A fantastic editorial in the latest issue of The Economist (subscription required) warns that many prestigious American universities are coasting on their reputation and no longer deliver the robust marketplace of ideas and innovation they once promised. Instead they end up catering to entrenched interests and so shortchange the vitality and rigor of their students’ education—in other words, they are “run for the convenience of producers rather than their customers.”
Of particular note is The Economist’s take on the recent resignation of President Larry Summers at Harvard University and the climate of orthodoxy and censorship that so many colleges and universities impose on their campuses:
Now the Corporation of Harvard has inadvertently challenged this smugness. Ever since the university’s ruling body surrendered to pressure from the faculty and ousted Larry Summers from the presidency of Harvard at the end of last month, American newspapers have buzzed with questions about academia. Are the universities as good as they think they are? Are they upholding the standards of free speech and intellectual vigour? Are they training enough scientists and engineers? Are they encouraging social mobility?Mr Summers enraged people in all sorts of ways: questioning the rigour of some of the newer “ologies,” getting ensnared in an economist friend’s conflict-of-interest case, wondering rather too pointedly why so few women reached the top of the sciences. Both combative and thin-skinned, Mr Summers is not an easy man to defend on every count. But his ouster points to two great weaknesses in American academia.Political correctness has changed from a subject of widespread mirth to a genuine worry about freedom of speech. The depressing thing about the women-in-science controversy was not the number of academics who disagreed with Mr Summers but the number who thought he had no right to raise the issue. Universities bristle with speech codes and absurd rules: until the Supreme Court intervened this week the army was prevented from recruiting on some campuses.
The Economist’s witty and concise article is but one more reminder that public scrutiny is hardening its gaze on the brazen hypocrisy of college administrators who preach the values of a free society but act as if they are exempt from the same values when it suits their repressive whim. Universities and colleges must rise to the challenge—the duty—of living up to the liberal ideals they claim to espouse. The world is watching.