How the Best of Intentions Created Today’s Academic Disasters

Today’s assault on intellectual excellence in the academy will eventually end. Hopefully, an investigation will then commence on its causes, and all the usual suspects will be rounded up. This tribunal will, however, likely ignore one key culprit: ordinary faculty—people like me—who complained about the assault, all while enthusiastically aiding it.

Yes, some criticized the Diversity and Inclusion obsession and condemned identity politics. But, out of sight and on the sly, we contributed to the university’s intellectual decline. We made this disaster worse than what even the “woke” mob accomplished.

The adage “no good deed goes unpunished” captures this culpability. In a nutshell—and here I will speak only for myself and those I knew personally from the late 1960s onward—I am referring to lowering academic standards for black students and faculty in order to promote racial progress, a Weltanschauung in which the path to racial equality lay through education and, ultimately, the act of recruiting as many black students as possible and ensuring that they graduated.

Almost nobody challenged the underlying logic of this make-the-numbers pathway. Everyone just knew that this was the route to equality and justice.Much of what changed in my department of political science was obvious: more bureaucratic paperwork, additional departmental offerings on race and ethnicity, a neglecting of traditional political science subjects, and untold meetings that accomplished nothing. Less obvious was the extra time spent by faculty personally tutoring struggling minority students and recruiting affirmative-action candidates at professional meetings. It’s hard to estimate all the hours taken away from our teaching and research responsibilities as a result.

Almost nobody challenged the underlying logic of this make-the-numbers pathway. Everyone just knew that this was the route to equality and justice.

Nor was there any need for bureaucratic heavy-handedness or incentives. Everything was voluntary, and since I taught American politics, a favorite among black students and an obvious place to attract more minority faculty, I was at the forefront of the campaign. That our efforts might be injurious to racial progress or create cures worse than the disease was unthinkable. Even today, it’s difficult to accept that our good intentions helped undermine the university’s commitment to intellectual excellence. Nevertheless, our fingerprints are all over the crime scene.

Subverting intellectual standards was most pervasive in the classroom, where many minority students were ill-prepared for rigorous college courses. Undeserved grades (“B-minuses” vs. “C-minuses”) were commonplace, as were overlooked breaches of the academic code.

One of my students, a troubled junior-college transfer, submitted a dreadful paper, an unambiguous “F,” but he also accidentally included the $25 invoice from an Internet site (“My Professor Sucks”). I did not fail him or begin proceedings to have him expelled. Instead, I consulted our department’s undergraduate advisor on how he could drop the course despite the official drop-date having passed. This was arranged, and he continued his college career.

Even blatant plagiarism was ignored, since it was apparent that culprits would never be prosecuted, and even filing charges put one’s career at risk.

When receiving papers that made inaccurate assertions on race-related issues, I refused to pick a fight.In a particularly bizarre case, a colleague received a clearly plagiarized paper and, rather than bring expulsion proceedings, offered to forget the matter if the student would submit an original one. The student again plagiarized, and my colleague took the case to the dean of students. He explained that this was the sixth such episode involving the student, but the incidents were ignored since the dean believed that confronting the student might cause him to drop out.

Classroom discussions with black students were conducted gingerly. When one of my black students explained that some blacks resided in crime-ridden slums because such awful locations were given to them by whites, I said nothing. I learned to pre-emptively avoid any taboo topic that might risk accusations of racism. When receiving papers that made inaccurate assertions on race-related issues, I refused to pick a fight. In my comments, I might sheepishly offer, “Not sure,” but then I’d assign a respectable (though unearned) grade.

A walking-on-eggshells policy applied equally to graduate students, though here the stakes were more consequential, since Ph.D. recipients might one day teach thousands of students. Again, progress toward the degree was paramount, and foolish ideas were seldom challenged. Simultaneously, standards were lowered for passing comprehensive exams and for dissertation proposals.

In some instances, faculty virtually wrote dissertations for struggling students. These students were also discouraged from enrolling in demanding courses, such as Statistics, that might prove essential for future research. To repeat, it seemed axiomatic that the advanced degree itself was the goal, not providing the best possible education. 

Lowered intellectual standards applied equally to faculty recruitment and were widely accepted as the price of progress. An almost religious faith held that intellectual deficiencies would somehow be only temporary. I recall one recruitment-committee meeting at which faculty took turns gleefully reading aloud embarrassing mistakes from a black candidate’s dissertation, including multiple misspellings of the names of well-known political figures. No matter.

Drinking the Kool-Aid hardly stopped at initial recruitment. Minority candidates were hired and continued past multiple reviews, including tenure and promotion to full professor. As was the case with students, serious discussions involving hot-button issues were off limits. We were there to help make the numbers, and we gladly acquiesced.

In a few decades, what began as improvised, temporary measures to move the needle on racial progress hardened into the official academic culture.In a few decades, what began as improvised, temporary measures to move the needle on racial progress hardened into the official academic culture. Trigger warnings and micro-aggressions existed long before they were officially codified. From freshmen to senior faculty, blacks on campus enjoyed intellectual diplomatic immunity.

Today, with scarcely any rejoinder, anything can be effortlessly explained by “white privilege.” Even to suggest that such arguments are unscientific invites accusations of racism. It is as if our past good intentions created people who now lack defenses against vigorous intellectual counter-arguments; if challenged, they respond with vitriol, threats of cancellation, or worse.

In today’s campus discussions on race, the very ideas of science itself, or the give and take of a marketplace of ideas, are denounced as racist (“white” and thus bad). Out of the little acorns of giving undergraduate “F” papers “B-minuses,” and otherwise being kind to those who are in over their heads academically, has emerged a vast ideological edifice to kill the pursuit of truth.

Generations of black students have entered and departed the university while seldom, if ever, being seriously challenged on racial matters. Even black writers like Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams are taboo.

Academic life now resembles a monastery of One Truth and Only One Truth, and this Truth is sacred, an enterprise that innocuously began when the well-meaning efforts of well-intentioned professors like me decided to promote racial justice by lowering standards and avoiding anything that “might cause trouble.” Could matters have been different? Perhaps, but who had the courage to oppose affirmative action—the unchallenged dictum of the era—let alone to fail those special-admission inner-city kids trying to move up the economic ladder?

Can this academic erosion be reversed? It seems unlikely. Most of today’s minority students (and faculty) have seldom—if ever—been required to defend their views on race. The skills necessary for this task have thus long atrophied.

Imagine if a young black applicant for a sociology department position were asked if it were possible to falsify propositions about the impact of white racism. And whether the lack of falsifiability rendered propositions unscientific. These would be regarded as hostile questions, an attack on the True Faith, and the response would be to silence and then punish those asking the questions.

At this point, learning a painful lesson is perhaps the best that can be hoped for. The life of the mind is not supposed to be a feel-good experience, in which those uttering absurdities must be thanked for “sharing” their ideas. Rather, people who enter the academy should expect discomfort. Those who refuse to administer it are not doing anybody a favor.

Robert Weissberg has taught political science at Cornell University and the University of Illinois-Urbana and is currently an adjunct professor of politics (at the graduate level) at New York University. He is the author of eleven books, including his most recent, Bad Students, Not Bad Schools. For more information, see his website, BadStudentsNotBadSchools.com.