Warren Treadgold’s The University We Need: Reforming America’s Higher Education will offend, alarm, and concern its readers. In this it is like many recent critiques of academia. Where Treadgold differs is that he is bold enough to offer an original, if idiosyncratic, solution to the problems he sees.
His audacious proposal is that this nation needs another elite university to serve Americans who dissent from fashionable leftist politics and postmodern scholarly nihilism. An elite university where first-rate conservative, moderate, and heterodox scholars could gather to provide more traditionally inclined students a world-class education — and produce high-quality research that fosters genuine viewpoint diversity while being taken seriously by other academics.
Treadgold is a scholar of the Byzantine period who admits that his is an unfashionable speciality among modern historians. He has been a member of the professoriate for four decades, with appointments at high-profile institutions as well as less prestigious ones. Treadgold’s diverse experiences and unique viewpoint make him a trenchant observer of the general state of the modern academy, and one who can offer an unvarnished and brutal diagnosis of its various maladies. He has watched the humanities slide into disrepute and irrelevance, seen students flee the liberal arts in droves while professors transform their specialties into narrow sectarian campaigns.
Over the past decade attitudes toward academia have grown sharply polarized, with conservative Americans becoming increasingly distrustful. But while Treadgold views the world from a broadly conservative perspective, his book is not a takedown of ideological enemies. He is a member of the National Association of Scholars and Heterodox Academy, both of which attempt to protect and encourage ideological dissent. But he does not see in either organization a long-term solution for the problems of academia, as the issues transcend those of academic freedom.
Treadgold believes that conservative philanthropists would do better founding a new institution, rather than trying to change a system he sees as beyond repair. But he does not flatter the self-styled conservative academic institutions we already have. Treadgold pointedly observes that colleges which swim against the dominant leftist tide are neither eminent nor influential. He does not see in these institutions the building blocks of an academic renaissance and a flourishing of learning. His ultimate aim is to encourage genuine scholarship, not the furtherance of a particular politics. The fact remains that the most original and impactful research is conducted at elite institutions dominated by a counter-cultural ethos. The American elite is educated disproportionately at these institutions, including Treadgold’s alma mater, Harvard.
Thus his proposal for a new university that is not self-consciously conservative, and that competes directly with academia’s top tier.
Treadgold has clearly given a great deal of thought to the details of this idea. Not only does he propose a location (the suburbs of Washington, D.C., to be near a center of power), but he has suggestions for the layout of the campus quadrangle, the character of the food in the cafeteria, and the university’s official stances on cultural touchstones such as free speech and gender.
The proposal to found a new elite university is a big idea to tackle the issue of intellectual conformity in the academy.
But The University We Need is not fundamentally an ideological work. Many a Marxist literature professor will agree with Treadgold’s contention that modern university administrations are a major reason these institutions no longer serve the students in a manner that fosters their love of scholarship, instead enabling their leisure at on-site rock-climbing gymnasiums and stylish cafés. Many of the ailments of the modern university, from its fixation on grand building projects to the employment of a mass of underpaid temporary lecturers, Treadgold lays at the feet of administrators, who have different interests from working academics.
Students do not evade Treadgold’s glare, either. The interests of most students as consumers is in credentialing with minimum effort. Whereas universities in the ideal exist to train students to think critically and deeply about great ideas, many on campus now view them as outfits that exist to certify their customers as worthy of employment. The University We Need takes an almost farcical detour into the world of “Rate My Professors,” a website that guides students to the easiest-grading instructors.
The relationship between students and their professors highlights one of the major corruptions of modern academia: The most beloved instructors in the eyes of students may not be the best. Professors who teach sexy topics (e.g., “human sexuality”) and criticize gently, if at all, receive accolades, despite the likelihood that they leave their charges’ minds as unformed as when they arrived.
The University We Need differs from a standard conservative critique of the academy in large part because it does not flinch from non-ideological aspects of corruption. Treadgold asserts that a minority of tenured professors at top research universities don’t do much research at all, while at other universities and colleges the figure is likely a majority. My own personal experience and impression of academic science is that this is correct. Unlike some, Treadgold contends that original research is critical in sharpening one’s faculties in teaching, so that professors can remain engaged in contemporary scholarship.
The proposal to found a new elite university is a big idea to tackle the issue of intellectual conformity in the academy. But The University We Need proposes a range of smaller ideas to address other issues. To discourage universities from taking in too many graduate students for the job market, academic or otherwise, Treadgold proposes a national board to review dissertations and rate them by quality. This would provide strong signals as to the quality of the education offered in each department. To deal with the issue of low-quality and derivate scholarship, The University We Need suggests an academic honesty board. Other fixes would include capping the proportion of funds that could be allocated to administrative costs, as well as denying loans to students who are clearly unequipped for higher education.
The efficacy of this plan remains to be determined, but without reform, we are hurtling toward the expiration of the ancient scholarly traditions of the West.
National boards and kludgy regulations may seem like heavy-handed fixes. But they would at least train the spotlight on the non-ideological sclerosis at the heart of contemporary academia. Treadgold’s descriptions of top-heavy administrations, intellectually incurious students, and complacent tenured faculty ring true to anyone who has recent experience in academia. The conservative critique that universities are bastions of leftist cultural politics is correct, but also well-known. Similarly, a leftist critique that institutions with billion-dollar endowments are nothing but hedge funds with educational nonprofits attached seems broadly correct, but the academic elite’s connection to finance is well-known too. More important and valuable is that The University We Need exposes the incentives and corruptions in academia that are degrading its ability to achieve its raison d’être, the furtherance of human understanding and creativity.
Treadgold makes it clear that his concern is not so much that the university is ideologically blinkered, but rather that an ideologically blinkered university cannot give rise to brilliance and genius. Radical egalitarianism by its nature discourages excellence. Similarly, a university that views students as consumers of goods and services will never foster a Renaissance, because cultural efflorescence relies on values beyond production and efficiency. Administrators whose legacies are spectacular athletic facilities and liquid endowments have alchemically transformed the university into a different entity altogether.
The University We Need is a clarion call to revive a tradition of Western institutional scholarship dating back 1,000 years, with roots as deep as the Academy in Athens. It follows a recent tradition of diagnosing the ailments of academia, but importantly offers remedies ranging from bold to modest. The efficacy of this plan remains to be determined, but without reform, we are hurtling toward the expiration of the ancient scholarly traditions of the West.
Editor’s Note: This piece has been emended since its original posting.
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