The political left owns higher education, and has broken it. With rare exception, colleges and universities are dominated by leftists, who should be held accountable for the mess they have made. But if we hope to reform higher education, we need to understand the dynamics at play. In particular, we must realize how administrators have used social justice activism to seize power and to cover for their economic injustices.
It is true that the tuition is too damn high. Working one’s way through college has become difficult or even impossible at many schools, including many of the most prestigious universities. With tuition and expenses in excess of $50,000 a year at elite schools, graduates often graduate with the equivalent of a mortgage. Yet even as tuition costs have shot up, classes are increasingly taught by underpaid adjunct faculty and graduate assistants. Students are paying more to learn from instructors who are paid less, so where does the money go?
Some goes to building projects and campus amenities that cater to well-to-do students who want and can afford a cushy life on campus. Much of it goes to pay for administrative bloat, as exemplified by the University of Michigan and its horde of nearly 100 diversity administrators. It has become normal for a university to have more administrators than full-time faculty. Many of these administrators draw fat salaries and build bureaucratic empires on the backs of instructors who are paid almost nothing for doing the actual work of the university, and students who have taken out exorbitant loans.
Borrowing for education is borrowing for life, as the student loans that fund this exploitation cannot be discharged in bankruptcy. As Michael Brendan Dougherty put it, the government has “made this debt more sacred than marriage”: student loan debt really is “until death.” The schools pocket the money upfront while the feds, who run student loans these days, have ways of getting their money back that even credit card companies lack.
This exploitative system should not be bailed out by boondoggles such as Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren’s plans for free college and student loan bailouts. Her proposal is a naked effort to revive her failing presidential campaign by buying off middle-class voters with subsidies. It is a policy rife with moral hazard that rewards irresponsible lending and borrowing, and will further inflate tuition. It is regressive insofar as it will be deficit-funded—and it will be. The notion that it will be funded by a tax on the very rich is laughable.
Ostensibly, federal student loans enable access to higher education. Practically, they inflate tuition, add burdensome regulations (federal cash comes with federal strings attached), and make higher education into a grift. As Kevin Williamson of National Review put it: “If you make a few gazillion dollars available to finance tuition payments with underwriting standards a little bit lower than those of the average pawn shop, you create a lot of potential tuition inflation…if Uncle Stupid puts a trillion bucks on the table, there are enough smart people at Harvard to figure out a way to pick it up.”
The problem is not that there isn’t enough government money going to higher education; the problem is that there is too much. Warren’s plan of debt forgiveness and free college would only expand the trough of federal cash at which higher education is gorging. Therefore Williamson suggests that we shut off the supply. Without a guaranteed pile of federal money available for every student, colleges and universities would be pressured to cut costs and reduce tuition.
Hopefully the administrative deadwood will bear the brunt of the axe. Those on the right tend to focus their ire on especially egregious cases of professorial insanity or particularly stupid student activists, but these are not the real rot in higher education. Today’s problems are less about radical professors and idiot students than administrative careerists who have given colleges and universities a new spiritual mission in the form of social justice activism.
This reorientation provides administrators a justification for their expanding power, prestige, and privilege. They are no longer the bookkeepers assisting the educational and research missions of higher education. Rather, they are the (well-paid) chaplains of the imperative of social justice and inclusion, now as important to the campus as anything professors do. Mainstream university administrators speak of social justice, diversity, and inclusion in ways that resemble the language conservative Christian colleges use to describe their spiritual purpose.
Positioning social justice concerns at the center of higher education’s mission gives power to the administrators who instigate and evaluate such efforts. Forcing the likes of engineering professors to define and defend their teaching and research in terms of diversity and inclusion is a way to control them. This is why proposals such as abolishing tenure will not fix the problems of campus radicalism. Indeed, administrators would love to be able to more easily fire professors who don’t toe the social justice line. But good luck firing the bias response team.
Of course, many campus administrators do not really believe the social justice creed, but their careers depend on acting like they do. The social justice poses of campus administrators also provide cover for economic injustice, as the true believers excuse careerists for economic injustice in exchange for an alliance on issues of race, gender, and sexuality.
No one wants to be accused of being insensitive to social justice, or insufficiently committed to diversity and inclusion. It would be a career killer. This intimidation ensures that people go along with the campus witch-hunts and inquisitions, and tolerate an expanding apparatus of enforcement, lest they become the next target. The academic cathedrals of the social justice left are full of silent heretics and doubting inquisitors, too afraid to oppose the insanity.
Those who control higher education have built a system of fearful, enforced orthodoxy on top of economic injustice. This provides conservatives an opportunity to offer solutions that reform, rather that propping up, the current failed system. Conservatives can be the champions of economically exploited students and adjunct professors, and of free thought and speech. But we must first understand how social justice activism has become the new religion on campus, and how bloated campus bureaucracy uses it to distract from their parasitism.