It has quickly become a commonplace that American elite higher education is in a more perilous position than it has been in recent memory. Long-standing conservative discontent has crystallized as a result of recent events; multiple proposals targeting universities’ pocketbooks have been floated by lawmakers in the past weeks. Republican officials have made clear that they will no longer defer to private universities’ conventional autonomy from government scrutiny.
But what really is the peril that these elite universities confront? Unlike lesser-resourced institutions, they face no real prospect of financial catastrophe, even if they lose some big donors. Ivy League universities have effectively entered what social scientists call (referring to the post-working-class left) a “postmaterialist” phase: wealthy enough to prioritize all manner of values that are plausibly averse to their bottom line. Despite this recent rough patch, I would still put my money on Harvard outliving the United States of America by at least as long an interval as it preceded the nation’s founding.
However much right-wing actors might wish to remake these institutions in their own image, that eventuality also has little chance of coming to fruition. For one thing, our legal and political system, with its solicitousness for “private” institutions, wouldn’t permit it. (Given the vital role they play in training the elite and the massive financial and legal privileges that universities like Yale and Harvard and Stanford receive, they aren’t well understood as “private” at all, but should be seen as public but nongovernmental institutions, or at least as existing between the public and private spheres, as the political theorist David Ciepley argues about corporations in general.) Accomplishing any such thing would anyway involve a sustained period of top-down revolutionary activity spurred by a cohesive central authority on the order of Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries; but no one would mistake Mike Johnson for Thomas Cromwell.
“Universities are to Republicans what guns are to Democrats.”
Acknowledging a few exceptions among conservative commentators and public officials, we can still say that universities are to Republicans what guns are to Democrats: an issue they are certain is at the root of great evils, but about which they face a massive knowledge gap that hampers their ability to do anything effective, even within the limited space our legal order allows.
The real peril to elite higher education, then, isn’t that these places will be financially ruined, nor that they will be effectively interfered with in their internal operations by hostile conservatives. It is, instead, that their position in American society will come to resemble that of The New York Times or of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Which is to say that they will remain rich and powerful, and they will continue to have many bright and competent people working within their ambit. And yet their authority will grow more brittle and their appeal more sectarian.
As recently described by former opinion editor James Bennett, the Times has seen the crumbling of the distinction between news and opinion; the acceptance of double standards for those espousing certain views and the tolerance of intimidation of some employees by those with more favored beliefs; and the end of the traditional routes of meritorious promotion through the ranks. But the paper has hardly collapsed; if anything, it looms larger in our national life than ever. It has transcended the position of a mere reporting service and opinion clearinghouse and attained something like the status of an oracle for, say, a fifth of the population (and a much higher percentage of the credentialed class).
That is real power—from a certain angle, it is more power than the Times has ever possessed. At the same time, trust in the mainstream media has plummeted, and the paper has lost its ability to wield influence over those who see it as anything other than infallible. Citing the words of the Times to a normal, not especially partisan person is about as meaningful as a Calvinist citing the Institutes to a nonbeliever. For those still influenceable by the Times, its impact is more totalizing than ever; to this faction, it now claims the remarkable capacity to separate the clean from the unclean, the sayable from the unsayable. But the vast majority of Americans dismiss any work of the Times it finds inconvenient, without the slightest compunction.
Things have gone similarly with the CDC, the National Institutes of Health, and the highest reaches of the public-health apparatus. For my whole life, these were broadly trusted institutions, if ones that lay deep in the background of our lives. But with Covid, they seized their moment to assert that their dictates were coextensive with science itself. Again, this constituted an undoubted augmentation of power. A not insignificant portion of the left, consisting of people who likely never gave these agencies an hour’s thought before March 2020, would still jump off a bridge if the CDC director told them doing so would mitigate the next surge; they retain the conviction that the only reason we didn’t eliminate Covid was that the public was culpably indifferent to expertise.
Yet trust in science is reaching new lows, and even President Biden has no trouble mocking the public-health overlords when he thinks it’s a good look. The inability of public-health organizations and spokespeople to distinguish between value judgments and scientific assessments; their refusal to admit when their modeling was mistaken; their transparent adjustment of “the Science” to suit important constituencies like the teachers’ unions; their unwillingness to acknowledge frankly that nonpharmaceutical interventions made little difference in outcomes; their encouragement of censorship; and their pattern of “noble lies”—all of these have led a sizeable part of the population, hitherto willing to assume the best about what public-health experts had to say, to be permanently resistant to anything these bodies might wish to convey in the future, no matter how crucial these messages might be.
If universities continue to operate as they have been doing, a similar fate will be their destination. From being de facto national institutions, a valued part of our shared patrimony, pursuing one of the essential purposes of a great modern society, they are coming to be seen as the instruments of a sect. Public regard for higher education was falling across the ideological spectrum even before the events of this autumn. Without a course correction, the silent majority of Americans will be as likely to put any stock in the research of an Ivy League professor as they are to get the next booster, even as Ivy League credentials receive great deference within an increasingly inward-looking portion of our privileged classes.
Elite universities will now face a new level of intense and sustained scrutiny, and some of it will undoubtedly be unfair. But their leaders would be wise to see the silver lining in the situation, and to treat this period, as best they can, as an opportunity to return to first principles. Instead of committing what political scientist Ruy Teixera calls “the Fox News fallacy” of getting defensive and defiant whenever criticism issues from certain quarters, they should admit where they have gone astray.
Universities should tolerate no disruption or intimidation; but as far as speech alone goes, they must cease to see its supervision as within their remit. They should protect the rights of students to have nonpolitical spaces on campus (like libraries and dorms) and should remember that the opportunity to study and work in the absence of political intrusions is a great part of what the university exists to provide. They should promote faculty and evaluate students without respect to demography or ideology, seeking to abide not just by the letter, but the spirit of our nondiscrimination laws, including the recent Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action; and if the fact that in a liberal-democratic society it is deeply corrosive for powerful institutions to find ways around aspects of the law they happen to disagree with is not compelling enough reason to do so, then they should remember that these discriminatory policies are deeply unpopular across all racial groups.
It would also be wise for universities and their administrative subunits to stop making pronouncements in their corporate capacity on public affairs, no matter how certain they may feel that they are in the right and, instead, follow the wisdom of the University of Chicago’s Kalven Report that “the instrument of dissent and criticism is the individual faculty member or the individual student. The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic.” They should always bear in mind that the academic vocation consists not of activism, but teaching, learning, and research.
“An organization that pontificates about everything can be trusted about nothing.”
Most generally, university leaders must recognize that an organization that pontificates about everything can be trusted about nothing. They should remember that it is not a deficiency but a virtue in a great institution of civil society to limit its mission, to stay within its sphere. For the more total such an institution becomes, the less it can defend a degree of autonomy from the state and the less well it works to provide one of the necessary conditions of a functional free society: a variety of venues in which different kinds of important activity can be pursued, with each clearly devoted to its specific purposes, such that the public can understand its missions and trust them to fulfill them.
To take this approach would require giving up a certain kind of power and influence. It would undoubtedly cause universities’ grip on their most devoted adherents to loosen; it would mean accepting that there are many social goods that have to be served by institutions other than the university. It would require self-restraint and a renewed commitment to a more specialized sense of vocation. But this is the path back to being a true univers-ity, one that serves and can be trusted across our pluralistic nation and, indeed, by the republic of scholars that transcends borders.