A Pervasive Failure of Nerve in Higher Education

The condition of American universities is well known to any astute observer:  they are centers of left-wing, anti-American, indoctrination.  Once-upon-a-time, universities enabled many students to broaden their perspectives on themselves and the world.  Today, they all-too-often allow students to revel in their tribal identities, and try to ensure that the snowflakes have access to safe spaces, coloring books, and puppies, so they can ignore unpleasant information. 

Universities give political correctness an entirely new, and dangerous, meaning.  Many administrators, faculty, and students can abide no criticism.  They say that they value diversity above all, but they are so intolerant of differing viewpoints that they are hot-houses of authoritarianism.   Some universities have been havens for violent left-wing extremists such as Bill Ayers, Bernardine Dohrn, Kathy Boudin, and Angela Davis.  Almost every year an academic says or writes something that leaves one feeling he or she is from another planet. 

A key question is: how did American colleges and universities get this way?   Decades ago, they were the envy of the world.

As someone who labored in Academe’s vineyards for over fifty years, I hanker for an answer to what happened.  Pardon any hubris, but my sojourn from under-graduate to graduate student to professor at a major research university (R1) may provide some of the insight needed for an answer.  Some reasons for Academe’s contemporary plight have begun to emerge.

A sidebar sets the context for what will follow.  One discipline’s recent history provides useful insights into the experience of higher education generally over the last half-century or more.  That discipline, of which I’ve been a member since the mid-1960s, is Political Science.

Just before 2000, a new movement emerged in Political Science that objected to the discipline’s dominant theoretical, and especially methodological, frameworks.  The specifics are unimportant, since the same pattern has happened in most disciplines.  This movement also sought significant organizational changes, especially in the discipline’s flagship publications.  Although there was initial resistance, one wag correctly predicted that the new “revolution” – as it called itself – would prosper because, as he put it, the discipline’s leading figures were “squishy liberals,” who would be unable to withstand challenges from the downtrodden.

Within a decade, the new movement had succeeded, almost precisely for the reason(s) the wag mentioned.

Many of the dynamics responsible for change in Political Science also were at work in higher education generally over the last half-century or so.  The “revolution” did not entirely supplant Political Science’s pre-existing paradigm, and that may provide another lesson we must heed if we are to ease Academe’s current travails. 

First, a few facts, most of which are already known.  Over the years, researchers have demonstrated that academicians decisively lean to the left.  Moreover, probably because of the entry of more women – who are overwhelmingly feminists – and minorities into Academe, the academy has shifted leftward since the 1970s and 1980s.  Some disciplines, especially in the humanities and the social sciences, are more inhabited by leftists than others, but even the STEM disciplines have shifted leftward recently.

Many administrators are also on the Left, as the recent statements by Middlebury College’s president just before a claque of screaming thugs refused to let Charles Murray speak, illustrate.

Remember that Janet Napolitano is president of California’s major institution of higher education.  Fortunately, not every college and university administrator is a far leftist.  We don’t see or hear of them in the media, and there’s the pity.

Delve more deeply into the data on higher education, and the figures become slightly more nuanced.  Leftists, for example, are more concentrated in small liberal arts colleges, not so much in major research institutions.  Still, there are enough left-leaning faculty in the R1s to be worrisome.  Those who toil in two-year community colleges are least likely to be leftists, but even there one finds enough far leftists to go around.   Faculty who identify themselves as “radical” or “far left” are out-numbered by those who identify as “liberal” or “middle-of-the-road,”  but there are very few who say they are “conservative” or “far right.”  Moreover, the most noticeable recent trends are toward the left.  Finally, if anyone thinks that as the generation of the late 1960s who infiltrated colleges and universities thereafter retires, things in Academe will improve, the latest figures on younger faculty’s political leanings don’t offer much hope.

We should be suspicious of self-identifications – given the tendency for poll and survey respondents to fudge what they tell strangers – but, based on personal observations over 50 years, I’m reasonably satisfied the data above are close to the mark.

Again, based on personal observation, I doubt many faculty or administrators would approve of the storm-trooper-type tactics displayed on university campuses, but those outbursts keep happening.  Why?

There are many explanations for Academe’s left-leaning proclivities, such as the one that claims academics are sensitive types who naturally favor progressive change, or it’s self-selection on the part of those young folks already inclined to the left, and therefore attracted to careers in the groves of Academe.   Young conservatives, on the other hand, are allegedly either put off by Academe’s already existing leftism or drawn by the quest for riches into the world of business and industry.

If academics are prone toward sensitivity and everything that allegedly entails, why were faculty likely to lean rightward prior to the Progressive Era or the New Deal?  One should not generalize from personal experience, but as I think back to my youth – aw, let me dream! – I don’t recall knowing what my political orientation was, let alone what I wanted to do when I grew up.  Ask the average teenager today, and see if he/she knows these things.

There is a simpler, but ultimately more apt, explanation for the kind of fanaticism displayed by a minority of college and university students, faculty, and administrators these days.  It builds on Edmund Burke’s adage that “[t]he only thing that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men [and women] do nothing.”

Just as “squishy liberals” stood by while Political Science’s squeaky wheel got greased, “squishy” moderates and liberals in Academe have all-too-often allowed evil to triumph.

This explanation needs elaboration.  There is a well-known tendency for centrists, and even moderate-leftists, to be relatively docile while extremists – on both ends – are inclined toward vocal expression of their complaints.  Since there are so few far rightists in Academe, anything they might do tends to “stay in the closet.”  Since those on the far left in Academe don’t have far to look for “birds of a feather,” they feel safe in acting out their discontents.

Voila!  Along come the media to publicize these outrages, and very soon, more-or-less in copy-cat fashion, we’re off-and-running.  One Gestapo- or KGB-type outburst on and/or around a campus is followed by another, and so on.

Until the moderates and moderate-liberals get some sand in their craw, don’t expect things to change.

Richard Winchester is the pen name of a political scientist.

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