Politics & Policy

Reforming The Campus

Congress targets Title VI.

Are you troubled by the problem of bias in the academy? There’s something you can do about it. Last June, I testified before a House subcommittee investigating charges of bias in academic programs of area studies (including Middle East studies) funded under Title VI of the Higher Education Act. Subsequently, late last month, a House committee approved legislation (H.R. 3077) that would finally bring reform to academic area studies. By supporting this initiative, NRO readers have already helped create the potential for change in something that seemed unchangeable. But the battle’s not over.


Too often, our government-subsidized area-studies programs have been closed to supporters of American foreign policy. Government supported centers have even boycotted scholarship programs designed to bring students into our defense and intelligence agencies. The reformed Title VI would meet these problems by directly calling on government funded centers to represent a wide range of viewpoints, and by encouraging students to serve their nation in a variety of capacities–including a national-security capacity. The new legislation would provide that recruiters from U.S. government agencies be given access to students, and that students not be restricted from seeking employment with the U.S. government. To help insure that these goals are met, the House Committee bill would create an advisory board to assess the operations of Title VI.

This legislation was approved unanimously, after a bipartisan effort at compromise, first by the Subcommittee on Select Education, and then by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. Having seen the process close-up, I can affirm that Congressman Pete Hoekstra (R., Mich.) has ably managed this bill in committee. Congressman Hoekstra deserves the gratitude of all who value a true marketplace of ideas in American higher education.

This is probably the first time that Congress has ever held a hearing on the problem of bias in the academy. It is surely also the first time that Congress has made an effort to see that at least its own massive subsidies to higher education are not abused by those who would shut out opposing viewpoints. And following the precedent of the Solomon Amendment (which blocks federal funding to universities that ban military recruiters), this is the second time Congress has had to take steps to see that federally subsidized universities don’t prevent their own students from serving the United States government.

The committee that passed this legislation made every effort to meet the concerns of the international studies community. The new advisory board has no power beyond the power to investigate the operations of Title VI and make recommendations to Congress and the secretary of education. And the advisory board is explicitly prohibited from mandating, directing, or controlling specific instructional content or curricula. Yet the higher-education lobby will surely try to gut this bill. As H.R. 3077 moves through the full House, and especially the Senate, expect an attempt to remove the bill’s call for the representation of diverse perspectives on international affairs. And expect efforts to gut the advisory board’s ability to “study, monitor…and evaluate,” the functioning of Title VI.

The central claim of opponents of the proposed advisory board is that it threatens to turn into “a censorship committee”–that the board will intimidate scholars and force them to toe an ideological line. In short, opponents claim that the proposed advisory board threatens academic freedom. This is nonsense. The real problem is that the academy has already failed to protect the academic freedom of students and scholars who support American foreign policy. Academic freedom is premised on the existence of a marketplace of ideas. But when it comes to disciplines like Middle East studies, there is no marketplace of ideas on campus–only a monopoly.


Our modern notion of free speech, and the related concept of academic freedom, derive John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. In that great work, Mill argued that free speech is premised on society’s need to discover the truth. By banning a right opinion, we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to exchange an error for truth. But by banning a mistaken opinion, said Mill, we lose something almost as precious–the clearer perception of truth that is produced by its collision with error. If no opponents are available to put your ideas to the test, said Mill, you should invent arguments against your own beliefs.

So in Mill’s conception of liberty, society would be the poorer if the followers of either the late Edward Said or Bernard Lewis were banned from college campuses. To discover the truth about the Middle East, students need to be able to compare competing perspectives–those of Said and Lewis. And the best way to assess competing viewpoints on the Middle East is to expose students to a wide array of thoughtful advocates on all sides of the question. That is how the marketplace of ideas on campus is supposed to work.

The unfortunate truth, however, is that the followers of Bernard Lewis have largely been banned from college campuses by the followers of Edward Said. And Said’s followers have done so because they adhere to a postmodern view that specifically rejects the premises of John Stuart Mill’s liberalism. In the view of Said and his followers, ideas are not merely competing truths that we can accept or reject, but masks for oppressive power. In this view (derived from Karl Marx via Michel Foucault), to allow ideas to compete freely in the marketplace is to license oppression. So without a guilty conscience, the followers of Marx, Foucault, and Said have taken over whole sections of our universities, intentionally excluding views that they consider to be mere masks for unjust oppression.

Of course, when their political-ideological monopoly is challenged, the denizens of the postmodern academy quickly revert to liberal principles to defend themselves from the supposed “censorship” of their opponents. This is bad faith. The postmodern professorate has already destroyed free speech and academic freedom by killing off the marketplace of ideas. On top of that, these professors have the nerve to demand that the federal government subsidize their ideological monopoly to the tune of millions of dollars. Somehow a simple call for viewpoint diversity–the one kind of diversity colleges really ought to be in the business of promoting–is treated as censorship.

It says something about how far we are from a working marketplace of ideas on campus when a simple call for viewpoint diversity frightens college administrators. If administrators and department chairmen had been doing their jobs, they would have been searching for intelligent representatives of divergent schools of thought all along. There was a time (back when higher education really was liberal) when a good department of, say, political science would have sought ought a reputable Straussian conservative, a good mainstream liberal–and a new-fangled postmodernist too. That’s how the postmodernists got in to the academy to begin with. Liberals brought them in. But the postmodernists quickly jettisoned liberal ideas about the marketplace of ideas and proceeded to secure their ideological monopoly. Now the followers of Edward Said are everywhere, and the few remaining followers of Bernard Lewis who’ve survived are more or less outside of the academy. This is the sort of situation Congress is trying to correct.

Of course, however much of a betrayal of fundamental liberal principle it may be, a college or university has a perfect right to hire an ideologically one-sided faculty. But Congress has a perfect right to insist that minimum respect for viewpoint diversity ought to be observed in those programs it has been called upon to subsidize. It would be inappropriate for Congress to ban any particular viewpoint in programs it supports. But it is not illegitimate for Congress to declare that a preference be given to grant applications from programs that offer students a wide range of perspectives on international affairs. That is what this legislation mandates, and that is what the new advisory board is quite legitimately designed to help secure.

Of course, there are many ways to establish a marketplace of ideas. One way is to bring many viewpoints into the same department. Another is to encourage an array of departments, each with its own specialized viewpoint. Achieving intellectual diversity through a variety of departments, each dominated by a particular school of thought, has its dangers. For one thing, it can deprive students at a given school of exposure to multiple perspectives. Still, specialization has its uses. Nothing in this legislation automatically excludes an intellectually one-sided program from grant eligibility. But clearly–and rightly–a preference is established for programs that expose students to a wide range of viewpoints on controversial issues of foreign affairs. And clearly–and rightly–if Title VI continues to subsidize an overwhelming number of area-studies centers with the same one-sided perspective on international affairs, it would be a violation of this bill’s intent. That is not a injury to academic freedom but an encouragement of it.

As has been amply documented, today’s academy is often closed off or hostile to conservatives. It is also the very antithesis of the marketplace of ideas envisioned by Mill. So long as this situation holds, there is no academic freedom on our college campuses.

I’ve heard left-leaning academics try to justify this situation with the claim that, since the Republicans control Congress and the presidency, it is somehow alright for the left to control the academy. This is ridiculous. The notion that a slim political majority for the Republicans in a closely divided country justifies the left’s near-total monopoly of the academy is an insult to any reasonable conception of academic freedom. Academic freedom serves the purpose of encouraging the best and most thoughtful representatives of various intellectual perspectives to contend before students and the public in the marketplace of ideas. A monopoly for any point of view violates that conception, and does a disservice to students and the nation alike.

Let me be absolutely clear. I have criticized post-modernism, and the post-colonial perspective that flows from the work of Edward Said. But I do not wish for Said’s perspective to be silenced or excluded from campuses. I said this very clearly in my testimony before Congress, but the opponents of this reform persist in claiming that my purpose is to “purge” the academy of post-colonial thought. That is false. Post-colonial thinkers are already tenured throughout the academy. They cannot–and should not–be silenced. Nor should admirers of Edward Said be excluded from funding under Title VI. On the contrary, I think it is vitally important that Edward Said’s followers continue to be a presence at our colleges and universities. I don’t see how a student can understand the debate in Middle East and area studies without exposure to the thought of Edward Said–ideally, as embodied in an intelligent professor who personally understands and favors the post-colonial perspective. I simply believe that the same is true for followers of Bernard Lewis. I don’t want to exclude the followers of Said. I want to bring the followers of Lewis back in.

The paradox in all this is that a liberal university must tolerate illiberal thought. It would be illiberal to exclude Marx, Foucault, and Said from our universities. Yet it is also true that if the followers of Marx, Foucault, and Said gain control of our universities, they will try to exclude everyone else. I have highlighted the problems of post-colonial thought, not to ban it, but to show how it has led to the banning of its competitors.

I don’t see how I could do the work I do if I hadn’t read and taught the thought of Marx, Foucault, and Said. I feel the truth of Mill’s liberalism as I write. To do this piece, I first needed to encounter, imbibe, and ultimately reject the thought I am criticizing. My perception of the truths I affirm is sharper for having encountered what I consider to be error. All I am saying is that students should have the opportunity to confront and evaluate a whole range of views, and not just the current neo-Marxist/postmodernist orthodoxy. We don’t have to invent counterarguments to the new academic orthodoxies. All we have to do is let them back into the academy.

Colleges are free to reject the marketplace of ideas, but they are not free to do so while demanding a federal subsidy for their ideologically one-sided programs. Our universities have gone to Congress with the claim that their programs of Middle East and other area studies contribute to national security and therefore deserve a special subsidy. Yet these subsidized programs have a one-sided bias against American foreign policy and discourage students from serving their country in a national-security capacity. Congress is entirely justified in making its subsidy contingent on minimal respect for viewpoint diversity, and on an end to efforts by government supported programs to stop students from serving their country.

Do not doubt that the higher-education lobby will do everything in its power to weaken or destroy H.R. 3077. Readers of NRO have already helped get Congress to act on the problem of bias in the academy–for the first and only time in decades. You can protect this great, yet endangered, achievement by writing your congressman and urging him, to support the advisory board established in H.R. 3077, and also to make sure that neither the powers of the board itself, nor the bill’s call for intellectual diversity on our college campuses, are diluted.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”


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