From Ivory Tower to Shining City Upon a Hill

(Editor’s note: The following is the written version of a speech given by the Pope Center’s Jay Schalin to the Higher Education Working Group at the annual State Policy Network convention in September of 2013.)

Something I’ve noticed with a great many state policy groups over the years is that they seem to do very little with higher education.

Indeed, even in our state of North Carolina, where the first solidly Republican government in over 100 years won monumental victories, such as the end of tenure in K-12 education and major changes to the tax code, there was almost no reform for higher education.

I understand why there is so much focus on other issues. Many of them need immediate attention: health care, the rights of gun owners, gay marriage, environmental regulations and so on. And certainly K-12 education, which affects almost everybody at some point in their lives—not so for higher education. The amount of money spent by states on higher education is much less than on K-12: in North Carolina, it’s about 3:1

Why then, should you spend your precious time and effort on higher education?

There are a great many reasons. First of all, higher education produces a lot of really bad ideas, and those ideas often manifest themselves in other political and social issues. Focusing on the better publicized, more urgent issues can resemble attacking the symptoms of a disease instead of the disease itself—in this case, of the plague of modern liberalism. If Johnny can’t read, a good share of the blame goes to the education school that trained his teachers in ways that guarantee many of their students will inevitably struggle with basic skills. If government at all levels is pushing oppressive and economy-choking environmental regulations, justification for environmental regulations is produced largely by university professors, such as the famed “Hockey Stick” graph that supports man-made global warming.

If you deal with young voters who don’t grasp how the world works, that is a failure of education, especially higher education. For instance, if they see capitalism in a negative light, chances are they were not taught economics by an economics professor, or even by a political science professor, but were taught anti-capitalist opinions with no grounding in fact by their social science or humanities professors.

Academia is American liberals’ sanctuary, their fortress, their source. By controlling the campuses, the Left is able to control much of the nation’s intellectual debate. Two strains of the American Left, the native-born Progressivism and European Marxism, survive. Neither would have spread so extensively without help from universities. America’s intellectual transition from the emphasis on individual natural rights that underpinned our Constitution to the relativism that paves the way for collectivism was largely the work of academics, especially William James of Harvard and John Dewey of Columbia. And our most fiercely Progressive president, Woodrow Wilson, was also our most academic president.

As for the Marxist strain, when the neo-Marxist members of the Frankfurt School fled Germany in the 1930s, they found a new home in American universities, particularly Columbia. The New Left that fostered the 1960s counterculture, as embodied by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Students for a Democratic Society, the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the Port Huron Statement, was largely a child of academia.

Academia is now where the left goes when they need a second chance, to gain hidden influence, or to lazily finish out their careers. Married violent 1960s radicals Bill Ayers and Bernadette Dohrn found homes there: Ayers as a highly influential education professor, who did far more damage to the U.S. as an educator than he did as a terrorist, and Dohrn as a law professor. Another violent member of the Weathermen, Howard Machtinger, was recently discovered working at UNC-Chapel Hill, quietly bouncing from staff job to staff job until he reached retirement. It would seem that somebody high up in the system was looking out for him.

The politicization of the universities is by design, and it has reached the point at which the inmates have truly taken over the asylum. And they get to decide who follows in their footsteps. At UNC-Wilmington, out of roughly 100 candidates for a tenure track job in the English Department, many of them with outstanding credentials from the top universities and desperate for work in today’s buyer’s market, the department decided that the aptly named Dr. Alessandro Porco was the right person to educate the young of North Carolina about ideas and culture. The fact that his Ph.D. was from non-prestigious SUNY Buffalo, that his Ph.D. dissertation was about hip-hop, and that his first book he described as “my book-length ode to the adult-film star affectionately referred to as ‘the anal queen’” did not discourage the hiring committee of English professors. Rather, it is likely that such lowly scholarship and low character encouraged them.

Another reason why it is important to investigate public universities is because they are subject to extreme mission creep. A few years ago, the chancellor of UNC-Chapel Hill wrote a book in which he suggested that universities were the solutions to all the world’s problems (he resigned this year after failing to resolve a university athletic scandal). When you see what your state is up to, you will find that universities are heavily involved in states’ central planning efforts for economic development. You will see that the land-grant extension services—initially created to help farmers adopt better agricultural methods—are heavily involved in politically correct social engineering. In North Carolina, the university system operates a network of free health clinics throughout the state—hardly a primary function of academia.

Studies show that students’ political beliefs move to the left in their college years—this is no accident. A couple of years ago, at one of my alma maters, the University of Delaware, incoming freshmen and transfer students were greeted at the door of their dormitories and forced into an indoctrination program in which they had to confess details of their sexuality and to adopt the persona of various demographics in group exercises. University literature described it as “’treatment” for students’ incorrect attitudes and beliefs. And it was hardly an isolated incident: such programs are increasingly adopted by U.S. colleges and universities.

Higher education can also be a big money pit for state revenues. A couple of years ago, in the face of a severely bloated state budget, the first North Carolina legislature with Republican control in over 100 years gave the university system a 14 percent “haircut,” roughly $400 million.  Today, despite all the gnashing of teeth and wailing that such “draconian” cuts would mean the end of the world, staffing levels are roughly the same as they were before and faculty workloads have even gone down slightly by my reckoning. It seems our university system had so many little hidden slush funds, so many non-existent jobs funded with state revenues, and so many ways of moving money around behind the scenes that even those substantial cuts hardly touched their actual operations. And chances are, your university system is much the same.

Trying to restore sanity to a state university system is not easy, nor is it for the faint of heart—public universities have legislators on both sides of the aisle in their pockets. Texas, with the help of Governor Perry and the Texas Public Policy Center, was able to make some serious reforms a couple of years ago. When a member of the University of Texas Regents started digging into some corruption at the law school, the legislature rewrote the laws to remove all real power from the Regents. This in spite of the fact that the legislature was controlled by Republicans.

In North Carolina this year, the Republican legislature did an excellent job in many areas, save one. Higher education got almost no legislative reforms; the most important one was “collateral damage” intended to cut costs in K-12 education by ending an automatic pay raise for teachers who get master’s degrees in education. One outstanding provision in the state budget that would have greatly improved university transparency made it through the first few votes but was removed in the eleventh hour evidently due to some back room maneuvering.

Of course, it is difficult to address problems such as the highly politicized professoriate. We have to tread lightly in such ideological matters as bringing about a balanced curriculum. After all, we don’t want to set precedents, such as government control over the course content, that can be turned against ourselves in the future,

But that doesn’t mean you should ignore higher education as an issue. If we can start to change the way that history and ideas are taught, start to change the way young people think, or rather, undo the damage that has already been done over the years and get them to think at all, it won’t be long before all kinds of positive things happen. The left knows how important academia is when it comes to molding opinions; we should acknowledge their savvy and combat their academic dominance.

So what can you do to reform a state university system?

Over the years, we’ve identified two schools of thought regarding how to reform academia. One is to forget about reforming existing institutions and focus on innovations and building new institutions, due in part to a belief that mainstream academia has become irredeemable and in part to a great faith in innovation. Indeed, there are many promising developments suggesting that higher education is ripe for a serious wave of creative destruction: the Internet has enabled various innovations, while other people are restoring neglected aspects of higher education by starting up small traditional schools based on traditional learning. We are seeing all manner of innovation and fresh thinking in this vein.

But the future is highly unpredictable. Placing too much certainty in the inevitability of sweeping changes to the universities from without could prove disastrous. Despite the odds, we must try to fix the damage already done to the existing academy.

There is considerable hope for state policy groups to do so, because, although it seems counter-intuitive, public university systems may be more easily reformed than private schools. Private schools have a complex system of governance that spreads the power around and gives most of it to the administration and faculty. Although public university systems often try to mimic private governance in order to keep the power in the hands of the administration and faculty, they really have only one primary owner—the people of the state, meaning the voters and taxpayers.

That power to govern the university is placed in the hands of boards of governors or regents or trustees by the state’s elected officials. If you can get good people onto the boards, you might be able to affect real change. But board members can be subject to the same enervating influences and attitudes that turn reforming legislators into go-along-to-get-along milquetoasts, and university administrations work overtime to co-opt them.

So check out the system’s governance procedures—a little tweak might be able to give positive results. In North Carolina, the system of governance isn’t bad—the system board members are appointed by the legislature and we’ve got a solidly Republican legislature. But there is a major asymmetric information problem: the system administration controls the information provided to the governors, including expert testimony and studies. Naturally, it’s all one-sided, so we’re proposing that the board get its own executive director who will be beholden to the board and provide more objective information.

If you don’t have the resources to aggressively pursue higher education reform, at least try to attend the university system’s board meetings. Chances are they are currently reported on only by a fawning mainstream media; letting them know you are watching and holding their feet to the fire in the blogosphere can make a difference.

Another thing to check out is the degree of transparency. In North Carolina, we can’t even get department-level financial information. That means we can’t tell such fundamental matters as whether the History Department got a budget cut while the Gender Studies Department got a raise. The provision in the state budget that was eliminated at the last minute that I mentioned before would have given us that transparency.

Learn your state’s public records laws. Certainly North Carolina’s statutes governing public records can stand improvement. Right now, the reigning standard declares that a dozen personnel items are public and everything else is private. It should be the other way around; as it stands, professors’ published works can be withheld from the public—consider what the phrase “to publish” means.

Also, course syllabi need to be posted online: you can learn a lot about academia by looking at syllabi and professors’ published writing.

Another approach is to establish “beachheads” on campuses. By beachheads, we mean some sort of conservative presence: a student organization or publication or an independent intellectual center with a liberty-minded agenda hardwired into its mission. If we are going to take back the schools, such an official presence is necessary as a place from which to grow, or to keep an eye on the campus.

Which brings us to the area of fundraising. Every year perhaps millions of conservative and libertarian Americans reflexively write checks to their alumni funds without thinking twice, and then their beloved alma maters spend that money in attempts to destroy the conservative vision of America. Just a little of that money spent on more sensible alternatives could go a long way toward improving academia.

Additionally, how much does a $10,000 check mean to a school with an endowment in the billions or hundreds of millions? On the other hand, it could mean a great deal to a struggling conservative center or a recently founded Great Books college.

One curricular matter that can be addressed at the legislative or board level is the General Education “core.” This is the university’s opportunity to make sure that all graduates have a small set of skills and knowledge that are most essential for a productive, thinking citizen to possess. Today, most universities have watered it down with inclusiveness; both Chapel Hill and N.C. State allow students to choose from thousands of courses, many of them so narrow or superficial as to mock the idea of a core curriculum.

Another battlefront is what we call “the overselling of higher education.” That is, too many unprepared, disengaged students are pushed and pulled into attending college by bad information and government subsidies. There’s a lot of promise to reduce this problem, for you can actually get some liberals to agree to a realistic look at workforce needs that suggest more emphasis on community colleges and vocational training. Shifting weaker students at your high-cost second and third-tier state colleges—especially anybody who needs remedial education—to low-cost community colleges can save tens of millions of dollars in a bigger state. And we were able to get that process started even when North Carolina’s government was solidly blue. 

Of course, there is always the matter of exposing those egregious incidents of politicization and depravity. Although affecting classroom content is a touchy area, you can’t give academia a pass. The public needs frequent reminders that universities are not always beneficial, or even benign, institutions. Parents need to be reminded that they are sending Junior or Missy to a place where wild and harmful ideas and behaviors are promoted, even by the top administrators. Taxpayers need to be reminded that they are funding the same.

Occasionally, you can get a small victory on the ideological front. My first story for the Pope Center was exposing a hard-core leftist assistant professor at UNC-Chapel Hill who blatantly used his classroom to indoctrinate: most of the reading assignments were political in nature and were written by people connected to a single obscure Maoist political journal. A year or so after he was exposed, he was denied tenure.

Yet it is likely that two or three others took his place. The Left keeps pushing the envelope. Radical student groups are re-emerging; Chapel Hill has a re-born SDS and anarchist groups that formed out of the ashes of the Occupy movement.

At times, it looks like academia is impossible to reform. At other times, it looks like the problems may take care of themselves. I’d say that both of those perspectives are wrong in their entirety—we should employ both approaches to reform. There are fundamental weaknesses in the Left’s thinking: with constant pressure, the left-leaning Tower of Ivory will tumble. If you take their source from them, many other issues will fall into place. On the other hand, if you ignore the Left’s dominance of the academy, given its enormous influence, your path may always be uphill.