A Centrist Strategy for Higher Education Reform

Editor’s Note: This is part of Law & Liberty‘s series of Faultline Essays, in which we publish different perspectives on a topic, allowing authors an opportunity to read and respond to one another before publishing the essays together.

When most Americans hear the expression “liberal conservative,” they think of it as an oxymoron at best, at worst a particularly sticky variety of political fudge. Our hyperpartisan politics views liberalism and conservativism as almost genetic predispositions, much like Sergeant Willis in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe:

I often think it’s comical—Fal, lal, la!
How Nature always does contrive—Fal, lal, la!
That every boy and every gal
That’s born into the world alive
Is either a little Liberal
Or else a little Conservative!
Fal, lal, la!

Our most extreme partisans—so far from Sgt Willis’ gentle musings, alas!—even regard members of the opposite tendency as suffering from some form of mass psychosis or from a systemic moral blindness. For hyperpartisans, every boy and every gal is either a little crazy or a little moral monster. Children, they believe, need to be yanked out of state indoctrination mills or turned into Anti-Racist Baby.

Most Americans, I think, would be surprised to learn that “liberal conservative” is a common designation of the center-right in European politics, represented by the largest party in the European Parliament and the European Council: the European People’s Party (EPP). The EPP is itself a descendent of older Christian Democratic parties of various European states and now combines social conservatism, a commitment to subsidiarity, and respect for religious traditions with more liberal-sounding values such as democratic pluralism, a social market economy, rational enviromentalism, and solidarity with those in need. Liberal conservatives claim among their remote intellectual ancestors figures like Voltaire, Burke, and Tocqueville (admittedly everybody claims Tocqueville) and more recent thinkers such as Michael Oakeshott, Raymond Aron, Wilhelm Röpke, and Roger Scruton. It’s a very big tent.

A liberal-conservative politics might be a good thing to transplant to America amid our current travails. Nowhere would a centrist strategy be more useful than in educational policy, where polarization is now so extreme that the true functions of higher education have been crippled. This is hardly a surprise. The groves of academe cannot flourish when rival herds of partisans are charging through them. This is why state policies have to accommodate a broad political spectrum if they are to enjoy the trust of the professoriate, not to mention society as a whole. We’re not in a good place when half the country sees higher education as the willing servant of a single political party.

At the moment both conservatives such as myself and many centrist liberals (who still make up the majority of older college faculty) are alarmed by the radical progressive monoculture that has taken over prestige cultural institutions, especially higher education. Radical educators often show little restraint in converting their partisan convictions about gender and racial equity and their environment catastrophism into educational policy. They increasingly instrumentalize the academy’s resources, producing dogmatic forms of classroom teaching designed to turn students into political activists. We worry too that the radicals’ version of academic freedom is compromised by their ideological fanaticism. We think they are undermining the central mission of the university, which should be to foster science and scholarship.

Now it so happens that a majority of Republicans are opposed to the same radical tendency, and there are 22 states of the union where the governors and both houses of the legislature are under Republican control. Should they be using their political power to fight the radical monoculture in education, and if so, how?

There is still a great deal of research and teaching being done in universities that benefits the American people…. This great treasure should not be squandered out of ignorance and political animus.

There is what I would call an authoritarian conservative answer to these questions: Hell, yes! By all means, use that red-state power and apply maximum force to the Blob. “The Blob,” in case you were wondering, is a term invented by William J. Bennett, the Secretary of Education under Ronald Reagan, to refer to the serried array of progressive institutions that stand guard over the left’s educational fortress: teachers’ colleges, teachers’ unions, accreditation agencies, testing companies, school boards, and university governing boards. Some governors and legislators in red states are eager to go after the Blob with electric cattle prods. They want to prohibit particular pedagogies like Critical Race Theory, force faculties to teach courses on Western civilization, or stop universities from requiring courses that have strong political messages, like Bates College’s sequence on “Race, Power, Privilege, and Colonialism.” They want to prohibit hiring practices that require new employees to sign on to partisan mission statements. They want to do away with tenure so they can fire radical faculty members. Others want to engineer political takeovers of governing boards in state universities or even demand a role in the governance of private universities that receive public funds.

The most powerful advocate of maximum force in the last few years has been the journalist Christopher J. Rufo, who makes a reasonable argument from public interest:

The premise of this reform is simple. Voters in Florida, who charter and fund the public-university system through their legislative representatives, deserve to have their values reflected and transmitted in their public institutions. Left-wing hegemony over public universities, in academic departments and administrations, is antithetical to free inquiry and civil debate. 

I am far from disagreeing entirely with this line of thought, but care is needed if red-state governments are not to make the problem worse. Science and scholarship are contemplative activities that do not flourish in a high-pressure political atmosphere. The solution to politicization from the left is not politicization from the right. Universities need to be allowed a realm of freedom from politics to accomplish their proper mission, and this means that their legitimate freedoms of teaching and research needs to be insulated from the democratic politics of the moment. Historically, this independence has been one key to the success of Western universities. Rufo is right that universities that receive public funding should ultimately be subject to democratic accountability. Yes, academic freedom comes with responsibilities to the public, especially in state universities where the public is footing most of the bill. It does not follow, however, that state governments should try to compel institutions of higher learning to reflect the values of the majority, as divined from the results of the most recent election.

For one thing, such a strategy won’t work. Direct acts of political aggression on university curricula and governance will simply cause faculties to circle the wagons. (Like most faculty I am less worried about direct attacks on university administrators, and would view with equanimity their replacement by ChatGPT bots.) Pace Rousseau, you can’t force thinking people to be free, or even to agree on what freedom is. As we Americans should have learned from our experience in Iraq, people can’t be given freedom; they have to claim it for themselves. Schemes to abolish tenure in order to control radical academics will backfire. Unless state governments are prepared to take over direct management of hiring and firing in universities, abolishing tenure will just mean the expulsion of whatever non-woke faculty remain.

As a general rule, trying to force faculty members to do anything underestimates our powers of obstruction. State legislators who want to reform teaching in the universities would do better to make faculties their allies rather than their enemies. In fact, most faculty members believe in academic freedom—or at least in their own academic freedom—and we are all to some degree practicing meritocrats. Don’t listen to what we say, watch what we do. We spend much of our time, after all, grading students, deciding whether colleagues are good enough to promote, deciding whether prospective hires meet our professional standards, deciding which graduate students and colleagues deserve grants, not to mention the time we spend assessing each other’s works in peer review and in published reviews, where the issue of quality and merit are inescapable. Then there is faculty gossip, which is consumed with the burning question of who deserves what and who doesn’t. I have taught at Harvard for 38 years and have certainly noticed a great increase in the weighting of “intersectional” status, but I have never witnessed any evaluation process that has not also made merit and accomplishment a primary criterion of success.

There are signs too that some university faculty are willing to stand up for their freedoms. The recent, rather astonishing formation of Harvard’s Council on Academic Freedom shows that even professors who consider themselves on the left, as most Council members do, can bring themselves to admit that a university whose motto is “Veritas” might reasonably take some interest in the discovery of truth. (Full disclosure: I am one of the tiny minority of conservative professors who number among the 120+ members of the Council.) That kind of internal resistance to the activist left will disappear if state legislators insist on targeting faculty prerogatives and making progressive activists into martyrs. Wise legislators and executives will want peace, toleration, and moderate governance to return to university campuses and won’t try to stoke yet another round of culture wars.

In any case, there are plenty of other steps that governors and legislators can take to depoliticize the campus in pursuit of legitimate public interests. One important step would be to wrest control of the accreditation process from leftist bureaucracies. Accreditation now is performed by a jumble of quasi-official agencies working hand-in-glove with the federal Department of Education. The process, in principle, is voluntary but in practice, most colleges need accreditation to open the spigots of state and federal funding. These bureaucracies have long been dominated by progressives, but more recently have been infested by woke ideologues. The latter have been using their power, which lacks any kind of democratic accountability, to introduce accreditation criteria that push universities in ever more radical directions.

Red states should sponsor their own accreditation and college rating systems designed to inhibit the slide into radicalism. Instead of using the criteria of current accreditation agencies that favor wealthy progressive universities, like endowment-dollars per student, minority enrollment, and ratings for commitment to social justice and “diversity,” red state agencies could use FIRE free-speech rankings to grade institutions. State governments have a clear responsibility to see that public funds support the kind of education that produces good citizens. They can with perfect justice withhold funding and even accreditation from institutions that rank low in free speech. Gaps in curricular offerings, such as the absence of courses on the American founding; Western literature, history, and political thought; market economics; and on classical and modern languages, should downgrade a university’s standing. Accreditation standards should focus on academic quality. In the case of institutions that promote racial self-segregation or discriminate against males and Asians, for example, state departments of justice are better suited to protect against violations of civil rights than departments of education.

State authorities also have a legitimate interest in seeing that state funds are not wasted by administrative bloat. Accreditation and rating systems should consider, in addition to student-to-faculty ratios, student-to-administrator ratios. The number of the administrative staff in public universities relative to student and faculty numbers might even be made subject to regulation, while private universities like Yale with more administrators than students might be subject to withdrawal of state funding or tax privileges. Since the chief enforcers of radical orthodoxies on campuses come from the monstrous regiment of administrators, a winnowing of inessential personnel can’t help but have positive effects. If Elon Musk can fire 80% of Twitter’s workforce without noticeable damage to the company’s efficiency, just think how many administrators universities could do without! A policy that transfers education dollars from inessential staff to needy students would be a sure winner at election time.

Red states could also create their own testing regimes, structurally similar to the high school examinations administered by the New York State Board of Regents. These might require substantive knowledge of civics, mathematics, economics, personal finance, languages, and American and Western history. They should be content-based, modelled on English O-Levels and A-Levels or the French bac rather than on SAT-type examinations that test only problem-solving abilities. Florida’s recent recognition of the Classical Learning Test is a step in the right direction. Content-based exams supervised by red-state authorities could have excellent downstream effects on K-12 schools, which would be incentivized to teach subjects they have been abandoning out of political distaste. It could also have a positive impact on what is taught in colleges. It has often been observed how the examination system in the U.K. sometimes generates a serious, life-long interest in the liberal arts, and this “content testing effect,” as I would call it, would likely increase demand in universities for more traditional courses. Given the current crisis in humanities enrollments, university teaching departments, which risk cuts when they have low student numbers, would be incentivized to offer courses that students want to take.

The woke left’s DEI regime should not be replaced by right-wing commissars who will control tenure and turn the curriculum into a catechism of American values.

A final suggestion. In recent years, several red-state public universities have tried to bring ideological balance to campus by founding on-campus institutes of a more traditional hue. These are intended to teach civic engagement, combat political polarization, broaden the terms of campus debate, and teach traditional subjects like the American Founding or Western history and political thought. Such subjects are increasingly neglected in progressive universities. In my own Department of History at Harvard, for example, we no longer have courses on the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the American and French Revolutions, or the First and Second World Wars. Political history is now rarely taught at the university level in the U.S., and military and diplomatic history are on the point of extinction. The new institutes that now exist at the flagship state universities of Texas, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Florida have an opportunity to fill these shocking gaps. (Disclosure: I am an uncompensated board member of the Hamilton Center in Florida.) We could use more of them. Among other things, they could provide job opportunities for the numerous recent PhDs who lack sympathy with the woke university or whose low intersectional scores are keeping them out of teaching posts. If we want universities to represent the full range of opinion in American society, this would be a good place to start.

State governments can “stop woke” in higher education by altering the structure of incentives that empowers woke. They can help college centrists de-politicize the campus and reassert the proper functions of higher education: training the young for careers and informed citizenship, and preserving sound traditions of science and scholarship. Without some kind of alliance between traditional liberals and conservatives, the center will not hold, either in higher education or in our society as a whole.

Response to Gonzalez

Mike Gonzalez and I agree on the most important issue facing higher education, namely the evil effects on our society of what (following Bret Stephens) he calls the Great Cultural Revolution, and dates to the 2010s. These effects are perhaps even greater and more deeply rooted than he allows. We now have an entire generation that has been brought up in substantial ignorance of (if not active hostility to) the great American story, American political values, and the Western tradition. For a quarter century, the teaching of these subjects has been hollowed out or perverted in the public schools, where upwards of 90% of all American children are educated. We can see the effects all around us. The sudden collapse of our country’s traditional values and the headlong stampede towards an unknown future has been the result. This has to be reversed. America is a credal nation, and if its creed is abandoned, it will collapse. We depend on education to transmit our creed from generation to generation. While the most important role in the transmission of American values is played by parents and K-12 education, higher education, including schools of education, cannot be neglected.

Gonzalez and I disagree about the best way to reform higher education. Many conservatives now profess to have little respect for what goes on in universities. This is a little-appreciated result of the academic left’s success in expelling conservatives from universities over the last three decades. When I began my teaching career in the 1980s, America was widely admired around the world for its extraordinary array of research universities, and both major political parties were champions of higher education. Our universities have long received lavish support from grateful alumni as well as government. Despite the politicization of many fields of study, there is still a great deal of research and teaching being done in universities that benefits the American people, and not only in STEM subjects. We still depend overwhelmingly on universities to produce trustworthy experts and reliable research. This great treasure should not be squandered out of ignorance and political animus.

Gonzalez and I agree that DEI regimes are betraying the trust that alumni and the American people have placed in universities. Their poison must be rooted out. We disagree about how to deal with the faculty. I argue that we should make as many of them as possible allies in a broadly conceived reform of universities that returns them to their proper functions. The opponents of wokery in university faculties are far more numerous than most people on the right think, as a poll conducted just last week among Harvard faculty discloses. Here are a couple of interesting bullet-points:

  • “Almost 76 percent of surveyed faculty said they believe that academic freedom is under threat in America, with just over 11 percent disagreeing.” In the free-response section, faculty mentioned threats from both the left and right.
  • “Approximately 57 percent of faculty respondents said they agreed that Harvard should give controversial speakers a platform, even when many faculty or students object to their views. More than 20 percent disagreed.”

Seeking allies among centrist faculty is not a question of encouraging “relativism” or “value-neutrality”—although the latter would be an improvement on indoctrination. The goal must rather be to preserve the freedoms necessary for productive research and for fostering a creative spirit of inquiry among all the university’s teachers and students. The best and strongest convictions are always those that individuals discover for themselves through debate and examination of all the relevant evidence. I don’t agree with Gonzalez (following Jefferson) that the truth will always win out—there are too many counterexamples in history. But I do think that parroting manifest idiocy will eventually discredit the parrot.

I agree that teaching and research must be conducted in a spirit of respect for democracy, and above all with gratitude to the alumni and ordinary, tax-paying citizens who have bestowed on professors and students the priceless opportunity to cultivate the life of the mind. I disagree that the woke left’s DEI regime should be replaced by right-wing commissars who will control tenure and turn the curriculum into a catechism of American values. Gonzalez assures us that such conservative oversight will not go so far as to compel speech or “force students to adhere to a worldview.” Given that most censorship is self-censorship, I’m not comforted by this assurance.

That is why I have misgivings about Florida’s new “Stop Woke” legislation, above all SB 266, which Gonzalez cites with approval. This legislation requires appointed governance boards in state-funded schools to regulate, and presumably suppress, “programs based on theories that systemic racism, sexism, oppression, and privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States and [that the latter] were created to maintain social, political, and economic inequities.” It specifies that that “general education core courses may not distort significant historical events or teach identity politics and specified concepts related to discrimination.” It is all too easy to foresee ways in which regulation of the curriculum by what will inevitably be non-expert, partisan bodies can go wrong. A lighter touch is preferable. Most teachers of Gen Ed courses already have to justify their courses to university committees and submit detailed syllabi for approval. It would be better for Boards of Governors to appoint administrators who will see to it that Gen Ed committees represent a broad range of faculty opinion. The reform as outlined in SB 266 will inevitably alienate centrist faculty. Indeed, it already has.

The principle of faculty responsibility for teaching and research should never be compromised. That principle goes right back to the foundation of universities in the early thirteenth century. The key is to make faculty responsible to the right people—not just to their professional colleagues, and certainly not to woke ideologues, but rather to the wider society they serve.