Any number of colleges and universities seem to be having PR travails these days, but this may be a case where the turmoil is healthy. The school year that is now ending has turned out to be something of a banner year for academic reform.
Consider the recent unrest at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. When the school’s tour guides were informed in an email last winter that a century-old cross was to be expelled from the school’s chapel, alumni and students mounted a “Save the Wren Cross” campaign. Press releases, a Web site, and a petition that collected 18,000 signatures led to a restoration.
This experience has emboldened what might be called the William and Mary electorate. A new organization is now asking if the governing Board of Visitors should renew the college president’s contract. That’s normally a rubber-stamp affair, but now college executives are being forced to defend themselves against charges of poor financial stewardship.
The merits of these disputes seem less important than the fact that there is now earnest and public discussion about the performance of college administrators, who, like career government bureaucrats, are usually adept at avoiding accountability. Stakeholders are suddenly feeling empowered.
That’s certainly true at Dartmouth College, in New Hampshire, where alumni have used a petition process for the board of trustees to elect four independent candidates in recent years. These “petition candidates” have run against disciplinary procedures that lack due process rights, speech codes, and an increased budget emphasis on administrative bureaucracy at the expense of academics.
The Dartmouth administration responded last fall by proposing a new set of trustee election rules that would have made these outsider candidacies more difficult. The measure needed support from two-thirds of voting alumni to pass but failed to get even a majority. The year ended with the election of a fourth reformist, University of Virginia law professor Stephen Smith.
Elsewhere, market forces prevailed. Antioch College in Ohio–which became famous for sundry curious radicalisms like requiring verbal consent before two students may kiss–was designed to accommodate 2,700 students, but will soon close its doors indefinitely. Its enrollment, now around 300, is no longer sustainable.
The radical professoriate has also had a bad year. Ward Churchill, the University of Colorado professor who called Americans killed on September 11 “little Eichmanns,” was recommended for dismissal. And Norman Finkelstein, who wrote “The Holocaust Industry” and professed the belief that “Schindler’s List” was designed to blind Americans to current Middle East policy, was denied tenure at DePaul University.
Does it seem uncouth that students and alumni are pouring their criticisms into press releases? It shouldn’t. Colleges and universities have largely brought this stakeholder activism on themselves–when they decided to become instruments of fashionable politics instead of repositories of knowledge.