Most college graduates above the age of 55 remember that their best teachers refused to allow themselves to be pigeonholed as mere hawkers of one political agenda over another. They refused to do this not because they were politically indifferent, but because they knew that their job was to teach, not indoctrinate. And they knew that teaching and indoctrination are mutually exclusive.
But that was then. Now, ideology disguised as scholarship has attained Delphic Oracle status on a growing number of campuses. (No surprise, then, that surveys find 40 percent of millennials today favor denying the First Amendment’s protections to those whose speech is “offensive.”) If affirmative action for conservative faculty is not the answer (and I do not believe it is the answer), what can be done to reduce the politicization of our campuses?
The only solution that appears consistent with a free society is this: On both constitutional and prudential grounds, what is required to depoliticize our schools are measures that reduce the federal role in higher education. The main way to accomplish this is by making state accreditation sufficient for receipt of funding authorized by Title IV (of the Higher Education Act). Doing so would break the grip of the regional accrediting bodies, which too often have acted as gatekeepers for the higher-education cartel—blocking the entrance of alternative modes of education and therewith stifling needed innovation.
With states in control of Title IV authorization and free to experiment without the federal government imposing conformity on them, the states would become again the laboratories of democracy that the Constitution intends them to be. As a result, innovation would flower again, as states pick and choose from among the pioneering projects conducted by other states.
By returning to a higher education model based on federalism, college students would be able to capitalize on the different offerings that would flower in the 50 states and to receive funds to attend the school and program that best fit their needs.
To be sure, empowering the individual states to certify their schools for receipt of Title IV federal funding would lead some states to adopt less-than-optimal arrangements. When this happens, the other 49 will take heed and not repeat the mistake. A continuous cycle among the states of trial, error, correction, and imitation stands a better chance of yielding needed reforms than top-down edicts from Washington, D.C. In even the worst-case scenario—where a prospective college student lives in a state whose higher education system is fatally politicized—the student is free to attend a more academically serious institution in another state, one that has capitalized on the opportunities provided by a return to state authorization of schools.
The point here is that there will still be other states with genuine universities if they are allowed to forge their own paths. Currently, with higher education increasingly under federal control, all schools, regardless of their state, are becoming ideological echo chambers. With a restoration of constitutional federalism, more students will be empowered to vote with their feet and pocketbooks. Moreover, the states from which they are fleeing will be forced to take note and reform themselves, if only out of economic self-interest.
This commentary was originally featured by The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal on May 9, 2018.