Higher Education’s Enemy Within

Jose Cabranes:

American higher education seems to be in a permanent state of crisis. Almost monthly, a federal court has occasion to reprimand some college or university for improperly chilling speech, even as some students continue to complain that campuses are too friendly to the wrong kind of speakers. Many institutions have cut back on faculty hiring, even as the cost of tuition grows. Two basic, and mutually reinforcing, phenomena are behind the chaos on campus.

First, colleges and universities have subordinated their historic mission of free inquiry to a new pursuit of social justice. Consider the remarkable evolution of Yale’s mission statement. For decades the university said its purpose was “to create, preserve, and disseminate knowledge.” The language was banal enough, but nevertheless on the money. In 2016, however, Yale’s president announced a new mission statement, which no longer mentions knowledge. Instead, Yale is now officially “committed to improving the world” and educating “aspiring leaders”—not only through research, but also through “practice.”

Second, American colleges and universities have been overwhelmed by a dangerous alliance of academic bureaucrats and student activists committed to imposing the latest social-justice diktats. This alliance has displaced the traditional governors of the university—the faculty. Indeed, nonfaculty administrators and activists are driving some of the most dangerous developments in university life, including the erosion of the due-process rights of faculty and students, efforts to regulate the “permissible limits” of classroom discussion, and the condemnation of unwelcome ideas as “hate speech.”

How did the university lose its way? How did this new alliance of activists and administrators supplant the faculty?

Though there are many factors, they all point back to a far-reaching intellectual confusion that pervades the nation’s campuses, from dorm rooms to classrooms. Too many in higher education are unwilling or unable to maintain a distinction that lies at the core of the liberal democratic project, and at the center of the West’s intellectual tradition: the distinction between inquiry and action, speech and conduct.