by Rob Natelson
For an audio version read by the author, please click here.
This essay was first published in the Oct. 19, 2023 Epoch Times.
Massive displays of support for Hamas terrorism on the nation’s campuses has forced even the most disengaged to witness the poison infecting America’s colleges and universities.
In this series, I explain why our colleges and universities are laboring under a toxic cultural virus. I also offer ways to address the problem.
Readers are entitled to know my qualifications for commenting on this subject.
I have studied and worked in a wide range of campus settings. I earned my bachelor’s degree at a private college. I attended law school at a large university, half private and half state, after turning down offers from more prestigious institutions. (I’ll explain the practical implications of that decision later.) I also studied Greco-Roman classics in a large state university.
While practicing law, I was an adjunct (part-time) professor at a community college and later at both a large state university and a large private university.
After taking a basic course in teaching techniques, I served briefly as the manager of a community college program and eventually returned to academia on a full-time basis. I became a tenure-track and later a tenured professor and remained one for the next 25 years. I initially taught at a small private university and then at a medium-sized state university. I also served as a visiting professor at a large state university and as a researcher at a large foreign one.
I can compare academia to other institutions in a way most professors cannot, because I’ve also worked extensively in private business, mostly small business, and currently operate a consulting practice.
Universities Were Never About “Academic Freedom”
The story that universities have been havens for honest research and unfettered exploration and expression of competing ideas is—to put it bluntly— a myth. The story was popularized during the Cold War (1945-1990) to protect academics sympathetic to the Communist cause. The idea was that promoters of totalitarianism and other critics of traditional values had to be accepted because “academic freedom” was at the core of college and university life.
I have some sympathy for this ideal, but the truth is that universities more often have been bastions of orthodoxy and sources of intolerance toward anyone who does not share the reigning orthodoxy.
Universities in their current form grew up in Medieval and early modern Europe. They were established and operated under the auspices of religious denominations with the cooperation of local political authorities. Students and faculty were expected to conform to pre-fixed religious and political norms. Non-believers were excluded or chased out.
Some of those excluded or chased out were also the best and the brightest. Galileo Galilei became unwelcome at the University of Pisa and had to move to Padua. Isaac Newton had to obtain a royal dispensation to avoid being forced into the Church of England. Marie Curie was barred from an academic appointment in her native Poland.
Last year I wrote a research article that required me to learn about the intellectual giants who created the modern field of international law (pdf). Most of them got cross-wise with their universities (or other political institutions) and had to flee to more congenial locations.
The spirit of orthodoxy haunted universities even in relatively tolerant England. Until the University of London was chartered in 1836, you could not study at a university unless you were an Anglican—and male.
To be sure, Presbyterians could travel to Scotland for higher education, but the Scottish schools had their own orthodoxies. For example, at the College [now University] of St. Andrews, every entering student had to sign an oath avowing Presbyterianism and promising to remain Presbyterian.
Catholics, Jews, and women had no university options within Britain at all.
Moreover, because English universities were supported by the government, they tended to be strong supporters of state prerogatives as against individual freedom. (This may sound familiar.) This helps explain why, during the English Civil War, King Charles I made Oxford his capital.
Early American colleges also were based on particular orthodoxies, to which all were expected to adhere.
To a significant degree, only the nature of the orthodoxies has changed. Students and faculty who openly dissent from the reigning tenets—assuming they are admitted to the “university community” at all—can have a difficult time. In a previous Epoch Times essay, I detailed some of the ways in which colleges and universities enforce orthodoxy on their faculty and administrators. Dissenters usually are not hired, are dismissed before they obtain tenure, or, if “outed” after tenure, are punished in other ways.
Again, these often are the best and brightest: The university system in which I spent most of my career had a notable record of forcing out dissenting scholars who went on to earn fame elsewhere.
Dissenters who survive are forced to waste valuable time being indoctrinated in concepts like “diversity, equity, and inclusion.” They hear their ideas and their country’s founding principles being mocked. They often are shunned, have their money clipped to support leftist causes, and watch helplessly while ideologies they loathe receive institutional favor.
Such tolerance as exists cannot be pushed too far. When I was a law professor, I was brave enough to support fiscally-conservative causes, although at great personal and professional cost. But I wasn’t brave enough to challenge the reigning orthodoxy on social issues. For example, I never pointed out that granting legal privileges to same-sex “marriage” was a stupid decision.
This exercise of discretion helped me survive. After I retired, I saw what my university did to a computer science professor who expressed conservative Mormon views of marriage and sexuality. Although most of his views would have been unremarkable just a few decades earlier, he felt forced to resign.
The leftist political and cultural bias is aggravated by the heavy hand of the federal government. The feds offer lavish grants for research projects favored by the Left: environmentalism, climate change, race, and “diversity.” Those working in less-favored projects usually must proceed unassisted.
Naturally, university administrators favor faculty who win federal grants. The last dean I worked for told me that if I wanted to continue my Founding-era studies, it would be best to give them an “environmental” angle. That way, I might be able to get grant money.
Of course, I said, “No.” But many academics would have been seduced by the money. I suppose they would have portrayed the Founders as modern environmentists—or, more likely, as environmental rapists.
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Next installment: How the university model creates bad results.