A Mighty Maze: NAS Conference 2013

Ashley Thorne

View photos from the conference >

The National Association of Scholars’ 2013 conference and dinner was a smashing success. On the occasion of the NAS’s 25th anniversary, over 280 attendees convened at the Harvard Club of New York City on March 1 and 2. Guests and speakers brought ideas, curiosity, and thoughtfulness to some of the most critical issues in contemporary higher education.

Attendees said the event was “absolutely splendid,” “a great pleasure” and “an unforgettable weekend,” and that it “made NAS proud.” Students and young scholars added to the high energy level among participants.

The title of the conference was “A Mighty Maze: Charting the Future of American Higher Education,” inspired by the line’s from Alexander Pope’s poem “An Essay on Man”:

Expatiate free o'er all this scene of man;
A mighty maze! but not without a plan.

NAS’s conference brought people together to, in essence, draw up plans for the mighty maze of American higher education, and to summon a larger, liberating view of what it can do.

Friday: Conference

NAS president Peter Wood kicked off the event by quoting from the attack article on NAS that the Chronicle of Higher Education had published that morning. “The Chronicle says that the NAS is defeated, demoralized, broke, desperate, lost in a romantic vision of the past, lacking influence, and soon to be extinct as our membership shuffles off to the grave. Other than that, they like us,” he said.

Dr. Wood continued, “Looking out at you today, that’s not the picture I see.” The article was titled “National Scholars Group Turns 25, Showing Its Age.”

“I wouldn’t mind showing my age to be twenty-five,” Dr. Wood later said at the Saturday banquet. His written response to the article is in “Sorry Chronicle, No Swift Exit for NAS.”

The first session of the day presented reports from NAS’s latest and forthcoming research reports on the liberal arts. Robert Paquette of the Alexander Hamilton Institute at Hamilton College, presided and read statements from his letter—to the board of Hamilton College—of resignation from a named chair.

Thomas Klingenstein, who is sponsoring NAS’s Bowdoin Project, shared the background of how this project came to be; and Michael Toscano, NAS director of research projects and leading researcher for the Bowdoin Project, told how Bowdoin College has dropped its formerly strong core curriculum, has become obsessed with multiculturalism, and has actively encouraged a student culture of careless sex. After the conference, the Chronicle of Higher Education published a second article focusing on the Bowdoin Project, “National Association of Scholars Joins Investor in Teeing Up a Critique of Bowdoin,” to which Peter Wood replied in “No Nine Irons, Just Facts.”

Charles Geshekter, professor emeritus at California State University at Chico, spoke about the California Association of Scholars’ 2012 report, A Crisis of Competence, and the misfeasance of the University of California’s Board of Regents in responding to the concerns the report raised. Ashley Thorne, director of NAS’s Center for the Study of the Curriculum, talked about trends in college common readings programs: books in them, she said, are recent, trendy, and politically correct. Richard Fonte gave a detailed report on NAS’s latest publication, Recasting History, which examines how American history is taught at Texas’s two largest universities.

George Dent, law professor at Case Western Reserve University, presented the Peter Shaw Memorial Award to Princeton University politics lecturer Russell Nieli, for exemplary writing on higher education and American intellectual culture. Dr. Nieli’s recent book Wounds that Will Not Heal (which was sold at the conference) surveys social science research on racial preference policies over the past two decades.

Dr. Nieli also appeared in the second panel session and contemplated some of the socio-biological origins of the rage people feel over racial preferences. Althea Nagai discussed the work of the Center for Equal Opportunity in piecing together the factual record on racial preferences in college admissions. Gail Heriot, professor of law at the University of San Diego, gave fine-tuned explanations of the “mismatch” that results from racial preferences, and laid out where things stand in the Supreme Court case Fisher v. University of Texas, which will have a decision in spring 2013. Ward Connerly, president of the American Civil Rights Institute, moderated.

That wrapped up the formal program for Friday, and guests stayed afterward for a reception upstairs in the Harvard Club.

Saturday: Conference

Saturday’s line-up began with a session on the higher education bubble. Jason Fertig, assistant professor of management at the University of Southern Indiana, moderated with a balance of intellectual seriousness and flair. George Leef offered a first-hand account of how higher education has been flooded with students who do not even pretend to an interest in learning. Andrew Gillen, research director at Education Sector, challenged the audience to think not of one bubble, but two that interact with each other: cost and enrollment. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni’s Michael Poliakoff, brought a spirit of optimism to the discussion and shared constructive ideas for improving quality and cost-effectiveness in higher education.

The next panel was on the “new civics” and social justice, moderated by Minding the Campus editor John Leo. This theme combined two of NAS’s current emphases: colleges’ commitment to a nebulously defined “social justice” and efforts to rework civics education in favor of diversity, environmentalism, and “global citizenship.” Sol Stern, a research fellow at the Manhattan Institute, discussed the civics lessons of K-12 education and the influence of figures such as Paulo Freire and Bill Ayers in education schools. He suggested that the Common Core State Standards might be a solution. Fred Siegel of Saint Francis College traced the rise of the social justice movement to the end of the 1960s and to such figures as Herbert Marcuse and Norman O. Brown. Peter Berkowitz, senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, examined ten factors that contribute to higher education’s readiness to substitute political advocacy for academic standards.

At lunch, NAS chairman Herbert London presented Midge Decter, who helped to found NAS 25 years ago, the Sidney Hook Memorial Award for distinguished contribution to the defense of academic freedom and the integrity of academic life. The audience gave her a standing ovation.

Steve Milloy, founder of JunkScience.com and author of Green Hell, gave the luncheon keynote on “The Sustainability Movement in the College Petri Dish.” He recounted his own history working in the U.S. Department of Energy and analyzing EPA regulations. Mr. Milloy chronicled the rise of the environmental movement beginning with Rachel Carson’s critique of DDT and focusing on population control advocates Thomas Malthus and Paul Ehrlich. C-SPAN filmed Mr. Milloy’s talk.

Participants broke into five small groups for breakout sessions throughout the Harvard Club. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and the Leadership Institute discussed ways to fight bias and restore freedom on campus. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) shared how faculty members can help trustees hold universities accountable. Three organizations – the Ayn Rand Institute, the Institute for Humane Society, and the Koch Foundation – highlighted resources and opportunities that they offer for academics and graduate students. Sandra Stotsky met with others interested in K-12 education reform to talk about how the arts and sciences can strengthen education schools. Longtime colleagues of the late social scientist and former NAS chairman Stanley Rothman gathered to honor his legacy.

Stanley Kurtz, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, moderated the final session, titled “Whither the West?” One attendee called this panel “brilliant but devastating.” Stephen Balch, NAS’s founder, who is now the director of the Institute for the Study of Western Civilization at Texas Tech University, presented findings from the 2011 National Association of Scholars study The Vanishing West. The study shows that Western civilization survey course requirements are disappearing from the curriculum for general education and even for history majors. Ibn Warraq spoke about the unique culture of the West. Both he and Dr. Balch emphasized the irony that freedom of speech born in the West, which enables us to freely criticize our own nations, has led to an anti-Western trend. Warrq said, “Self-criticism can turn into self-loathing.” Hillsdale history professor Paul Rahe closed the panel by talking about the classical origins of the American Constitutional system, and rooting the Western tradition in the self-government of the Greek polis. 

Saturday: Dinner

Most conference attendees stayed on for dinner, and many new guests arrived for the evening. Herbert London gave a welcome and Stephen Balch led the room in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Christina Jeffrey, former member of the NAS board and former Historian of the U.S. House of Representatives, presented the Barry R. Gross Memorial Award to Lauren Noble for outstanding service to academic reform. Miss Noble founded and is now president of the William F. Buckley, Jr. Program at Yale University. She graduated from Yale in 2011.

Tom Wolfe, our keynote, was charming in his customary white suit. Peter Wood introduced him, saying, “Dr. Wolfe, I must add, is joining the NAS on the celebration of its 25th birthday.  But this happens to be his birthday as well—his 82nd.   Happy birthday, Tom Wolfe, and welcome to our mutual celebration.”

Dr. Wolfe is the author of many books of both fiction and non-fiction. His novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons, is a portrait of what passes for student culture in today’s elite universities.

At NAS’s celebration, he spoke about the modern college experience as well as some of the questions about the future of traditional higher education. “Today in the Great Recession, the liberal arts are kind of like a pleasure dome. Very seldom are universities asked the question, ‘What are the liberal arts?’”

He also nodded at what conference speakers had earlier been referring to as the higher education bubble. “Today, many people with their doctorates cannot find jobs, particularly if they majored in gender studies,” Dr. Wolfe said. “Who’s going to pay you to study gender?”


NAS’s meeting had a continuous underlying theme of fellowship and rejuvenation. Midge Decter said at lunch on Saturday that the gathering felt less like a conference and more like a family reunion. Indeed, we saw old friends and also made new ones. Attendees enjoyed time between and after sessions connecting with and getting to know one another. Some who had corresponded long-distance met each other in person for the first time. 

The dinner benefitted from sponsorship by numerous allied organizations who brought many guests who had never before been to a National Association of Scholars event.

Raritan Valley Community College political science professor (and NAS staff member) Glenn Ricketts was encouraged by the time spent with NAS members and friends: “I need to be reinvigorated and have my faith affirmed from time to time.”

“I am so energized by the conference,” Christina Jeffrey agreed.

NAS board member Jay Bergman summed it up: “The panels were stimulating and informative, the award recipients deserving, and the lunch and dinner speakers thought-provoking.  And the camaraderie the conference made possible by bringing together combatants in a shared cause that is just was truly invigorating.”

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