Berkeley Forgets Its Purpose

The Sather Gate on the Berkeley campus (Photo: Simathers/Dreamstime)
The modern university exists to perpetuate itself — not to educate students.

What is the University of California–Berkeley for?

It’s a question worth asking in the wake of recent events. In February, violent protesters set fires on campus to prevent a speech by ex-Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos. (They succeeded.) This week, the threat of violence, and the refusal of the UC system and local law enforcement to do much about it, led right-wing pundit Ann Coulter to cancel her scheduled appearance. Who is permitted to exercise First Amendment rights on the campus of UC–Berkeley is now at the discretion of a critical mass of anonymous potential rioters.

This is not, of course, a problem restricted to Berkeley. At nearby Claremont McKenna College, where students blocked Manhattan Institute scholar Heather Mac Donald from entering a building where she was slated to speak; at Middlebury College in Vermont, where American Enterprise Institute scholar Charles Murray was literally chased off campus (and a Middlebury political-science professor assaulted in the process); at the University of Missouri, where journalists attempting to report on racial protests were threatened with “muscle”; and at dozens of other institutions from which right-leaning speakers have been “disinvited,” the loudest, or most threatening, faction rules the day.

This does not happen to institutions with purpose. But our universities, increasingly, are not for anything.

At First Things, editor R. R. Reno has argued persuasively that the contemporary American university is ensnared by competing loyalties:

Under­graduate admissions officers at highly selective universities work hard to achieve the “right” balance between getting the smartest kids (you’ve got to have them to nail down “excellence”) and those whom the institution needs to maintain its social justice legitimacy. And then there are the children of the rich and powerful, who must be included as well, for obvious reasons! . . . Finally, there’s the ambition elite American universities have to become global brands, which means getting the right foreign students.

Why? Because elite American universities are run “for two purposes, both of which treat students as means, not ends in themselves. The first is to provide legitimacy to the American ruling class. The second is to promote the greater wealth and glory of the university itself.”

Berkeley is a good illustration. On one hand, it is a sterling institution of higher learning: Ranked No. 20 by the U.S. News & World Report, it is a desirable destination for the nation’s brightest undergraduate students; for graduate students, too, especially in the hard sciences, it is among the nation’s very best places to study. To maintain this status, the university must woo the most academically talented students, whoever they may be; obviously, some of them will end up among the College Republicans. On the other hand, Berkeley is a gateway to the world of liberal power; to be a Berkeley alumnus is to be designated worthy to enjoy access to the higher circles of left-wing political and cultural life. (The current governor of California is a Berkeley grad.) To maintain this status, the university must demonstrate its fidelity to left-wing doctrine in its admissions policies, in its hiring, in its research priorities, and its handling of on-campus conflicts.

Because education is a subordinate aim, students are not required to share core commitments, or any core identity.

The result, as Reno observes, is “minutely engineered” classes of students, “admitted because they serve the university’s project.” One might say that they are not even students, precisely, because the university’s “project” is educational only secondarily. Of late, they are primarily rambunctious constituencies making mutually irreconcilable demands on administrators.

Berkeley students who know their Latin (there are, presumably, a few) may appreciate that “university” comes from the Latin uni-versus — “turned into one.” But the elite contemporary American university has no “one” toward which the campus can turn. Because education is a subordinate aim, students are not required to share core commitments, or any core identity. They do not need to agree on a principle of academic freedom. They do not need to agree on how to adjudicate intellectual disputes. The main thing they share is a geographic location. By making its overarching purpose to perpetuate the structures that secure its own power, the university has ensured that campus “community” is ersatz, and that all conflicts will, in the end, be decided by those who can muster the most force.

At present, left-wing activists hold the whip hand. If, in the future, a different faction takes over, the grievances would be different but the underlying problem the same. This situation will endure as long as the university is more committed to demonstrating its political bona fides than to cultivating educated men and women.

— Ian Tuttle is the Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow at the National Review Institute.


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