How to Fix What is Broken in Academia
A Proposal for Using Conservative Political Power to Roll Back an Institutional Coup
The following proposal for university reform is a departure from the usual Year Zero fare, which typically does not directly address legislators and executives of a particular party in pursuit of concrete policy goals. It is a thought experiment, though an unusually detailed and concrete one, calling for GOP elected officials to deploy legislative, regulatory, and investigative power in defense of the core values of free and disinterested inquiry that left monoculture is dismantling by rolling back the administrative apparatus through which progressives increasingly dominate the character and content of research and teaching in America universities. The piece may appear slightly out of sequence as a set of programmatic recommendations before the more philosophical and journalistic inquiry on these questions that I am working on now in this and other venues, but it may produce interesting effects to skip ahead here to a forthright and unapologetic call to action broadly consistent with measures likely to emerge from GOP state legislatures in the coming months and years.
As a student and critic of the ongoing moral revolution from above that is now supplanting legacy American values and norms with narrowly sectarian ideological dogmas inconsistent with peaceful co-existence within diversity, I cannot avoid considering the practical question of What is To Be Done. When the party of institutional America is fully committed to, or at any rate, unable to do anything to restrain the institutional coup, the opposition party must inevitably play some role in resisting it. Tim Shampling, a figure within academia both well-versed in its inner workings and possessed of strong and definite convictions regarding what must be done, provides the preliminary outlines of a road map for what could work.
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Universities are some of the most durable social forms ever created – older than the nation-state and modern democracy. The entire clerical and professional stratum of the country, on which any party depends to govern effectively, passes through them and is shaped by the prevailing manners and mores imparted within them. Conservatives have allowed these essential institutions to fall into the hands of their adversaries, who are busily reshaping them into woke indoctrination factories from which anyone refusing obeisance to noxious new orthodoxies is systematically being purged.
Progressive dominance was obtained through a slow, incremental process of institutional capture that accelerated through the decades as various inflection points were reached; we are now in the home stretch in which the pace has become a sprint. Ceaseless retail activism by a minority of implacable administrators and faculty over budgets, mandates, sinecures, and faculty hiring eventually delivered a critical mass of power able to dominate whole departments and the institution as a whole. Much of this activity was flagrantly in violation of civil rights law and equal protection, enabled by a combination of progressive consensus to flout the law and conservative lassitude or incompetence in fighting back.
Reversing this trend will require a concerted, comprehensive, well-coordinated, and intelligent application of political power to reshape a crucial domain of elite formation. This will in turn require that the party break with its reluctance to exercise government power in service of shaping our major cultural and educational institutions. After decades of negligence, conservatives must get serious about acting to secure and widen their foothold in the institutions of higher learning by rolling back pervasive abuses and lawlessness normalized therein. Fortunately, there are many ways that conservatives, with sufficient will and proper direction, can use politics to both protect and widen their own stake within universities while preserving the core values of free and disinterested inquiry that the left monoculture now threatens to consume.
It is at the federal level, whenever conservative regain control of it, that the greatest opportunities will lie. In general, conservatives must become as active in using the investigative authorities of Congress, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Education to ferret out and punish wrongdoing as their progressives counter parts have been in shielding it from scrutiny. Universities should be made to fear a Republican administration as much or more than they thrill at a Democratic one. And it would not be impossible to strike some fear into these places, however arrogant they seem at present, if only Republicans knew which rocks to look under and would sustain the will to keep turning them over. Any professor who is honest will tell you, a great amount of conduct of dubious legality, especially with regard to hiring practices, is right there over email.
But until such time as they regain the federal government, conservatives have their redoubt in the statehouses and governor’s mansions. The tools at their disposal there are not as strong as those controlled by the federal government, but a great deal can still be accomplished with them. And with a number of indications that Republicans are eager to take action in those states where they do hold power, it is important to weight different options carefully, and to put forward a range of ideas for further deliberation.
In Governor Ron DeSantis, we see the emergence of a figure who both recognizes the importance of resisting the woke revolution – he is fighting the fight for the right reasons with a correct understanding of the stakes – and sees that it can be a winning electoral strategy. But there is reason to fear that one of his first legislative forays in this direction will strengthen the very forces he is attempting to oppose, as well as inflict a range of other harms. Those who share in his goals must think hard about the consequences of their actions and about which measures will be effective.
The centerpiece of the Postsecondary Education Act, which DeSantis recently signed into law, authorized the Board of Governors overseeing Florida’s public university system, to subject all tenured faculty at state universities to a performance review every five years. “Poor performers”, defined by criteria yet to be elaborated, would be fired. Gov. DeSantis has called the law the most significant tenure reform in the country” and boasts that tenure will now no longer “be used to shield unproductive faculty from accountability.” This change is counterproductive for three reasons.
First, the law runs directly counter to what should be the Hippocratic oath of conservative higher education reform: first, do nothing that expands the ranks of university administration. At best, the law won’t actually require faculty to do much beyond send a perfunctory letter every five years attesting that they’re doing their best. But if the law has any teeth at all, this new process will summon up an additional layer of administrators who will require faculty to waste time on tasks that serve no scholarly or pedagogic purpose, and who are certain to reflect the endemic left-wing biases of their caste.
Second, and not to belabor the obvious, tenure protects the unpopular faculty member – and in today’s university, the conservatives are the unpopular ones. Moreover, undermining tenure is implicitly saying that one no longer trusts a particular academic community – a discipline or department – to govern itself and properly to assess its members’ work. If that is the case, if one has determined that a field has been corrupted to such a degree, then there are other, more fitting measures than empowering bureaucrats to make invidious and arbitrary distinctions about which individual faculty members are sufficiently ‘productive’ – a point I will return to below.
Third, the law exalts “productivity”, which is just not an academic value. Rather, truth is. Far better the scholar who writes one article a decade that is true than the academic careerist popping out one shoddy study after another to keep up with the Joneses. What’s more, the capacity to arrive at new truths on difficult subjects is unevenly distributed throughout the lifecycle. Tenure, rightly conceived, is meant to respond to that fact. Mathematicians make their best discoveries before 30. Should they not have an income for the rest of their lives? Tenure is a way of recognizing that even when people are no longer in their research primes, they still have a lot to contribute in the way of advising, teaching, mentorship, and so forth. Measuring “outputs” will not address the real problems – the poor research, ideological intolerance, bureaucratic waste and meddling – that afflict academia.
What then should Republican statehouses do if they are rightly worried about the condition of higher education? I am neither a lawyer nor a politico, so I can only gesture at broad lines of reform rather than make strong promises about specific mechanisms of implementation. But I believe some assortment of the following, tailored appropriately to the specific context, could be salutary.
First, all Republican state legislatures should proceed further in the direction, along which they’re already walking, of dismantling licensing and degree requirements. Fewer jobs overall should require a college degree. As late as 1960 only 8% of the country went to college; we were not then a notably less competent nation. Employers should be forbidden from requiring a college degree for any job that did not require one in, say, 1985. Likewise, the credential demands for promotion and salary increases in public sector jobs – which send students running to MPA, MSW, and worst of all M.Ed programs – should be eliminated. Education schools lead the pack in politicization and in the propagation of simple falsehoods. All Republican legislatures should ensure that no stage of the process of career or income latter involves further diplomas from these wretched places. Nothing would be lost thereby: American educational outcomes were not worse before the Ed school credentialing mill got going. Slowing the roll of the credential-mongering engine will diminish enrollments for some of the least objective and more propagandistic parts of the university. Moreover, Biden’s move to cancel student debt is basically an announcement that even Democrats do not believe these degrees are a good investment: it would be quite rich for them to turn around and attack Republicans for liberating people from the need to take on degrees that, apparently, all too often leave their holders immiserated.
Second, traditional academic freedom and free speech protections need to be given real teeth. The first step toward wisdom on these questions is to dispel some of the libertarian fantasias that have set government and liberty in a zero-sum relationship. An ideal of free speech requires the state to use its power to restrain corporations, mobs, one’s neighbors, etc., from harming individuals for what they say. Only the state can guarantee this kind of freedom. Government does not withdraw but asserts its monopoly over legitimate coercion – including coercion’s subtler forms, such as threats to livelihood and professional advancement, social isolation, reputational damage, and so on – in a profound way. In a recent article, the legal scholar Jonathan Turley outlined several strategies by which state intervention can “reinforce traditional enclaves for the exercise of the freedom of expression.” Taking inspiration from his essay, a few ideas occur to me.
To begin, states should pass legislation that mandates a zero-tolerance policy for campus disruptions and “heckler’s veto” activity in all educational and deliberative contexts. It is not too much to expel students or to fire faculty/staff who prevent a class from taking place or a speaker from being heard; many universities have (albeit with carveouts for famous liberal professors, unfortunately) a one-strike rule for plagiarism or fraud (stealing/falsifying lab results, misconduct in treatment of experimental subjects, etc.), on the grounds that such misconduct is inimical to the university’s mission. No less hostile to the very purpose of a university is the prevention of the airing of arguments and the carrying out of instruction, no matter how convinced the protesters might be of the evil of the message. Universities who refuse to impose such penalties would risk loss of funding (the appropriate mechanisms will differ based on state context), and be subject to investigations from the agencies responsible for education. A potentially promising enforcement structure is that envisioned in Florida’s “Stop WOKE Act” for those who believe they’ve been improperly forced to attend prohibited DEI trainings: pursuit by the Attorney General of civil action for damages in accord with existing civil rights law, and a private right of action against the university. The same mechanisms should likewise be made available for cases where campus organizations who otherwise possess the right to invite speakers are stopped from bringing someone to campus on political grounds. The latter complaints would cover not only cases of a formal denial of the request to bring a speaker to campus, but also would provide a means of redress for one-sided “the process is the punishment” courses of action. Universities have now established a pattern, as Turley points out, of using “collateral limits such as mandatory insurance or prohibitive security fees” to de facto render it infeasible for e.g. Students for Life to hold events. Administrators who are found to have behaved in a way that violated a viewpoint-neutrality standard would be subject to dismissal, and universities which declined to dismiss politicized administrators would open themselves to civil suits and withdrawal of state funding.
Further, additional steps should be taken to ensure that the kind of speech that is essential to the university environment – freewheeling debate about ideas without fear of reprisal, devil’s advocacy, exploring concepts and texts and events all the way to their perhaps ugly or uncomfortable cores – can flourish, even when these steps will draw fire not only from Social Justice zealots but also from a liberal-libertarian old guard with an overly simplistic view of what free speech entails. Two policies in particular strike me as important, both of which have perhaps a paradoxical quality of curtailing certain specific kinds of speech in the hopes of bringing about a more robust free speech culture overall.
The first is to pass legislation requiring universities to adopt the so-called “Chatham House Rule” for the classroom. According to this regulation, students and faculty would be free to refer to ideas and information that came up during a class, but would be forbidden from revealing the identity or affiliation of any speakers outside the class setting. Such a regulation is essential for restoring to academic contexts the possibility that students might defend unpopular views without facing retribution if their classmates or a professor mentions their names on social media as endorsing view X and Y. Within universities, it is an open secret that students will now contact companies where peers whose views they consider objectionable are interning or waiting to take up a job offer in the hopes that their employment chances will be scuppered. There cannot be the sort of robust discussion that is essential to learning at the university level if students are afraid that their future ambitions or economic prospects might be harmed because they took up a controversial position in the classroom. There is precedent for such a move, although I do not believe that any states have yet legislated along these lines: Harvard Law enacted what they call the HLS Community Principle of Non-Attribution, which could serve as a template.
The second such policy is the Kalven Report, which insists on the value of the “neutrality of the university as an institution,” a value which translates in practice into the injunction that those who hold administrative roles at the university or in any of its constituent academic units (departments, centers) refrain from speaking in their official capacity on controversial issues of the day. Recent years have seen an epidemic of official university grand pronouncements on contested issues from the Black Lives Matter movement to the Dobbs decision to the Rittenhouse verdict. In response, state legislatures should mandate that all public universities adopt the Kalven Report – and I would encourage them, following the example set at the Federal level by the Obama and Biden administrations to enforce progressive edicts on universities, to treat all recipients of any state financial privileges, however indirect, as de facto subject to the same requirements. So long as units of the university feel they have carte blanche to make official statements on contested matters, freedom of speech will be something of a dead letter; students and faculty will rightly worry about repercussions should they run afoul of the opinion that has been announced on behalf of the corporate body to which they belong, and permitting proponents of one side of a question to trade on the moral prestige of the university’s name tilts the argumentative playing field unfairly. Moreover, at a time when we have become hyper- sensitive to “power differentials,” the notion that academic freedom is intact when university spokesmen and department heads can declare their views in the name even of dissenting students and faculty is especially laughable. Personally, I have known several students who have felt constrained about speaking in the aftermath of such pronouncements, and faculty, especially those without tenure, are right to wonder whether they can really express a dissenting position without courting professional disaster. On this front, it is encouraging that Republicans are showing signs of taking the issue seriously.
Adoption and enforcement of a Kalven Report standard dovetails nicely with another pressing policy arena, one on which conservative media have been focused but on which Republican policymakers have been reluctant to take decisive action. The state upholds academic freedom on grounds that research and teaching demand it, not so that administrators can engage in moral vanguardism on the back of direct and indirect public subsidies. The function of administrators, however much they might think they are the masterclass of the university now, is simply and solely to serve and support those involved in research and teaching. And nowhere is the ideological aggressiveness of what has been dubbed the “all-administrative university” clearer than in the area of DEI. No durable improvement in the culture of universities can come without significantly curtailing the power of DEI apparatchiks and ideology. The omnipresence of DEI constrains speech, places a premium on exaggerated and immoral displays of sensitivity, privileges certain conclusions over others in debate (which inevitably affects the character of research undertaken), incentivizes snitching and surveillance, and spurs antisocial identitarian grievance-mongering. In terms of what can be done on this front, I would suggest two measures.
First, and in accordance with the spirit of the Kalven Report, is to banish all diversity statements in the university hiring process. These demands to testify to how one’s research and teaching (and even, in some cases, one’s personal conduct and overall approach to life) further a contested ideological program can lead to one of only two outcomes, both deplorable: (1) excluding candidates who are honest about possessing political convictions at odds with what is in practice the loony Left of the Democratic party, or (2) forcing the applicant to falsify his preferences and violate his conscience. As the Academic Freedom Alliance has put it: “the demand for diversity statements enlists academics into a political movement, erasing the distinction between academic expertise and ideological conformity. It encourages cynicism and dishonesty.” No university should be in the business of imposing such barriers to entry, and yet they are rife even in public universities in states with Republican legislative majorities. These statements should immediately be banned, and any administrator or faculty-member who attempts to insert them into a job search suspended or fired.
Second, ideally, Republican politicians would simply clean out the DEI bureaucracy altogether at public universities. In an astonishing pattern of political negligence, true Red states like Ohio have allowed the DEI caste to balloon to extraordinary levels, with over $10 million spent per year, and with 30 officials making over six figures, at Ohio State University alone. Every single one of these individuals whose position is not mandated by a narrow interpretation of existing civil rights, disability, or equal access law should be fired summarily. Receipt of any continued state support should, in principle, be dependent on the immediate removal of this parasitic caste which, contributing neither to research nor teaching, exists to propagate a loathsome ideology. A truly thorough effort in this direction would include periodic scrutinizing of the entire student life bureaucracy, for under seemingly benign titles like “student engagement officer” are hired what are in effect more soldiers in the woke bureaucratic army. It is a pipe dream that academic freedom can be secure at a university which so lavishly funds doctrinaires of a particular viewpoint (and an openly intolerant one at that) and which accords them a menacingly vague remit that, in practices, licenses their intervention in every aspect of university life.
In addition to being the right thing to do, such drastic action would also, I believe, make good politics. As an online interlocutor of mine put it, “the campaign ads write themselves: ‘We fired X Woke commissars, saved Y dollars, reduced tuition by Z as a direct consequence’.” But since it is unlikely, given their general indifference on the question for many years, that even the reddest of statehouses would have the stomach to clean house fully, some intermediate steps could be taken. A freeze on all future DEI-related hiring could be instituted; it could be required that all proposed administrative positions demonstrate that they will have no DEI component to them before they can be advertised or a hire made; and the amount of state support going forward could be indexed to the ratio of administrators to faculty or administrators to students. In 2016, the Tennessee legislature voted to eliminated the budget for the diversity office at the University of Tennessee, but then reinstated it after proving unable to withstand pushback and accusations of ‘racism.’ Several years on, with a much broader public awareness of the pervasiveness and insidiousness of this ideology, it is my hope that Republican politicians will have the backbone to cut down to size a cadre of bureaucrats which is essentially at odds with the academic mission and with small-l liberal values.
Let me note two final agenda items that do not exactly fit into the above headings. One is, I think, a relatively low-cost intervention; the other will require sustained commitment.
The first is to ensure that general education requirements are free of DEI, CRT, and gender theory pollutions. It constitutes no infringement on academic freedom to keep malevolent material outside of the core curriculum. As a rough rule, no “— studies” department should be able to contribute to any class sequence obligatory for the whole student body. As bad as some of the older disciplines are, those with a longer legacy and more established methodologies – the natural sciences, history, political science, economics, even sociology and English – remain sounder than the explicitly identitarian newfangled departments. Nevertheless, even offerings from these older fields should be scrutinized. I encourage red states to appoint an independent ombudsman whose job it is to examine all general education offerings across public universities, and if any appropriate mechanisms in terms of funding threats are available, to do what they can to push private universities to amend their general education offerings in this direction as well. By policing the borders of general education coursework, Republicans can begin to drive down the subscriptions to these intellectually valueless courses, and thus deplete the budgets of malefactor departments and subfields.
The heavier lift is the more important, but also the one on which I have least faith in Republicans to follow through. And this is to use the full panoply of government investigatory powers to break the lawless and immoral practices of demographic and ideological discrimination that afflict academic hiring. This will not be easy: : as perceptive commentators have observed, universities have all but openly announced that they will seek an end-run around the anticipated Supreme Court ruling ending affirmative action. I have warned on social media that, absent a complete throwing off of their allergy to executive power and administrative discretion, Republicans will wrongly celebrate this de jure win as it if were a de facto one. Viewed from the inside, it is almost impossible to overstate the lengths to which university committees will go to avoid hiring demographic or ideological undesirables – even though much of this activity is already facially in violation of the law. There is only so much that state legislators can do, as they have many other matters to which to attend and university bureaucrats and faculty can flood the zone with HR-speak and specialized lingo to disguise what they’re up to and skirt the spirit of the law. Therefore, I would have Republican lawmakers establish an office formally dedicated full-time to investigating and stamping out discrimination across the sector. (Ideally, this office would be staffed by Federalist Society-approved lawyers.)
Among other possibilities, this office could exploit the open-endedness of Disparate Impact laws to launch an investigation forcing universities to prove that the enormous discrepancies in self-reported political beliefs among their faculty are not the result of discrimination. It could canvas recent job postings and, where the description seems suspiciously ideologically tilted as so many now do, would follow up with a demand for proof that contenders from across the ideological spectrum were given equal consideration. “Oh, you listed a job in LGBT history? Did you entertain socially conservative perspectives on the question? Did you make an effort to ensure that straight men made up a reasonable proportion of the applicant pool?” It could scour university webpages, past and present, for ideological pronouncements; as discussed above, many academic units have been quick to weigh in on controversial social issues. Any units that have done so should be treated as prima facie unable to conduct a fair hiring process; any new hires they propose to make for a period of, say, four years from the release of such statements should be automatically subject to a full inquiry from outside. Units that have come under suspicion for politicization which cannot, after some appropriate period of probation, demonstrate political and demographic impartiality in hiring should face sanctions, including a removal of public funding or being outright shut down. Since irredeemably politicized departments will either (a) have to change character to avoid these sanctions or, more likely, (b) be shown to fall afoul of the new regulations, these investigations will offer a path toward ridding the university of those faculty members who trade on the prestige of “science” and “scholarship” to advance a political agenda without having to engage in inevitably capricious judgments on the individual research records of tenured professors. Similar scrutiny should be shown for any universities which have recently capitulated to campus unrest or engaged in suspicious behavior such as disciplining non-woke professors in ways that look pretextual: treat these happenings as reasons to doubt that their upcoming hiring cycles will be conducted in an even-handed and impartial manner, and review all job offers they have made.
Finally, let me note a convenient entry-point for Republicans who are serious about tackling discrimination in hiring. This would be to investigate and effectively abolish the practice of Target of Opportunity (ToO or TOP) searching. Although this practice is widespread and has attracted some scholarly attention (for an excellent introduction, see this article), Republican elites have been incurious about it. ToO or TOP is the bureaucratic euphemism for: the Dean or President’s office welcomes your department to “come to us with a candidate who fits certain pre-defined demographic criteria, but not to run an open competition.” In other words, in direct opposition to how a job search in academia should be conducted, the central administration of a university prevents the department from proceeding from the identification of a real substantive need – we have lost our expert in Chaucer; our top figure in American economic history has retired; etc. – and then running an impartial search from which the most meritorious candidate in the research area delineated will be hired, the central administration instructs a given department that it can only make a hire if it preselects a specific candidate(s) from a certain ethnic/gender group. The central administration then allows the department to pursue only that person(s), but not to consider other potential academics for the post, including potentially better-qualified ones. The administration will usually sweeten the deal, too, by offering to pay for some/all off the TOP hire’s salary from a special funding pool, thus taking some of the expense off the department’s budget. This practice is a moral scandal; but as many universities are not especially sophisticated about concealing what they are up to, investigations should be able to turn up ample evidence of discriminatory motivations throughout the hiring process. The new office of university oversight should ban this practice in no uncertain terms and conduct periodic reviews of all universities in receipt of state funding to guarantee that hiring schemes which funnel candidates desired for demographic reasons into favorable channels and which preclude searches oriented to finding the substantively best available researcher in a given subject are not creeping back in under a new euphemism. Departments/divisions that persist in this practice after being warned should be closed, as should those which continue issuing public proclamations after the implementation of the Kalven Report.
The proceedings suggestions amount to a set of provocations, albeit relatively detailed ones, rather than a fully-fledged agenda. I will conclude by underscoring the urgent need for conservatives to act against the intolerance, politicization, indoctrination, and corruption of scholarship that are rife across higher education today. Conservatives have a threefold duty to enact a dramatic university reform agenda. First, a political one. Populist appeals are all well and good and have their place, but we live in a society in which the exercise of power is unavoidably administrative. If you actually wish to wield power in the name of the national interest, the much-maligned PMC cannot in fact belong wholly to your enemy. For its own survival as an entity that can practically shape the country and not just win elections, then, Republicans need to prevent those higher education institutions which mint this class from being the monopolized by their antagonists. But more important than partisan interest is the good of the nation and the university itself. Libertarian fantasias aside, a modern society cannot do without well-endowed sites of resource-intensive research, disinterested scholarship, and competent pedagogy. Thus it is an act of patriotism to restore them from the cultural extremism and degradation of standards that has made them anathema to a broad swathe of the public on whose continuing goodwill their flourishing depends. And the university itself, however bitterly it will oppose such interventions now, will be better set up to fulfill its mission of research and teaching in the future if the ills outlined above are purged from it in the coming years. I would like nothing more than for the university to have justified, by fidelity to its essential purposes, a degree of autonomy from political interference which I do believe is ideal. Perhaps one day, after a period of Republican-enforced rebalancing, they can merit such a privileged place in the American social order once again.
— Tim Shampling is the pseudonym of a university professor employed at a major research institution somewhere in America
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