Potemkin Universities

On the Yale University campus (Reuters photo: Shannon Stapleton)
Behind the facades, universities have broken faith with a once-noble legacy of free inquiry.

College campuses still appear superficially to be quiet, well-landscaped refuges from the bustle of real life.

But increasingly, their spires, quads, and ivy-covered walls are facades. They are now no more about free inquiry and unfettered learning than were the proverbial Potemkin fake buildings put up to convince the traveling Russian czarina Catherine II that her impoverished provinces were prosperous.

The university faces crises almost everywhere of student debt, university finances, free expression, and the very quality and value of a university education.

Take free speech. Without freedom of expression, there can be no university.

But if the recent examples at Berkeley, Claremont, Middlebury, and Yale are any indication, there is nothing much left to the idea of a free and civilized exchange of different ideas.

At most universities, if a scheduled campus lecturer expressed scholarly doubt about the severity of man-caused global warming and the efficacy of its government remedies, or questioned the strategies of the Black Lives Matter movement, or suggested that sex is biologically determined rather than socially constructed, she likely would either be disinvited or have her speech physically disrupted. Campuses often now mimic the political street violence of the late Roman Republic.

Campus radicals have achieved what nuclear strategists call deterrence: Faculty and students now know precisely which speech will endanger their careers and which will earn them rewards.

The terrified campus community makes the necessary adjustments. As with the German universities of the 1930s, faculty keep quiet or offer politically correct speech through euphemisms. Toadies thrive; mavericks are hounded.

Shortchanged students collectively owe more than $1 trillion in student-loan debt — a sum that cannot be paid back by ill-prepared and often unemployed graduates. 

Test scores have plummeted. Too many college students were never taught the basic referents of liberal education. Most supposedly aware, hip, and politically engaged students can’t identify the Battle of Gettysburg or the Parthenon, or explain the idea of compounded interest.

Many students simply cannot do the work that was routinely assigned in the past. In response, as proverbially delicate “snowflakes,” they insist that they are traumatized and can only find remedy in laxer standards, gut courses, and faculty deference.

“Studies” activist courses too often are therapeutic. They are neither inductive nor Socratic, and they rarely teach facts, methods and means of learning without insisting on predesignated conclusions. Instead, the student should leave the class with proper group-think and ideological race/class/gender fervor of the professor — a supposed new recruit for the larger progressive project. 

Universities talk loudly of exploitation in America — in the abstract. But to address societal inequality, university communities need only look at how their own campuses operate. Part-time faculty with Ph.D.s are paid far less than tenured full professors for often teaching the same classes — and thus subsidize top-heavy administrations.

Graduate teaching assistantships, internships, and mentorships are designed to use inexpensive or free labor under the protocols of the medieval guild.

One reason that tuition is sky-high is because behind the facade of “trigger warnings,” “safe spaces,” and “culture appropriation” are costly legions of deputy associate provosts, special assistants to the dean, and race/class/gender “senior strategists” and facilitators (usually former faculty who no longer teach).

The way to ensure student confidence and self-reliance is not through identity-politics courses that emphasize racial, sexual, and religious fault lines.

Few admit that a vastly expanding and politically correct administrative industry reflects a massive shift of resources away from physics, humanities, or biology — precisely the courses that non-traditional students need to become competitive.

One of the great mysteries of American life is nontransparent university admissions. No one knows quite how alumni legacies, deference to college athletics, or poorly defined affirmative action and haphazard diversity criteria actually operate.

At the California State University system — the nation’s largest — nearly 40 percent of incoming students need remediation in math and English after failing basic competency tests. Universities are now scrambling to offer university credit for what are in truth remedial high-school courses, apparently to prevent eager (but entirely unprepared) students from hurt feelings when they butt up against the reality of college classes.

Careerist university administrators more often make the university change to accommodate the student rather than asking the incoming student to prepare to accommodate the time-honored university.

The results are watered-down classes, grade inflation, and student frustration and anger upon learning that entering college is not quite the same as graduating from college.

The way to ensure student confidence and self-reliance is not through identity-politics courses that emphasize racial, sexual, and religious fault lines. Instead, only classes ensuring that students are well trained in writing, speaking, computing, and inductive thinking will give assuredness of achievement — and, with it, self-confidence.

Apart from the sciences and the professional schools, campuses are a bubble of unearned self-congratulation — clueless that they have broken faith with a once-noble legacy of free inquiry and have lost the respect of most Americans.

The now-melodramatic university has become a classical tragedy.


You Gotta Lie

Democrats’ 2020 Chances Look A Lot Like 1972

North Korea’s Nuclear Program & the Trump Administration

— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won, to appear in October from Basic Books. You can reach him by e-mailing © 2017 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Victor Davis Hanson — NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won.

Most Popular

National Security & Defense

Leave McMaster Be

About every two months, there are rumors that Gen. H. R. McMaster might be let go as Trump’s national-security adviser (along with many other stellar appointees). The world, however, is a much more logical and predictable place than it was 14 months ago. We’ve restored ties to the Gulf monarchies; Israel ... Read More
Economy & Business

What Kudlow Got Right in 2007

Lawrence Kudlow’s appointment to be director of the National Economic Council has brought out the critics, who have combed through his copious writings to find every wrong call he has made over the decades. One passage that has come in for some ridicule, though, doesn’t deserve it. Here’s Kudlow, writing ... Read More
Film & TV

Love, Simon Outs Hollywood’s Youth Exploitation

Simon (Nick Robinson), the 17-year-old white gay high-school student in Love, Simon, appears to be a comic version of the protagonist in Moonlight. Rather than blatantly copy that Oscar-winning black-gay-victim film, Love, Simon remakes the pathetic Moonlight in the more marketable guise of a sitcom about a ... Read More

Don’t Bork Gina Haspel

President Donald Trump’s pick for CIA director is about to experience a good Borking. No one doubts her professionalism, and she’s been endorsed by Obama intelligence officials. Yet Gina Haspel’s long career at the agency, including extensive work undercover in the field, is getting blotted out by her ... Read More

On the Virtues of Agreeing to Disagree

In the Washington Post, Chuck Lane makes a thoughtful case for reframing the aims of public discourse: “National unity may be beyond our reach; national cohesion is not.” To achieve this cohesion, Lane suggests that we should lower the stakes of contemporary political debates by trying to find compromise ... Read More