The publication of God and Man at Yale in 1951 announced an enduring theme of modern American conservatism. In his bestselling book, William F. Buckley, Jr. condemned universities for their failure to preserve traditions of learning in favor of godless preening. The villains of Buckley’s polemic were a callow faculty freeloading off the institutional capital the university had accrued over the centuries. Countless articles and books have made much the same argument ever since. Indeed, conservatism in America itself owed something to the universities and their leftward turn in the decades following World War II.
The social significance of universities changed during the same period, too. Rather than serving as a preserve of the elite, higher education became a middle-class entitlement. Increasing enrollment and growing government funding for large-scale research shifted the balance of power away from the university’s traditional mission with its old-fashioned scholars to a new class of administrators, who pursued institutional efficiency and satisfaction of a wide range of stakeholders.
This distaste for universities in American conservatism has deeper roots, however. Americans have always been puzzled by how to square academic hierarchy inherent in “higher” education with the democratic promise of equality. While intellectual conservatives often defended an elitist conception of the academy, the broader conservative movement was characterized by populist opposition to academic snobbery and suspicion of useless knowledge. These positions sometimes overlap in their opponents, but rarely in their goals. It does not help that so few conservatives, if any, are in the academic hierarchy. As progressives have pushed out conservatives in higher education, they have also undermined broad support for academic institutions. Since they do not have stakes in universities, conservatives have nothing to stop them from embracing populist, anti-intellectual leaders and policies.
The WASP University
Institutions like Harvard and Yale were the domain of the old WASP elite, and their curriculum reflected the traditional education of a gentleman of that class—Latin, Greek, literature, mathematics, religion, and the like. To that end, WASPs preserved their preeminence by accepting legacies and graduates of WASP feeder schools like Choate and Andover. To preserve the WASP cultural position, the schools admitted few outsiders into their ranks, having strict caps on the number of Jews, Catholics, and other minorities in college admissions.
All this changed following World War II. There are three reasons. First, the tenets of post-war liberalism prohibited the kind of rank discrimination of these schools; therefore, the students, faculty, alumni, and administrations simply lacked the motivation to preserve the old discriminatory admissions standards. The liberal idealism of John Dewey and the faith in enlightened public administration placed more faith in competency over one’s family history or traditional faith.
Second, the general expectations for higher education had changed. Gone with the days of producing educated, respectable gentlemen. Instead of the liberal arts, technical and vocational education was emphasized.
Third, the post-war university was a research university dedicated to scientific specialization. Such a transformation, in fact, had preceded World War II, but two major pieces of federal legislation expedited the process: the passage of the Higher Education Act and the G.I. Bill. Post-war veterans were highly subsidized, and that meant that the Ivy League enjoyed a larger, more talented pool from which to choose. As John R. Thelin says in A History of American Higher Education,
The shape of American higher education was simultaneously altered in two contrasting ways. On one front, its base was extended so as to move significantly closer to providing mass access to higher education. On another front, the tip of the pyramid was pushed upward as American colleges and universities showed increasing capacity to add advanced, academically selective programs…
Because of these changes, WASPs could no longer insist on the old way of doing things. That class proved unable to survive the postwar era. To sustain the preeminence of Harvard and Yale, they reconciled themselves to test-based admissions and a secularized curriculum and social life.
The academic upheavals of the 1960s were a struggle not between insiders and outsiders but between rival elites already coexisting within the same institutions. The WASPs lost—or more accurately, they surrendered. The meritocrats took over and redefined “elite” from merely the old New England families to student future earning potential, university selectivity, and faculty productivity.
Finally, the student radicals of the 1960s and 1970s demanded stripping out the old core curriculum in the Classics and Western civilization in favor identity-based disciplines like Women’s Studies. While this new curriculum seemed like a break from the traditional one, the radicals were, in fact, continuing a break that began with elite universities abandoning their missions to train WASPs for their natural place atop of American leadership.
The Conservative Counterattack
Conservatives have not taken these changes lying down. They deployed two strategies to regain a foothold in elite higher education. The first was a counterattack against weak-kneed liberals and so-called “tenured radicals”—former leftist students who had joined the faculty and upper administration. In addition to Buckley’s book, conservative scholars called for the defense of the Western tradition, such as in F. A. Hayek’s “Intellectuals and Socialism” and Wilhelm Röpke’s The Humane Economy.
Already evident in the 1970s, this strategy became most prominent in the “Canon Wars” of the 1980s and 1990s. The Canon Wars featured conservatives defending old courses on Western Civilization against their removal or reinvention. Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals, Christopher Lasch’s Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, and other such books provoked multiple elite conservative arguments in defense of a traditional, shared canon for students in higher education.
To train conscripts for this front, conservative institutions were mobilized, such as the National Association of Scholars (NAS), the Institute for Humane Studies (IHS), the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), the Earhart Foundation, Liberty Fund, and the Acton Institute. These furnished undergraduates, graduate students, and early career faculty with the support they needed to make their way into the academy. This led to a concentration on disputes about course requirements, reading assignments, and other pedagogical concerns.
The Marketplace Solution
The second approach was less intellectualized. Rather than trying to replace bad ideas with good ones, it proposed to treat higher education “like a business.” Advocates of this model hoped to expose ossified, feudal-era institutions to the rigors of the marketplace. They argued that new technologies and institutions promised competition that would undermine the old monopoly of “brick and mortar” schools. In these new schools, students could secure the skills and credentials they really needed, while avoiding excessive debt and the ideological brainwashing of universities.
The merits of each strategy can be debated on its own. Their coexistence within conservative higher education agenda, however, raises a different problem—they contradict each other.
The attempt to turn the table on tenured radicals is premised on the elite character of higher education. It aims to identify the best students, shepherd them through undergraduate and graduate studies, and then support them as they return to take their rightful place on faculty. That requires years of support for the sort of expensive, painstaking research of dubious utility that has always aroused populist suspicions. Paying graduate students and young professors to study Milton, say, makes perfect sense for the aristocratic variety of European conservatism. But it is somewhat in tension with the more democratic American version that seeks swift and tangible effects.
The demand for immediate results is the source of the intuitive appeal of the business model. The trouble here is that market logic does little to improve universities unless improvement takes the form of abandoning their traditional mission of liberal arts education. In practice, the business approach often rejected the very liberal arts that elite conservatives hoped to cultivate in higher education.
Advocates of the business model were also wrong to think that markets would encourage pragmatic conservatism. The logic of market pricing is that customers get what they want. And what they want, these days, is woke. Critics of the campus left often fail to understand that cancelling controversial speakers, censoring course materials, and offering boutique courses in social justice reflect the preferences of the students and families who pay the enormous bills in expectation to receive a “college experience” that reflects their cultural and political preferences.
Given these conditions, conservatives need to drop the business model critique of higher education. The focus should be on the new opponents to liberal arts education, people who are not on the faculty. Some of these are found in administration, particularly the “student affairs” offices that increasingly influence campus life. Accreditation bodies and consulting firms are even more serious opponents, since they authorize and encourage the spurious reforms administrators impose on colleges and universities.
In truth, “tenured radicals” are an endangered species. That’s not because academics have become less radical, but because there are few tenure positions now available. The majority of teachers at all but the most elite institutions is composed of adjuncts and graduate students. According to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), seventy percent of current faculty are “contingent,” meaning either graduate student or contracted faculty for individual courses. The result is, as the AAUP concludes, that “the insecure relationship between faculty members in contingent positions and their institutions can chill the climate for academic freedom, which is essential to the common good of a free society.” As one adjunct professor, MJ Sharp, said in a 2019 article for the Washington Post, “it keeps you nice and disposable.”
The explosion of “contingent” faculty makes the first conservative strategy fruitless. This counterattack approach has educated scholars for fields that are in a steep decline, such as political theory, even as the scholars have grown in number and remain as capable as ever. As fewer have become regular faculty, they have relied ever more on the array of well-supported conservative post-doctoral positions.
These positions are vital for preserving the traditional, scholarly work proper to university faculty; however, as vital as these post-docs have become, they have unintended consequences. First, the tighter job market is now even more competitive with post-docs, many of whom are well published. While there is little chance they can find a permanent position straight out of their graduate programs, the post-doc no longer looks like a reliable steppingstone into the professorate. Rather, it has become one more mountain to climb before these scholars can find a permanent position.
The addition of a postdoctoral stage to the standard academic trajectory might look insignificant, but young scholars have already spent years in graduate school and are in their prime years for starting families. Also, many young scholars drop out of the profession due to traveling all over the country for short-term and relatively poorly paid positions. These dropouts are a major loss of investment for the graduate and supporting programs that formed them. More important, post-docs have no lasting influence on the institutions that host them. They are vagabond scholars with no faculty voting power over curriculum and often subsidize the work of existing, usually left-wing, faculty. While post-docs offer great benefits to individual scholars, they do nothing to advance the counterattack.
A Third Option
I recommend a third option: conservatives should abandon reform and build new colleges. Blueprints to build entirely new institutions do exist. Conservatives should focus on this endeavor rather than supporting the hiring of the lonely conservative at one institution.
Last year, AEI scholars Frederick Hess and Brendan Bell published a proposal for an “ivory tower of our own.” They argue scholars of a politically conservative or intellectually traditional bent should simply opt out of the American college ecosystem. Instead, conservatives should build a comprehensive alternative which would replicate many of the features of existing institutions, but without the social and political entanglements that have made them so inhospitable.
One obstacle to this plan is cost. Hess and Bell calculated that the price tag for building a world-class conservative institution would be around $3 billion. That’s a lot of money. In our plutocratic age, though, it is not inconceivable that some mogul of finance or tech might be willing to devote his fortune to the academic enterprise. Such a commitment would be impressive but not unprecedented. Johns Hopkins, Stanford, and the University of Chicago were founded in the late 19th century with the support of business tycoons. For example, as Thelin shows, John D. Rockefeller gave the founding gift of $12 million “in cooperation with the American Baptist Education society to create an eminent Baptist institution in the Midwest,” that later became the University of Chicago.
Another challenge, which Hess and Bell do not discuss, is accreditation. One reason for the degradation of the American academy is accreditors’ imposition of burdensome, opaque, and “woke” criteria on the university. The university accepting these criteria would be expensive and possibly inconsistent with its mission, but rejecting accreditation would limit the university’s ability to compete for students and faculty.
With sufficient financial resources, accreditation might be a manageable difficulty. But there are also cheaper options. Building on arguments by historian Warren Treadgold, Jacob Howland argues that it should be possible to purchase and repurpose an existing campus at considerably lower cost than starting from scratch. For as little as $500 million, he calculates, one of the many small liberal arts colleges facing closure could be turned to a new purpose.
This strategy is less ambitious and more realistic than founding a challenger to Harvard or Berkeley. Establishing conservative research universities with science and engineering schools is an important goal, but the foundation of the university is the liberal arts curriculum. Moreover, as the late Peter A. Lawler liked to point out, the liberal arts and humanities are cheap, meaning that financing conservative higher education in these fields will require comparatively little fundraising.
A possible objection is that there are already several such institutions, mostly mission-driven religious liberal arts schools, including Yeshiva University, Ave Maria University, and Grove City College. Perhaps the most well-known is Hillsdale College. The very success of Hillsdale suggests that there is still unmet demand. Short of founding a new university or college, conservative philanthropy should support these institutions to the point where they can achieve financial independence from government interference.
At minimum, political conservatives and religious traditionalists should stop cutting checks for universities that directly repudiate what they stand for and instead send the money to universities that foster faith traditions and common commitment to forming people ready for republican citizenship. Moreover, these conservatives should send their children to these institutions rather than squeezing them through the vicious and ideological route of traditional elites. The Ivy League does not need a monopoly on prestige. Already Yeshiva, Ave Maria, and Grove City have produced students who have made their way onto Capitol Hill and the White House. With conservatives supporting conservative institutions, we will not only weather the coming storm but form students in the faith and the liberal arts tradition so badly needed today. Strategies of counterattack and corporate-style management have failed. But there are new opportunities for conservative higher education.