Tenured Radicals or the Class of Administrators?

by Peter Augustine Lawler

Response To...

Can Deregulation Restore Campus Free ...

Thanks to Stanley Kurtz for a vigorous and pointed response to my words on deregulating higher education.

He’s perfectly right that I might have misled readers by saying that he didn’t mention administrators. It’s more accurate to see that he blames them for often being passive, for caving to aggression that comes from others — tenured radical faculty and their student allies. In my own view, the administrators are increasingly the aggressive “change agents” in higher education. And their goal is to reduce all of higher education to either competency or diversity, leaving no safe space for genuinely higher education.

So I don’t think that taking tenure out would be a new birth of freedom on campus. It would simply accelerate a trend to transfer all intellectual labor on campus from “faculty governance” to administrative “strategic planning.” And much of the latter occurs in student-affairs staffs.

Just a five-minute surf on the Web this morning shows me that there’s a new “social justice” requirement at Clemson, and it will be directed by the “chief diversity officer.” Under that administrative direction, it will be not a genuine exploration of the political virtue of justice but an expert scripting of student and even faculty opinion. Also at Clemson, I read, there’s the administrative directive that faculty and staff no long require students to be on time; that privileges the habit of the oppressor race over the others. The energy on campus at Clemson isn’t coming from the faculty, although I don’t deny that even most tenured faculty will be compliant. Some, however, do speak out, and their very presence remains a moderating force on the agents of change.

In general, administrators (through, among other means, accrediting associations) are demanding that all courses be justified according to “competencies” or “student learning outcomes” indispensable for flourishing in the competitive global marketplace. The competencies are techniques or methods, such as critical thinking or effective communication, detached from content and purpose. The theory of the competency is that all higher education has to have technological value, and the burden of proof is on professors in the humanities and social sciences to show that they even have that.

Now professors of history, philosophy, and so forth are often relieved to discover that they still have a place in higher education. And so they are often pleased to submit to the imperative of competency, and they work hard, even if ironically, to give the administrators what they want. They often don’t see that they are digging their own graves. Students figure out soon enough, after all, that it’s easy to pick up this or that competency without all the annoying baggage of historical or literary content. And even if they must study history, the History of Hip-Hop gets the competency job done as well as some boring narrative about their country’s founding. So, it turns out, the imperative of the competency supports the mindless relativism that’s the official dogma of many historians today: There’s no reason to privilege one kind of historical content, such as that of one’s own country or civilization, over another. The administrators see better than the historians do that there’s no need to privilege history at all.

Consider that requirements in liberal education are being trimmed or becoming wholly optional, in accordance with the logic of the competency. Meanwhile, courses in “diversity” are becoming more commonly required. Diversity is filling the moral void that opens up when the rest of education is reduced to competencies. And a course in diversity is different from, say, a more traditional and disciplined course in the humanities because its only point is to out the oppression — the racism, sexism, homophobia, and so forth — of the past and present. It’s point is not to discuss “What is justice?” or to compare the advantages and disadvantages of the ways human beings have lived over time and space. And professors of philosophy, history, and so forth are taught they have a second way to earn they keep, and that way, like the first one, is subject to an imperative constructed by the administration.

The very word “diversity” is a vehicle of administrative scripting. “Diversity hires” are ways administrators have to impose priorities on disciplines and script the composition of the faculty. Diversity is the source of the scripting of the thought and action of students but especially of faculty when it comes to micro-aggressions, micro-invalidations, safe spaces, the proliferation of pronouns, and so forth and so on. In effect, new hires at a growing number of places have to pledge allegiance to diversity. That doesn’t mean not being a racist, sexist, homophobe, Islamophobe, and so forth. It means agreeing in advance to whatever the administrative diversity scripting will bring.

Now some conservatives persist in believing that the choice is competency versus diversity. But the truth is that competency and diversity are the twin imperatives of our leftist-corporatist cognitive elite, which includes our class of academic administrators as such. The way to defend freedom on campus is to defend the place for liberal education as such. That’s not to take a stand against justice, but for it. It’s also to take a stand for love, death, friendship, citizenship, God, man’s place in the cosmos, sublime beauty, and all the traditional concerns of higher education that can’t be reduced to either technology or justice.

There’s a lot more to say, but not now.

The Corner

The one and only.