Deregulation in Higher Education

by Peter Augustine Lawler

Stanley Kurtz’s forceful account of the very real and often thuggish offenses against free speech and common sense on our campuses — well, basically our elite campuses – has, in my view, two important errors.

The first is that the biggest problem is tenured radical professors.

The other is that the remedy could be legislation and other regulation by the federal government, now that the Republicans are in power.

Kurtz never even mentions the role of college and university administrations — basically the class of administrators — in both the shutting down of speakers and the imposition of the various forms of scripting of classrooms with “diversity” in a broad and amorphous sense in mind. Yet, for the most part, the true alliance against academic freedom is between student protesters and student-affairs staffs. Professors aren’t the main source of progressive energy on campus these days. The number of tenured professors is dropping, and everywhere intellectual labor is being transferred from “faculty governance” to administrators and their strategic planning, best practices, diversity initiatives, and all that.

I will flesh this out on NRO soon. For now, you might read my American Heresies and Higher Education. You might also consult the work of Benjamin Ginsberg of Johns Hopkins. You might also visit the website of the administrator-dominated American Association of Colleges and Universities, which is all about developing strategies for administrators for scripting campuses in a leftist-corporatist direction, reconstructing all of instruction according to the twin imperatives of competency and diversity.

Why is this important? Some conservatives still believe, against all the evidence, that things would somehow get better if tenure were eliminated and administrators had even more control over all the details of instruction. What kind of freedom you would find on a campus with an administration even more bloated than ones we have now, and all faculty working at its pleasure?

And it’s ridiculous to believe that Middlebury, Oberlin, Berkeley, and all the other elite places would be intimidated by Trump-administration initiatives. For now, our campuses are getting so much of their identity and moral fervor from opposition to Trump and Trumpism. Trump turns out to be the best stimulus package “political correctness” has ever received, and our elite colleges would relish doing battle with him.

Let them be disciplined by the market instead. We have the best system of higher education in the world, because of the singular moral and intellectual diversity in the missions of our institutions. Whatever kind of institution of higher education you want, you can find in our country, often at a surprisingly reasonable price. We have lots of colleges with real missions that soar above the reductionist imperatives of competency and diversity, and their dissident administrators and faculty are no significant threat to intellectual freedom.

It’s surely more sensible to worry less about viewpoint diversity on this or that elite campus and more about protecting the national diversity among institutions.

Here there are things conservatives can do to fight against the homogenizing efforts of our administrative class. For one, break the monopoly of the regional accrediting associations. For another, make accreditation much less intrusive. More generally, the national government should just give our institutions a lot less to comply with. The result might be the laying off of a lot of compliance offers, an important cause of administrative bloat, and the national government would no longer be facilitating efforts to inhibit authentic diversity. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos trumpets school choice as a way of making quality education available to everyone, not just rich folks. A huge menu of choice is already available on the level of higher education, because the market is national and competition for the scarce resource of the residential student continues to gets more intense.

Once again, we conservatives should be for the right kind of deregulation, deploying libertarian means in the service of non-libertarian ends.

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