all students have of higher education is one in which political use of the classroom is taken for granted. It is the new normal, at least outside the sciences, and sometimes within the sciences too.

This has its own train of rarely questioned justifications. “Everything is already political. Why not just be honest and open about it?” “Liberal society marginalizes radicals by tolerating them. We radicals need to liberate ourselves from repressive tolerance by rejecting so-called ‘objective standards.’” “The university of yore simply replicated the existing power structures. It was implicitly political. We need to problematize those structures.” “Power and domination is everywhere. We need to teach students how to question authority.” “The university of today still replicates the class structure. We need to expose it.”

When you force the debate, these are the sorts of things that come to the surface: a melange of Marcuse, Foucault, Lukacs, Freire, Grammsci, Butler, Berube, Nelson, Ayers, Mann (not Thomas), and maybe a little Thrasymachus. Might is always busy making right on the contemporary campus. If you don’t force the debate, you simply get the sense that the university really “ought to be on the side of fairness and justice.” And from there is barely a hop and a skip to promoting a partisan view of what fairness and justice should be.

A Crisis of Competence is a call to academics to pause over what this embrace of the idea that everything-is-political has done to the quality of instruction and learning. I know full well that there are those who believe it has been for the best. But we now have a substantial body of evidence that political activism brought inside the classroom has vitiated liberal learning.

This article originally appeared on April 4, 2012 on the Chronicle of Higher Education Innovations blog.

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