Conservative Elitism and Flyover Colleges: Why Stanley Kurtz Is Wrong about Higher Education

On National Review Online’s “Corner”, Stanley Kurtz, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, discussed the nature and origins of recent campus disinvitations and disruptions, such as the Black Lives Matter intimidation of Heather Mac Donald at University of California Los Angeles. The essay has two parts. The first provides a narrative history of how American campuses embraced anti-free speech disruptions, and the second half offers policies to end them. Kurtz’s piece offered the now familiar complaint that tenured radicals are at the root of campus disruption, and Republican majorities in Congress should reform the Higher Education Act to force universities to protect speech and, if possible, rescind tenure. Professor Peter Augustine Lawler, the Dana Professor of Political Science at Berry College, critiqued Kurtz’s piece on two grounds. This first is that administrators are now in charge and have pushed faculty to the margins of decision-making. The second is that legislation is precisely the opposite of the proper solution, because federal regulation of various kinds has facilitated the erosion of the true diversity of American colleges.

The disagreement was quite sharp, almost as if Kurtz was surprised anyone would disagree with him. After all, the “tenured radicals” argument has achieved almost unanimity in public policy circles, especially in Washington, but, as a thesis, it is nearly thirty years old. Roger Kimball wrote the eponymous book in the late 1980s and published it in 1990. Higher education has dramatically changed in ways that Kurtz appears to know nothing about. The tenured radicals are an endangered species. They do not matter anymore, if they ever did. Since 1990, non-tenured faculty are a majority, and administrators fire or refuse to renew their contracts when students complain. How could Kurtz not know about “adjunctification” and the rapid expansion of administrative bloat? As Lawler has argued in American Heresies and Higher Education, “administrators have found it easier to discipline temporary faculty working at subsistence (or even less); such instructors are far more open to the imposition of instructional rubrics.” The liquidation of the faculty does not lower educational costs but increases them by, in effect, replacing faculty positions with much better compensated administrative ones.

The best hope for intellectual diversity is to keep out the lifeblood of administration—federal regulations that reduces liberal education to competency. These regulations become the excuse—as through the accreditation process—for administrations scripting instruction according to “best practices” when it comes to both the measurable learning outcomes and equity and inclusion. These efforts threaten the very viewpoint diversity Kurtz claims to defend. As Lawler argues in his response to Kurtz, “We have lots of colleges with real missions that soar above the reductionist imperatives of competency and diversity, and their dissident administrators and faculty are no significant threat to intellectual freedom.” Let’s free that dissident activity from administrative micromanagement.

When answering Lawler’s critique, Kurtz gives away his poorly concealed motive for his original piece. He concedes, “I agree that there are some great alternative schools out there, and at a reasonable price. But the crisis of free speech and the broken marketplace of ideas now reach far more widely across the academy than you may think.” Later, he reiterates, “Again, I agree that there are still some great schools out there and that we should work to buck them up…Important exceptions notwithstanding, however, we are losing our most fundamental freedom on a generational level.” Is that so? No one forced Charles Murray to go to Middlebury College. Certainly, students should not mistreat their guest speakers, let alone put their professors in the hospital. So expel the students responsible, and refer them to the criminal justice system. This is simple local justice. However, there simply are too many great schools “out there,” and they host guest speakers out of step with orthodoxy at elite universities. They manage to host these guests without incident—so much for the generational threat. Furthermore, these great schools “out there” are much more than “important exceptions.” There are just too many of them, which raises the question: Why does Kurtz obscure the distinction between “the broken marketplace” that tenure creates on some campuses with the flourishing marketplace that exists on many other campuses?

The answer is that Kurtz does not care about higher education. He cares about conservative access to elite universities. His main concern is to use the federal government to compel these universities to invite conservative speakers and respect conservative opinion. He knows that, in fashionable circles, elitism is synonymous with leftism, and he wants to use political power to disrupt that connection.  As evidence, look at the colleges mentioned in his first article (with U.S. News and World Report rankings in parentheses). Kurtz mentions Princeton University (1st among national universities), Yale University (tied for 3rd among national universities), the University of Chicago (tied for 3rd among national universities), Stanford University (5th among national universities), Massachusetts Institution of Technology (7th among national universities), University of California Berkeley (20th among national universities), University of Michigan—Ann Arbor (27th among national universities), New York University (36th among national universities), Swarthmore (4th among national liberal arts colleges), Vassar (tied for 12th among national liberal arts colleges), and Smith College (tied for 12th among national liberal arts colleges). Slightly down the ranks but still well regarded state schools are University of California Irvine (39th among national universities), the University of Minnesota—Twin Cities (71st among national universities), City University of New York (85 in regional universities north). The only unranked institution is San Francisco State University.

The “alternative” institutions are, for Kurtz, precisely that—alternatives to the “real schools” in the top ranks. Kurtz does not even appear to know much about the alternatives except that they exist “out there,” somewhere. He appears not to know their names, where they are, what programs they offer. He does not care. He proves, in his piece, that there is also an elite bubble for conservatives, and they could not care less about flyover schools or their students and alumni. Within this bubble, talk of free markets mixes freely with talk of direct government coercion if the outcome provides greater access to elite universities. He deploys both to the same end: Kurtz wishes to end tenure because it violates free market principles, but his concern for free market principles seems noticeably absent while he recommends tooling with Title IV requirements.

Indeed, Kurtz seems to have very little faith in the free market in higher education. He shrugs in response to Lawler, “In any case, the alternative menu hasn’t produced an exodus from the dominant schools. And it certainly hasn’t sufficed to secure free speech at the vast majority of colleges and universities.” Really? Is he unaware that Thomas Aquinas College is opening a second campus on the east coast? Is he familiar with the tremendous turn-arounds at Hillsdale College and Catholic University of America? From where I sit here at Ave Maria University, I can see the beginning of new construction for a fine arts performance center building and new laboratories, but I can also hear the bell ringing for the Angelus.  Certainly, these institutions do not have a stampede of disaffected Swarthmore students, but, frankly, who cares? Many students prefer elite universities despite the political correctness because they perceive some kind of value in the elite brand. This result is just the market working. But the market is similarly working when conservative students attend Middlebury despite its contempt for free discussion yet, after the Murray affair, refuse to transfer for fear of losing market value by “trading down” the college ranks. The only thing our nation’s devotion to freedom requires is that they are free to choose.

Kurtz, on the hand, opposes student choice in favor of direct federal manipulation of university personnel policy with the aim of forcing the “dominant institutions” in higher education to be free. With Republicans in control, let the domination of elite universities begin. Let the federal government paradoxically coerce free speech on campus, and let them discipline the old radicals by ripping away their tenure.  Of course, that discipline is not market discipline! Also, let us not forget that much of the scripting for safe spaces and personal pronouns is, in a way, market driven. Administrators respond to student demands by forming a coalition against the faculty. Already, they replace retiring tenured professors with adjuncts under direct administrative control. These professors enhance, out of self-preservation, faculty sensitivity to student self-esteem measured through student evaluation forms and class enrollments. Adjunct professors, consequently, teach courses that steer clear of controversy and comply with directives from above and bulwarked by students demands from below. Otherwise, they can lose their jobs. As Joshua M. Dunn Jr. and Jon A. Shields argued in Passing on the Right, tenure provides often closeted conservative faculty the opportunity to “come out of the closet” and achieve a “new birth of freedom” at the universities. Ending tenure ends their chances and even those of the ordinary progressives on campus. After all, without tenure, where would Anthony Esolen be?

The choice before us on higher education is Lawler’s libertarian means to non-libertarian ends and Kurtz’s non-libertarian means to libertarian ends. Any conservative should be skeptical of Kurtz who, to paraphrase Gandalf examining the One Ring, says, “I would use this federal bureaucracy for good.” Federal regulation is simply a power too great and powerful to imagine using responsibly. It is better to embrace the freedom of moral and intellectual diversity across institutions, where more open, more truthfully mission-driven colleges are free to provide genuinely liberal education.