Texas public policy foundation
No College For Old Administrators: Time For Donors/Alums To Defend The Freedom To Learn
 
COMMENTARY
 

This commentary originally appeared in Forbes on February 25, 2017.

Alarmed over the near-daily commotion—protests, censorship, violence, and downright lunacy—roiling American campuses, some would like to get the lowdown on what’s really going on. To do so, simply ask a college president or provost. They will tell you the whole truth, warts and all—with only one qualification: To hear the straight dope, you must wait until they become former senior administrators.

The latest tell-all-from-the-departed comes from former Stanford provost, John Etchemendy. In an address to the Stanford Board of Trustees (reprinted in part in the February 21st Stanford News), Etchemendy warns, “Universities are under attack, both from outside and from within.”

To his credit, Etchemendy is “actually more worried about the threat from within”—the “growing intolerance at universities in this country – not intolerance along racial or ethnic or gender lines – there, we have made laudable progress.” Instead, he worries over “a political one-sidedness, that is the antithesis of what universities should stand for.” He has in mind the “the intellectual monocultures that have taken over certain disciplines” (think: Gender Studies—and just about every major that ends in “Studies”); the “demands to disinvite speakers” and outlaw “offensive” groups; and the “constant calls” for schools to “take political stands.”

The result: “We fail to notice the echo chamber we’ve built around ourselves.”

Etchemendy rightly recognizes that this growing—what he terms—“intellectual blindness” will prove to be more destructive to universities than any threatened “cuts in federal funding,” etc. Why? Because universities “won’t even see it: We will write off those with opposing views as evil or ignorant or stupid.”  In doing so, “we abandon what is great about this institution we serve.”

He gives us a sense of just how powerful are the forces opposed to campus free speech today: “We [senior administrators] are continually pressed by faculty and students to take political stands.” So active are these forces that the “easiest thing to do is to succumb to that pressure. What requires real courage is to resist it.”

As even a casual glance at the daily headlines reveals, there isn’t much courageous resistance to campus censorship going on these days, at least not on the part of senior administrators. Far from it. By illegitimately becoming a “megaphone” for “this or that political view,” universities “violate a core mission,” writes Etchemendy. They fail to remain that which should define their being—as “open forums for contentious debate,” rather than “officially espousing one side of that debate.”

He concludes with a cry for “real diversity of thought in the professoriate,” which he finds “absolutely essential to the quality of our enterprise.” But he fears that such intellectual diversity on campus “will be even harder to achieve.”

Another former senior administrator, Derek Bok, agrees with both Etchemendy’s critique and with his fear for the freedom-dependent future of genuine higher education.

Note that I wrote “former senior administrator, Derek Bok.”

Bok did not always concur in the critique of higher education. When he was Harvard’s president, he was fond of rejoining the growing criticism of college-tuition hyperinflation with the glib one-liner, "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance."  This dichotomy had been for some time the most powerful public-relations argument against education reform.  Its power had stemmed from the fact that public opinion generally had regarded our colleges and universities as, by and large, places that do a good job of educating our children. In playing to this staple of public opinion, the defenders of the higher-education status quo had been able to portray education reformers as barbarians at the gate, as anti-intellectuals who would sacrifice our first-class universities to the bottom line.

No more. Today, the public has been increasingly keen to the fact that Bok presented a false dichotomy: Students, parents, and taxpayers have gone to great expense for college, but far too many students remain ignorant nonetheless after four years invested there. In fact, many students’ condition after graduation is worse than mere ignorance: Indoctrinated by ideologues masquerading as teachers, too many students today leave college assured that they have been given all the answers, and are not hesitant, as Etchemendy notes, “to write off those with opposing views as evil or ignorant or stupid.”

To his credit, Bok, after leaving the presidency, has been quite frank about the urgent need for reform. He now explains tuition hyperinflation with this observation: “Universities share one trait with exiled royalty and compulsive gamblers: they never have enough money to satisfy their desires.”  More important, he also has taken the lead, since leaving the presidency, in blasting what he calls “our underachieving colleges.”

Why did neither Etchemendy nor Bok offer such thoughtful critiques while they were in office, when, presumably, they had the power to do justice to their students? The answer reveals just how deep the rot is in higher education today. Were either administrator to have spearheaded such reforms while in office, he would not have remained in office for long, as Bok himself recounts in a passage quoted in Academically Adrift: “While (academic) leaders have considerable leverage and influence of their own, they are often reluctant to employ these assets for fear of arousing opposition from the faculty that could attract unfavorable publicity, worry potential donors, and even threaten their jobs” (emphasis supplied). 

 If the institutional pressure to self-censor is of such magnitude as to muzzle even those as earnest about higher education as Etchemendy and Bok have shown themselves to be, how are we to expect reform to come from within institutions generally?  In truth, it is not presidents, provosts, or deans, but their life-tenured faculty, who have primary control over curriculum and instruction.  Administrators can of course exercise some power in this area, but only at the margins.  To attempt more, as Bok informs us, is to risk a faculty vote of no-confidence.  Few college presidents can be expected to possess the wherewithal to lay down their jobs—even for the sake of improving the education of their students.

Here, then, straight from the horse’s mouth, is the sorry state of American higher education today. Current administrators, we have learned, cannot to be counted on to right the ship.

But all hope is not lost, as the response to the 2015 University of Missouri protests revealed. There, donors, alumni, and prospective students spanked the school for failing to safeguard the freedom to learn. Their action took the form that, sad to say, seems most persuasive to today’s colleges: They withheld enrollment and/or donation dollars.

How can those who share these concerns exercise a similar force for good at their alma maters? Begin by going to the website of the nonpartisan Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). Once there, search for your alma mater’s free-speech rating. Don’t be shocked if you find that your school has a failing grade: The majority of universities studied by FIRE are in violation of the First Amendment.

Then, armed with this knowledge, you will be better prepared for the next phone call you receive from your alma mater, asking for money.

Were even a mere ten percent of donors and alums to take this step, they would change the world of higher education for the better.

And it wouldn’t take long.