Make Universities Less Welcoming
Universities in America have taken a beating as of late. The right criticizes them for being antagonistic to conservative voices and opinion and the left condemns them for their perceived racist and corporate mindset. Public faith in our higher education system is decreasing while the cost of admission is rising; many feel a college degree is the ticket to a good life and yet we are experiencing a loss of faith in the intuitions providing the credential. Freddie, writing in the LA Times, notes the dire place the university sits in the minds of most Americans.
Only 36% of Republicans, according to the Pew Research Center, believe colleges and universities have a positive effect on the way things are going in the country, versus 58% who say they have a negative effect. Among Democrats, those figures are 72% and 19%, respectively. That finding represents a crisis.
Adding to the statistics above, many middle-class liberals in my personal sphere have similar reservations about the role our universities are playing in American life. When nearly a fifth of all Democrats share the Republican distrust for higher education, we are facing a serious problem. Oddly enough, the left in America has been quick to attack these same institutions, creating a convergence of criticism for universities on both ends of the spectrum.
Surely, there is more than enough embodied in our university structure to warrant criticism. What I am continuously perplexed by is the language of inclusion the right and left have used when demeaning our higher education system. On the left, activists have made wide-ranging overtures to the creed that a university should do more than simply provide an education for its students. One of the Yale protestors infamously stated:
It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! Do you understand that? It’s about creating a home here! You are not doing that.
It is easy to dismiss this remark by an inexperienced activist as an outlier disconnected from the larger political movements happening on campus. Yet, from Evergreen to Missouri, disassociated students bring up the conviction that the colleges they attend need to do more to create community for various minority students.
The right is not immune to these political demands on our education system. In an Op-Ed for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Robert Maranto argues that Christian students face routine discrimination by a university culture that sees the faithful as unacceptable.
Back in the 1980s, J.D. Gartner found Christianity reduced the chances of admission to psychology doctoral programs. Using 1999 data, “The Still Divided Academy” by Stanley Rothman, April Kelly-Woessner, and Matthew Woessner offered strong statistical evidence that (typically religious) socially conservative professors must publish more to get the same academic posts.
More recently, George Yancey’s “Compromising Scholarship” showed that in many academic fields, significant numbers of professors, more than enough to blackball hiring decisions, express reluctance to hire evangelical and fundamentalist Christians.
None of this makes secular professors bad people. As psychologists William O’Donohue and Richard E. Redding argue, people generally express willingness to discriminate against those of other political or religious ideals. The danger comes when individual institutions lack ideological diversity, enabling an arrogant tendency to dismiss dissenters as unacceptable people with unacceptable opinions.
An unrepresentative intelligentsia leads many of our fellow Americans to distrust us, and our research. When traditional Christians find academic, media, and cultural institutions closed to people like them, they see little reason to believe those authorities. Not surprisingly, recent polls show that Republicans, who are disproportionately traditional Christians, have increasingly lost faith in higher education.
Clearly, this distrust on both the right and left regarding our universities is troubling. This suspicion in the role our higher education system plays in helping develop experts in various fields of scholarship ultimately fosters a rejection of proficiency entirely. The left is keen to disregard expert knowledge as “white supremacist” in lieu of personal experience. The right sees experts as nothing more than well-trained talking heads to emasculate their very existence.
This distrust in our institutions is a serious problem; making universities more “welcoming” is not. Speaking as someone who wants real, honest diversity of experiences and ideas at a university, we are doing a disservice to those aims by bending for every outlier’s demands on inclusion and bureaucratic community building. In fact, it’s tempting to connect the level of distrust in our higher education to the contiguous increase in administrative staff, specifically in the “diversity” subfield. David Frum noted:
The Parkinson of American academia is Ralph Westfall, a professor at California Polytechnic University in Pomona. He computed in 2011 that over the 33 years from 1975 to 2008, the number of full-time faculty in the California state university system had barely increased at all: up from 11,614 to 12,019. Over the same period, the number of administrators had multiplied like little mushrooms: 3,000 had become 12,183.
You might ask: What do these administrators do?
Today’s New York Times offers one modest illustration. Over the past 18 months, the Times reports, 90 American colleges and universities have hired “chief diversity officers.” These administrators were hired in response to the wave of racial incidents that convulsed campuses like the University of Missouri over the past year. They are bulking up an already thriving industry. In March 2016, the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education held its 10th annual conference in San Francisco. Attendance set a new record: 370. The association publishes a journal. It bestows awards of excellence.
As diversity officers proliferate, entire learned specialties plunge into hiring depressions. In the most recent academic years, job postings for historians declined by 8 percent, the third decline in a row. Cumulatively, new hirings of historians have dropped 45 percent since 2011-2012.
Ultimately, critics will argue that having diversity experts at universities is important. Few contend that having people from different walks of life active in a university community is detrimental. Where many conservatives, rightfully in my opinion, find fault with this “diversity agenda” is that it embraces a select few underrepresented groups while excluding others for purely ideological reasons. In James Bloodworth’s excellent book, The Myth of Meritocracy, he notes the manner in which working class whites are often excluded from state efforts to better the disadvantaged due to the pervasive nature of identity politics on the left. Diversity seems to matter at universities only when it comes to race and gender, not for those of different classes or philosophical perspectives. It is not surprising that large swaths of Americans are distrustful of these institutions.
A good leftist might say, “Yes, we need to increase the number of white working class people as well. We, in fact, need more diversity experts.” Perhaps, or maybe we are just asking too much from our universities. Being a schoolteacher, I flinch at calls by pundits and political figures for our schools to do more. Provide more services, increase test scores, and uphold the values and traditions of the nation.
It may be that our schools are already stretched thin and that by turning them into second homes for all students, we actually make our schools worse in the process. At best, we make them increasingly expensive to operate due to the surges in the bureaucracy. We also run the risk of needlessly politicizing these institutions in such a way that large portions of our community now see them as little more than indoctrination factories for the left, bent on enforcing a very specific form of diversity that excludes them.
Let me offer a radical alternative: let’s make universities less welcoming. They should be a place of academic trial and struggle, forcing students into uncomfortable situations to improve their understanding of the world and increase their personal fortitude. Much like boot camp, there will be no safe space. No idea is holy. You will be forced to read and ponder concepts you personally despise. You will be asked to live and mingle with individuals from other walks of life. If any of this bothers you, you can drop out and consider other roads through life. The school will be welcoming in that it accepts all people but its community responsibility to the student ends there.
I recognize this is not a perfect solution. Some students may wish their institutions had larger, more expensive bureaucracies designed to enshrine some communities and ideas over others. This political victory by administrative coup is shortsighted however, as it will only bread increased distrust from the community as a whole in these institution’s impartiality. Since portions of the right and left seem bent on wielding the university system to their own ends, it seems this minimalist proposition is the only way to ensure our universities remain untethered to a political interest group.
As it stands, the right and left are attacking our university because it doesn’t elevate their ideas above competing ideologies and ways of life. Christians are demanding that their religious views on the age of the earth and the development of life not impact their acceptance to the biology department; race activists on the left demand a veto on scholars they disagree with. Both sides can point to legitimate issues of discrimination that need to be addressed in higher education, but the desire to enshrine their position in our institutions into codified officialdoms does a disservice to our universities.
Perhaps, formalized bureaucratic diversity has only made our universities worse, and ironically, less diverse in the ways that matter.