Today’s colleges seem to be dominated by identify politics and progressive calls for more “diversity” and heightened attention to sustainability efforts. Surveys show that the already strong leftish orientation among faculty has strengthened over the years. At the same time, however, there is a smaller but growing counter movement. Academic traditionalists are worried about the abysmal academic neglect of the study of the Western civilization responsible for our material and spiritual well-being, the shoddiness of much new scientific research, attacks on free expression, the abandonment of due process in sexual harassment cases, the redeployment of campus resources from teaching and research to support burgeoning campus bureaucracies, etc.
There are several organizations questioning contemporary academic convention: Heterodox Academy and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) are two good examples. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, FIRE, does yeoman’s work in fighting speech codes and other efforts to restrict freedom of expression on campus. I believe the leader in questioning the prevailing academic environment, however, is the National Association of Scholars (NAS), on whose national board I serve. After attending their annual meeting recently, I feel slightly more sanguine about the future of the American academy, notwithstanding huge economic problems arising from soaring costs and declining student demand.
Under able president Peter Wood, NAS has had several years of strong membership growth (it has about 3,000 dues paying members), and financial support for its studies detailing glaring problems within American academia has likewise grown robustly. Recent studies have excoriated Bowdoin College for its contempt and neglect of traditional teaching of the core works of Western civilization, and numerous campuses for effectively encouraging what amounts to racial segregation. Next February I am attending a NAS conference, cosponsored with the Independent Institute, dealing with scandals associated with the increasing publication in academic journals of fraudulent so-called scientific studies not faithfully following basic procedures that are the hallmark of legitimate scientific inquiry. NAS studies and conferences are detailed, scholarly, and scrupulously fact driven.
In an age where people engage in self-censorship so they appear “reasonable” and inoffensive to the politically correct majority, the NAS Board is refreshingly different. Amy Wax, University of Pennsylvania Law professor ferociously attacked by Penn faculty and university administrators for her defense of time-honored values such as hard work and traditional marriage, jokingly steals from Hillary Clinton, calling NAS members academic “deplorables” for their refusal to bow to the increasingly monolithic mantra of the progressive left. (She calls young conservative oriented students “pre-deplorables.”) Another law professor NAS board member bucking the tide of academic convention is Gail Heriot, also a member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, who fiercely opposes making admission, hiring and other decisions based on such academically irrelevant factors as skin coloration and religious preferences. NAS strongly favors viewpoint diversity but not diversity based on group characteristics such as gender, ethnicity, race, etc.
I suspect a majority of America’s private sector professional, managerial and technical workers—the leaders in turning out the goods and services that sustain our prosperity, would be more comfortable with the NAS perspective than that of most faculty teaching at top-flight liberal arts colleges or major research universities. The gap between the thinking of the intelligentsia and the broader public, always present, has sharply widened in recent times.
As I have said previously, I do not think an extraordinarily wide gap between the Ivory Tower and the Real World is permanently sustainable. The Ivory Tower likes its independence from outside interference, but it depends on the broader society for resources. As popular support for the academy declines and takes on a bit of a disturbing partisan flavor (Republicans opposing universities more vehemently than Democrats), the ability of higher education to marshal increased subsidies for operations and capital improvements wanes.
The NAS traditional approach to learning in the long run is more conducive to third party (governmental and philanthropic) support than that of the prevailing academic milieu. John Maynard Keynes said that in the long run we are all dead. But universities do not have to die—the dissenting conservative minority within the academy ironically can help be its economic savior by restoring public confidence in higher learning.