A Crisis of Competence: The Corrupting Effect of Political Activism in the University of California

John Ellis:

In recent years, study after study has found that a college education no longer does what it should do and once did.1 Whether these studies look directly at the capabilities of graduates, or instead at what employers find their capabilities to be, the result is the same: far too many college graduates have not learned to write effectively, they can not read and comprehend any reasonably complex book, they have not learned to reason, and their basic knowledge of the history and institutions of the society

in which they live is lamentably poor. “An astounding proportion of students are progressing through higher education today without measurable gains in general skills” is the anguished conclusion of a respected national study, entitled appropriately Academically Adrift.2 Further, students now spend on average little time studying outside the classroom, and the demands made of them by their faculty teachers have been correspondingly reduced.

Is it possible that the University of California is an exception to these national trends? Unfortunately, we can be certain that it is not. First, these national studies all include California, and none of them note any fundamental differences across states. Second, local studies of these issues always confirm the findings of the national studies. For example, the national finding that students now spend relatively little time studying outside the classroom has been confirmed by a study specific to UC that reached identical conclusions. A recent study of higher education in California concludes: “The California that many like to think of as a leader in higher education is average at best and trending in the wrong direction.”3

Public confidence in academia is dropping as the general public begins to understand that a college education is now much less likely to improve reading, writing, and reasoning skills, as well as general knowledge, than it used to. And this is happening just as the cost of a college education has been rising much faster than inflation. Students are being asked to pay considerably more and get considerably less. We are now seeing much increased concern with student debt and rising tuition costs. As this concern about cost joins with the growing concern about quality, the University must soon face a major crisis of public confidence.

The findings of these studies match all too well the specific complaints that are now commonly heard about the manifestations of a politicized higher education: that requirements for coursework in American history and institutions have been dropped, that writing courses often stress writing far less than tendentious political topics; that prescribed books are frequently no more than journalistic presentations of a simple political message instead of the more complex writings appropriate to an academic context; and that faculty teach what to think rather than how to think: that is, they demand correct attitudes and beliefs of students more than they require independent reading and thought.

This report is concerned with the corruption of the University of California by activist politics, a condition which, as we shall show, sharply lowers the quality of academic teaching, analysis, and research, and results in exactly the troubling deficiencies that are being found in the studies to which we have referred.4 We shall show that this is an inevitable consequence of any substantial influence of radical politics in academia, because its characteristic interests and modes of thought are the very antithesis of those that should prevail in academic life.