Higher Ed Outburst Proves Critics Right

Original Article

Two well-known reformers in higher education, Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School and Henry J. Eyring, an administrator at Brigham Young University, signed a letter of support recently for ACTA, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, that also works for education reform. The main causes of ACTA are 1) the responsibility of university trustees (or regents) and alumni groups to take an active role in the direction of higher education; and 2) turning back the near-universal demand for political correctness on campuses, thereby restoring the tradition of the university as a home for free speech and the exchange of contrasting views. ACTA also promotes cost savings in higher ed, such as the introduction of new technologies for instruction. Christiansen and Eyring are advocates of “disruptive innovation” (their recent book is The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education.), and their views coincide with the those of ACTA on many points.

But Christiansen and Eyring have come under attack by the old guard administrators and faculties of higher education, and the professional organizations they control. It seems that these gentlemen are to be stigmatized by association with ACTA. And why is that a stigma? Because ACTA has criticized the educational establishment. Get it? It is the old tautology of the Left: criticism is unsavory because it comes from a disreputable group. And why is the group disreputable? Because it makes unsavory criticism.

In a post yesterday, Wall Street Journal online commentator, James Taranto, observes that the Left routinely ignores the arguments of its adversaries in order to disqualify them from the outset and marginalize them. It is happening in the sciences (especially in respect to criticism of neo-Darwinism, global warming, embryonic stem cell research and assisted suicide), but also in economics, welfare, family issues such as abortion and much else. Since the Left now dominates the faculties of almost all universities and the faculties have a domineering attitude towards the Administrations of those schools, outsiders like ACTA that want to see trustees take up the responsibilities that are legally entrusted to them (that is why they are called “trustees,” right?), must be stonewalled, and then anathematized.

Taranto’s point: “Willed ignorance is a totalitarian mindset.” That sounds harsh, but it applies. In some respects, there is less actual freedom of thought and opinion on America’s campuses today–and less variety of viewpoints–than in Soviet universities in the bad old days. I remember talking with leaders of the newly democratic Hungary a generation ago, after the end of communism. Several were former university professors. How had they survived? They had been in fields like the sciences that the communists didn’t meddle with. That was true also in America during the cultural revolution of the 60’s and 70’s. It’s not so true any more. Everything is politicized in an ideological sense.

Ann D. Neal, the eminently good mannered and affable president of ACTA, complains of the attacks on the letter from Christiansen and Eyring that the content of the letter was itself ignored. In other words, the attacks mainly show that the letter’s concerns are well-warranted.

Covering the matter online for Inside Higher Ed, Kevin Kiley writes,
“ACTA is controversial in the higher education world because it pushes several ideas that lie outside general higher education norms, particularly that trustees should be more hands-on in university policymaking, including academics, which have traditionally been the purview of faculty in a shared-governance model. ‘What ACTA is calling for is simply an imposition of the views and values of those outside the academy,’ said Georgia Nugent, president of Kenyon College.”

“The group has two other main issues: ‘academic freedom,’ in which it advocates less ‘political correctness’ on campuses; and ‘academic excellence,’ in which it promotes a core curriculum rooted in the liberal arts with an emphasis on Western civilization, at the expense of more narrowly tailored classes. These ideas tend to clash with the views of many faculty members that curriculums should be less rigid and include a greater focus on multiculturalism and diversity.”

Imagine “imposing the views and values of those outside the academy”! Views and values like diversity of opinion and freedom of expression. Those once were the views and values the university sought to bring to (“impose on”) society. It was once known as liberalism.

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.