In early January, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced the appointment of six new members to the board of trustees of New College, a small, public liberal arts institution in Sarasota, Florida. These appointments feature, among others, conservative education activist Christopher Rufo, Hillsdale College professor Matthew Spalding, and the renowned constitutional scholar Charles Kesler. The announcement came after DeSantis accused institutions of higher learning of imposing “trendy” woke ideologies upon students and marked his administration’s latest attempt at a red-state rebuttal to the leftist orthodoxy that dominates American education.
Something remarkable happened in fifth-century Athens when Socrates set up shop, conversed freely on the things of this world, and followed the truth wherever it would lead. It also happened in 1609 when University of Padua professor Galileo Galilei pointed his telescope at the moon and found that the heavenly orb wasn’t as pure and smooth as everyone said. It happened in America as well when in 1940, the American Association of University Professors issued its “Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure,” which hailed “the free search for truth and its free exposition.”
Conservatives today might be surprised to hear that this principle of independent inquiry and free speech lay, too, at the root of that legendary left-wing declaration known as the Port Huron Statement, primarily authored by Tom Hayden, which regretted that a managerial mindset and business interests had blunted “honest searching” and “the liberating heritage of higher learning,” producing a campus big on conformity and “less open to dissent.”
Now, you may have laughed at that last sentence. The Port Huron Statement dates from 1962, and who would say that the campus has grown more open and free-wheeling since then? Indeed, no group has been less tolerant of dissent than the academic left, neither Christian fundamentalists nor corporate donors who like to see their names on business school buildings. But it is one notable triumph of the left to have pushed certain obvious threats to open inquiry while at the same time persuading centrists of all kinds that those threats are no such thing.
In recent days, I’ve spoken with many journalists covering DeSantis’ appointment of some conservatives to the board of New College of Florida. These journalists, who clearly see themselves as liberals, allegedly support the ideals of free speech and unfettered research. In our conversations, they gave me ample time to lay out the “Ivory Tower” conception.
We had good conversations; they seemed genuinely curious about the facts. I outlined the mechanisms of peer review and the obligation to withhold political opinions when it came to, say, evaluating candidates for hiring/promotion and manuscripts for publication, which I’ve done for two dozen scholarly presses and journals over the years. I said how great it would be to have a Marxist colleague who understood that students needed a good general education before politics entered in, could detail what Marx said about “commodity fetishism,” and liked to argue over lunch with a conservative like me.
The journalists nodded in agreement, and it felt good to describe some behind-the-scenes protocols that are essential to academia but veiled from the public. When I turned, however, to the greatest current danger to that approach, the most common instrument of political coercion that squarely violates academic norms, my interviewees were a bit quiet, perplexed, and perhaps nervous. I meant, of course, the so-called diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives that nearly every institution in America implements with religious fervor.
In the controversy over New College, the critical question has been whether right-wing trustees will suppress the work of professors and students, imposing a political agenda on a functioning academic enterprise that deserves hands-off respect. It was brought up in all my interviews, usually by reference to Rufo’s ambition to bring classical education to the curriculum. After explaining to them that one duty of a trustee is to ensure that teaching and research practices at an institution accord with the academic mission (in the same way that a trustee of an estate prevents malfeasance), I put the question of politicization back at them: How is equity not a political trespass on academic grounds?
They didn’t answer but invited me to elaborate. The problem is simple: Equity requires proportionate representation of diverse identity groups. It is a preordained goal that tips the scales of judgment, weighs the evidence before it comes in, and compromises the inquirer/evaluator. If I review a manuscript for a journal and I’m told that the journal needs to publish more scholars of color, I answer, “Whatever, but that can’t play a role in my assessment.” If I accept an identity factor, I’ve lost some of my academic freedom. The same could be said for inclusion, which jeopardizes acts of discrimination on which academia depends.
This is obvious. DEI is a form of social engineering that cannot coexist with “the free search for truth and its free exposition.” If a DEI officer tells an academic department that in its next job search, the interview list of 12 must be at least 50 percent female regardless of qualification, a trustee who hears about it is duty-bound to call for an investigation. If a school drops standardized testing from admissions because of racial score gaps and in the name of diversity, the same thing should happen.
Again, this is not a political objection but an academic one. DEI acolytes have politicized academic procedures. Stopping them is a return to the tradition of Socrates, Galileo, and the American Association of University Professors’ statement.
I’m speaking generally here, not about New College. I don’t know what these new trustees will do. If I find that professors make students work hard and read widely while producing excellent work, that sounds good to me whether I agree with their sincerely held political beliefs or not. My concerns are over academic quality, not political ideology.
It is likely, though, that indoctrination isn’t unrelated to poor learning outcomes. DEI is an anti-academic project, as it is anti-intellectual and illiberal in its goals and methods. The more colleges add resources to it, the less it focuses on the real job of higher learning, and the more our youths are inclined to believe that correct political attitudes save them the effort of expanding their knowledge, improving skills, and refining tastes.
Nobody is more confident than a half-educated social justice activist.