Academic Change We Can Believe In

Management philosopher Peter Drucker wrote that businesses exist only by the “sufferance” of society at large. If they fail to live up to the standards demanded by society they will lose their support in the broader community and ultimately cease to exist.

Colleges and universities, too, exist through society’s sufferance, receiving tax-free status on the ground that they provide a valuable service. But academia is not living up to the high standards expected of it. It is hostile to American society, to free markets, to Western civilization, and even to high standards of academic integrity.

The public is only beginning to realize that, but a shake-up may be closer than we think. Recently, a number of changes suggest that the public and academia are increasingly at odds. I’ll discuss four that strike me as tocsins.


This term refers, foremost, to emails by scholars working with the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in Great Britain. The university houses a major collection of global temperature records and its scientists belong to the elite international climate-change establishment. The now-famous messages, leaked to the public in November 2009, cast doubt on the honesty and integrity of leading scientists who have been claiming that “the science is settled” and that we must take political action to stop temperatures from rising.

In the emails, scholars revealed that they had manipulated data to preserve the impression that temperatures continue to rise (those temperatures aren’t rising and haven’t been for at least a decade). They discussed how to block the publication of scientific papers that disagree with their claims. And they disparaged global warming skeptics.

Perhaps even more important is the fact that CRU scientists had, first, refused to provide other scholars with the original data—the figures that they adjusted to create the official temperature records. Second, Phil Jones, head of the CRU, admitted that CRU staff had destroyed some of those data. Deliberate destruction of data comes close to the level of academic fraud.

And since November, new revelations about scientific flaws and misdemeanors have been flowing fast and furiously. For example, the 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is supposedly based on peer-reviewed science, but one of its highly publicized claims was that Himalayan glaciers would virtually disappear by 2035. It turns out that the claim was based on a scientist’s offhand remark in a report by the World Wildlife Fund.

With climate science tarnished, the public may nurture doubts about academia as a whole.

The Truth about Leftwing Professors

For years, researchers such as Daniel Klein and Charlotta Stern have shown authoritatively that the faculty at most universities are overwhelmingly liberal, rather than conservative. Until now, academics on campus have pooh-poohed these findings. Reactions have ranged from denial to “so what?”

For example, a recent study by Neil Gross and Ethan Fosse suggested that “occupational reputation” is the main reason for the tilt: Since universities tend to be liberal, conservatives know that they won’t be happy there, and stay away. The authors even threw in the argument that liberals are more tolerant of controversial ideas than others are (and thus more comfortable in an academic setting).

But finally, in an article the Chronicle of Higher Education, one professor “told all.”

Jere P. Surber, a philosophy professor at the University of Denver, proudly explained why scholars in the liberal arts are liberal. (He distinguished liberal-arts or humanities faculty from economists or finance professors, whom he considers conservative.) He cited three reasons.

The first is based on envy. “You don’t have to be a militant Marxist to recognize that people’s political persuasions will align pretty well with their economic interests,” he wrote.

Second, liberal arts faculty know that the “trajectory” of history is toward the left—greater government intervention. Third, Surber says, marching to the left is morally and ethically right.

“It is because we liberal-arts professors have a personal stake in our relative economic status; we have carefully studied the actual dynamics of history and culture; and we have trained ourselves to think in complex, nuanced, and productive ways about the human condition that so many of us are liberals,” he wrote.

To restate Surber’s point without the snobbery: If you believe that individuals and markets, not government intervention, have contributed the most to modern-day America, you are on the “wrong side of history.” You are immoral and unethical—conservative.

But once the public recognizes that most scholars love bigger governments, the “Joe the Plumbers” of the world may begin to doubt the value of academic thinking.

The Resurgence of Atlas Shrugged

Ayn Rand, the philosopher, novelist, and screenwriter who died in 1982, believed that the world’s economy depends on the productivity of entrepreneurs who pursue their self-interest, but they are constantly belittled and undermined by bureaucrats and politicians—whom she called “looters” in her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged.

Academic departments ignored her philosophy and dismissed her novels, but Rand was enormously popular during her lifetime, and after. In 1991, Book of the Month Club readers named Atlas Shrugged the second most influential book after the Bible, according to the New York Times.

Indeed, the 1957 novel has sold more than 6 million copies, says Yaron Brook, head of the Ayn Rand Institute. Atlas Shrugged averaged about 77,000 copies a year in the 1980s, says Brook. Today, sales are close to 200,000 a year.

One reason is the parallels between the destructive “looters” of Atlas Shrugged and today’s government and financial cronies.  Sales surged after two Wall Street Journal columns about Rand in 2009. In one, Stephen Moore wrote that the government was frantically pursuing “the very acts of economic lunacy that Atlas Shrugged parodied in 1957.”

Now, Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged have reached the campus. The chief force behind this move is John Allison, former CEO the North Carolina-based bank BB&T. A Rand devotee, Allison has authorized more than fifty grants to universities designed to further the understanding of capitalism and its moral foundations.

Most of these grants require that one class include Atlas Shrugged. Although these programs are usually housed in business or economic departments, rather than the liberal-arts colleges, the “BB&T grants” initiate a fresh look at capitalism. Academia may never be the same.

Questioning the Value of College

Perhaps the most extraordinary change in recent months has been public reconsideration of whether or not going to college is all that valuable

The Pope Center’s  George Leef  raised this issue as far back as 2006 in a paper titled “The Overselling of Higher Education.” Leef argued that “many students who are neither academically strong nor inclined toward serious work have been lured into colleges and universities.”

These are the “disengaged” students, largely inoculated from book learning. Because colleges and universities want more students—more bodies to pay the bills—these students continue to be courted, Leef wrote. Yet those who graduate may end up as pizza deliverers and theater ushers—holding jobs they could have had with just a high school diploma. Some face repayment of large college-loan debts, and more than 40 percent never finish college.

Leef’s argument was out of the mainstream—until recently. In 2008, iconoclastic author Charles Murray contended in his book Real Education that far fewer young people are capable of serious college-level education than actually attend.

In November, the Chronicle Review (part of the Chronicle of Higher Education) published an article titled “Are Too Many Students Going to College?” which led to a blog posting in the New York Times. More recently, Time magazine published an article by Ramesh Ponnuru, “The Case Against College Education.”

Even the Public Broadcasting Service weighed in. On February 26, McNeil/Lehrer Productions and the Miller Center for Public Affairs at the University of Virginia sponsored a debate on the question: “Does the U.S. Really Need More College Graduates?” The Pope Center’s George Leef was one of the debaters; others were former secretary of education Margaret Spellings, president of the United Negro College Fund Michael Lomax, and Richard Vedder of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.

If young people (and their parents) begin to think that college is not for everyone, university faculty and administrators will begin to notice. They will lose customers and may need to change what they offer.

There are other signs, too, that the fault line between what the public values and what academia is providing may be starting to tremble. These include economic pressures, the advent of online education, and the growing popularity of for-profit schools.

As Jeff Sandefer, founder of the Acton Business School, said a year ago, academia is beginning to look a lot like General Motors—“union-dominated, bureaucratic, out of touch with its customers, and out of touch with reality.”  

Reality has a way of rearing its head and causing unpleasant surprises.