ACTA in the News | Intellectual Diversity

The rot on campus

COLORADO POLITICS   |  January 19, 2024 by Kelly Sloan

Back in the early 1960s, William F. Buckley famously quipped he “would rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the Boston telephone directory than by the 2,000 people on the faculty of Harvard University.” That statement has sprung to mind often, and taken on rather special meaning, as the drama involving now-former Harvard President Claudine Gay unfolded during the past few months.

Ms. Gay, of course, tendered her resignation at the start of the year amid allegations, subsequently founded, of habitual plagiarism in her not-very-substantial canon of published articles. These were uncovered after her disastrous and morally bankrupt appearance before Congress on Dec. 5, where she equivocated on the question of whether or not calling for the death of Jews and the extermination of Israel violated campus policies. Her answer: it depends on the context.

She was not the only head of an elite college to fumble what ought to have been a strikingly easy question to answer; the University of Pennsylvania’s Liz Magill resigned four days after she offered a similarly evasive response at the hearing. In any case, Ms. Gay is merely a symptom of a wider rot that has been infecting higher education for several decades now, but appears to have particularly crystallized in the responses and reactions of the elite universities to the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attack on Israel.

Earlier this week, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni sponsored a discussion examining higher education in the U.S., in light of these foundational problems exposed after Oct.7. The brilliant panel, introduced by former University of Colorado Regent Heidi Ganahl, and moderated by ACTA president (and eminent scholar) Michael Poliakoff, included Hebrew Education Alliance Emeritus Rabbi Bruce Dollin, Colorado Christian University Chancellor Dr. Don Sweeting and former U.S. Senator, CU President, co-Founder of ACTA, and all-around great guy, Hank Brown. Much of their discussion did indeed revolve around the repugnant instances of flagrant antisemitism on campus. Rabbi Dollin cited a lengthy, but by no means exhaustive, litany of examples — none of which would have seemed out of place if attributed to Nazi supporters in 1930s Germany — including a repulsive statement issued by the CU Ethics Studies Department on Oct. 22, which failed to make any mention of Hamas’s crimes against humanity, but said in part: “Starting October 7… We witness another unprecedented genocidal attack on the Palestinian people,” and a bit later, “We also reject the language of ‘terrorism’ used by the US and Israel to justify the Israeli state killing machine.”

That an “ethics studies” department of a major university of reasoning makes such a public statement illustrates as clearly as anything the decomposition of what used to be called “higher education.”

That decomposition far predates Oct 7, 2023. Thirty-seven years ago, Allan Bloom, in his book “The Closing of the American Mind,” was among the first to diagnose the underlying malady; namely the universities’ sacrifice of educational excellence and the preservation of our intellectual patrimony on the alter of modernism and specialization — replacing “education” with “training”. Said Bloom: “The university now offers no distinctive visage to the young person. He finds a democracy of the disciplines — which are there either because they are autochthonous, or because they wandered in recently to perform some job that was demanded of the university. This democracy is really an anarchy, because there are no recognized rules for citizenship and no legitimate titles to rule. In short there is no vision, nor is there a set of competing visions, of what an educated human being is.”* That leaves an awfully big vacuum to fill with extraneous matter.

The panelists at the ACTA event, digging deeper into what ills modern universities, agreed, and expanded on that analysis. Dr. Sweeting, citing the Gallup poll that revealed the precipitous decline in public confidence in higher education (36% now compared to 56% in 2015, said “what happened? We forgot the basics,” and described how “moral relativism and nihilism have replaced character.” Sen. Brown pointed out the unique economics of modern higher education: “We don’t pay on output. We pay on the faculty’s qualifications, not on what people learn.” He said this has led to universities being run by that hyper-specialized faculty, not the trustees — leading in turn to an expansion in the number of “core” courses offered to more than 200; some good, others, as he put it, more “creative.” Or as Dr. Poliakoff put it, “we for years heard the chant, “hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Civ has got to go.” Well, it did, and here we are.”

All of which to say Buckley’s quip is even more apt today than it was 60 years ago.

*This, for the edification of Ms. Gay, is an example of a “citation.” KS

This article appeared on Colorado Politics on January 19, 2024.


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