Six Ideas to De-Politicize the American Campus

The politicization of higher education is a huge societal problem. Even though there is an overwhelming consensus that universities’ ultimate purpose should be a search for the truth and that it is imperative that inquiry and dialogue be kept free and open, this is increasingly not the case. In many departments, acknowledged communists outnumber registered Republicans. Speakers who dissent from the campus orthodoxy are routinely shouted down or chased off campus, faculty hiring committees weed out all dissent, left-wing dogma makes its way into classrooms, and administrations seem increasingly hesitant to resist academia’s most vocal and radical voices.

But that doesn’t mean we have to submit to this assault on the open society. There are also hopeful signs: state legislatures are enacting laws that guarantee free speech and freedom of association, a wide variety of organizations have emerged to combat politicization, and campus goings-on are coming under greater public scrutiny. It may be that the politicization of academia is bottoming out.

And it certainly can’t hurt to keep the pressure on to restore open dialogue and the pursuit of truth. So we asked representatives of some of the leading academic reform organizations for ideas on how to build on recent successes.

Here are their solutions:


To Depoliticize Our Universities, ‘De-Nationalize’ Higher Education
By Tom Lindsay
Director of the Center for Education Innovation at the Texas Public Policy Foundation

Most college graduates above the age of 55 remember that their best teachers refused to allow themselves to be pigeonholed as mere hawkers of one political agenda over another. They refused to do this not because they were politically indifferent, but because they knew that their job was to teach, not indoctrinate. And they knew that teaching and indoctrination are mutually exclusive.

But that was then. Now, ideology disguised as scholarship has attained Delphic Oracle status on a growing number of campuses. (No surprise, then, that surveys find 40 percent of millennials today favor denying the First Amendment’s protections to those whose speech is “offensive.”) If affirmative action for conservative faculty is not the answer (and I do not believe it is the answer), what can be done to reduce the politicization of our campuses?

The only solution that appears consistent with a free society is this: On both constitutional and prudential grounds, what is required to depoliticize our schools are measures that reduce the federal role in higher education. The main way to accomplish this is by making state accreditation sufficient for receipt of funding authorized by Title IV (of the Higher Education Act). Doing so would break the grip of the regional accrediting bodies, which too often have acted as gatekeepers for the higher-education cartel—blocking the entrance of alternative modes of education and therewith stifling needed innovation.

With states in control of Title IV authorization and free to experiment without the federal government imposing conformity on them, the states would become again the laboratories of democracy that the Constitution intends them to be. As a result, innovation would flower again, as states pick and choose from among the pioneering projects conducted by other states.

By returning to a higher education model based on federalism, college students would be able to capitalize on the different offerings that would flower in the 50 states and to receive funds to attend the school and program that best fit their needs.

To be sure, empowering the individual states to certify their schools for receipt of Title IV federal funding would lead some states to adopt less-than-optimal arrangements. When this happens, the other 49 will take heed and not repeat the mistake. A continuous cycle among the states of trial, error, correction, and imitation stands a better chance of yielding needed reforms than top-down edicts from Washington, D.C. In even the worst-case scenario—where a prospective college student lives in a state whose higher education system is fatally politicized—the student is free to attend a more academically serious institution in another state, one that has capitalized on the opportunities provided by a return to state authorization of schools.

The point here is that there will still be other states with genuine universities if they are allowed to forge their own paths. Currently, with higher education increasingly under federal control, all schools, regardless of their state, are becoming ideological echo chambers. With a restoration of constitutional federalism, more students will be empowered to vote with their feet and pocketbooks. Moreover, the states from which they are fleeing will be forced to take note and reform themselves, if only out of economic self-interest.


Making Higher Ed More Accountable Will Lead to a Better Campus Political Climate
By David Randall
Director of Communications at the National Association of Scholars

The one thing legislators should do to depoliticize higher education is to make colleges and universities co-responsible for student loans—the so-called “skin in the game” policy. If these institutions were responsible for some significant amount, say, 30 percent of each student loan—as the National Association of Scholars recommends—they would acquire several incentives to change in positive ways. None of these incentives are directly political, but each of them would reduce the opportunities for the politicization of higher education.

The main incentive is that, if colleges and universities were responsible for loans, they would be encouraged to admit only well-prepared students. Students who aren’t prepared for college are also bad risks for being able to repay a college loan down the road, as they tend to drop out without improving their chances for well-paid employment. And even those who graduate often do so in majors that aren’t much help in the labor market.

So how does that affect politicization? For one thing, colleges that admit fewer badly prepared students—often in need of serious remediation—won’t need to come up with ideological rationalizations to justify the presence of students who shouldn’t be in college.

Secondly, if you decrease the number of remedial students, you also decrease the number of bureaucrats dedicated to retaining unqualified students. First-Year Experience, Student Life, Residential Life, Office of Sustainability, Office of Diversity—all the “co-curricular” bureaucrats justify themselves in good measure as necessary to help retain unqualified students. Since these bureaucrats are heavy drivers of politicization on campus, pruning their numbers—or at least removing the pressure to increase their numbers even further—will reduce the politicization dynamic.

Reducing the number of unqualified students also reduces the incentive to create hollow politicized courses for unqualified students to take. Identities studies courses, civic engagement courses, and the like, all give students credit for saying I Am My Identity—not least to provide a gut course for unprepared students. The faculty who teach such courses are often the most actively radical; their disappearance from the campus will have a positive effect on the intellectual climate.

Additionally, reduce the number of remedial students, and you also reduce the need for communications departments, heavily politicized bastions that smuggle left-wing propaganda into teaching basic writing.

Make colleges and universities co-responsible for student loans and they will also have an incentive to have students learn skills that actually qualify them for well-paying jobs in the workforce. Junk politicized courses, or junk politicization of solid courses, will run up against the incentive of colleges not to lose money. Colleges will also have an incentive to hire competent professors who teach solid skills, rather than politicized faculty or administrators who only offer ideological catechism.

Making colleges co-responsible for student loans won’t be a cure-all. But I can’t think of a single other measure that can do more.


Inoculate Students Against Indoctrination with Proactive Parenting
By Jennifer Kabbany
Editor at The College Fix

Higher education is past the point of no return. Proactive parenting is the only solution.

Anyone who thinks significant higher education curriculum reform is a real possibility hasn’t been paying attention. The inmates are running the asylum. To be sure, there are some good professors doing good work. But they are few and far between, and the humanities are all but lost.

The older generation of leftist professors is retiring, replaced with younger scholars who are even more radical. Indoctrination has replaced teaching in many classes, and entire schools are prioritizing identity politics. The goal of many courses today—whether history, English, political science or any other—is to set young hearts and minds against the principle that America is an exceptional land of opportunity. (Indeed, that expression is a microaggression on most campuses!)

What is to be done? The ultimate solution is not by legislation or trustee strong-arming. And while vocational schooling, tech opportunities, independent entrepreneurship programs, the military, and other pathways offer strong alternatives to the kindergarten-to-university pipeline, they do not fill all of society’s training needs.

Therefore, the postsecondary academic institution will remain a societal backbone, fractured and infected as it is, in the foreseeable future. So we must prepare our youth for the intellectual battle they will face when they enter the higher education arena. That means that proactive parenting is essential. We may not be able to altogether reform higher education, but we can arm our children with facts, awareness, and logical reasoning that will counteract the half-truths and bias lobbed at them by professors.

I can offer a personal anecdote on what arming our kids with knowledge looks like. My son is 18 and a United States Marine. But before he went out to serve and protect this great country, it was my job to be his teacher. No, I didn’t homeschool him. But my husband and I made sure his public-school teachers were not the only ones influencing his intellectual development. Together we watched PragerU videos, Dinesh D’Souza documentaries, and online Hillsdale College lectures. We listened to conservative talk radio. We studied subjects at home such as intelligent design, conservatism, and free-market economics. We connected him with groups like Young America’s Foundation, which offers right-of-center educational high school retreats. Over dinner, we’d ask him what he learned in school and offered counterpoints.

We supplemented his education so he will not be easy prey for a professor with an agenda, if and when the time comes. All parents must do this. We cannot let public schools—and in effect, the government—be our children’s first and only educators.

It’s not just about higher education. The fate of our great nation is at stake. And maybe de-politicization of higher education can start from the bottom up, with students who have been intellectually inoculated by their parents against the academic left’s designs on their minds and souls.


Empower Alumni to Be Independent Voices
By Jay Schalin
Director of Policy Analysis at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal 

One way to push back against politicization is to empower alternative alumni groups. Currently, most official alumni organizations are controlled by their administrations. As a result, some of the most important voices are missing from the governance of the Ivory Tower.

As academia has great influence on society, society should have some say about the direction that influence will take. Too often in recent years, academia leads in a direction that is antithetical to what the nation stands for. Independent alumni organizations are needed to correct this one-sided movement, as they are more connected to the nation as a whole; their diverse ways of engaging the general society can provide a valuable and differing perspective to university governance.

But such independence is not the case today; instead of influencing their campus, they are managed by the school administration. They are fed propaganda (ever look at your alumni magazine?), encouraged to send money and moral support, and kept in the dark about controversial issues.

A few alumni make it onto their school’s governing boards, but often they are handpicked in some political process that ensures they will be subordinate to the administration. (You can see here what happened at Dartmouth when alumni tried to assert themselves). And school surveys of alumni opinions are essentially push-polls intended to produce the results desired by the administration.

As a result, graduates lack any meaningful input into the way their alma mater is run. Which is a problem since they tend to reflect the nation’s true values much more than the faculty or administration. Alumni who are concerned about the direction the administration is taking at their school have little recourse except to make futile individual gestures, such as writing angry letters or withholding donations.

But, imagine if those angry letters or withheld donations were multiplied a thousand-fold? That could be enough to make schools mend their errant ways, at least to some degree.

Furthermore, enabling alternative alumni groups to thrive could disrupt the administration’s control of information. Since individual alumni (or small groups of them) often have deep inside knowledge of the college, they would be able to spread the word rapidly through the alumni network—and from there enter the public arena. In this way, corruption and politicization could be countered.

The process would be simple; any graduate could gather a fair number of alumni signatures and register the group with the school, with reasonable rights and responsibilities spelled out for both parties. Any concerns, such as privacy issues stemming from providing alternative alumni groups with graduates’ contact information, could easily be worked out. For instance, the school could control the contact information for all graduates—but once or twice a year permit the alternative groups to contact them through a listserv. Alumni who wish to be part of the group could provide contact information to the group’s officers.

To see just how beneficial this idea would be, present it to some high-level college or university administrators and watch their heads explode.


Cultivate Capacity for Constructive Disagreement
By Debra Mashek
Executive Director of Heterodox Academy 

Those of us in academia must work to change campus culture from the bottom up to ensure that there is a free and open exchange of ideas. We can best accomplish this by helping students, faculty, and others develop the skills for “constructive disagreement.”

In constructive disagreement, perspectives are raised, considered, and challenged with a shared commitment to mutual inquiry. It is typified by fearless, respectful engagement with others and their ideas. While essential to learning and strong research, constructive disagreement is not easy. It requires a range of cognitive, emotional, and social skills, including intellectual humility, curiosity, resilience, respect, perspective taking, and empathy.

In a world as complex as ours, it is unlikely that any one person holds a full and accurate understanding of problems, much less solutions. Intellectual humility compels us to at least question the completeness of our understanding while curiosity compels us to seek out and to try to understand the views of others. Resilience, in turn, helps individuals depersonalize difference. Resilient individuals are well-practiced at questioning and reframing their initial reactions to critique and challenge, and finding ways to read people and their actions with generosity and compassion.

Respect short circuits the impulse to dehumanize—and thus delegitimize—those who see the world differently. It sets the stage for understanding other perspectives, compelling us to ask how a fellow worthy, reasonable, and well-intentioned person could come to a different conclusion. Understanding how others’ lived experiences have shaped their views results in deeper empathy.

What can those of us charged with realizing the mission of the academy do to cultivate these capacities? Professors can craft their syllabi to signal their expectations that students practice these habits of heart and mind throughout a course. When curating lists of readings, discussion topics, assignments, and guest speakers, instructors should take care to represent a range of viewpoints and to do so with a commitment to depth and accuracy, as opposed to relying on caricatures or generalizations of divergent views. When feasible, co-teach with others who see things differently—both to expose students to viewpoint variance and to model for them how to navigate that variance with aplomb.

Concurrently, campus leadership must be vocal advocates and visible models for constructive disagreement. Sponsor lecture series that explore heterodox ideas. Fund initiatives designed to promote virtuous discourse across constituencies. Include in job ads language that explicitly states viewpoint diversity is welcomed. Hold campus conversations about the values and limits of viewpoint diversity—and do so soon, before your campus experiences a meltdown.

If this seems like too much to tackle, explore the OpenMind Platform, a free, web-based tool based on psychological research that invites users to practice, and thus develop, many of the capacities described above. Adopt it as a common experience for entering first-year students or assign it in any course that explores social and political issues.

While policy interventions may help depolarize campuses, developing the capacity for constructive disagreement among those who make up our complex college communities offers a localized, durable solution.


Focus on Excellence in Education Rather Than Ideological Diversity
By Karen Hyman
Senior Vice President of Policy and Programs at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni

The phrase “viewpoint diversity” has become the locution du jour for what was long called “ideological diversity.” When it comes to the serious ills besetting our universities, calling for any brand of diversity—be it racial, class, gender, or viewpoint—is a common response. But, as a curative for education’s ills, focusing on creating viewpoint or ideological diversity is bound to come up short.

Higher education reformers need to seek practical ways to solve university problems with a return to the liberal arts: the pursuit of truth, the self-critical and self-reflective use of reason, and humane learning balanced by a sense of humility about human limits.

Professor Robert George’s voice reminds us why we need to look beyond viewpoint diversity. His successful Princeton-based James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions is exemplary. At ACTA’s Fund for Academic Renewal (FAR) conference in June 2017, he talked about how the James Madison Center has helped true dialogue flourish at a school which, like most major schools, is predominantly liberal in its faculty and student body.

To cite but one example, Brother Cornel West and Brother George (as these ideological opposites call themselves with genuine warmth) have come together across their ideological divide for intellectual dialogue. In his remarks to the FAR participants, he emphasized that the Madison Center and similar programs whose aims are commonly thought to be about welcoming more diverse viewpoints were not designed to provide “affirmative action for conservatives.”

That is exactly right. What is needed most is not affirmative action or mandates for viewpoint diversity embracing conservatives, libertarians, Marxists, and free-market thinkers. Instead, we need to build frameworks that will promote the best of the liberal arts, such as more centers like George’s that encourage the free exchange of ideas and help cultivate the kind of education that bolsters truth-seeking activities.

Finally, educators and students should take heart in how educational entrepreneurs are developing innovative ways to help students conduct civil, intellectual dialogue on serious political issues. For example, ACTA has begun working with Better Angels, founded in 2016 as a non-partisan organization dedicated to reuniting our divided country. Together, we are working to help the “better angels of our nature” flourish on college campuses through student-led debates that maintain civility on highly polarizing topics. As a perennial student of the liberal arts, and now as an ACTA leader helping universities flourish in ways well beyond mere diversity, I’m pleased to join with the Martin Center and other education leaders to look at liberal education with fresh eyes for its eternal relevance and practical import on our campuses.