by Bruce Thornton
The revelations that parents of applicants to tony universities bribed university officials to engineer their children’s admission have provoked the usual complaints of class privilege corrupting higher education’s meritocratic system and lofty mission. But those horses left the university barn decades ago. The real issue deserving of exposure and condemnation is the role of the federal government in demanding and encouraging this corruption.
The real culprit behind the scandalous corruption of the university.
First, kids being admitted to top schools for reasons other than merit is a dog-bites-man story. What’s the difference between a deep-pockets donor spending millions to get his child into a university, and B-list celebrities shelling out a fraction as much on crooked test-proctors and coaches? And why should “legacy admits” have an advantage just because one or both parents attended the university? The difference is not a moral one, but the fact that one form of bribery is legal, and the others are not.
The real scandals, much more serious than parents giving their kids a sketchy leg up in life, are easy to identify. For example, we seldom even notice anymore just how unseemly and corrupt college athletics are. We’ve stopped laughing at the preposterous notion of the “scholar athlete,” as hard to find as a unicorn at the most successful NCAA basketball and football programs. Most athletes graduate with soft degrees like “communications” if they graduate at all. And that’s with extensive academic support provided by the athletic programs.
And talk about scandal: NCAA Division 1 schools earned $9.15 billion in revenue in 2015, the bulk of that going to less than a quarter of the Division 1 schools, according to Business Insider. Worse yet, more than half the talent responsible for this lucrative enterprise, most of it coming from football and basketball, comprises uncompensated black men, a little more than half of whom graduate in six years. And only 1.5% of college football players go on to play professionally. But campus race-hacks whining about racism and “microagressions” are pretty quiet about the college-sports bait-and-switch.
More important, obviously, has been the degradation of the university’s traditional mission: To foster independent thought, critical analysis of received wisdom, and a diversity of intellectual viewpoints and perspectives by encouraging, as Matthew Arnold put it, “the free play of the mind on all subjects,” and by studying “the best which has been thought and said in the world, and, through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits, which we now follow staunchly but mechanically.”
Today the mission of the university is precisely the opposite. Rather than independent and diverse thought, universities “staunchly but mechanically” indoctrinate students with stale progressive “stock notions and habits” that discourage and punish the “free play of the mind on all subjects.” Rather than the “best which has been thought and said,” curricula are composed of tendentious victim-melodramas of “white privilege” and the oppression of “people of color,” while the great tradition of Western literature and philosophy is either ignored or deconstructed into propaganda justifying racial and “gender” injustice. No wonder we now have graduates of the best universities preferring the failed ideology of socialism, which they can’t even define accurately, over the wildly successful free-market capitalism that has created the surplus wealth that subsidizes their ignorance.
Next scandal: the proliferation of administrators while the numbers of full-time faculty dwindle. According to Forbes, spending on faculty 30 years ago was 15% higher than administrative spending. Now they are roughly equal. The New York Times reports that “administrative positions at colleges and universities grew by 60 percent between 1993 and 2009 . . . 10 times the rate of growth of tenured faculty positions.” Less spending on full-time instruction has contributed to the increase of temporary faculty at the expense of tenure-track professors. In 1970, adjuncts, as part-timers are called, made up 22% of university teachers; today they’re almost half.
Finally, affirmative action policies and the enshrinement of “diversity” have skewed the university’s mission towards tendentious “social justice” goals diametrically opposed to the traditional mission described above. “Diversity” is an Orwellian term that in reality costumes the relentless ideological homogenization of thought and opinion with superficial ethnic and biological sex uniforms. The 1978 Supreme Court Bakke decision validated this fake “diversity” as a “compelling state interest,” and thus created an illiberal identity politics that uses tribal affiliation and narratives of oppression to promote a left-wing agenda inimical to Constitutionally protected natural rights like freedom of speech and the right to confront one’s accuser. It’s no coincidence that these policies further the century-old progressive aim to dismantle the Constitutional order and replace it with a system that centralizes and concentrates power in a technocratic elite.
This brings us to the real scandal: the role of the bloated federal bureaucracies in corrupting the university by threatening investigations of “non-compliant” schools and cutting off their access to the some $80 billion the feds spend directly and indirectly on higher education. Since the Bakke decision and subsequent Supreme Court confirmations of its argument, sexual harassment law and Title IX enforcement have been the main mechanisms that have led to the politicization of the university by backstopping “gender” and racial programs and ideologies with the coercive fiscal and investigative power of the federal government.
Needless to say, this expansion of university compliance clerks has contributed to another scandal: the outrageous tuition costs that have increased student loans and debt––managed by the federal government and paid for by taxpayers––to $1.5 trillion. Moreover, progressives are over-represented among those hired to staff these university bureaucracies, thus increasing the already huge presence of the left among faculty, another scandal more important than parents committing fraud.
A couple of stories illustrate this unholy nexus of federal interference and the debased university mission. Sarah Lawrence professor Samuel Abrams published an op-ed last fall pointing out that progressive administrative staff outnumbered conservatives 12-1. He concludes that “ideological imbalance, coupled with [administrators’] agenda-setting power, threatens the free and open exchange of ideas.” The usual thug-tactics on the part of students ensued: vandalizing his office door, graffiti accusing him of sexual improprieties, demands for his punishment and apologies from the president, sit-ins, and bathetic letters claiming that Abrams’ mild commentary implied “that our lives and identities are viewed as ‘opinions’ that we can have a ‘difference in dialogue’about, as if we haven’t been forced to debate our very existences for our entire lives.”
The college president––presumably the adult in the room––failed to condemn the students’ behavior, and issued boilerplate clichés about “a commitment to diversity and inclusive excellence.” As Kearns reports, according to Abrams, “she asked him whether he thought it was appropriate to write op-eds without her permission, and further suggested that his article had been hostile toward his colleagues [what the ACLU used to call the “chilling effect” on free speech].” Later she “asked him if he was on the job market.” Let’s not forget the 25 professors who signed a petition stating that they “stand in solidarity with the student activism.”
More recently, Harvard law professor Ronald Sullivan Jr. got in trouble with some students for joining alleged sexual assaulter Harvey Weinstein’s legal team. Again, the usual hysterical reactions followed. A petition was circulated to remove Sullivan, a black man, as dean of Winthrop House, a residential dorm. As Heather MacDonald reports the students’ rationale: “Mr. Sullivan’s choice of client was ‘deeply trauma-inducing,’ and shows that Mr. Sullivan doesn’t ‘value the safety of students,’ the petition announced. Would Winthrop residents ‘really want to one day accept [a] Diploma,’ the petition asked, from someone who ‘believes it is okay to defend’ Mr. Weinstein?” Condemnatory slogans like “your silence is violence” were spray-painted on Winthrop House, without condemnation from the administration.
A business professor and dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences piled on, starting a review of “concerns about the community’s overall climate” at Winthrop House, including anonymous surveys distributed that asked “if the house was ‘racist’ or ‘homophobic’ and whether it has a ‘strong commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.’” Obviously, these are questions guaranteed to elicit subjective or mendacious answers, and to provide even more preposterous charges against Sullivan. Sullivan’s statements of his concern for the college community’s safety to the same dean were deemed “insufficient.” He claimed that “there’s more work that needs to be done,” and said ominously, “I am hopeful that Professor Sullivan is prepared to be a partner in that work.”
More interesting is the role of the federal-law enforcing bureaucracies on campus:
Six Harvard dorms held “listening sessions” attended by emissaries from the university’s Office for Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, whose website urged traumatized students to seek mental-health services and other help from Harvard’s massive Title IX bureaucracy. Harvard’s dean of students and its lead Title IX coordinator attended a student protest outside the main administration building, where the ubiquitous Office for Sexual Assault Prevention and Response doled out hot chocolate.
Finally, as a result of the hysterical outrage and Salemite demand for punishment, as MacDonald says, “Harvard’s graduates will carry with them into the world a profound ignorance of the principles that safeguard American liberties.” The revolutionary and Founding Father, John Adams, who in 1770 defended the eight men charged with murder during the Boston Massacre, knew that the most heinous criminals deserve to be defended during a trial, and that right is one of the linchpins of our principle “equal justice under the law.”
Both these episodes illustrate how federal law and coercive regulations have contributed to the scandalous corruption of the university. Harping on some parents using bribes to promote their children and earn themselves some status is like complaining about a mob-boss’s habit of double-parking. As with most of our political and social dysfunctions, the real culprit is an overweening federal government that has become the instrument of progressive ideology scorning individual rights. That’s where our outrage needs to be directed.
Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, a Research Fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, and a Professor of Classics and Humanities at the California State University. He is the author of nine books and numerous essays on classical culture and its influence on Western Civilization. His most recent book, Democracy's Dangers and Discontents (Hoover Institution Press), is now available for purchase.
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