Storming the Academic Fortress

The spirit of the Spanish Inquisition is alive and well in the American university, according to George Mason University law professor Todd Zywicki, in remarks he made at the 2007 Pope Center Conference. Academia has a “new dogma” based on multiculturalism, environmentalism, and feminism, he said. “They will enforce it viciously.”

The higher education establishment can often seem to be a near-monolithic power that ruthlessly crushes any opposition, as Zywicki suggests. Yet it is coming under increasing attack by those who want to perpetuate America’s culture and traditions.

The reform movement was very much in evidence at the conference on October 29th, with both speakers and guests who are active participants in a wide variety of attempts to alter higher education’s current path. Zywicki is at the center of one key controversy concerning the selection of trustees at Dartmouth College. There were at least four representatives of independently funded academic centers with free market and traditional perspectives. Another speaker is the founder of an online, for-profit university with a curriculum based on conservative principles. And there was even a graduate student embarking on a dream to launch a new college based on the “Great Books” concept, which emphasizes traditional learning by reading classic works.

Zywicki’s speech addressed the barriers erected to prevent independent alumni from becoming trustees at Dartmouth, and the subsequent attempts to dilute the power of the independent trustees once those barriers fell. The schools board of trustees has historically been divided between elected and appointed members. Currently there are eight of each. Procedures and entrenched interests have consistently produced trustees that rubber-stamp the “dogma-driven” agenda of the left-leaning faculty, according to Zywicki. There is one alternative path: an independent “petition” candidate can be elected, but the aspiring trustee first must get 500 alumni signatures to get placed on the ballot. Such candidates were extremely rare until recently, Zywicki said. In the past, producing all the signatures was an “insuperable hurdle, because the college wouldn’t give you mailing lists.”

Starting in 2004, with the Internet enabling rapid-fire communications among alumni, four reform-minded petition candidates were elected in short order, including Zywicki. The rest of the board, however, dug in their heels at this intrusion. They added eight appointed seats, thus “breaching the principle of parity” that was the system’s original intent, according to Zywicki.

“They couldn’t win at the ballot box, so they got rid of the ballot box,” he continued. Yet the established trustees’ efforts went for naught. The threat of a lawsuit by an alumni organization forced the board to postpone any changes to the board’s composition. Despite their minority status, Zywicki said, he and his cohorts have managed to start dismantling Dartmouth’s “social engineering” agenda, including forcing repeal of the (politically correct) speech code.

Not all schools have a back door into positions of real power as at Dartmouth, however, and more creative solutions are needed elsewhere. Zywicki referred to independent centers as a form of “guerrilla warfare,” in that they establish a reform presence on campuses in relatively small ways, by funding lecture series and scholarships, endowing chairs, or crafting minor curriculum. And, despite their serious educational purposes, they are frequently unwelcome on campus.

The struggles of the Alexander Hamilton Institute at Hamilton College have been particularly bitter. In 2006, the college initially welcomed an alumnus’ $3.6 million donation to run the center as part of the school. When the traditional American emphasis of the proposed center became known, the uproar by the faculty caused the administration to withdraw its support for the project. School officials gave the donor and center staff the option of submitting to greater oversight by the college.

Instead, the Institute’s principals chose to operate off campus and unaffiliated with the college, to the dismay of its opponents.

Dr. Robert Paquette, a Hamilton history professor who heads the Institute, said he has suffered retribution since the center opened this September. The dean of his college informed him, “[D]espite your scholarship and your efforts at teaching effectively, I cannot see clear to raising your salary.” And within two weeks of the Center’s opening, vandals defaced the center’s sign, writing, “This is a joke…” Paquette said he knew it wasn’t written by ordinary vandals because of their use of the ellipsis (…).

Several traditional and free market-oriented centers are thriving, like Duke University’s Gerst Program in Political, Economic and Humanistic Studies. “My hope is that some of these programs will grow into full-fledged departments and more,” said Stephen H. Balch, a keynote speaker at the conference who is also the founder of the National Association of Scholars. He believes that reform must come from beyond the ivory tower, and these independently funded centers hold great promise for making inroads into mainstream academia. He added that over 30 such centers have been founded in recent years.

Zywicki disagreed. He said the centers, while valuable in their own way, are insufficient. He believes that the key ahead lies with the “creation and support of alternative institutions.”

One place where alternative academic institutions have been proliferating is on the Internet. Conference speaker Richard Bishirjian founded Yorktown University, an online school that emphasizes traditional thought, in 2001. Gaining accreditation from official regional associations has been his major hurdle, he said. Accrediting associations, which are supported financially by existing schools, often work in concert with the academic establishment to choke off competition from alternatives, Bishirjian contends, rather than serving as a guarantor of a quality education. Accreditation is the key to increasing enrollment: without it, schools are poorly perceived by the public and the business community, and students generally cannot transfer credits to other schools or receive federal financial aid.

Bishirjian recently moved Yorktown University from Virginia because of his longstanding battle over accreditation with the regional Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). He said that SACS, which regulates Virginia, “has never accredited a university that is solely Internet-based,” but numerous online colleges have been accredited elsewhere. He moved the school to Colorado, where the regional accrediting agency, the North Central Association, has a history of being open to online education.

Another alternative institution represented at the conference is currently little more than a dream and a concept. Stephen Blackwood, a graduate student in religion at Emory University, and Jim Pritchard, a North Carolina business consultant, are seeking funds to start a “Great Books” college. Blackwood said they are motivated by a desire to help reverse what they see as “an implosion of liberal learning.”

The higher education reform movement is only starting. Not all endeavors will succeed, and whether all such ventures combined will have any lasting effect on the culture remains to be seen. “Academic reformers have to decide whether they are serious or not,” Zywicki cautioned. “The entrenched powers are well entrenched and very powerful.”

Yet—to extend Zywicki’s medieval Catholic Church analogy—after the Inquisition came the Reformation.

Editor’s Note: Jay Schalin is a writer/researcher for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh.