More than a half century ago, Willmoore Kendall, an unrepentant cold warrior and one of this country’s most brilliantly original political theorists, spoke at Harvard about disturbing trends in academic culture. To those preaching that a college campus should be an expansive site for the toleration of virtually every sort of idea and behavior, he had no patience. “The university,” he declared,

exists only by virtue of a faith that human beings are worthy of special attention; that the development of the human intellect is an end in itself; that the exercise of memory and reason is not a perversion of the nervous system; and that the scholar is somehow superior to the fool—all of them propositions that admit of no scientific proof; propositions that must, in fact, be maintained despite clear and cogent evidence that untroubled happiness is reserved for morons.

When Stuart Taylor, a widely respected legal scholar and Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, spoke at the Cato Institute a few months ago about his new book (coauthored with K. C. Johnson) on the Duke University lacrosse case, Kendall’s words crossed my mind. Taylor had spent about forty minutes thickly describing, step by step, a horrifying story of prosecutorial abuse, aided and abetted by a gaggle of “ideologues, enablers, and accomplices” drawn from the ranks of both the elite media and academe. Before taking questions, he indicted Richard Brodhead, Duke’s president, and the Duke faculty for gutlessness. Not once during the campus rush to condemn these putative poster-boys of racism and white privilege did President Brodhead rise to the dignity of his office and show sufficient spine to erect up and publicly defend the rule of law against both the squadristi who were descending onto his campus and the tenured charlatans in situ screeching for social justice. Inveterate racial provocateurs like professors Houston Baker and Grant Farred fulminated in public, helping to incite undergraduate vigilantes into clamorous demonstrations. The faculty majority, whatever their doubts and misgivings, hunkered down, knowing full well that one wrong peep against the accuser, a mentally disturbed black prostitute, stripper, and single mother, could land them forthwith in front of the politically correct people’s court facing summary justice.

Happily, truth finally won out, thanks to the assemblage of a first-rate legal defense team. Prosecutors dropped charges, and Michael Nifong, the Durham, N.C. district attorney, eventually stood before a pack of snapping lenses disheveled, disbarred, and disgraced. But what about Professors Baker and Farred, you ask? What price did they pay for dispensing poison? Are you kidding? Their salary and perquisites increased. In academe, as the editor of this journal has reminded us from time to time, academics tend to fail upward. Free markets will allocate snake oil, like any other commodity, to those who value it the most highly. Cornell University purchased Professor Farred; Vanderbilt University purchased Professor Baker. Brodhead, for his part, remains Duke’s president. Banish the thought of seppuku for this erstwhile professor of American literature. Postmodern classrooms, after all, have deconstructed honor even on southern campuses.

Duke’s declension continues. In early February, a troupe of porn stars and prostitutes, spared from food stamps, no doubt, by the plenitude of campus welfare on their itinerary, earned honoraria at Duke by putting on an exhibition of sexual acrobatics in the Reynolds Theater. According to ABC News, which showed footage, one performer, a nude transvestite, bathed himself in a kiddy pool and, to the bemusement of a packed house, planted a lit sparkler in his rectum. Reporters sought out President Brodhead for his take on such acts of enlightenment, but once again he could not be readily located for comment. Nor did Duke’s trustees step out of the darkness to offer an explication. Perhaps they think a six-billion dollar endowment immunizes them from moral responsibility and accountability. Instead, the public heard from a tied-and-jacketed factotum out of the office of student affairs who managed to babble platitudes along the lines that the censorship of anything endangers everything. Given the performance, his superiors might have hoped that the slippery slope argument would have quickly carried him away from the cameras. Stuart Taylor concluded his talk on the Duke lacrosse case by pleading with his audience to remember one crucial point above all others: Our universities are in deep trouble. Indeed, they are.

To drive home the point, allow me to construct a parable inspired by recent events on my own campus, Hamilton College, an elite liberal arts college in upstate New York. A senior professor has a vision about establishing on campus an enduring edifice of learning devoted to American ideals and institutions. He will call it, after the College’s namesake, the Alexander Hamilton Center for the Study of Western Civilization (AHC). The professor, a prize-winning historian as well as an out-of-closet conservative, has taught at Hamilton for more than a quarter century, but during the latter part of his tenure there, his concerns grow about the atomization of undergraduate education, floating standards, the decaying ethos of a liberal arts education, and the abdication of moral responsibility in the conduct of scholarly inquiry. A liberal arts education truly educates, he stresses to administrators and anyone else within earshot, by instructing students in different approaches to the acquisition of knowledge, whether historical, philosophical, ethical, mathematical, or scientific. Hamilton College, with the blessing of the trustees, has followed Brown University and any number of other elite institutions in embracing an open curriculum, that is, a self-directed course of instruction with no subject or disciplinary requirements. Students enjoy maximum freedom to satisfy their predilections by choosing from a glossy menu with an ever expanding list of exotic entrées. Students can graduate without having to attend one math course, one science course, or one English course. The number of double majors has spiked in a few decades from next to none to almost 20 percent of the junior and senior classes. Since the typical major demands ten or more courses in a given discipline, a double major effectively means that graduating seniors in four years will take as many as two-thirds or three-quarters of all their courses in two disciplines, which could be as closely allied as English and comparative literature. In this wonderland of liberation from coherent requirements in the Western canon, the history professor can no longer take for granted that students in his seminars have so much as a nodding acquaintance with a Euclidean proof, the book of Genesis, or a verse from Shakespeare. Shallow and trendy programming driven by activist faculty proliferates. Neither the university nor the history department requires undergraduates to take a single course in American history or in the history of Western civilization, although history majors must complete—mirabile dictu —at least three courses in geographic areas outside the Western world. Distressing numbers of seniors, as our Hamilton professor well knows, graduate illiterate in their own heritage. If asked to explain the central event in the making of this country’s national history, for example, they cannot date the Civil War, much less give a coherent explanation as to what caused it.

He lobbies friends. Dozens of alumni, admirers of the professor’s scholarship and teaching, volunteer to bankroll the center. Within a matter of several months, commitments flow in. One benefactor alone, Carl Menges, a life trustee of the College, commits more than three million dollars to the enterprise. Although the professor has signed multiple contracts to produce books in his specialty, he devotes a summer as well as a precious sabbatical to designing the center, albeit with misgivings, for he anticipates political obstacles from above and below. Two colleagues help flesh out future programming centered on annual themes such as the meaning of freedom, Christianity’s understanding of faith and reason, property rights, and, with the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth approaching, the Civil War. The history professor anticipates faculty hostility to the project, of course, for reasons that range from the personal to the ideological. Thus, he plans quite consciously from the outset not to extend a tin cup to administrators. Unlike most of his colleagues, risk averse and addicted to entitlements like a crack-head on the pipe, he will not demand from the existing budget that Peter be robbed to pay Paul. To be sure, he welcomes support from the university’s fundraising arm, but he makes abundantly clear to its director from the outset that no such support is needed. This project, he insists, will rise and fall based on his ability to raise fresh money. He will not goad faculty opponents into a frenzy by using the center to implement incremental curricular change—at least not in the beginning. The center, as he chants like a mantra, represents a programmatic initiative only, one that will offer educational extras: lectures, colloquia, conferences, fellowships, internships, and awards.

The professor proceeds step by step through proper channels, following to the letter the rules and regulations laid down by the faculty handbook. After months of discussions with officialdom, working his way through layers of bureaucracy, through this dean and that vice-president, he and his co-founders win a hearty stamp of approval for the center from Joseph Urgo, Dean of the Faculty, and Joan Hinde Stewart, Hamilton’s president. Although both would have preferred that “Western Civilization” be excised from the title, they nonetheless dot the agreement warmly by gathering with the founders on campus to tip shiny flutes filled with bubbly from a bottle of Dom Perignon. The center has surfaced like a timely tonic, for Hamilton College has passed through some unsettling times in recent years. President Stewart’s predecessor, Eugene M. Tobin, resigned in a plagiarism scandal. Annie Sprinkle, a jaded porn star sponsored by the campus’s Womyn’s [sic] Center, earned thousands of dollars by showing clips of her circus acts to titillated students and professors. Leaders of a well-funded “grassroots” diversity program, the Kirkland Project for the Study of Gender, Society and Culture, attempted to hire Susan Rosenberg, a convicted felon from the Weather Underground, to teach a writing course in victimization studies. Ward Churchill, a lionized radical, claiming to be an Indian, accepted an invitation from the Kirkland Project to come to campus to enlighten undergraduates on the oppressiveness of the state that pays his six-figure salary as chairman of an ethnic studies program at the University of Colorado. He turns out to be—as the history professor had insisted to his tut-tutting colleagues all along—a fraud and a plagiarist. An ad hoc committee subsequently charged to conduct a long overdue “review” of the Kirkland Project reveals, to the surprise of almost no one, that its annual funding for programmatic activities exceeded that of mathematics, history, or any other department on campus. Thus, the AHC has the potential to redress grievances and imbalances, increase donations, and elevate the diminished scholarly stature of Hamilton relative to, say, Williams and Amherst.

Public relations officials rush to publicize the contractual agreement. The college’s website unveils the charter for all to see. Several dozen professors, however, lose no time in whipping up a resolution that demands administrative action to undo the signed agreement. Smelling payback, they spit out their resolution from a reflux of gall: The center for the study of American ideals and institutions, they claim, threatens to cast an unholy shadow over the progressive faculty’s Aquarian campus. Curiously, although the center’s chief architect is not hard to find during this conflict, not one of his critics ventures to the library to knock on his office door to ask a single question about his initiative. The faculty meets, and by a vote of more than eighty percent the resolution passes, leaving President Stewart visibly shaken.

A meeting of Hamilton’s board of trustees approaches. President Stewart invites the history professor and his two collaborators to speak about the center to the full board of trustees. Several prominent educational organizations around the country also request the professor’s appearance. He even holds forth on the center to an appreciative audience at the Harvard faculty club. From this assemblage and others, he senses that his program is creating a national buzz. To support the center, several prestigious philanthropic organizations stand ready to supplement committed funds with hundreds of thousands of additional dollars. He exhales: Months of painstaking labor appear to be bearing fruit. The founders speak to the full board of trustees about two months after signing the original agreement. Since the deal is done, the history professor regards this meeting as purely informational, more or less an act of cheerleading. At no time during the lengthy process that leads up to the original agreement is he advised by anyone in the administration that the signed agreement requires board approval. Indeed, programmatic initiatives of the faculty do not require it; for in these matters, trustees typically leave the negotiations to the dean and president. As far as anyone can tell, never in the 200-year history of Hamilton College has a board of trustees rejected a professor’s programmatic initiative already signed, sealed, and delivered by the university’s president. At the board meeting, the history professor finds, to his chagrin, that the president has not prepared the attendants. Only a few have read the charter. Most of them know little if anything about the center’s creation despite two months of advance publicity, including prominent postings on the college’s own website. He provides them on the spot with an impassioned description of his center, its innovative programming, and its future role in enhancing the education of Hamilton’s students.

Within hours, however, clouds darken the horizon. With the center’s founders out of the room, several powerful trustees rise, like leaders of the activist faculty, to demand a do-over of the original agreement. The center, they contend, has too much autonomy. Some reason—whether honestly or not is unclear—from the logical fallacy of the worst case. Why, the center, they say, could ride off the rails, even though, as President Stewart has made perfectly clear, the center’s funding would be firmly under the College’s control. The financial plug could be pulled at any time. In fact, the center’s chief benefactor had been working with Hamilton’s development office on a model donor agreement that would have made the fiduciary responsibilities of the College over the center explicit. Some trustees fail to grasp the crucial distinction between a programmatic and a curricular initiative. Others harbor animus against the professor because in their minds he had the audacity to color outside the lines in speaking forthrightly to the media about Hamilton’s previous embarrassments. Several years before, for example, the professor had tasted official wrath after he commented to a reporter in the wake of the Tobin scandal. President Tobin’s “unintentional” misappropriation of the works of others in one speech turned out to be a pattern of misappropriation of the words of others over a nine-year career. In the Chronicle of Higher Education, the professor corrected the college’s dis- ingenuous spokesman—who implied that plagiarism does not require intentionality—by having reporters refer to the definition of plagiarism in Hamilton’s student handbook. For this and other indiscretions, the professor and his wife received a threatening phone call on a Sunday evening from a member of the board who called him a traitor, indicated that he spoke for more than himself, and warned that the professor’s tenure could be in jeopardy. No matter. The trustees send a message to the entire faculty by an alternative route: The plagiarizing president will be honored with the Eugene M. Tobin Distinguished Professorship.

With the AHC disintegrating before his eyes, the professor learns that a lawyer on the board has stepped up to redraw the charter. Weeks pass. The professor hears nothing, for the lawyer, deigning not a jot or tittle of courtesy, refuses to contact him about the charter’s content or design. A new charter will be imposed, not negotiated. The redrawn charter will, de facto, appease the center’s faculty adversaries by essentially taking the programmatic initiative away from its creator, placing it under the controlling authority of the faculty and dean of the faculty whose flaccidity, if not his progressive politics, will virtually guarantee the eventual corruption of the center’s scholarly mission. Feeding the history professor’s fears, the dean of the faculty assuages faculty progressives, with whom he clearly identifies, by reporting to the media: “Organizations can begin with one thing in mind, and evolve over time.” Yes, precisely, replies the professor, and, ipso facto, only a fool or a scoundrel would maintain that the governance structures of an enterprise have no bearing on the integrity of its mission.

Three weeks after meeting with the board, the professor receives the redrawn charter. President Stewart makes clear: accept the changes or play Taps for the Center. A final meeting is scheduled. To add insult to injury, one day before the meeting takes place, Dean Urgo hands the founders another version of the charter with even more revisions. The insulted professor has had enough. He exits the final meeting feeling angry and bitter. In effect, Hamilton’s leadership, after having midwifed the AHC, decides early post-partum to commit infanticide. The dean of the Faculty Joseph Urgo pronounces the public eulogy: “The feeling was,” as he explained to a local reporter, that the center “would be destructive to the faculty community here—so destructive that we were willing to walk away” from a multi-million dollar gift.

The administration speeds into damage-control relying on the university’s well-heeled public relations arm. It spins to the press that the principals parted company “quite amicably” and that the center will merely “not go forward at this time.” The faculty knows better. So do President Stewart and Dean Urgo. Personal attacks intensify. The administration cuts the professor’s salary. The vocal history professor is intransigent, paranoid, perhaps even mentally unstable, they say. Ever the educator, he reminds his slanderers that paranoia means irrational fear. Hamilton College’s recent history, he points out, makes his fears eminently reasonable.

Because the powers that be like the idea of an Alexander Hamilton Center on their terms but fear its creator may transplant it to a rival institution, they move in the dark like common hedge-robbers to prepare the way for a Vichy center headed by a more pliable faculty member. In April 2007, a designated official acting in the name of the Hamilton’s board of trustees petitions to trademark with the federal government the name Alexander Hamilton Center, doing so in language extracted verbatim from the original charter, the copyrighted property of the founders. More remarkably, the petition requires the employee to swear—again, in the name of Hamilton’s board—that the College has no “knowledge and belief” that “any person, firm, corporation, or association has the right to use the mark in commerce.” Hamilton’s administration withdraws its petition only after the professor gets wind of the subterfuge and has an attorney fire a legal shot across the bow to prevent what amounts to an attempted appropriation by the College of the intellectual property owned by one of its own faculty members.

Truth be known, I work on a beautiful campus with a critical mass of colleagues who are truly outstanding teachers and scholars. As an insider, I told a friend recently, whose high-school-age daughter was considering college, I could shepherd the student through an educational experience hard to beat anywhere else since I know the players and would insist that she take courses by professor, not by subject. That said, however, the story of the rise, fall, and rebirth of the AHC as the independent Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization (AHI) should serve as a cautionary tale for those seeking to sanitize the dark precincts and arcane corridors of the academy. Most trustees understand them dimly. They spend little time on campus. They visit perhaps three or four times a year. They have tight schedules and shepherded experiences that leave little room for information-gathering on their own. Detachment and arrogance tend not to breed discriminating judgment. Since successful businessmen predominate on most boards, crises tend to become a managerial problem resolved by thickening layers of the bureaucracy and by resort to public relations departments with little platoons of information managers who, along with some trustees, sincerely believe that image is reality.

Toward the end of March and early April, colleges and universities across the country mailed letters of acceptance to high-school seniors. Parents now have to make hard choices, balancing costs and benefits, about where to send their son or daughter accompanied by a substantial amount of their savings. Be alert: Mission statements in glossy catalogues count for little these days. The priciest schools offer what seems like a dizzying array of choices on everything from sexuality workshops to wellness information. Four years on some campuses must seem like a long voyage on a cruise ship: state-of- the-art fitness equipment; gilded facilities; gourmet food; and an endless stream of entertainment, from the heuristic to the perverse. The emphasis in such an alluring environment seems geared to the cultivation of perpetual adolescence rather than the preparation for the duties and responsibilities of citizenship. Many campuses boast a diversity cartel comprised of student activists, administrative enablers, and left-wing faculty. They command resources that decisively shape the educational environment, overwhelming the conservative opposition. One hears repeatedly from transgressives in today’s enfeebled discourse that higher learning should aim at “exposing” students to this or that experience. Well, for that purpose, vending hot-dogs from a cart in Times Square would offer an advanced degree at a fraction of the cost.

In 1950, long before Hamilton College had a media relations operation, The New York Times published a laudatory story about the efforts of Hamilton’s president leading the way in the construction of a college curriculum that would provide students with the “intellectual and moral equipment” necessary for civilized life. The new curriculum would require that students spend about half of their class time in courses best designed by the faculty to fit the equipment. It would demand “written and oral command of English,” proficiency in a foreign language, logic, scientific inquiry, engagement with creative arts, history, and sociology, and “an understanding of the intellectual bases of ethical judgments.” Bracing stuff, that. The task remains to recover the remnant.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 26 Number 9, on page 19
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