Higher Ed Solutions? FAR Executive Director Reviews Two New Books
Oct 11, 2018 by Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill
When a product’s quality sags, as prices soar, while managers encourage scandalous behavior, and no one is held to account, both consumers and investors will pull back from that business, right? Well, sometimes the industry is fixed in ways that make it hard for the market to make its annoyance felt. Consider higher education.
Colleges and universities are supposed to be bastions for the free exchange of ideas, for the highest truths, for intellectual excellence and individual merit. But in the last generation a flood of easy money (thanks to federal loans), gushes of extreme ideology, and now too few students for the overbuilt infrastructure are causing many institutions to give up on even a pretense of academic rigor. Many colleges have become havens for an extended adolescence, complete with climbing walls, party culture, and myriad entertainments. For many students, college has little to do with either mental deepening or practical training. Among recent college graduates age 22 to 27, a recent New York Fed report found, fully 44 percent are in jobs that do not require a college degree.
Meanwhile, campuses have become some of the most intolerant places in America when faced with true dissent from prevailing orthodoxy. Nearly half of undergraduates report having often felt intimidated about sharing ideas, opinions, and beliefs that were different from those of their professors or radical peers. Violent and masked protesters now dominate many campuses and dictate what ideas can be debated. Egregious violations of free speech like the Middlebury College attack on social-scientist Charles Murray and the burnings at U.C.-Berkeley have become too common.
In the face of this multi-faceted crisis, you would at least think that donors—who are grownups, successful ones, and leaders in society—would pull back from philanthropic subsidies to higher education. There are few signs, however, of the college patrons making their concerns known. To the contrary, last year voluntary givers handed over a record-breaking $43.6 billion to colleges and universities.
Only if you look closely at the data are there hints of disquiet among donors. Alumni of a few schools where the free-speech violations have been most egregious have sharply curtailed their giving. The University of Missouri, for example, saw a one-third drop in year-end donations after a professor there called for “muscle” to prevent a student photojournalist from documenting a left-wing protest.
On the other side of the coin, a few donors have stepped up support of colleges that have stuck their necks out a little bit to protect intellectual freedom. The University of Chicago attracted both accolades and assistance after it adopted a “Statement on Principles of Free Expression” in 2o12. Most notably, Chicago businessman Ken Griffin, who is not an alumnus, cited the university’s commitment to “open discourse” as a motivation for his $125 million gift last year.
But other donors simply feel stuck. Despite the deeply troubling trends, they view colleges and universities as essential to transmitting our cultural heritage and scientific knowledge. Some are parents who have accepted the racket that has turned a top university credential into a golden ticket into the national elite, no matter the content of the education. Too many have simply set aside the concerns revealed by their eyes and ears and let sentimental fondness for their own youthful experiences fuel steady, unconditioned support for their alma maters.
Happily, two piercing new books have arrived to guide donors who want to support higher education without endorsing the poisonous status quo on campuses. The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, and The University We Need by Warren Treadgold, can be usefully read as a pair. The authors wield markedly different diagnoses of how we have arrived at our present meltdown, and suggest quite various strategies for donors who want to address it. Like separate incarnations of the value of intellectual diversity, these books give philanthropists disparate choices in understanding and responding to our problem. There is much to be gleaned from both.
Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt are both keenly concerned with the crisis of intellectual diversity and free expression on campus. The former is a lawyer and founder of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), the latter is a New York University psychology professor and co-founder of Heterodox Academy, an academic-freedom advocacy organization. They argue that today’s traumas arise from broader social trends—changes in parenting practices that leave many children unprepared for challenges, social-media fallout, radicalized faculty, craven college administrators, the wider polarization of the American public.
The cumulative effect of these trends is that students arrive on campus ill-equipped to cope with differences of opinion. College leaders then immediately immerse them in diversity training premised on the idea that trendy sensitivities must never be offended. Individual liberty and academic freedom are discarded without a care. Lukianoff and Haidt insist that this will improve only if college leaders stand up for a culture of free exchange, civil disagreement, and uncomfortable conversations as part of intellectual maturity. This will be difficult, however, so long as undergraduates are treated as “customers” who must be made comfortable and left unchallenged, with every amenity from plush dorms and gourmet dining to adolescent campus culture and easy As in the classroom.
The arguments of Lukianoff and Haidt suggest several avenues for philanthropists. Donors hoping to address the hyperfragility of today’s college students might want to go “upstream” and promote more functional parenting, stern tests, and character-building in childhood in order to prepare the young for the challenges and rough-and-tumble demands of adult independence. The authors particularly recommend encouraging children to play unsupervised outdoors with neighborhood peers, attend overnight summer camps, take gap years before college, and take part in programs that foster debate and reasoned discussion (like the new Better Angels organization that shows high-school students how to engage in civil debates).
Supporting free expression and true viewpoint diversity on campus ought to be a centerpiece of the college giving of many philanthropists. Lukianoff and Haidt recommend campus programs and institutes host events where students have the opportunity to hear cross-partisan exchanges. Lukianoff’s organization, FIRE, rates the free-speech policies of every college. Alumni of a school whose speech code has earned a “red light” or “yellow light” could send a powerful message by advising the development office that no more checks will be forthcoming until the school fully protects speech on its campus. If your alma mater is uncooperative, there are many other colleges with meritorious faculty-led programs that protect ideas and perspectives that are shunned by dominant campus mores.
While Lukianoff and Haidt point to broader social trends, Warren Treadgold lays the blame for today’s intolerant campuses squarely at the feet of college leaders and faculty. A professor of Byzantine history at Saint Louis University and a noted commentator on higher education, Treadgold argues that for the last half-century nearly all professors and college administrators have been adherents of progressivism, an ideological conformity that has had grave consequences for serious research and teaching. Today’s narrow homogeneity of views in higher ed discourages open debate, shuts down many traditional subjects of study, and often undermines honest research, he argues.
Treadgold says that donors must not nibble around the edges, but rather seek radical reform of our colleges and universities. He argues that ameliorative approaches adopted in recent years by concerned donors—steering their college donations to small faculty-led institutes that are open to non-progressive viewpoints, for example, or supporting the small number of colleges where classical, conservative, or religious viewpoints are protected—have made “only the most marginal difference or no difference at all.” Treadgold calls for a different approach.
His first proposal will surprise conservatives who want to reduce the federal role in higher education: he proposes federal legislation to establish a dissertation review board to rate each dissertation accepted for a doctorate, as well as an academic honesty board to hear allegations of fraud and plagiarism. While perhaps a group of donors might find a nonprofit that would partner with them to weed out the most tendentious or fraudulent research approaches, it is easy to foresee how this could lead to new kinds of impingements on intellectual freedom and diversity of thought.
Treadgold’s second proposal is signaled in the title of his book. He suggests the country needs a brand-new research university that will uphold, as a kind of paragon, the highest standards of research and instruction within the traditional Western curriculum, including a commitment to Christianity and Judaism. Treadgold offers a detailed blueprint for a university of about 1,ooo faculty, large enough to rival Princeton or Harvard in the numbers of undergraduate and graduate students it educated, and in the effect of research published by its scholars. Such an American school devoted to classical forms of higher education, he argues, would create competitive pressures on other leading institutions to raise their standards of teaching and scholarship. Treadgold’s book culminates in a call for some philanthropist to a make a founding commitment of $1 billion to launch this new university.
If excellence and freedom are to be restored in the American institutions that are responsible for polishing our next generation of leaders into responsible, thoughtful, productive citizens, certainly donor-funded initiatives will be at the core of the reclamation effort. Our colleges and universities are beset by so many failings today that it will almost surely take many different interventions, from a variety of approaches, to pull campuses back into balance. These two books offer good starting points for thoughtful donors willing to take up the high challenge of restoring rigor, goodness, and liberty to America's top schools.
Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill is executive director of the Fund for Academic Renewal at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.
Philanthropy Magazine, The Scandal That Is Higher Ed Today