The sudden departure of Margaret Spellings from the presidency of the University of North Carolina system presents a unique opportunity to address academia’s most serious problem.
The problem is intellectual, not operational or economic. Recent UNC presidents have focused on issues such as access, efficiency, and economic development, as did Spellings. All of these require some ongoing attention, but they are hardly cause for emergency measures. Higher education in North Carolina is very accessible; it has inexpensive community colleges and the UNC system is one of the most affordable in the country. It has 16 campuses with varying tuition levels and admissions standards. The North Carolina economy is, for the most part, roaring, and higher education will not fix the economic malaise in rural areas. Efficiency can always be improved, but it is not a burning issue at UNC; if the efforts of the last three presidents haven’t made improvements, then it is unlikely that another president cast in the same mold will accomplish much in this area.
One issue that is burning, at California brushfire levels, is that higher education has been captured by intellectual movements that will prove disastrous for our future society. It is the proverbial giant elephant in the room that nobody wishes to acknowledge while focusing on lesser problems.
These movements come with a variety of names. One is postmodernism, which is, at its core, nihilistic. In the postmodern perspective, meaning is placed in the service of power rather than truth. Or, as editor and critic Arthur Krystal suggested, this philosophy elevates the banal to equality with the essential or exceptional; striving becomes irrelevant, and humanity eventually becomes little more than a mass of deterministic impulses.
Another is multiculturalism. The North Carolina university system is amazingly diverse; five of the 16 campuses are Historically Black Colleges, and that does not include minority-majority UNC-Pembroke. The other schools are hardly ethnically monolithic; a short walk on most campuses in the system reveals a widely varied student population. And there is almost no ethnic or racial animosity—other than that being stoked by proponents of multiculturalism toward the traditional American and Western cultures and the demographic majority. Multiculturalism is divisive by definition, and the current form promoted on campus is toxically so, unfairly blaming the majority for all injustices that have ever been. It can lead us nowhere good.
Another branch of this intellectual debacle can be described as excessive instrumentalism, in which the goal is to provide graduates with skills rather than specific knowledge. In this way of thinking, which knowledge students learn is unimportant; the goal is that students learn to perform tasks of value for the working world. The process is not education, but training. An example is when fatuous “service learning” programs are used to inculcate citizenship, rather than ensuring that students know our political system and the important ideas that underlie it. It will encourage those who have the skills to act, but who are ignorant of how and why to do so.
There are many more such “isms” that are part of today’s dominant academic philosophy: socialism, deconstructionism, post-colonialism, globalism, and more. They are political, on the left (albeit instrumentalism crosses partisan lines), and inhospitable to competing ideas. One telling piece of evidence of the uniformity imposed by these ideologies is at the flagship UNC-Chapel Hill, where there are “23 registered Democrats for every Republican in the departments that address political and social issues,” and 16 departments have no Republicans at all.
And while not all college students become radicalized despite intense exposure to these ideas, there are indications that the effects of these intellectual trends are not benign. Polls show dramatic shifts in student acceptance of socialism in recent decades, for instance. And that young people today are considerably less patriotic than previous generations.
Defenders of the past and present UNC leadership may point to recent gains in one key intellectual area: the system has greatly improved its free speech regulations over the past few years. But that is not so much due to the system’s leadership, but to outside pressure. The state is uniquely home to two policy organizations that focus on and publicize this issue: the Martin Center for Academic Renewal and a branch of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). It is the site of the seminal court decision Adams v. The Trustees of UNC-Wilmington that advanced academic freedom and free speech rights in 2014.
Most important of all, North Carolina’s legislature has aggressively defended campus rights to free speech, free association, and due process with recent legislation. The university system has been forced to respond to their mandates rather than leading the way.
The political side of this intellectual imbalance reveals another reason why it’s time to break the mold for UNC system presidents. Since 1971, when the current 16-university system was created, every one of the system presidents has been a Democrat except for Spellings. And she is in the most liberal wing of the Republican Party—her policies and views are indistinguishable from those of Erskine Bowles, a centrist Democrat. Yet North Carolina has voted Republican in recent years, and many of its party members (and supportive independents) are political conservatives rather than centrists. The UNC system has often trampled on their beliefs and values, yet they, too, support it with taxes. Are they to be forever ignored, deemed unworthy of having a voice in the university system’s governance? When do they get their say?
The time may never be better to give this important constituency their due. The UNC Board of Governors is the most conservative it has ever been. If balance is to be restored—and it is imperative that it is—it is likely to happen now. Just adding another centrist to run the system does not address its extreme imbalances.But the next president should at least acknowledge that a major problem exists beyond the needs to cut costs or boost graduation rates.
This doesn’t mean the board can select just anybody on the political right. It will have to be somebody with not only a strong intellectual background but great fortitude to deal with the firestorm that is likely to hit upon his or her appointment. Even a moderate like Spellings brought protests from the perpetually outraged; a true reformer will likely cause an uproar from every corner of the system. Mitch Daniels, who has received considerable praise from conservatives for his leadership of Purdue University in Indiana, is more of a prudent administrator than a fire-breathing reformer—yet the protests and attacks on him have not subsided from almost the moment he took office.
But just because there may be turmoil is no reason to avoid the problems that have been simmering underneath the surface. An absence of conflict does not signify good governance; it more often means differing perspectives are left unspoken in the boardroom or executive suite. The next UNC president will face opposition from some direction; in today’s polarized society, it’s part of the job. Spellings’ departure after only three years suggests she had no heart for the constant political struggle; her contentious relationship with the Board of Governors was due in part to her lack of awareness of the situation.
Nobody expects the next UNC system president to be a full-fledged culture warrior eager to leap into the ideological fray. But he or she should at least acknowledge that a major problem exists beyond the needs to cut costs or boost graduation rates. There is an intellectual battle that needs to be fought, no matter how much it upsets entrenched interests and the permanently aggrieved. A one-sided university system does not serve the state well.
For the task at hand, a strong leader and reformer is required, not an establishment efficiency expert. Let’s hope the Board of Governors does not compromise on another centrist—that amounts to kicking the problem down the road, and the results will be the same as happened with Spellings.
Jay Schalin is director of policy analysis at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.