Thoughts on a generational takeover by the Left, and what options remain
by John M. Ellis, City-Journal, November 29, 2022
In the nineteen fifties and nineteen sixties, academic-freedom disputes routinely took a particular shape. In a small town, somewhere in the heartland, there would be a college campus on which a young academic loudly voiced his opinions on controversial matters—mostly political, but sometimes also on sexual morality, or even on legalizing drugs. This would offend the sensitivities of some local townspeople.
Someone like the local mayor would lean on the college president (probably a personal friend), the president would then lean on the department chair, and the young professor was soon gone. The American Association of University Professors would then intervene, and the individual would be reinstated, because the AAUP would in effect threaten blacklisting. Reports of cases like this were reasonably common.
The AAUP would always insist that college campuses must be the one place with unfettered freedom to discuss and analyze issues of all kinds, no matter who might be offended. The analytical function of academia must never be shut down by a shallow local moralism. This was then the consensus of academic life.
If we fast forward to the present, one feature of what’s happening on the campuses looks similar: that crucial analytical function is still getting stifled whenever it offends an equally shallow local moralism. But there’s a startling difference: the actors have changed places. It’s now the professors who do what the small-minded small-town worthies used to do, shutting down analysis whenever it offends them, which is often.
In fact, they do it on a vastly larger scale. Those old AAUP cases were aberrations affecting a tiny minority of campuses, and the infractions were soon corrected. But today, the suppression of debate and analysis happens almost everywhere, and the perpetrators—both professors and administrators—represent a controlling majority of the campuses.
The scope of what now gets quashed is also far more extensive. In the sixties, all that was persecuted was some occasional countercultural flamboyance. But at present, virtually any serious discussion of social and political matters risks being silenced, because to be serious it would have to include left-of-center and right-of center-opinion, and the campuses don’t want that. So, we’ve gone from the campus as the only place where discussion must have no limits, to the campus as the only place where free discussion isn’t possible.
Even that isn’t the worst of it. The way that issues are pursued has also changed radically. On contentious subjects such as the actual effects of welfare, or of racial preferences, the old academic way of proceeding was empirical investigation. It looked at real world results to determine whether welfare increased or reduced poverty, and whether preferences helped or hurt minority students. Now contrast that methodology with one that doesn’t investigate but instead takes for granted that both preferences and welfare are natural and desirable, and consequently assumes that the only people who could oppose them are the greedy and racist rich who don’t want to give up their money or their privilege. Call this the “smears instead of investigation” approach.
Fifty to 60 years ago, academia was naturally the home of the investigative approach to social questions, and my academic colleagues at that time, on the left and right, all felt that the non-investigative approach was beneath them. That was what politicians did. A left-wing friend investigating increases in the minimum wage turned against the idea when the data told him that it hurt the people it was supposed to help. But today, the “smears instead of investigation” approach is common throughout academia, of all places, while the investigative approach can get you into real trouble if you venture into areas (say, colonialism) where a radical-left orthodoxy prevails.
Now, if we juxtapose typical professors of these two eras in light of all these differences, it’s obvious that they have nothing in common. This almost reminds me of those horror movies in which some sinister force manages to abduct some people and replace them with clones who look identical but are really an alien species. The difference is that one kind of replacement happens overnight while the other took 50 years to complete.
In 1969, a survey by Martin Trow for the Carnegie Commission found that college faculties were fairly evenly split politically, with about three left-of-center faculty to every two right-of-center. By the end of the twentieth century, 30 years later, that had become a five-to-one ratio. This advantage allowed the Left to ensure that virtually all new professorial appointments were leftists. Accordingly, the left-to-right ratio began to rise sharply. It went from five-to-one to about eight-to-one in just five or six years, a startling change in so short a time. It’s now probably something like 15 to 1, and still rising.
When recruiting is focused so heavily on political ideology, you don’t simply wind up with academic scholars who happen to be all politically left: what you really get is political activists, not academic scholars. Scholars are defined by intellectual curiosity, but that’s the last thing you’ll find in political activists.
On a college campus, they might just as well be aliens, because these two kinds of people—scholars and activists—couldn’t be further apart. The proof of this is that the criteria for success of the one are the very same as the criteria for failure of the other. Political activists succeed to the extent they manage to stamp out opposing political views, but that means the end of rational analysis and debate, the heart of higher education. If things go the other way and the academic teacher succeeds, then the political activist has failed.
This is therefore the core of the problem we face: universities overrun by the wrong kind of people—political zealots who don’t understand academia, have no aptitude for it, and use it to achieve ends incompatible with it. While that condition remains, no real improvement is possible. Reform means in one way or another replacing the wrong kind of people in higher education with the right kind, and nothing short of that will have much effect.
In the last few years, critical race theory has overrun our public schools and the medical profession has begun to go woke, as has the military, the law, journalism, and even museums. Left radicalism has been making enormous progress through its dominance of the campuses.
This is exactly what the radicals promised us back in the sixties with their Port Huron statement. They admitted then that in America they could never succeed at the ballot box, and so they intended to seize control of the universities and use them to promote their ideology. They easily conquered the humanities and social sciences, and now that STEM fields have been brought to heel by means of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, their control of the campuses is virtually complete, and they have begun to use them just as they said they would.
What can we do? First, it’s well to remember that the left/right ratio of campus faculty is still rising fast, which means that however bad things are now, they will be worse next year, and still worse the year after that. If you find that hard to imagine, just think about what has happened in these last two years. One whole generation of college students has already been indoctrinated; about half of young people now favor socialism. But where will we be after two generations of the same treatment? And this would also mean two generations knowing nothing about the Constitution—a frightening thought.
Some well-meaning colleagues think that we should keep trying to persuade the campuses to be more academically-minded. But you can’t persuade people whose values have nothing in common with yours, and in any case this suggestion has a fatal flaw: it leaves the wrong people in place.
This corrupted version of higher education is doing immense damage to our society. Our children are not getting a college education, the colleges are spreading a destructive ideology, and the professions are being corrupted one after another. The public pays for this through taxation, tuition payments, and donations. While the flow of that money continues, nothing will change. It now supports people who are officially hired to do one job but who actually do a completely different one of their own choosing. Reform will come only when public attitudes catch up with the reality of what’s going on—and that’s where the efforts of reformers ought to be directed. Most parents still think they are sending their children to college, not to bootcamp for radical activists. They will stop doing this only when they come to understand the difference.
If and when the flow of public money dwindles, these irretrievably corrupted institutions would begin to fail for want of enrollment. At that point some empty campus buildings would become available for building serious universities from scratch—places like the new University of Austin. Competition from new institutions of higher learning might begin to put some radicalized campuses out of business.
The good news is that the public is already beginning to vote with its feet. For every five undergraduates who enrolled in the fall of 2011, there were only four enrolled ten years later in 2021. That’s a drop of 3.6 million, out of some 20 million. Adjusting those numbers either for an aging population or for Covid makes little difference. These numbers mean that millions of parents and students have already figured out that college is no longer worth the cost in lost years and money. Let’s hope that more do so soon.