Reforming Academia in 2016

Even President Barack Obama recently lamented the declining state of affairs on America’s college campuses. Essentially, a doctrinaire sense of victimology has descended upon campuses such that free speech, critical thinking, and debate are all but abolished in favor of “Safe spaces.” The complaints are extensive and well-founded. Allan Bloom’s concern in the 1980s about the “Closing of the American Mind” is profound, real, and upon us at today’s university campuses. What is not often discussed is what should be done to reverse this crisis and to begin anew the opening of the American mind.

What exactly is wrong? Since the 1960s, an Alinsky-styled, Jacobin fueled movement that recognizes that power truly emanates from those centers that disseminate knowledge, has worked to gain control of places like American universities. Professors like Bill Ayers in Chicago -- who wipes his feet on an American flag before a photo op selfie for a magazine -- follows in the lineage of self-styled academic radicals such as Ward Churchill and Noam Chomsky. In their essential view, there is one profound evil in the world -- the conventional America. All of our traditions, all of our economic and cultural practices, and religious faiths, are code words for direct suppression and oppression of minorities they define and manipulate through the terminologies of academia. It is difficult to complete sentences in front of these academic radicals who have made a profession of taking offense.

This year’s college policy debate topic is illustrative. Students were asked to debate whether: “the United States should significantly reduce its military presence,” in various parts of the world. For the most part, in watching these debates I observed the literal ideological decline of America. Both the affirmative and negative teams in debates tended to agree that America is sinister. She is committed to imperialism, colonialism, racism, and all manner of human injustice. Presumably, the negative side would have necessitated the rebuttal to that premise -- but that was largely untrue. As I told many debaters this year: “don't take this personally -- but you could reasonably be employed writing propaganda for the government of North Korea.” In my oral critiques of another debate, I explained that I found it shocking that four college students could talk for two hours about withdrawing our troops from South Korea without once mentioning human rights abuses in North Korea. I explained that before you leave this room today, I want you to know that on April 30, 2015 the commander of North Korean Armed Forces was executed in public with an anti-aircraft gun designed to take down aircraft at 27,000 feet. The commander was shot at a range of 100 feet for the spectacular effect that dictatorships like Kim Jong Un seek to communicate in his ‘deaths as text’ to the oppressed public of his nation. Unfortunately, debaters effectively parrot the lines of a radicalized intellectual culture that believes the world would be better with less America. In fact, at the final round of the National Debate Tournament, after Harvard affirmed the resolution by rejecting the “neo-conservative narratives” that construct Iran as a threat, the University of Kansas responded: this affirmative case is anti-black. Noted professor Dr. Frank Wilderson argues that anti-blackness is such a pervasive reality of American life that we must not refrain from endorsing the most grave of all actions: “burn it all down.” In one national debate I judged in Kansas City, a debater told me, “I know you are not going to like this, Dr. Voth but we are asking you to vote to burn it all down.” And so I did -- because the negative team options were even more dire in their prescriptions for America. The fault is not with the debaters, who with skill repeat the lines scripted to them by academia.

The public poorly understands how dire the communication culture is on college campuses -- especially in election years like this one. We must seek dramatic reforms to prevent the painful reality check that must await the students of Coddle University. Here are the steps that should be taken:

  1. State legislatures should convene hearings to examine the tax-exempt statuses of universities. Professors like to talk about revoking the tax-exempt statuses of churches that they perceive to be overinvolved with bad politics. Examining the partisan character of university life would allow brave professors to put their partisan ideologies on public display and potentially bring significant revenue to state budgets as universities could admit that serving narrow political interests are more important than the First Amendment and its essential civil rights. With dozens of universities that now have billion-dollar endowments, now is the time to think about the legal meaning of tax-exempt status for non-profit schools.
  2. 15% of student fee moneys should be spent on student activities that encourage open dialogue and debate: debate teams, public debates, mock trial, and similar student advocacy activities. Most universities raise between $250,000 and $500,000 a year in student fees. In Ohio, I worked at a school where fees went to clubs such as: the masturbation club, the X-box club (they bought gaming consoles), and the California appreciation club. Fashion shows and expensive partisan speaker fees trade off with critical thinking activities like debate and mock trial that are hard pressed to get adequate funding across the nation.
  3. Bring back ROTC and the United States military recruiting activity to college campuses. In the 1960s activists began their ideological revolt by demonizing the U.S. military and having them kicked off campus in far too many cases. In the 1990s, academics demonized the military for policies of “don’t ask don't tell.” There is no justification for military recruitment to not be a basic part of higher education. If this is not possible, then it is equally impossible for federal funding in the form of grants to go to such schools and the faculty who utilizes those taxpayer grants.

At issue here are our paramount civil rights found in the First Amendment. Colleges and universities are creating intellectually stifling environments comparable to Jim Crow America. Freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition must flow from the citadels of critical thinking that should be American colleges and universities. The reactionary ideology against individual rights that corrodes the minds of our young people since the 1960s must be confronted and reversed. Now is the time for action.

Ben Voth is the director of debate and associate professor of Corporate Communication and Public Affairs at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. 

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