The Campus: “An Island of Repression In a Sea of Freedom”
The Campus: “An Island of Repression In a Sea of Freedom”
by Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Two weeks before the Supreme Court held that the First Amendment protects one’s right to burn the flag, the regents of the University of Wisconsin decreed that students on their twelve campuses no longer possess the right to say anything ugly to or about one another. Though depicted as an anti-discrimination measure, this revision of the student-conduct code declares that “certain types of expressive behavior directed at individuals and intended to demean and to create a hostile environment for education or other university-authorized activities would be prohibited and made subject to disciplinary sanctions.” Penalties range from written warnings to expulsion.
Several months earlier, the University of Michigan adopted a six-page “anti-bias code” that provides for punishment of students who engage in conduct that “stigmatizes or victimizes an individual on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, sex, sexual orientation, creed, national origin, ancestry, age, marital status, handicap, or Vietnam-era veteran status.” (Presumably this last bizarre provision applies whether the “victim” is labeled a war hero or a draft dodger.)
Nor are Wisconsin and Michigan the only state universities to have gone this route. In June, the higher-education regents of Massachusetts prohibited “racism, anti-Semitism, ethnic, cultural, and religious intolerance” on their 27 campuses. A kindred regulation took effect on July 1 at the Chapel Hill campus of the University of North Carolina. And in place for some time at the law school of the State University of New York at Buffalo has been the practice of noting a student’s use of racist language on his academic record and alerting prospective employers and the bar association.
Not to be outdone by the huge state schools, a number of private universities, like Emory in Atlanta and Stanford in California, have also made efforts to regulate unpleasant discourse and what the National Education Association terms “ethnoviolence,” a comprehensive neologism that includes “acts of insensitivity.”
Proponents of such measures are straightforward about their intentions. Says University of Wisconsin President Kenneth Shaw of the new rule: “It can particularly send a message to minority students that the board and its administration do care.” Comments Emory’s director of equal opportunity: “We just wanted to ensure that at a time when other universities were having problems that we made it clear that we wouldn’t tolerate graffiti on walls or comments in classes.” And in Massachusetts, the regents concluded that “There must be a unity and cohesion in the diversity which we seek to achieve, thereby creating an atmosphere of pluralism.”
This “pluralism” is not to be confused with the version endorsed by the First Amendment. Elsewhere we are expected, like it or not, to attend to what Justice Brennan calls the “bedrock principle . . . that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.” Not so for those running universities. “What we are proposing is not completely in line with the First Amendment,” a leader of Stanford’s student government has acknowledged to a reporter, but “I’m nor sure it should be. We . . . are trying to set a standard different from what society at large is trying to accomplish.” Explains the Emory official: “I don’t believe freedom of speech on campus was designed to allow people to demean others on campus.” And a Stanford law professor contends that “racial epithets and sexually haranguing speech silences rather than furthers discussion.”
Disregard the hubris and the sanctimony. Academics and their youthful apprentices have long viewed their own institutions and causes as nobler than the workaday world and humdrum pursuits of ordinary mortals. Forget, too, the manifest evidence of what some of the nation’s most esteemed universities are teaching their students about basic civics. Consider only the two large issues that these developments pose, each freighted with a hefty burden of irony.
The first can still evoke a wry smile. We are, after all, seeing students pleading for controls to be imposed on campus behavior in the name of decency and morality. Yet these same students would be outraged if their colleges and universities were once again to function in loco parentis by constraining personal liberty in any other way. What is more, faculties, administrators, and trustees are complying with the student demands; they are adopting and—one must assume—enforcing these behavior codes. By and large, these are the same campuses that have long since shrugged off any serious responsibility for student conduct with respect to alcohol, drugs, and promiscuity (indeed, have cheerily collaborated in making the last of these behaviors more heedless by installing condom dispensers in the dorms). These are colleges that do not oblige anyone to attend class regularly, to exercise in the gym, to drive safely, or to eat a balanced diet. A student may do anything he likes with or to his fellow students, it appears, including things that are indisputably illegal, unhealthy, and dangerous for everyone concerned, and the university turns a blind eye. But a student may not, under any circumstances, speak ill of another student’s origins, inclinations, or appearance.
The larger—and not the least bit amusing—issue is, of course, the matter of freedom of expression and efforts to limit it. That the emotionally charged flag-burning decision emerged from the Supreme Court the same month as authorities in China shot hundreds of students (and others) demonstrating for democracy in the streets of Beijing is as stark an illustration as one will ever see of the gravity and passion embedded in every aspect of this question.
In the Western world, the university has historically been the locus of the freest expression to be found anywhere. One might say that the precepts embodied in the First Amendment have applied there with exceptional clarity, and long before they were vouchsafed in other areas of society. For while private colleges are not formally bound by the Bill of Rights, they, like their public-sector counterparts, are heirs to an even older tradition. The campus was a sanctuary in which knowledge and truth might be pursued—and imparted—with impunity, ho matter how unpopular, distasteful, or politically heterodox the process might sometimes be. That is the essence of academic freedom and it is the only truly significant distinction between the universities of the democracies and those operating under totalitarian regimes. Wretched though the food and lodging are for students on Chinese campuses, these were not the provocations that made martyrs in Tiananmen Square. It was the idea of freedom that stirred China’s students and professors (and millions of others, as well). And it was the fear of allowing such ideas to take root that prompted the government’s brutal response.
Having enjoyed almost untrammeled freedom of thought and expression for three and a half centuries, and having vigorously and, for the most part, successfully fended off efforts by outsiders (state legislators and congressional subcommittees, big donors, influential alumni, etc.) to constrain that freedom, American colleges and universities are now muzzling themselves. The anti-discrimination and anti-harassment rules being adopted will delimit what can be said and done on campus. Inevitably, this must govern what can be taught and written in lab, library, and lecture hall, as well as the sordid antics of fraternity houses and the crude nastiness of inebriated teenagers. (“The calls for a ban on ‘harassment by vilification’ reached a peak last fall” at Stanford, explained the New York Times, “after two drunken freshmen turned a symphony recruiting poster into a black-face caricature of Beethoven and posted it near a black student’s room.”)
Constraints on free expression and open inquiry do not, of course, depend on the adoption of a formal code of conduct. Guest speakers with controversial views have for some years now risked being harassed, heckled, even shouted down by hostile campus audiences, just as scholars engaging in certain forms of research, treading into sensitive topics, or reaching unwelcome conclusions have risked calumny from academic “colleagues.” More recently, students have begun to monitor their professors and to take action if what is said in class irks or offends them.
Thus, at Harvard Law School this past spring, Bonnie Savage, the aptly-named leader of the Harvard Women’s Law Association (HWLA), sent professor Ian Macneil a multicount allegation of sexism in his course on contracts. The first offense cited was Macneil’s quoting (on page 963 of his textbook) Byron’s well-known line, “And whispering, ‘I will ne’er consent,’—consented.” This, and much else that he had said and written, the HWLA found objectionable. “A professor in any position at any school,” Savage pronounced, “has no right or privilege to use the classroom in such a way as to offend, at the very least, 40 percent of the students. . . .”
This was no private communication. Savage dispatched copies to sundry deans and the chairman of the faculty-appointments committee because, she later explained, “We thought he might be considered for tenure.” The whole affair, Macneil responded in the Harvard Law Record, was “shoddy, unlawyerlike, reminiscent of Senator McCarthy, and entirely consistent with HWLA’s prior conduct.” As for the Byron passage, it “is in fact a perfect summary of what happens in the Battle of Forms” (a part of the contract-making process).
Macneil is not the only Harvard professor to have been given a hard time in recent years for writing or uttering words that upset students, however well-suited they might be to the lesson at hand. Not long ago, the historian Stephan Thernstrom was accused by a student vigilante of such classroom errors as “read[ing] aloud from white plantation owners’ journals ‘without also giving the slaves’ point of view.’” Episodes of this kind, says Thernstrom, serve to discourage him and other scholars from even teaching courses on topics that bear on race and ethnicity.1
Nor is Harvard the only major university where student allegations, unremonstrated by the administration, have produced such a result. At Michigan last fall, the distinguished demographer, Reynolds Farley, was teaching an undergraduate course in “race and cultural contact,” as he had done for the previous ten years, when a column appeared in the Michigan Daily alleging racial insensitivity on his part, citing—wholly out of context, of course—half a dozen so-called examples, and demanding that the sociology department make amends. Farley was not amused and, rather than invite more unjust attacks, is discontinuing the course. Consequently 50 to 125 Michigan students a year will be deprived of the opportunity to examine issues of ethnicity and the history of race relations in America under the tutelage of this world-class scholar. And to make matters even worse, Farley notes that several faculty colleagues have mentioned that they are dropping any discussion of various important race-related issues from their courses, lest similar treatment befall them.
This might seem perverse, not least from the standpoint of “aggrieved” students and their faculty mentors, because another of their major goals is to oblige everyone to take more courses on precisely these topics. “I would like to see colleges engage all incoming students in mandatory racial-education programs,” writes William Damon, professor of psychology and chairman of the education department at Clark University, in the Chronicle of Higher Education. And his call is being answered on a growing number of campuses, including the state colleges of Massachusetts, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of California at Berkeley.
Ironies abound here, too, since the faculties and governing boards adopting these course requirements are generally the very bodies that resist any suggestion of a “core curriculum” or tight “distribution requirements” on the ground that diverse student preferences should be accommodated and that, in any case, there are no disciplines, writings, or ideas of such general importance that everyone should be obliged to study them. Curricular relativism can be suspended, though, when “pluralism” is itself the subject to be studied. “It is important to make such programs mandatory,” Professor Damon explains, “so that they can reach students who otherwise might not be inclined to participate.”
Save for the hypocrisy, this may appear at first glance to be part of an ancient and legitimate function of college faculties: deciding what subjects are of sufficient moment as to require students to examine them. If a particular university has its curricular priorities askew, requiring the study of racism rather than, say, mathematics, one can presumably enroll elsewhere (there being about 3,400 institutions to choose from).
A second glance is in order, however, before conceding legitimacy. What is commonly sought in these required courses, and the non-credit counterparts that abound on campuses where they have not yet entered the formal curriculum, is not open inquiry but, rather, a form of attitude adjustment, even ideological indoctrination. Thus Professor Damon:
Such programs should emphasize discussions in which trained instructors explore students’ beliefs concerning racial diversity and its societal implications. . . . They should cover, and provide clear justification for, any racially or ethnically sensitive admissions or hiring criteria that students may see on campus. [Emphasis added]
Along similar lines, the Massachusetts regents insist that each campus provide “a program of educational activities designed to enlighten faculty, administrators, staff and students with regard to . . . ways in which the dominant society manifests and perpetuates racism.” So, too, the Berkeley academic senate last year voted (227 to 194) to begin requiring all undergraduates to sign up for new courses in “American cultures” in which they will explore questions like, “How have power relations between groups been manifested in such matters as racism, economics, politics, environmental design, religion, education, law, business, and the arts in the United States?”
In response to Professor Damon’s description of the instructional goals of the mandatory course he is urging, Harvard’s Thernstrom wrote in a letter to the Chronicle of Higher Education:
Justification? Is that what educators are supposed to provide? For “any” criteria that omniscient administrators choose to adopt? . . . How about a mandatory course providing “a clear justification” for American foreign policy since 1945? Or one justifying the Reagan administration’s domestic policies? . . . True, Professor Damon declares that such courses should “avoid preaching and indoctrination,” but it seems to me that providing “justification” for highly controversial social programs cannot be anything but indoctrination.
Whether this bleak assessment will prove accurate hinges in large part on who ends up teaching these courses and the intellectual norms to which they hew. With scholars of the stature of Farley and Thernstrom already deterred—coerced into self-censorship—it is likely that colleges will enlist as instructors people who agree that the purpose of these “education” efforts is more political than intellectual. Such individuals are not hard to find in the curricular domain now known as “cultural studies.” In this field, acknowledged Professor Donald Lazere at the 1988 conference of the Modern Language Association (MLA), “politics are obviously central.” Indeed, the agenda of the field itself was defined by Richard Johnson, an Englishman who is one of its leading figures, as
a series of critiques of innocent-sounding categories or innocent-sounding practices, obviously culture, and art and literature, but also communication, and consumption, entertainment, education, leisure, style, the family, femininity and masculinity, and sexuality and pleasure, and, of course, the most objective-sounding, neutral-sounding categories of all, knowledge and science.
It is not far from MLA discussions to campus staffing decisions. Here is how the historian Alan C. Kors of the University of Pennsylvania describes the organization of a dorm-based program to educate students at his institution about “racism, sexism, and homophobia”:
[W]hat the administration has done, in fact, is turn this education of the students over to ideologically-conscious groups with ideological and political agendas, namely, the “Women’s Center” and the Office of Affirmative Action. . . . These are people who have been granted, in effect, to use a term they like, the “privileged ideological position” on campus. Now the notion that the Penn Women’s Center speaks for Penn women is absurd, since it obviously doesn’t speak for more than a very small minority of a diverse, individuated female population. . . . But the university’s administration has an easy way of buying off certain pressure groups, and it consists of giving those in possession of privileged ideologies the responsibility for reeducating students and faculty with improper attitudes. As a result, you really have the foundations of a University of Beijing in Philadelphia.
These additions to the formal and informal curricula of American colleges and universities, like the behavior codes and anti-harassment policies the institutions are embracing, are invariably promulgated in the name of enhancing “diversity” on campus. That has become the chief purpose of present-day affirmative-action hiring and admissions policies, too. It has, after all, been a while since one could observe prospective students or instructors turned away in any numbers at the campus gates because they were women or minority-group members or because of their religion or handicap. The one exception in recent years has been Asian students, whose dazzling academic performance led some universities to impose admission quotas lest this group become “overrepresented” in the student body. Asians, in fact, recently won a victory at Berkeley, when the chancellor apologized for admissions policies that had held down their numbers and announced a new one. The changes include raising from 40 to 50 percent the fraction of Berkeley undergraduates who will be admitted on the basis of academic merit alone; the other half must be “underrepresented minorities.” (The likely impact of this new policy will be to maintain the enrollment shares of black and Hispanic students, to boost the numbers of Asians admitted, and to cause a drop in white matriculants, who plainly will not make it as a minority and who may be trounced by the Asians in the merit competition.)
With these few exceptions, however, affirmative action in the late 80’s has nothing to do with invidious discrimination on grounds of race, gender, etc. Most colleges and universities would kill for more blacks and Hispanics in their student bodies and for more of the same minorities, as well as more women, in their faculties. (The only reason they are not equally eager for additional female students is that women today constitute a clear majority of the nation’s 12.8 million higher-education enrollees.) “Diversity,” then, is now the goal.
That we have generally grown used to this in matters of campus admission and employment does not mean that the academy lacks the capacity to surprise and dismay. These days that capacity usually entails a faculty-hiring decision where the race or gender or ideology of the candidate is entangled with his academic specialty. In recent months, I have run into several outstanding young (white male) political scientists who are finding it impossible to land tenure-track teaching posts at medium- and high-status colleges because, as one of them wryly explained to me, their scholarly strengths lie in the study of “DWEMs.” When I confessed ignorance of the acronym, he patiently explained that it stands for “Dead White European Males.” Had they specialized in revolutionary ideologies, the politics of feminism and racism, or trendy quantitative social-science methodologies, they could perhaps have transcended their inconvenient gender and mundane color and have a reasonable shot at academic employment. But to spend one’s hours with the likes of Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Burke is to have nothing very important to offer a political-science department today, whatever one’s intellectual and pedagogical accomplishments.
One can, by contrast, get wooed by the largest and most prestigious of academic departments, no matter how repugnant one’s own views, provided that one offers the right blend of personal traits and intellectual enthusiasms. Richard Abowitz recently recounted the efforts by the University of Wisconsin to attract June Jordan, a radical black activist (and poet), from Stony Brook to Madison.2 After examining her writings and orations spanning the previous fifteen years, Abowitz concluded that, if Jordan remained true to form, “her courses at the University of Wisconsin would do nothing more than propagate the crudest forms of social, political, and economic prejudice,” exactly the attitudes that the university has dedicated itself to wiping out through such measures as the new student conduct code. Yet with but a single abstention, Madison’s English department voted unanimously to offer her a tenured position with a generous salary. (Berkeley’s offer must have been even more attractive, for that is where Jordan now teaches.)
Esoteric forms of affirmative action are by no means confined to the professoriate. Last year the editors of the Columbia Law Review adopted a new “diversity” program that will reserve special slots on the editorial board for individuals who qualify by virtue of their race, physical handicap, or sexual orientation. Law-review boards, of course, have customarily been meritocracies, with membership gained through outstanding academic achievement. With Columbia in the lead, one must suppose this will no longer be the rule even though, the New York Post commented, “No one has yet stepped forward . . . to explain why sexual orientation, for instance, would keep a student from performing well enough in law school to compete for the law review on the same basis as everyone else.”
Diversity and tolerance, evenhandedly applied, are estimable precepts. But that is not how they are construed in the academy today. Nor do the narrowing limits on free expression lead only to penalties for individuals who engage in “biased” talk or “hostile” behavior. They also leave little room for opinion that deviates from campus political norms or for grievances from unexpected directions. During Harvard’s race-awareness week last spring, when a white student dared to complain that she had experienced “minority ethnocentrism” on campus—black and Hispanic students, it seems, often ignored her—she was given short shrift and no sympathy by the speaker (who had already suggested that Harvard and Dartmouth were “genocidal” institutions).
More commonly, however, it is rambunctious student newspapers and magazines that get into trouble with academic authorities for printing something that contravenes the conventional wisdom. Given the predominant campus climate, it is not surprising that these are often publications with a moderate or Right-of-Center orientation. Sometimes, clearly, they do mischievous, stupid, and offensive things, but for such things the degree of toleration in higher education seems to vary with the ideology of the perpetrator. (Acts of discrimination and oppression based on political views, it should be observed, are not among the categories proscribed in the new codes of behavior.) In addition to a much-reported sequence of events at Dartmouth, there have been recent efforts to censor or suppress student publications, and sometimes to discipline their staff members, at Brown, Berkeley, UCLA, Vassar, and California State University at Northridge.
The last of these prompted one of the most extraordinary media events of 1989, a joint press conference on May 16 featuring—no one could have made this up—former Attorney General Edwin Meese III and the director of the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Morton Halperin. What brought them together was shared outrage over what Halperin termed the “double standard” on campus. “Our position,” he reminded the attending journalists, “is that there is an absolute right to express views even if others find those views repugnant.” He could cite numerous instances, he said, where campus authorities were making life difficult for outspoken conservative students, yet could find “no cases where universities discipline students for views or opinions on the Left, or for racist comments against non-minorities.”
Meese, not surprisingly, concurred, as did James Taranto, the former Northridge student journalist whose lawsuit settlement afforded the specific occasion for the press conference. In 1987, Taranto, then news editor of his campus paper, had written a column faulting UCLA officials for suspending a student editor who had published a cartoon mocking affirmative action. Taranto reproduced the offending cartoon in the Northridge paper, whereupon its faculty adviser suspended him from his position for two weeks because he had printed “controversial” material without her permission. The ACLU agreed to represent him in a First Amendment suit—“We were as outraged as he was by the attempt to censor the press,” Halperin recalled—and two years later a settlement was reached.
While we are accumulating ironies, let it be noted that the ACLU, the selfsame organization in which Michael Dukakis’s “card-carrying membership” yielded George Bush considerable mileage in the 1988 election campaign, has been conspicuously more vigilant and outspoken about campus assaults on free expression in 1989 than has the Bush administration. The Secretary of Education, Lauro Cavazos (himself a former university president), has been silent. The White House has been mute. During an incident at Brown in May, when an art professor canceled a long-planned screening of the classic film, Birth of a Nation, because the Providence branch of the NAACP had denounced it, the local ACLU affiliate was the only voice raised in dismay. “University officials,” declared its executive director, “have now opened the door to numerous pressure groups who may wish to ban from the campus other films that they too deem ‘offensive.’” Indeed. A colleague of mine recently revived a long-lapsed membership in the ACLU on the straightforward ground that no other national entity is resisting the spread of attitude-adjustment, censorship, and behavior codes in higher education.
All this would be worrisome enough even if the academy were doing well with respect to actual education for the minority students whose numbers it is so keen to increase and whose sensibilities campus administrators are so touchy about. But that is simply not the case.
Black and Hispanic students are less likely to enroll in college to begin with. This is not because admission offices turn them away—to the contrary—and not because too little student aid is available to help them defray the costs. (In any event, 80 percent of all students attend state institutions, in which tuitions average about $1,200 per year.) The largest reason more minority students do not matriculate is that so many attended wretched elementary and secondary schools in which they took the wrong courses, were poorly taught, had little expected of them, skipped class a lot, never learned much, and may well have dropped out.
Minority youngsters are not, of course, the only victims of our foundering public-education system, but they are the ones whose life prospects are most blighted by it, the ones for whom a solid basic education can make the biggest difference. Academic leaders know this full well, just as they understand that shoddy schools are major producers of ill-prepared college students. Yet for all its protestations and pieties, and notwithstanding its ardor for enhancing “diversity” on campus, the higher-education system has done essentially nothing to strengthen the schools that serve as its feeder institutions. It has not even taken the straightforward steps that are well within its purview—such as a complete overhaul of the education of teachers and principals. It has not reached down into the schools to begin the “admissions-counseling” process with disadvantaged fifth- and sixth-graders. And it most certainly has not made the tough decisions that over time could have a profound influence on the standards of the entire elementary-secondary system, such as announcing well in advance that beginning in, say, 1998 no student will be admitted to college who has not actually attained a specified level of knowledge and skills.
Such strong medicine is resisted with the argument that it must surely be bad for minority youngsters. That has been precisely the response to the NCAA’s attempts to curb exploitation of minority athletes by requiring them to meet minimum academic standards in order to play intercollegiate sports or receive athletic scholarships. Georgetown’s basketball coach staged a well-publicized one-man “strike” to protest this, claiming that the rules are discriminatory. The NCAA is expected to recant, heedless of the warning by the black tennis champion Arthur Ashe that “Black America stands to lose another generation of our young men unless they are helped to learn as well as play ball.”
Getting more adequately prepared students inside the campus gates might also help to boost the egregiously low proportion of minority matriculants who end up with a degree. The college-dropout rate is a problem for everyone, and has been rising over the past decade, but it is manifestly worse for black and Hispanic students. According to the U.S. Department of Education, among the 1980 high-school graduates who immediately enrolled full-time in college, 50 percent of the Asians and 56 percent of the white students earned their bachelor’s degrees within five-and-a-half years, but this was true for only 31 percent of black students, and for 33 percent of Hispanics. (For minority athletes, the dropout rate is higher still. “It’s no secret,” Ashe writes, “that 75 percent of black football and basketball players fail to graduate from college.”)
One has /?/ to conclude that if the colleges and universities ^ut as much effort into high-quality instruction, vigorous advising, extra tutoring, summer sessions, and other supplementary academic services as they do to combating naughty campus behavior and unkind words—and maximizing fieldhouse revenues—they could make a big dent in these numbers. But, of course, it is easier to adopt a behavior code for students than to alter faculty-time allocations and administration priorities. Symbolic responses to problems are always quicker and less burdensome, at least in the short run, than hard work.
Completing the degree, regrettably, does not end the matter, either. While possessing a college diploma will indisputably help a person get ahead in life even if he is still ignorant and intellectually inept, for a variety of public and private reasons it is desirable that college graduates also be well-educated. For minority graduates, it may be especially important that any plausible grounds for doubt be erased—from the minds of prospective employers, among others—as to the actual intellectual standards that their degrees represent.
Today, unfortunately, one cannot equate the acquisition of a bachelor’s degree with possession of substantial knowledge and skills. When the Department of Education examined literacy levels among young adults in 1985, it accumulated data that enable us to glimpse the cognitive attainments of college graduates, as well as those with less schooling. The good news is that the former had generally attained a higher level than the latter. The bad news is that degree-holders did none too well.
Three scales were used, representing “prose literacy,” “document literacy,” and “quantitative literacy.” At the highest level of the scales, white college graduates were to be found in proportions of 47, 52, and 48 percent, respectively—not really very laudable considering that the intellectual challenges to be mastered at those levels entailed such tasks as discerning the main point of a newspaper column, coping with a bus schedule, and calculating the change due and tip owed on a simple lunch. Among black college graduates, however, these levels were reached by only 18, 11, and 14 percent, respectively. (The number of Hispanic college graduates in the sample was too small for statistical reliability.)
The higher-education system, in short, is awarding a great many diplomas to individuals whose intellectual attainments are meager, even at the end of college, and for minority graduates this is happening so often that the academy may be faulted for massive deception. It is giving people degrees which imply that they have accomplished something they have not in fact achieved. Like driving a new car home from the dealer only to discover that it is a lemon, the owners of such degrees are likely one day to think themselves cheated rather than aided by the hypocrisy and erratic quality control of the academic enterprise. The taxpayers who now underwrite most of that enterprise are apt to feel much the same. Over time this can only diminish the support, the respect, and the allure of higher education itself, as well as further depleting its tiny residuum of moral capital.
Some academic leaders understand this. A few also have the gumption to say it. “The alternatives I see ahead for our higher-education system are reform from without or reform from within,” Stephen J. Trachtenberg, the new president of George Washington University, predicted in a recent address to the American Association of University Administrators. “The present situation cannot hold because too many Americans are coming to regard it as incompatible with ethics, values, and moral imperatives.”
Reform from within would surely be preferable. It nearly always is. But in 1989 the most prominent forms of spontaneous change on many of our high-status college and university campuses are apt instead to exacerbate the gravest problems the academy faces. Creating more complex and onerous rituals as they worship at the altar of “diversity,” they concurrently provide the putative beneficiaries of their efforts so feeble an education as to suggest a cynical theology indeed. Meanwhile, in the realms of intellectual inquiry and expression, they permit ever less diversity, turning the campus (in the memorable phrase of civil-rights scholar Abigail Thernstrom) into “an island of repression in a sea of freedom.”
1 See “A New Racism on Campus?” by Thomas Short, COMMENTARY, August 1988.
2 See “Revolution by Search Committee,” the New Criterion, April 1989.