A No-Confidence Vote in Academia?

By on March 16, 2005

In the past few weeks, more scrutiny has been paid to the direction of higher education than perhaps ever before. Driven by the twin pillars of the Ward Churchill affair and the Larry Summers controversy, the American press and public are increasingly taking a look at the state of academia—and they don’t like what they see. A vast number of factors are coming together to prompt people to ask the question “What’s wrong with our colleges?” Just off the top of my head, I can think of a number of contributing factors: attention because of the Churchill and Summers stories, increasing financial pressure on state universities from cash-strapped state legislatures, the recent challenge to the federal Solomon Amendment that prevents universities from discriminating against military recruiters, the push in several states for the adoption of an academic bill of rights, college athletic program scandals like the one that recently led to a rash of resignations at the University of Colorado, college costs that seem to spiral upwards regardless of the rate of inflation, and the lack of fundamental freedom on college and university campuses that FIRE has decried throughout its nearly six years of advocacy. For college and university trustees and administrators, it’s March Madness in more ways than one.

This scrutiny is inevitable, and has been a long time in coming. FIRE cofounders Alan Charles Kors and Harvey A. Silverglate made these the first sentences of FIRE’s mission statement in 1999:
The mission of FIRE is to defend and sustain individual rights at America’s increasingly repressive and partisan colleges and universities. These rights include freedom of speech, legal equality, due process, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience—the essential qualities of individual liberty and dignity.
This is right on target. Let’s face it: academia in general is hopelessly out of touch with the rest of society. The current message from the higher education establishment to the public at large is this: “Saying WTC victims are Nazis is good; saying men and women might be different is bad.” Maybe this is an overgeneralization, but look at the facts: On the one hand, we have Ward Churchill, a man who called some of the victims of the attacks on the World Trade Center “little Eichmanns” for being part of America’s “mighty engine of profit”—that is, working in financial jobs. Although roundly condemned in the non-academic world, around 200 professors from his own university have publicly declared their support for him, and the president of the University of Colorado has publicly stated that he won’t be fired for his viewpoint. And he shouldn’t be fired for it. But at the same time, we see Larry Summers, the president of Harvard, who suggested in an off-the-record speech that there may be innate cognitive differences between men and women. Many are openly calling for his resignation, and he has formed not one but two committees to investigate why there are not more women in the sciences. Last night, he was slapped with a “lack of confidence” vote by the Harvard Arts and Sciences faculty—the first time this has happened in the 400-plus-year history of the school.
 
Even an ivory tower has foundations somewhere, and in the case of the American college and university system, this foundation has been a vast reservoir of goodwill from society at large. I would guess that most Americans who went to college have fond memories of that period of their lives (I know I do) and highly value their college experience. This “warm, fuzzy” feeling makes it possible for colleges to raise millions of dollars a year from alumni while charging students tens of thousands of dollars a year in tuition and fees. Yet colleges don’t exist in a vacuum. In return for this goodwill, Americans expect colleges and universities to be places where justice prevails and students are secure. They expect colleges to teach lessons that will be useful for life, and even to inculcate attitudes that are compatible with the free society in which we live. By abandoning this mission and becoming “increasingly repressive and partisan”—as they manifestly have—colleges have nearly dried up this reservoir of goodwill.

Therefore, there’s a good chance that we are seeing the early death throes of the academic establishment. You can see it in the hysterical reactions of administrators faced with, for instance, affirmative action bake sales. Back in the 1960s, students regularly took over administration buildings with few consequences. Now students are threatened with expulsion and even criminal penalties for sitting at a table with a poster and some cookies. You can see it when a professor recommends “psychological counseling” for a pro-American Arab student. You can see it when a student is kicked out of his dorm and forced to sleep in his car because of what was essentially a “fat joke.” You can see it when paranoid college administrators launch a campaign of deceit and deception against a student who mocked them. These are the irrational reactions of an academic culture that sees every attack on its beliefs, however small, as a life-threatening situation. Colleges wouldn’t react this way if they felt the underpinnings of the dominant academic belief system were secure.
 
CU and Harvard will have a very hard time in the coming months no matter what they decide to do. If CU fires Churchill, it will be legitimately suspected of doing it for illegal viewpoint-based reasons. If it keeps him, it will need to somehow explain the newer charges against him of plagiarism, copyright infringement, and resume fraud. As for Harvard, as Stanley Kurtz explained in The Corner, “If Summers resigns, this extraordinary example of political correctness will come back to haunt Harvard, and the entire academy, for years. But if Summers hangs on, the faculty itself will have been humiliated–checked by the very fact of public scrutiny. Either way, Harvard is tearing itself apart.”
 
No societal institution can withstand this kind of pressure for long—even one as big and as respected as higher education. Big changes are coming, and coming soon.

Schools: Harvard University University of Colorado at Boulder