Can Our Universities Be Fixed?

Last Friday evening I had the occasion to team up in Los Angeles with Dean Pete Peterson of Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy (where I just finished a very congenial semester filling the large shoes of the late Ted McAllister) to discuss the state of higher education before an audience of about 90 citizens alarmed at the current scene. Our conversation was unscripted and spontaneous, but here are some highlights, in service of setting up some further reflections in due course:

Dean Peterson: Universities have long leaned left, but it seems universities have gotten a lot worse in the last few years. Is this correct? How and why has this happened?

Me: Universities have leaned left for decades—actually for centuries. In one sense universities ought to be “left,” in the sense that universities should be critical institutions, challenging the conventional wisdom, and thus being agents of progress, rightly understood, when they produce new innovations in science and the humanities. Recall that Thomas Aquinas was a dangerous radical at the University of Paris in the 13th century, but when a challenge survives subsequent criticism and the test of time, it deepens and extends our civilization. And thus, you can draw a straight line from Thomas Aquinas to Thomas Jefferson—the “two Tommys,” as I like to say to students—and you can make out important continuities between parts of Tommy Aquinas’s Summa Theologica and the second paragraph of Tommy Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.

The problem is that today’s universities have gone from being critical institutions to being fully adversarial institutions, with contempt for both Thomas Aquinas and Thomas Jefferson (and everyone else who built our civilization step by step) because the thinkers and statesmen who preceded us are presumed to be obsolete and unenlightened, if not somehow evil and oppressive. The late philosopher Roger Scruton liked to call this the “culture of repudiation,” in which there is no achievement of the West that today’s left doesn’t want to destroy. Thus universities now have large portions of their faculty and curriculum actively and persistently undermining the foundations of our civilization just as termites undermine the foundations and frames of buildings.

Dean Peterson: Can universities be fixed? Is there hope for reform? What should we look or hope for?

Me: It is possible that the current moment, with the shocking anti-Semitism on display at leading universities right now, is an inflection point. By coincidence, we are having this conversation on May 10. May 10 was the day on which Winston Churchill became prime minister in 1940, at one of Europe’s very worst moments. People recall his speeches from that point on, though I believe his greatest speech came two years before, after the Munich agreement. Churchill’s climax invoked the famous line from the Book of Daniel: “Thou art weighed in the balance, and found wanting.”

More and more Americans have come to this point of view about our universities: they have been weighed in the balance, and found wanting, because they have become badly unbalanced. There is considerable survey evidence of the loss of confidence or esteem for our universities, even among Democrats, who run our universities.

There aren’t a lot of Churchills among our university leadership class these days, but I do get the sense that some people in university leadership are starting to understand that the appeasement of the campus left needs to stop. We see a few hopeful signs here and there. First, a few Ivy League universities have actually hired some high-profile conservatives for important positions recently. The few adults still in the room are finally realizing they have a big problem, and where it comes from. Second, we’re seeing more and more states disband the politicized DEI offices in their public universities. Third and most significant is the establishment of new programs and centers for civic education in leading public universities in several states, which are going to be in several cases very substantial entities, deliberately conservative in their outlook and curriculum.

What this represents is the introduction of real intellectual competition on campus, and as fans of competition this is the most hopeful thing happening. One of the causes of the sharp skew in universities has been that the number of conservative faculty, always historically small to begin with, has dwindled precipitously over the last generation, deepening the intellectual bubble of university life. This may be about to reverse itself in many places. And conservatives do not need anything near equal representation on faculties to make a large difference for a very simple reason: one of us is worth twenty of them. It takes a while to explain why this is so, but it is true. A campus counter-revolution is underway.

Much more to come on this topic.

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