The Battle for Higher Education

From Jewish News Service
Dec. 21, 2023

Higher education is making news these days. In Congressional testimony, the Presidents of Harvard, MIT, and Penn couldn’t tell whether calling for the genocide of the Jews constituted harassment without knowing the context. The effects of their testimony reverberate.

Days later, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) issued a lengthy report condemning “Political Interference and Academic Freedom in Florida’s Public Higher Education System.” Prominently featured was a detailed complaint about New College of Florida, where I serve as admissions director.

These seemingly unrelated events are but two parts of a single story. The Ivy League and the AAUP, as representatives of today’s academic leadership, are pleased and proud of the institutions they’ve built. Florida’s public education system has taken the lead in promoting institutional reform—with New College as the poster child.

Needless to say, incumbent leadership doesn’t welcome any reforms at their cozy institutions. They perceive our reforms as threats to American higher education as we know it. Their perception is correct. Their problem, however, is that academia as we know it bears little resemblance to academia as most Americans believe it to be.

The incumbents have spread a gloriously self-serving myth system. In their telling, their institutions are bastions of liberal values, civil discourse, and the free exchange of ideas. They’re open to the finest representatives of every community, perspective, and viewpoint. They’re engaged in educating a new generation in the fine art of critical thinking.

The truth, however, is almost the polar opposite of that myth. America’s universities are country clubs for insiders who have dispensed with independent thought as the price of belonging. Under the seemingly high-minded ideal of “faculty governance,” faculty make all important decisions: Hiring, firing, promotion, tenure, curriculum design, publication in prestigious journals, the appropriate paths for research, and the flow of research funding.

Does faculty governance work? The AAUP, which represents faculty members from across the country, is clear: America’s professors are highly impressed with the performance of America’s professors. Most of the complaints in the AAUP report hinge on the usurpation by outsiders of decisions that “belong” to the faculty.

In reality, faculty governance enshrines conventional wisdom into a governing ethos from which none may deviate. Over the past few decades, a deeply illiberal “Critical Theory,” rooted in the same utopian socialism that birthed Communism and Fascism, has assumed that dominant role.

Critical Theory casts history as a constant struggle between “oppressor” groups and “oppressed” groups. “Intersectionality” ties them all together, so that all struggles pitting any oppressor against any of the oppressed are manifestations of the same struggle. All actions of the oppressed are thus justifiable as blows for liberation and justice. Deterrence or retaliation against even the most seemingly barbaric acts merely perpetuates oppression.

It’s enough to make your head spin. It’s also a fine line along which universities must dance. Academic leaders must be open and proud of their beliefs without ever allowing anyone to note their implications. On a critical theoretic campus (which is most of them), determining whether calling for a genocide of the Jews constitutes harassment does indeed require context—it’s just not a context to which the leadership can admit.

The relevant context has little to do with behavior or message; it rests entirely upon the identity of the speaker. A “white” student wearing a swastika T-shirt calling for genocide is harassing the Jews; a “student of color” wearing a Palestine T-shirt with an identical message is not.

Admitting as much, however, would give away the game. America’s finest campuses would be revealed to be anti-liberal, anti-freedom, anti-discourse, hotbeds of privilege and racial categorization.

Therein lies the true state of “academia as we know it” and the true goals of those of us committed to reform.

In one of the clearest articulations of these competing forces, longtime Harvard donor Bill Ackman enumerated the ways that Harvard had deviated from the school he had believed it to be. New College President Richard Corcoran showed that our goal in the reform movement is to rebuild American academia into the type of institution whose loss Ackman laments.

Corcoran then invited Harvard’s refugees to join us at New College. Anti-reform critics scoffed at the improbability. The message behind his invitation, however, is one that every participant in campus life needs to hear. In the current climate, they face an unenviable choice. They can sacrifice their minds, their souls, and their safety to the cause of earning a prestigious degree. They can incur deep personal and professional risks in fighting for their institutions from the inside. Or they can join us at institutions that have proudly embraced the cause of higher education reform—beginning with New College and the rest of the Florida State University System.

Those choices frame the battle for the future of higher education in America: Incumbents fighting to preserve a deeply illiberal, hateful, discriminatory status quo vs. reformers seeking a return to traditional liberal education. If you want to understand why we in the reform movement get so much hatred from the incumbents, look no further.


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