Politics & Policy

Back to School

The look of the campus.

The official notice just arrived: Summer is over. I am referring, of course, to the annual “Almanac Issue” of The Chronicle of Higher Education, thick with charts and graphs, that arrives like an un-seasonal arctic breeze in the sultry last days of August.

Care to know the average SAT scores by sex and by racial and ethnic group of last year’s freshmen? The proportion of 18- to 24-yead-olds in college? The attitudes of full-time faculty members? How about the largest private gifts to higher education? Total return on college endowments?

I admit I turn the pages eagerly. Here is American higher education reduced to its industrial organization and consumerist profiles. Here is the dust in industry (43.8 percent of college presidents have “education” degrees; 89 percent of 4-year public colleges offer “distance-education” programs) and the sum in consumerism (43.7 percent of dependent college students get federal aid; 36.9 percent of college women chose their college partly on the basis offers of financial assistance, but only 30.7 percent of college men.) I don’t mean to imply the ideals that make higher education higher are completely absent from this portrait. Here they are on page 17: only 4 percent of last year’s freshmen said they attended college because “there was nothing better to do.” A whopping 42.1 said “to make me a more cultured person,” which isn’t after all too far away from the 70.5 percent who said “to make more money.”

I wonder if the Chronicle publishes this compilation as a humility lesson for the overweening professoriate? A faculty member looking in this mirror gets little encouragement for his work as a scholar. Some 83.9 percent chose to pursue an academic career because of the “intellectual challenge,” but 41.6 percent have published nothing in the last two years and only 13.3 percent had published more than four “professional writings” in that time. If publish or perish were really the rule, the academic cemeteries would be crammed.

And if the faculty member’s amour propre is propped more on his teaching than his research, he encounters other disquieting notes. How is it, for example, that 59 percent of American adults think that “some time in the next 10 years, students who want a college education will take most of their courses over the Internet?”

The Chronicle’s tables are not all turned against academic complacency. Indeed in some areas, he Almanac issue is highly reassuring. The faculty member whose politics trend Left can take solace in knowing that 47.6 percent of his peers describe themselves as “far left” or “liberal,” and only 17.7 as “conservative” and .3 as “far right.” The prospects get even rosier in public universities, where 54.1 percent who are far or not-as-far left, and 13.8 percent conservative.

These labels translate fairly seamlessly into social attitudes. More than half of faculty members in American colleges and universities (55.3 percent), for example, agree that “racial and ethnic diversity should be more strongly reflected in the curriculum.” Think about that. In most colleges and universities, the curriculum is already a charm bracelet of ethnic-studies courses and special pleading on behalf of minority subcultures, but the majority of the faculty nationwide are saying “not enough.”

Faculty members hitched to the “diversity” agenda can take comfort in group solidarity. Some 67.9 percent want their college to “hire more faculty members of color” and 51.6 percent want their colleges to hire more women faculty members. Only 28 percent say that “promoting diversity leads to the admission of too many under-prepared students.” I guess that means that 72 percent don’t mind the gross disparities in academic failure and dropout rates between regular students and those admitted because of racial and ethnic “plus factors.” Of the 40 or so topics covered in the survey, only one registered over 90-percent agreement: 90.7 of faculty members agreed that “a racially/ethnically diverse student body enhances the educational experience of all students.”

That’s a breathtaking level of agreement on what amounts to an ideological claim. The real diversity that results from attracting students regardless of their parentage may enrich the experience of some students, but “all” students? Even the academic hacks hired to conjure evidence of diversity’s pedagogical merits at the University of Michigan stopped short of such implausibility. In fact, except for some slipshod surveys put together by diversity advocates, there is no empirical evidence that “diversity” on campus creates any educational benefit, but we do have good evidence that it fosters animosity, self-segregation, and group resentment. Turn a few pages and you discover that 90.7 percent of faculty members who think diversity is such a good thing compares with the 5 percent of the general public who believe, “Colleges and universities should admit students from racial minority groups even if they have lower high school GPAs and standardized-test scores than other students.” The truth is we can’t have it both ways, at least at this moment in the nation’s history, and the professoriate has collectively staked a position radically outside what is acceptable to mainstream society.

In reading the Chronicle’s Almanac, I wonder about the 9 percent who dissent from this great orthodoxy. Are we kindred souls? How many of them, like me, would like to see real racial integration in American society? How many believe that higher education should hew to intellectual standards that are heedless of race and ethnicity but are generous about talent and open-minded about ambition? How many of those 17.7 percent who say they are “conservative” are putting up a good fight, and how many actually think we can win?

Conservatives outside the academy are often all to ready to cede higher education to the Left, as though it were hopeless and irrelevant. But it is neither. In fall 2000, 15,312,289 students were enrolled in college, and the numbers will keep growing to a projected 17.6 million in 2012. As beginning freshmen, 20 percent of these students consider themselves “conservative” and 50.8 percent as “middle of the road.” As it stands, those students are about to be subjected to four years (and often longer) of immersion in a world that is bizarrely out of step with the traditional values of American life. They will find themselves among fellow students, some 40.3 percent profess to be “bored in class,” and 46.7 percent of whom “participated in organized demonstrations.” They will be taught by faculty among whom 44.2 percent believe, “Western civilization and culture should” not “be the foundation of the undergraduate curriculum.” And they will navigate their own way through a system that hypocritically enunciates the importance of free inquiry and intellectual striving while fostering conformity to Leftist political goals.

Americans tend to tolerate campus nonsense out of a spirit of pragmatism. The kids will get their credential and get on with their careers, regardless of what the feminists/Chomsky-ite/anti-globalists do and say. Common sense will indeed prevail with most students but that doesn’t mean they have entirely escaped indoctrination. I see no other likely explanation for the ascendancy of the anti-democratic ideal of “diversity” among educated men and women in this country. It is an ideal that simply did not exist before it was taken up by colleges and universities in the 1980s, and that has since then grown so in the affections of college graduates that it overshadows — at least rhetorically — their love of both equality and freedom.

Confronted with a novel proposition such as gay marriage, educated Americans fall back on the principles not of the Constitution but of the college campus: tolerance is the first virtue; civil rights is the only sensible framework within which to weigh competing claims for the public good; and history is a record of dominant elites oppressing minorities.

But I’m wandering from the neat columns of numbers into the stories they evoke, as numerous as autumn leaves. Here is the donor’s page. What moved Eli and Edyth Broad to give $100 million for biomedical research this year? How did Arizona State University get William Polk Carey to carry $50 million into its coffers? I see Cornell topped Harvard in 2001-2 for alumni support, with $158.9 million to Harvard’s $139.1 million.

Well, either you find the boastful cupidity of colleges interesting or you don’t. For years I pored over the Chronicle’s Almanac Issue with the tender eye of a sportsman fishing with dynamite. But I have mellowed. I now have a more gentlemanly interest in the sport. Though a little dynamite isn’t bad.

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