New efforts at promoting intellectual diversity on campus could deliver much-needed reform.

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With the growing perception that universities have lost their way, the time is ripe for higher education reform. In a Gallup poll released this week, only 36% of Americans said they were very confident in higher education, while 32% said they had little or no confidence. A plurality of the unconfident cited what they perceive to be a political agenda on campus. For policymakers, the appetite for reform has never been greater. From the public, the mandate has never been clearer.

But problems on campus appear intractable. It’s one thing to eliminate policies that clearly violate academic freedom or devalue academic excellence. It’s entirely another to overhaul the broken culture which gave rise to these policies in the first place.

In his recent piece for National Affairs, “Beyond Academic Sectarianism,” Steven Teles provides a helpful diagnosis. In his telling, higher education’s “ideological narrowing has advanced so far” that not just conservatives but “liberal institutionalists,” the vanguard of old-school liberals on campus, “are in decline,” while each new cohort of graduate students is “further to the left” and more activist in their scholarly ambitions.

In explaining the ideological imbalance, Teles downplays the role of direct discrimination against conservatives, pointing instead to structural explanations that can easily be overlooked. An increasingly left-leaning academy will naturally focus less on the areas conservatives are drawn to, such as “religion, the classics, civil society, war, the military.” This means fewer jobs, graduate programs, and potential Ph.D. advisors, which naturally drains the talent pool. Even if there’s little direct discrimination, moreover, the perception of discrimination becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as aspiring heterodox scholars increasingly opt for friendlier vocations. Teles suggests as a takeaway that universities ought to signal their openness to hiring conservatives and conservatives should stop treating their own exclusion like a foregone conclusion.

The university is the institution dedicated to truth seeking. It’s the training ground for our country’s leaders and likely always will be. The dysfunction of higher education doesn’t merely reflect the dysfunction of our country’s elite, but contributes greatly to it.

My reporting suggests that direct discrimination is taking place. It also suggests that this discrimination takes place in the context of a larger effort to empower those who have a more activist conception of higher education. For a full diagnosis, and a possible remedy, those efforts shouldn’t be overlooked.

Ohio State University provides an illustrative case-in-point. In 2021, then-President Kristina Johnson announced what she called the Race, Inclusion and Social Equity (RAISE) initiative, which promised to hire 50 professors whose research focused on issues of race, social justice, and equity. By early 2023, a majority of the new faculty jobs listed by Ohio State’s College of Arts and Sciences reflected this agenda, to an almost comical extent. The university also heavily utilized diversity statements, essentially guaranteeing ideological screening. Regarding a search for a professor of astrophysics, the hiring committee dryly reported that “the DEI statement was given equal weight to the research and teaching statements.”

Throughout American universities, similar initiatives abound, offering roles for scholars and scientists on all stages on the academic career path. These include the University of Michigan’s “Collegiate Fellowship Program,” the University of South Carolina’s “Bridge to Faculty” program, and the University of California System’s “President’s Postdoctoral Fellowship.” Many of these postdoc positions promise a tenure-track job at their conclusion, bypassing a competitive search, which is an unusual practice in academia. Put together, they provide a more sobering picture of the ideological tilt on the higher education landscape.

These “pipeline” programs—which select for social-justice focused research and, as a direct result, those with progressive sensibilities—are ubiquitous across the higher education ecosystem, supported not only by whole university systems but also the constellation of federal and private funders. The not-so-hidden goal of these programs is to increase demographic diversity, which is achieved, ironically enough, through the proxy of viewpoint conformity.

In other words, universities, university systems, foundations, and funding agencies have been extremely effective in empowering those who share a certain vision for higher education.

Pushing back against this dynamic has been the main aim of higher education reform over the last year and a half, and rightly so. Many of these programs rely heavily on “diversity statements” for selecting faculty, which raise issues of academic freedom—any such litmus test should be opposed. Given their ubiquity, these programs set the tone for the whole of academia, shaping the research agenda of whole universities while pushing scholar activism. Many, moreover, seem to function as tools to obscure more overt, and legally questionable, racial preferences.

But those very policies, while misguided in content, offer something of an instructive formula for revitalizing higher education.

In his City Journal article, “After Academic Freedom,” Jonathan Winslow points out how, in the American context, faculty self-governance is often equated with academic freedom—though the connection is increasingly tenuous. As Winslow puts it, “empowering faculty to govern themselves increasingly means violating the rights of individual members who fall on the wrong side of ideological contests.”

But the logic of faculty governance makes reform difficult. Ideally, those engaged in the truth-seeking enterprise would be the best backstop against the corruption of that enterprise, encouraging a culture of liberality. The principle of subsidiarity would suggest that appointed university leaders, and certainly legislators, can only clumsily intervene. And a slate of new rules handed down from above are only as good as the faculty and administrators who enforce them. To this conundrum, Winslow hints at an answer:

Defenders of an older conception of liberal academia who come into positions of influence—as regents or trustees, via political office, or through alumni and donor organizations—should work to identify professors committed to upholding free inquiry and a non-politicized conception of scholarship and empower only them whenever they can.

Structurally, this strategy is not so different from the ubiquitous—and highly effective—progressive pipeline programs around the country, focused on empowering those who share a certain vision for higher education. In this case, those who understand higher education as a truth-seeking enterprise grounded in a commitment to liberality. In a perfect world, this would happen at scale.

Believe it or not, such a movement is already afoot.

A handful of flagship state universities have created new schools that promise to chart a different course. These are variously referred to as “schools of intellectual freedom” or “schools of civic thought.” They include UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Civic Life and Leadership, the University of Florida’s Hamilton Center, and Ohio State’s Salmon P. Chase Center for Civics, Culture and Society.

The most significant effect will surely extend beyond the curriculum. In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Benjamin and Jenna Storey boldly suggest that, through such programs, Republicans might “save the humanities.” They point to a huge shift in the academic job market, citing one estimate that over the next few years these programs will add around 200 new faculty lines in areas like political theory, classics, philosophy, and English. After years of doom and gloom, those in the liberal arts might start hearing talk of something previously unimaginable: a talent crunch.

If nothing else, these programs provide a unique opportunity for students attracted to the traditional liberal arts. They offer their own majors, which are essentially Great Books programs with a sharper focus on civics. This past spring, the Hamilton Center offered courses on Machiaveli’s The Prince, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, and Dostoyevsky’s Demons, as well as courses titled: “God and Science,” “Freedom and Equality,” and “War and the Human Condition.”

Reformers should consider their enterprise a long-term personnel and leadership-building project. Legislative overhauls—whereby bad policies are rooted out—are valuable, but can give the illusion of a speedy return on investment. Lasting change will not come in a short timeframe, and it’ll require efforts from multiple parties: legislators, trustees, donors, and scholars. It starts with thinking about the pipeline, which is the key for rebuilding intellectual pluralism on campus, to the benefit of all.

John Sailer
John Sailer is senior fellow and director of university policy at the National Association of Scholars.
@JohnDSailer
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