The Corner


Wean Colleges Off Federal Funding

James Patterson has written an able — if quite arguable — commentary on my dispute with Stanley Kurtz on what’s wrong with higher education and what can be done to make things better.

This, is of course, a friendly dispute. And I agree with Stanley completely that the higher-education establishment has become in certain crucial ways an enemy of authentic human freedom in our country.

It is also a timely dispute, insofar as many are joining Stanley in urging President Trump and the Republican Congress to declare war on our institutions — and especially our elite colleges and universities — of higher education.

The defenders of this approach rightly say that the key precedents were set by the Obama and even George W. Bush administrations. It was Bush’s secretary of education, Margaret Spellings, who demanded that accrediting agencies become obsessed with the details of the accreditation process, forcing accreditation to become considerably more intrusive — a problem that morphed into an opportunity for our establishment educational administrators. And it was under Obama that the Department of Education began writing menacing “Dear Colleague” letters that went far beyond anything the law actually said.

As in the case of executive orders, we should regard these as precedents Republicans should reject.

You might respond: The federal government gives colleges and universities lots of money, and so regulations are appropriate. And surely colleges and universities should be made to protect academic freedom. I don’t think that can be done effectively. Endless attempts at effective oversight would ensue, with inconclusive results. Well, I’m for individuals relying on litigation — our courts — to defend academic freedom in particular cases, just as I’m for genuinely liberal public intellectuals and experts showing how weasly and insincere the statements of behalf of said freedom are at places such as the American Association of Colleges and Universities.

Plus: I doubt that intrusive bureaucracies ever serve the “moral good.” Consider the ways the Democrats were trying to script our institutions. And Trump was elected to preserve the freedom of our countercultural religious institutions of all kinds. His futile attempt to discipline Middlebury would produce a more than compensatory boomerang when the Democrats come back to power, which is inevitable and probably sooner rather than later.

To repeat myself once more: I’m for libertarian means for non-libertarian ends. That means I’m for weaning our colleges off federal money — slowly, and with due attention to issues of accessibility. Meanwhile, I’m particularly interested in Republicans setting as many deregulatory precedents as possible.

Our elite institutions are going to continue to be what they are, and they can’t be saved by government. If you don’t like them, there are plenty of other choices. It’s not like they really give the best education in our land in the social sciences and humanities. And if you’re a science/STEM nerd, you can just ignore all the silliness from the rest of the campus.

Peter Augustine Lawler — Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College. He is executive editor of the acclaimed scholarly quarterly Perspectives on Political Science and served on President George ...

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