By Mark Bauerlein
President Trump’s proposal to reconsider Federal funding of colleges and universities that fail to observe free speech principles has opened another front in the general redefinition of conservatism currently happening in intellectual circles. (See here, here, here, and here for specimens of the debate). At first sight, the action doesn’t jibe with conservative values. The outlook of Hayek, Friedman, and Buckley eschews state intervention in domestic affairs, especially at the Federal level. Jimmy Carter’s creation of the U.S. Department of Education is a prime exhibit of Beltway meddling in affairs that should be handled locally and, as far as possible, privately. It’s just that kind of bureaucratic overreach that produced the Reagan Revolution. Intervention is what liberals do, not conservatives.
And now here is President Trump getting involved in campus affairs, using the strong arm of the government and its hefty purse to threaten and intimidate higher education. This is exactly what establishment conservatives warned of back in 2015—that Trump isn’t a real conservative, that he lacks the prudence to exercise power wisely and sparely. One of the core conservative principles of governance is not to let ideal goals become so tempting that one ignores the pitfalls of reaching them. Equality is a wonderful achievement, but the social engineering necessary to achieve it is a nightmare.
In this case, to be sure, free speech is a sacred right, and we need guarantees of it. But for the Federal government to assume that duty, it will have to create new guidelines and reporting requirements, open new offices and hire more people. Conservatives can’t help but wonder if this won’t simply expand the swamp. Why add to the administrative state? And, as good conservatives ever mindful of Original Sin, they pose the “who” question: who will decide what counts as a violation of free speech? Who will define free speech itself?
Sound worries and principled objections, and put forward in earnest. But there is a big problem here. One must ask conservatives who mistrust government action against schools that fail to maintain free speech norms what answer they have to what has happened to higher education in the last half-century. What do they offer in response to those developments, which include:
- The creation of Women’s Studies, Black Studies, and other identity-based fields that have a frankly political objective and are hostile to conservatism.
- The disappearance of Western Civilizations and U.S. history requirements and their replacement by “diversity” and “culture” requirements.
- The actual increase in the ratio of liberal-to-conservative professors in the last three decades in spite of public disapproval of political bias on campus.
- The revival of 1960s-style student protest aimed at conservative speakers, often disruptive and in a few cases violent.
- The recent spread of identity politics into the hard sciences, which heretofore have been immune to them.
- The requirement that faculty job applicants compose “diversity statements.”
- The popularity of tendentious social theories such as Intersectionality that frankly rank demographic groups on a moral scale.
Let me put it his way. I was finishing graduate school in English when The Closing of the American Mind came out and the national debate over campus political correctness began. The noble efforts of Bloom, Roger Kimball, Dinesh D’Souza, Bill Bennett, John Silber, Richard Bernstein, Camille Paglia, and many other critics of the identity orthodoxy hardening in the humanities thoroughly trounced the professor ideologues in the public domain. They wrote books and articles for mass audiences and appeared on television. The professors spoke to their colleagues at conferences and to students in the classroom. When the professors did venture off campus to answer questions from the media, they explained what they were doing as if they were still in the seminar room. They argued that objectivity was a myth and that the literary canon was just a social construct of dead white males. Their outlook was so academically oriented that they couldn’t adjust it to popular discourse.
The public looked at them as if they were screwy. Facts aren’t real? And what do heteronormativity and postcolonial mean? It was easy for the critics to cut through the academic jargon and identity politics and assert straightforwardly the value of Great Books and the necessity of reason and truth. They demonstrated well the phony sophistication of the professors and their pretentiousness, too. Even the New York Times paid attention. Everyone laughed when Hilton Kramer and Roger Kimball issued their annual report on the Modern Language Association convention. They savored at Camille Paglia’s speeches and interviews, and the Sokal Hoax, and the Bad Writing Award.
From that point onward, the presence of political correctness on campus was an established fact. It put the professors on the defensive. But if conservatives expected professors to feel suitably chastised and change their ways, they misconstrued their opponents. The faculty didn’t soften their attitudes and they didn’t open the ranks to people not like themselves. Instead, they grew even more adversarial.
To expect them to do otherwise is to fail Institutional Psychology 101. All the public disapproval in the world didn’t alter the absolute control the faculty have over hiring and promotion. They own the jobs; they collect the paychecks. Why worry about an op-ed by George Will making fun of the latest liberal hi-jink in the classroom? The next day it will be forgotten and the professors will go back to work and do exactly what they did before. Critique did nothing to stop them. There was no way for outsiders to break into the hiring process and induce more intellectual diversity in the department. Nothing gets professors more united and aroused than an administrator who threatens to intervene in faculty deliberations. If anything, the off-campus attacks on political correctness only made the faculty more insistent on an orthodoxy.
What, then, has the customary conservative approach done to remedy the situation? In truth, quite a bit, here and there, for instance, the James Madison Program at Princeton and the Elm Institute in New Haven, the longstanding labors of Intercollegiate Studies Institute, the Consortium of Christian Study Centers . . . But those efforts are islands in an ocean of liberal and leftist hegemony.
And in more and more places, the hegemony won’t let them be. Student activists have picked up the social justice vision and the identity politics that (putatively) realizes it, and they want to see it implemented now. They’re willing to shout down a speaker and descend upon the president’s office when they see an injustice at work. They want a Koch Foundation grant halted and a scientific study that reaches politically incorrect conclusions suppressed. These young warriors lack the scruples of their faculty sponsors. They don’t have jobs to protect; they have no history with the institution; they have no long-term vision for the school. It makes them heedless, and the faculty and administration have shown themselves all too often unable to contain them.
This is the background of President Trump’s proposal. The best analysis of it as an answer to the situation appeared in National Review last week. It’s by Stanley Kurtz, and it has the title “Trump’s Campus Free-Speech Order and Our Cold Civil War.”
Kurtz puts the Executive Order in the right context, the “bargain” that America has made with its colleges:
Colleges and universities get special treatment and privileges: loads of free money; the right to insulate faculty hiring and the content of courses from public pressure; and an informal but powerful cultural norm of public non-interference. In return, all the academy has to do is conduct itself according to the accepted norms of liberal education. It must choose its faculty based on intellectual merit rather than politics; strive to present students with the best thinking from a wide range of sometimes conflicting perspectives, while avoiding ideological pressure and indoctrination; and it must protect the liberties of students and faculty to think and speak as they see fit, while taking care to instruct students in the fundamental principles of free speech, including freedom’s foundational relationship to liberal education itself.
Needless to say, all the trends mentioned above were violations of this agreement. All too many professors and administrators took the benefits and dumped the responsibilities. They acted not as if they owed the country anything, but as if the country owed them more resources and more license. Academic freedom all the way, but no burden of stewardship, no sense of protecting the norms of liberal education.
Indeed, Kurtz rightly notes, many professors openly reject those norms. The university stands on liberal principles of free speech, honest handling of evidence, due process, and apolitical standards of scholarly judgment. But a powerful strain of academic thinking puts all those principles in doubt. Marxists, feminists, and Foucauldians of various stripes recast those principles is disguised power plays benefiting some groups and harming others, free speech included. And their influence is growing, not diminishing.
Kurtz: “The outcome is an atmosphere of self-censorship and fear.”
We have reached the point that conservatives must ask whether an Executive Order such as the one proposed can make things any worse than they already are. To stand on a principle of limited government without taking into account the actual conditions of the ground is, one could say, but another form of imprudence. We know the risks of Federal bureaucracy, but we also know for certain what has happened in the last four decades. If it makes administrators try harder to maintain an open society on campus, if they feel some pressure from DC that counters the pressure they feel from the students, we may find after five years that the Executive Order is no longer necessary. From what I have seen, even my liberal colleagues are uneasy with the current trends, and administrators, too, are fed up with overwrought students who believe their protests and disruptions are wholly right and proper. They won’t say so, but when President Trump implements the order, many people on campus will breathe a long sigh of relief.