Beyond Academic Sectarianism

Steven M. Teles

More conspicuously than at any time in living memory, elite higher education has found itself in the political crosshairs. Who could have predicted a year ago that the presidents of the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard would, in quick succession, be thrown out of a job after less than two years in office between them? Or that presidents of other elite universities would be holding on by the skin of their teeth?

While these and other university leaders’ responses to the Hamas attack on Israel lit the fire, the dry tinder for a political assault on our most prestigious universities has been sitting around for some time. What started in Philadelphia and Cambridge will not stop there.

Those who sense more than a whiff of political opportunism and anti-intellectualism in this assault are not mistaken. But the public’s impression that American higher education has grown increasingly closed minded is undeniably correct. Indeed, concerns about the ideological drift of the university are no longer limited to conservatives, but now include some left-leaning faculty who worry that higher education has become, in the words of Princeton professor Gregory Conti, “sectarian.”

This mounting sectarianism manifests itself in various aspects of the university, including the scope of debate within and outside the classroom, the growth of campus administration, and the tenor of student life. For a professor like myself, the character of the professoriate is the most salient aspect. And where conservative faculty are concerned, the facts are beyond dispute: Their numbers are low and continue to fall.