People looking around for bright spots in American higher education often mention Wabash College, a small, well-to-do liberal arts institution for men in Crawfordsville, Indiana. With 850 male students, an endowment of $325 million, and a commitment to educate students “broadly in the traditional curriculum of the liberal arts” and “to cultivate qualities of character and leadership,” Wabash seems like a welcome atavism: an institution of higher education dedicated to serious study, decorousness, and what the college literature proudly hails as “the gentleman’s rule”: “A Wabash man will conduct himself at all times, both on and off campus, as a gentleman and a responsible citizen.” When was the last time you saw the term “gentleman” used at a college campus without an accompanying sneer?

A refreshing change, all that, from the usual po-mo, transgressive, dumbed-down, activist, anti-American spectacle we see at so many colleges and universities today. The question is, Can it last? Can Wabash maintain a modicum of independence from the politically correct group-think that has infected most educational institutions? We hope so. But news that, in its search for a new president, Wabash has named Dr. David C. Paris as one of three finalists for the position is not encouraging. As assiduous readers of these pages will remember, Dr. Paris, the outgoing Dean of the Faculty at Hamilton College, presided over a number of debacles at that once-distinguished college in Clinton, New York. Back in 2002, we reported on his role in bringing Annie Sprinkle, the prostitute-turned-porn star-turned-cutting-edge feminist performance artist to campus. To the objection that Ms. Sprinkle’s workshop devoted to “educating students and faculty on how better to pleasure themselves” was not the sort of thing parents had intended their tuition to support, Dr. Paris instantly began emitting mantras about the importance of free speech. Ironically, if not unexpectedly, Dr. Paris’s dedication to free speech evaporated when a concerned faculty member proposed to videotape Ms. Sprinkle’s performance and distribute copies to alumni.

Dr. Paris was Johnny-on-the-Spot again in December of 2004 when Susan Rosenberg, formerly of the Weather Underground, was invited to teach a month-long seminar at the college as an “artist- and activist-in-residence.” Rosenberg’s particular brand of activism, we remind readers, earned her a fifty-eight-year prison sentence in the aftermath of a robbery that left a Brinks guard and two policemen dead. Rosenberg’s invitation to Hamilton came from the Kirkland Project, a lavishly funded left-wing redoubt at the college to which Dr. Paris persistently paid obeisance.

National outrage over Rosenberg’s appointment led her to withdraw at the last moment, but that didn’t stop the Kirkland Project—or Dr. Paris. Their next wheeze—the one that really blew up in their faces—was to invite Ward Churchill to speak on campus. Churchill, as all the world knows by now, is an “ethnic studies” professor at the University of Colorado who, immediately after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, compared its victims to a Nazi bureaucrat. Once again, David Paris was there, supporting the Kirkland Project, endeavoring to smooth the way for Ward Churchill to come to Hamilton. Once again, national outrage put paid to Kirkland’s plans. Ward Churchill did not come to enlighten Hamilton students about the evils of America. And this time, rumor has it, national outrage may have had something to do with the fact that Dr. Paris will be leaving the deanship at Hamilton at the end of this academic year.

Anyone who doubts the reality of the Peter Principle—that people fail upwards, that failure is rewarded with promotion—need only consider the fact that Dr. Paris is now a finalist for the presidency of Wabash College. Here is a man who never encountered a “transgressive” initiative he didn’t like, who presided over the gutting and radicalizing of Hamilton’s core curriculum program: How is it, then, that he could be seriously considered to lead a college whose public reputation, anyway, is totally at odds with everything he has stood for?

No doubt there are many parts involved in a full answer to this question. We feel sure, however, that one key factor is the way in which colleges—and not only colleges—go about filling their senior positions these days. Instead of exercising judgment, they outsource it. They hire, at great expense, a consulting firm and charge them with the task of finding them a president, a dean, a provost. And where does the Acme Consulting firm look for candidates? The most obvious, which also turns out to be the least auspicious, place: in the ranks of college administrators. Here’s how it works: a dean at one college becomes a provost or president at a smaller institution; a president of a college is graduated to become the president of a university; and so on. The problem is, alas, that most deans, having been given the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval by their (almost certainly left-wing) faculty, come to the job emasculated by ideology. They are not educational leaders, but repositories of left-liberal clichés about “tolerance,” “diversity,” and kindred content-less shibboleths. No doubt some good candidates squeak through the process. But in general, the rise of the consulting firm in the business of higher education has been a disaster. As one friend put it, such firms are “dripping in political correctness and specialize in marketing unpublished lightweights and academic retreads who tolerate everything and stand for nothing.” How bad is it? We await the outcome at Wabash with breath bated.

Update 2.3.2006: Wabash has a new president. It is not David Paris.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 24 Number 6, on page 1
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