ave American universities declined beyond hope of recovery? Of course not. Their decline has lasted only about 50 years, and in another 50 years they might well improve. Right now, however, the signs are not good. Almost all American universities have grown less interested in education and more interested in ideology. While their ideology has variants, its goals are always “diversity,” “inclusivity,” “equality,” and “sustainability” and its aim is the defeat of “racism,” “sexism,” “heteronormativity,” and “elitism,” without examining the merits of these principles or tolerating dissent from them. The professors and administrators who are still interested in traditional education are becoming steadily fewer and less visible. Most of those with traditional training and scholarly interests are near retirement and anyway have learned to keep quiet, since otherwise they would probably have been forced out of the profession long ago.
The universities are making progress in imposing their ideas off campus as well. Many recent university graduates tend to believe that well-educated people can hold only left-wing views, and academic opinion has moved the attitudes of most Americans at least slightly to the left.
Meanwhile, as universities turn away from traditional education, American college degrees have never cost more and have never meant less. Students have grown much less interested in the postmodernist sort of liberal-arts education offered to them, more attracted to pre-professional programs, and more distracted by sports, drinking, drugs, and sex. While several, mostly small, colleges and universities stand apart from campus leftism, most of their students are just as interested in these distractions, and in any case such places have next to no influence on other universities or on public opinion. Even if a few conservative colleges offer a good education—and it has to be said that most do not—the degrees they provide are less valuable than those of the more prestigious universities.
What can be done? Critics have called attention to the problem in articles and books for more than 40 years, with no obvious effects. Cutting state spending on higher education has also been tried, and its main effects have been a vast increase in student debt and wholesale replacement of regular faculty with wretchedly paid and often underqualified adjunct professors. The spread of adjuncts has partly achieved another proposed solution: the abolition of tenure. The main results of this weakening of tenure have been to endanger the remaining professors who hold minority views and to shift still more power to administrators opposed to traditional education. By now too few dissenting administrators and professors are left to make reform from within a realistic option. In 1987, a group of professors founded the National Association of Scholars with all the right principles, but it and similar organizations have barely slowed the trends they oppose. Donors who have tried to use their money to encourage traditional education or a free exchange of ideas have seen their donations either refused or spent contrary to their wishes. The problem has grown too big and systemic for small or gradual solutions.
Yet elements of a potential solution exist. The growing dissatisfaction with the current regime could serve as the foundation for a new type of university altogether. People familiar with the glorious history of the Western university tradition are increasingly troubled by the intolerance on campus and inability of these schools to provide a good education in literature, history, the arts, and the sciences. The universities have moved so far to the left that they are now condemning views held by most citizens, parents, students, and donors. Even most professors are dissatisfied with their pay, their lack of prestige, their overbearing administrators, and the exploding numbers of adjunct professors. (The adjuncts, who now constitute well over half of the American professoriat, are unhappier still.) The fashions that have shaped today’s universities have resulted not from a reasoned debate but from a herd instinct, a sense of inevitability, and intellectual intimidation. These fashions began at a handful of leading universities—especially Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Berkeley, and Stanford—and have spread through their influence.
A new university, standing apart from the culture of this failed system, would offer the best hope for halting and ultimately reversing the dismal trends we now see.
The great work involved in founding such a university means it would not be possible to complete such an endeavor in a year or two. But before we can even begin, we need a conceptual blueprint. This essay is a thought experiment of sorts, a way of thinking through how such an institution could be created and what practices would best ensure its success.
A moment’s reflection should confirm how strange it is that no leading university has been founded in the United States since Leland Stanford endowed one in Palo Alto in 1891. American education has expanded exponentially during that time. Before founding his university, Stanford had a fortune that, adjusted for inflation, would not even put him among Forbes’s 400 richest Americans today, when the country has more and richer donors than ever before. In 2014, donors gave about $38 billion to higher education, more than the total endowment of Harvard (about $36 billion) and almost double the endowments of Princeton or Stanford (about $21 billion each). Many donors are troubled by the general campus hostility to free speech, capitalism, religion, and traditional education, but, with no good university of another kind to support, they give either to their alma mater, to existing schools, or to other causes.
These frustrated donors could find a cause in a new leading university with a full range of academic programs.
The university would not need to be larger than Princeton, which has around 1,000 professors, 5,000 undergraduates, and 2,500 graduate students. (Princeton’s administrative staff of roughly 1,000 is much larger than it needs.) Above that minimum, size ceases to be an advantage: Princeton is a far more important university than Arizona State, which has ten times as many students and faculty. An initial donation of several billion dollars, a sum within the means of many wealthy Americans, would probably attract enough additional donations to make a new leading university a reality. Paying for such a university would become still easier if it were founded (as Stanford was) as part of a new town planned by developers who would help fund the institution and create a pleasant place for its students and faculty to work and live.
Yet a donation of just several million dollars would be needed to form a planning group, with office space, a small staff, a travel budget, and fees for outside consultants and fundraisers. It could include professors from the National Association of Scholars and other experts on higher education who favor the project. This group could be given a deadline of a year to prepare and publish a plan for a new university, with a deadline of five years to found the university if sufficient funds were pledged for it. The group’s plan should include a statement of principles (but not a “mission statement,” which at universities has become the last refuge of the scoundrel). Besides estimates of the basic costs of each stage of the university’s development and a proposed location for it, the plan should include an administrative structure, an undergraduate curriculum, and procedures for faculty hiring and student admissions.
The university’s professors would on average be more independent-minded, more interesting, and more accomplished than professors at today’s leading schools, and unlike them would represent the views of the majority of educated people outside academia.
Given all this, the best place for a new university might well be the metropolitan area of Washington, D.C., which now has no leading university. Washington has unique connections to the news media and government agencies that could give a new university much-needed visibility and influence in public affairs (and opportunities for internships). Washington also has major academic resources, such as the Smithsonian Institution, the National Gallery, the National Archives, and especially the Library of Congress. With access to the Library of Congress and the large and growing number of books and periodicals available online, a new university could forgo the full expense of assembling a great research library and could manage merely with a good library of its own, which should be affordable now that used books are becoming relatively cheap. The Washington exurbs are also a promising location for a new college town, which could attract people not directly connected with the university. There are suitable sites for such a town within 50 miles of Washington. (Since the 1960s, the successful planned towns of Reston, Virginia, and Columbia, Maryland, have both been developed within 25 miles of Washington, closer than Stanford is to San Francisco.) No comparable locations are available near, say, New York City.
Since almost all major universities now discriminate systematically against moderates, conservatives, religious believers, and people interested in traditional education, a university that put academic freedom and quality first could attract excellent professors and students from leading universities, lesser universities, and more conservative institutions where academics are undervalued. The university’s professors would on average be more independent-minded, more interesting, and more accomplished than professors at today’s leading schools, and unlike them would represent the views of the majority of educated people outside academia.
A concentration of moderate and conservative professors at a university that encouraged and rewarded them could form a real intellectual community from professors now scattered at different institutions across the country. The national media, who now look for experts and opinion leaders at Harvard, Princeton, and Berkeley—but not at conservative schools such as Hillsdale College, Baylor University, or Ave Maria University—might well seek experts and opinion leaders at a new leading school, if only to make news through a lively debate.
The new university should be traditional in character but not specifically “conservative” in politics. It should seek faculty and students who are interested in academics as such, not just as a vehicle for ideological expression and activism. The only ideologies it should deliberately exclude are postmodernism, deconstructionism, and other relativistic doctrines that insist nothing is objectively true and everything is an instrument of power. Although the university should welcome students and faculty of any religion or none, it would do well to dedicate itself formally to traditional Christianity and Judaism. Recent years have shown that an absence of religion in public life can quickly decline into outright hostility to religion, and that many of the main groups defending the right to hold moral views outside the leftist consensus are religious. The new university should nonetheless defend the rights of all students and citizens to express unfashionable views, even without invoking religion. This would require a strong legal department to contest the growing body of government regulations that are incompatible with free speech and academic quality.
Professors end up choosing their colleagues not in the interests of the university, department, or students, but on the basis of their own likes and dislikes and to avoid being overshadowed by superior colleagues.
Students should be admitted on the basis of academic criteria. Along with grades, essays, and test scores, interviews in person or by telephone or Skype can be especially useful for determining whether students show real signs of intellectual life. While admitting all applicants with the finest overall academic qualifications, the university should also admit some with extraordinary abilities in particular academic fields even if they are not necessarily “well-rounded.” Students should also be selected to ensure a variety of majors, as determined by the interests they mention when they apply. Since a university is among other things a social community, some attention should be given to students’ personalities, at least to the extent of holding antisocial applicants to higher intellectual standards than others. Again for social reasons, the university should make an effort to keep the student body from being lopsidedly male or female. Such adjustments, however, should not lead to rejecting any outstanding students or to admitting any undistinguished students. Easily offended students, or students who insist on saving the world before learning about it, should be encouraged to go elsewhere.
iring the right people to be the university’s president, provost, deans, and department chairmen would be essential, but the administration should remain as small and inexpensive as possible. Bloated administrative structures can in time elevate bureaucratic considerations over educational policy. This means the new university should have no vice presidents, few deans, and no associate or assistant deans. Special care should be given to hiring the dean of admissions and the department chairmen, who should be not only distinguished scholars but also gifted talent scouts. Although ideally the president should also be a distinguished scholar, an exception could be made for a figure with special talents as a fundraiser and as a public spokesman. The provost and deans should, however, be professors in the university’s departments, with ranks corresponding to their academic achievements, and with salaries never more than one and a half times those of the best-paid professors outside the administration. In order to discourage the growth of a special class of professional administrators, professors should frequently move in and out of the university administration.
Department chairmen should have the primary responsibility for hiring faculty in their departments, not just at first but permanently. A major problem with academic hiring today is that no single person is really responsible for any department as a whole. Professors end up choosing their colleagues not in the interests of the university, department, or students, but on the basis of their own likes and dislikes and to avoid being overshadowed by superior colleagues. Finding excellent scholars who are eager to hire other scholars as good as themselves or better is always hard, but it needs to be done only once for each department if the department chairman is in charge of hiring. The administration should study each department chairman’s hiring recommendations carefully and veto proposed offers to scholars who are less than distinguished. The administration should also always be ready to replace the department chairmen, who would naturally remain professors after being replaced as chairmen.
Each advertised position should be broadly defined, usually leaving the professorial rank open, in order to attract the largest number of applicants. The department chairmen should actively recruit outstanding scholars who might otherwise not apply, including scholars from foreign countries with a good command of English. Positions should also be created for any truly great scholars who could be recruited. The speaking and teaching skills of applicants should be judged from guest lectures rather than from teaching evaluations by students, which can be manipulated by easy assignments and lenient grading.
The main grounds for hiring professors should be their records of research and publication, judged by originality, importance, accuracy, rigor, and clarity. A professor who has written original, important, accurate, rigorous, and lucid works will almost certainly be a good teacher of good students and will probably also be heard outside the university.
Professorial salaries at the new university should be on average somewhat higher than salaries paid at established leading universities. This would allow professors hired away from the leading universities to be compensated for moving to a new institution with a still-developing reputation. The salary scale should be made public, with clearly defined ranks and the same salary for every professor at each rank, ranging, for example, from Assistant Professor I to Full Professor XII. Each professor’s rank should be based on his academic and intellectual accomplishments. Significant deficiencies in teaching, particularly giving inflated grades, should be penalized. (Inflated grades can be detected through a statistical comparison of the grades professors give with their students’ overall grade-point averages.) Adjunct professors should be few (and mostly not academics), and paid regular professorial salaries adjusted for their teaching loads and qualifications (around ten times what most adjuncts are paid now). Faculty committees, which at most universities provide many distractions and few advantages, should be kept to a minimum.
Since the university would soon grow too large to be a single community where everyone knew everyone else, it would need smaller units. Such units in American universities, including Harvard houses and Yale colleges, have failed to develop the sense of community of Oxford and Cambridge colleges because the American units lack a real function in the process of education, which is run instead by academic departments. The best solution would probably be to have departmental colleges, with residences, dining halls, classrooms, and faculty offices organized around departments or groups of related departments. Some junior faculty and graduate students would serve as tutors and live in the departmental colleges with the undergraduates. There should be no vocational departments—in other words, there should be a department of economics, but not a department of business administration. There should be no programs of women’s or ethnic studies, which usually turn out to be ideological rather than academic. All students should have private rooms to keep roommates from disturbing one another’s studying or sleeping. Residential entryways should be segregated by sex and subject to sensible visiting hours. Students should be required to live on campus.
In any case, the university should resist the dogma that something is wrong with a society unless every activity and profession has the same proportion of each race and sex as the population as a whole.
Some might also argue that starting a new university would be more difficult and expensive than reforming an old one. In theory, no doubt, enlightened trustees at an existing university could name a determined and forceful new president, who could then select new deans and department chairmen, introduce a rigorous curriculum, reform hiring and admissions, and even reorganize the university around departmental colleges. In practice, however, such a president would surely face a student and faculty revolt over the new curriculum and the new program of hiring and admissions. A newly founded university could choose administrators, professors, and students who supported its goals, but attempting reforms at an existing university would create discord that would last for years and disrupt any changes. On the other hand, the example and competition of a successful new university would eventually make reforms easier to promote at other universities.
Another argument against such a university is that it would discredit itself among academics and intellectuals because its faculty and student body would be disproportionately male and white or Asian. In fact, today’s academic hiring and admissions usually favor only blacks, Hispanics, and women who hold views that the universities favor. And those women, blacks, and Hispanics who want to study subjects unrelated to the group identities that they are supposed to share are seldom hired at leading institutions and are given little preference in admissions. The new university should therefore be able to recruit significant numbers of good female, black, and Hispanic professors and students. In any case, the university should resist the dogma that something is wrong with a society unless every activity and profession has the same proportion of each race and sex as the population as a whole. Discrimination against women and minorities is practically nonexistent in American higher education today, and it is certainly negligible in comparison with the massive discrimination in favor of women and minorities and against moderates and conservatives.
The leading universities enjoy three great advantages: money, prestige, and a lack of competition. Yet these institutions spend most of their money on things that contribute nothing to academics, such as bloated and overpaid administrative staffs, perpetually hoarded endowments, unnecessary new facilities, lavish intercollegiate athletics, and ideological programs of no academic value. A recent survey found that Harvard spent 40 percent of its budget on administration and just 29 percent on instruction. The minute percentage of money the leading universities spend on bidding for professors usually goes to candidates chosen for their ideology, race, or gender. Growing public awareness of the decline in higher education has damaged the prestige of its leading institutions but hasn’t hurt their ability to get students, professors, and donations, because most of the less prestigious schools have declined even more. This lack of competition is in fact the essential advantage today’s leading institutions possess. The way to break their stranglehold on the system is to create competition where none now exists. This plan for a new university would do exactly that.