University Decline: Hofstadter’s Warning Has Been Ignored

The 1960s were a turbulent period for academia, and we are still struggling with the repercussions of that turbulence today. Indeed, today’s “woke” campus is in many ways the result of policies, patterns, and practices initiated in that period and its immediate aftermath in the early 1970s. It may therefore be useful to look at perspectives of academia from those days to see what went wrong.

One of the more notorious campus incidents occurred at Columbia University in 1968. A coalition of student radicals and African American activists took over the president’s office and held a dean hostage to protest the planned building of a new gym in the predominantly black neighborhood surrounding the school. The protest shook the tranquil, insulated Ivy League school to its core.

That year’s graduation ceremonies provided an opportunity for reflection and reconciliation. Historian Richard Hofstadter was selected to give the commencement address. Hofstadter was one of many star academics who taught at Columbia then, along with philosopher Sidney Hook, poet Mark van Doren, anthropologist Margaret Mead, and literary critics Jacques Barzun and Lionel Trilling. But Hofstadter may have been more qualified than the others to give the 1968 address, as he was one of America’s leading authorities on the history of academia.

His 1955 book, The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States, co-authored with his Columbia colleague Walter Metzger, is one of the first sources researchers should access to understand not just the evolution of academic freedom, but the history of American academia in general.

Hofstadter had been a Communist Party member in his early career, but gradually shifted his political beliefs to more standard mid-20th century liberalism. The commencement address signified an even greater departure from his leftist past; he saw in the student protests the very sort of “anti-intellectualism” for which he had often criticized the political right. The address is now regarded by many as essential reading for scholars of academic history. It was, in large part, a warning about politicizing the university:

Some people argue that…the modern university…shares in all of the evils of society, and must be quite ruthlessly revolutionized as a step in social reform, and in even in social revolution.

To argue in that manner, said Hofstadter, showed “a complete disregard for the intrinsic character of the university.” He regarded the central defining principle of a university to be its devotion “to inquiry…it exists so that its members may inquire into truths of all sorts.”

He also said that politicization of the academy would be even worse on a practical level (Hofstadter was in agreement with many of the goals of the protesters) since it is “a curiously self-destructive strategy for social change:”

If an attempt is made to politicize completely our primary centers of free argument and inquiry, they will in the end be forced to lose their character and be reduced to centers of vocational training, and nothing more.

As any casual observer of academia today can attest, his warning went unheeded and politicization has become a major force on the American campus. However, he was only partly right about the effects.

On one hand, much of academia today has indeed been reduced to vocational training, just as Hofstadter predicted. Humanities majors are disappearing from many schools, especially small private colleges that once specialized in the liberal arts and do not have prestigious reputations. The most common majors at such schools now tend to be those geared toward entering a specific profession, such as nursing, accounting, K-12 teaching, computer science, or business management. Even pure science majors other than biology are disappearing at many such schools. The social sciences have not suffered as much enrollment loss because they are often perceived as less-than-rigorous programs favored by those who wish for easy college diplomas to serve as employment credentials.

Furthermore, academia’s increasing ties to both the corporate world and the government bureaucracy are perhaps an extension of this vocational emphasis. For the government largely sees academia as a source of economic development and corporations see it as a source of talent and as a means to solve technical problems through research. And universities have been all too eager to sacrifice scholarship and tradition for the largesse offered them to shift priorities in a more corporate direction.

But Hofstadter failed to mention the obvious other side of the equation: politicization has not just brought about a vocational emphasis, but a political emphasis as well.

Today’s “woke” campus is a far greater threat to the pursuit of truth than its vocational bent. It has become less an instrument of truth and more a vehicle for politicized social change.

Politicization has not just brought about a vocational emphasis, but a political emphasis as well.

This omission may have been due to the accordance of Hofstadter’s basic assumptions about the university with the academic orthodoxy of the day. He grounded the institutional existence of the university improperly, suggesting that there was universal agreement that “in ultimate reality the members of the faculty are the university.” That assumption contradicts the legal and traditional views that the corporate body of a private academic institution is vested in its board of trustees and that the board is a perpetual body which holds the ultimate authority.

This error had dire implications. For, if the faculty is the university, the basic values of the university—which Hofstadter identified as “freedom, rationality, inquiry, discussion, and its own internal order”—become highly susceptible to ideological change over time as the beliefs of the faculty change. And that is exactly what has happened; freedom, inquiry and discussion are being replaced by rigid codes of political correctness, and rationality is being replaced with pragmatism.

Hofstadter also sought governance reform: “Powers need to be redistributed,” he declared. And he felt that greater student influence was not only desirable but inevitable. However, he may have misunderstood the Columbia student body, considering the protesters to represent the whole of the student body and new generation in general. “Students are disaffected, restive, and rebellious,” he stated. But that was hardly the case for all students; polls were taken that revealed most Columbia students were opposed to the protesters’ actions. A group of some 300 students calling themselves the “Majority Coalition” had formed to physically prevent the protesters from occupying buildings.

Still, Hofstadter urged caution rather than rash change for change’s sake. “Plans for the future should be based on an evolution from existing structures and arrangements, not upon a utopian scheme for a perfect university,” he warned.

Unfortunately, that turned out to not be the case.

Governance structures in place at that time gave little power to those who wished for universities to maintain their academic focus and to uphold standards of excellence. Any reform that has occurred since then has made the wrong constituencies more powerful, not less. As a result, truth has been sacrificed for more immediate concerns, and academia has become both more vocational and more political.

Hofstadter was one of the most astute academic observers of higher education of his era, certainly keener than the many of his peers who wanted to rush headlong into a utopian vision of the future. His address was both uncommonly grounded in common sense for his time and also mired in the standard false assumptions of the mid-20th century.

It is enlightening to see where he was prescient and where he was wrong, and it will be most interesting to see which observations and claims from today stand the test of time, and which are exposed as harmful.

Jay Schalin is director of policy analysis at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.