The Real World Confronts the Ivory Tower

Campus ideology can go only so far before the public pushes back.

For years, there has been an ever-widening gap between the values and behaviors of contemporary America (“the Real World”) and those on college campuses (“the Ivory Tower”). Since, ultimately, the Ivory Tower is dependent on the Real World for the resources necessary to conduct its operations, whenever universities engage in behaviors that are perceived as outrageously inappropriate, they jeopardize their special status as highly subsidized academic villages.

Virtually every university in the United States is dependent on the broader public for the money needed to pay the bills. Yet polling has demonstrated a sharp decline in public support for universities. A Wall Street Journal/NORC poll reported in March that only 42 percent of Americans say that colleges are worth the cost, down from 49 percent in 2017 and a 53-percent majority in 2013.

Virtually every university is dependent on the public for the money needed to pay the bills.This steady erosion in positive feelings for colleges seems to have sharply accelerated recently with the seeming indifference of some university presidents to the brutal attack by Hamas on Israelis. Billionaires like Jon Huntsman, Les Wexner, Bill Ackman, Marc Rowan, and Idan Ofer have announced they are cutting funding to prestigious schools like Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania.

At least one prestigious law firm, Winston & Strawn, has signaled it will not be hiring as attorneys soon-to-be-graduating students who praised the brutal murder of innocents in Israel.

Behavior that is accepted in the Ivory Tower but viewed as outrageous in the Real World is increasingly having adverse consequences for universities. The support our colleges and universities have always taken for granted has sharply eroded and will continue to do so unless the public can be convinced that our higher-education system is working in their interest.

Even more ominous for school administrators, many politicians are abandoning their historic position of giving state universities a lot of latitude in how they conduct their operations. Populous states like Florida, Texas, North Carolina, and Ohio are restraining the Ivory Tower more and more through regulations (e.g., restricting DEI operatives from trying to force university communities to follow their race-obsessed directives), the earmarking of legislative appropriations for specific uses (e.g., for free-market campus think tanks), and even direct pressure on state university boards of trustees to act responsibly. I am speaking shortly, myself, to one such gathering of trustees chaired by a powerful state legislator in Ohio.

Governor Ron DeSantis’s appointment of an all-new governing board for Florida’s New College and that board’s aggressive move to change the school’s strong leftish orientation may be a harbinger of many more similar moves nationwide.

Fully two decades have passed since the preeminent American libertarian economist Milton Friedman wrote to me, saying, “A full analysis … might lead you to conclude that higher education should be taxed to offset its negative externalities.” I am certain that, were he alive today, Friedman would argue that adverse Ivory-Tower spillover effects (i.e., “negative externalities”) have grown dramatically, that state and federal subsidies for colleges should be reduced or ended, and perhaps that we should start taxing such institutions. We tax all sorts of consumer goods, so why not college tuition? We subsidize donations to universities; why not tax them instead?

A federal endowment tax could well be increased and extended. Indeed, a federal endowment tax of 1.4 percent on earnings, enacted in 2017 and applied to a few dozen wealthy schools, could well be increased and extended to more institutions.

Glenn Reynolds, in a recent New York Post column, adroitly articulated something I have long believed: The outrageous behavior of universities is politically tolerable only as long as it is moderate in magnitude and offset by other positive attributes.

However, with the substantial growth in negative collegiate spillover effects, politicians and private philanthropists alike are starting to wonder whether “the colleges are any longer a net positive force in American life.” That means, for legislators and governors, that the political costs of supporting the universities are starting to outweigh the political benefits, suggesting that politicians should reduce their support for university subsidies—or maybe even support taxing them, perhaps by subjecting them to sales taxation or income taxation on their investments. Local governments might even start piling on by imposing property taxes on university buildings.

The smarter university presidents are starting to see all of this and realize that the toleration and even subsidization of woke ideas is potentially very costly, reducing both the demand for admission from potential customers and the funds received from Real-World governmental or private sugar daddies.

Until recently, the shrewd college president felt that appeasing leftish campus constituencies was good for enhancing his or her campus popularity, job-security, and income-maximization. However, as other, previously acquiescent constituencies, such as major donors and important politicians, become angry, the internal calculation is increasingly for university presidents to not endorse the latest crazy left-wing idea.

If colleges were smart (an iffy proposition to be sure), they would adopt a big part of the Chicago Principles on Free Expression, namely the 1967 Kalven Report that said, roughly, “Universities should stay completely out of politics and not take stands on public-policy issues of the day.” Let individual students, faculty, and groups take positions, including outrageous ones where they make fools of themselves, but the broader university should consider itself merely a forum, an intellectual marketplace for the dissemination of ideas.

College and university leaders have increasingly taken sides in the great debates of our time.College and university leaders have increasingly taken sides in the great debates of our time, the conflict in Israel being only the most recent and glaring example. It’s time for them to realize that doing so is incompatible with both the business of education and the continuation of public support.

A second thing schools could do that would, in the long run, reduce and maybe reverse declining support for universities is to actively promote intellectual diversity. How? Hire more conservatives and libertarians amongst the faculty to reduce the strong existing left-wing bias. Hold debates bringing to campus noted individuals who articulate both (or all) sides of the contentious issues of the day, and expel students who try to disrupt the proceedings.

Make it clear that while the university takes no position on issues, it welcomes robust debate and will punish those who try to prevent it from happening. And restore to the curriculum the courses that used to teach students about the pillars of Western civilization.

Richard K. Vedder is senior fellow at the Independent Institute, distinguished professor of economics emeritus at Ohio University, and author of a forthcoming book tentatively entitled Let Colleges Fail: Creative Destruction in Higher Education