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American Universities Are On A Death Spiral, And We Should Help Them Along

Everyone knows college campuses have been ideological cesspits for years, but the Oct. 7 response is our chance to burn them to the ground.


On March 9, 2023, the Stanford Law School chapter of the Federalist Society invited Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals judge Kyle Duncan to give a talk on campus. Duncan’s conservative and pro-life views aroused the ire of a mob of student demonstrators, who showed up to disrupt the event with signs bearing messages including, “Judge Duncan Can’t Find the Clit.” Protesters repeatedly shouted down Duncan as he tried to give his speech; one yelled at him, “We hope your daughters get raped!”

Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Tirien Steinbach soon arrived on the scene. Instead of attempting to restore order, Steinbach gave a long, hectoring lecture to Duncan, suggesting that his speech “literally denies the humanity of people,” and asking, “Is the juice worth the squeeze?”

This was not a group of undergraduates at some third-rate college protesting an inflammatory conservative partisan like Milo Yiannopoulos (although, to be sure, even provocateurs have free speech rights). This was an assemblage of law students, most well into their mid-twenties or older, at one of the top law schools in the nation, speaking to a well-regarded member of the federal judiciary. The students who shouted down Judge Kyle Duncan are our future legal luminaries, our next generation of judges and law professors.

Now in light of the recent spate of anti-Israel protests on campus, a great many of the left-wing voices who did not raise a finger to stand up for Kyle Duncan, or 100 others like him, have suddenly decided the juice is worth the squeeze. They are now willing to accept the principle that the emotional discomfort caused to Jewish students by anti-Israel and, in more than a few cases, openly pro-Hamas and antisemitic protests on campus is an acceptable sacrifice for the benefits of a vigorous public discussion on a current geopolitical matter.

A principled defender of free speech will, of course, stand up for all kinds of free expression, including that of ideas he may find abhorrent. The First Amendment does indeed protect anti-Israel, and even antisemitic, speech, although it does not protect trespassing, harassment, or violence. And yet the types of speech which one will enthusiastically stand up for, and those which one will reluctantly and reservedly stand up for, reveal a lot about one’s priorities. After decades of throwing up roadblocks to prevent conservative speakers from coming to campus, administrators on these campuses have finally found a form of free speech they will ardently defend: the right to call for the genocide of Jews.

Where’s the Return on the Investment?

The federal government gives $149 billion annually to American universities, including “private” ones such as Harvard. This is far more than we give in foreign aid to Ukraine, or Israel for that matter. For the American taxpayer, this juice is no longer worth the squeeze. American universities are no longer serving the noble societal purpose for which they were intended, and it is time they stop receiving federal funds.

The case for public funding of universities is straightforward: By investing in the human capital of bright young minds, we stand to collectively benefit, both economically and non-economically. Educated citizens possess valuable practical skills that tangibly improve our quality of life. In a less easily quantifiable sense, citizens who have been educated in the Western tradition, whose minds have been elucidated and refined by exposure to the works of great thinkers, and the systems of thought they pioneered, are well-situated to provide the moral leadership of the future.

This is why, in Plato’s Apology, when Socrates stood trial for corrupting the youth of Athens, he audaciously proposed that, instead of being sentenced to death, he should be rewarded with “maintenance in the Prytaneum” — that is, free meals so he could philosophize on the public dime. By educating the citizenry, Socrates was performing a vital societal function, and it is this presupposition on which the public modern university is based.

An ideologically committed economic libertarian would oppose any public funding of higher education on principle. My sympathies are with this camp, but one does not even need to share this view to appreciate my argument. For those who take a more pragmatic approach, the question becomes a straightforward, if not always simple, one of cost versus benefit. And by any standard, the great universities of this nation no longer provide us anything like the sort of benefit we would expect for our collective investment.

Molding Morons, Not Luminaries

The universities do not uphold the Western tradition. They openly spurn it. Unlike Socrates, they do not produce new generations of Platos and Aristotles. Instead, they churn out morons who spout half-baked slogans about colonialism and oppression. There are no luminaries emerging from these exalted institutions. It is insane for any nation to fund its own destroyers, and many students of our top universities openly hate America. This is no secret conspiracy. They will say so if you ask them, explaining in elaborate (albeit erroneous) detail how our nation is built on “stolen land” and “the backs of slaves.”

These protesters’ hatred of Israel should be alarming to all patriotic Americans, whatever we may think about the current conflict. It is primarily an outgrowth of their hatred for America and the West, of which they correctly see Israel as an outpost. Upon graduation, these products of elite colleges, bolstered by the skills they have learned and the connections they have made, quickly embed themselves in every major institution in the country: entertainment, media, law, science, and business.

It would be a mistake to deny that our universities provide any benefit at all. Even now, many of our top campuses can still offer a world-class education in the STEM fields. And much of the federal funding for higher education admittedly goes to legitimate scientific and technological research, not to the objectionable departments. Yet even this targeted aid frees up other money to be funneled to far-left disciplines. Revoking the funding would force universities to prioritize: Do we jettison physics and biology? Or lesbian dance theory and jihad studies?

In any case, science can hardly function in a culture where the ideological framework undergirding scientific rationality has been eroded by postmodernist ideology. These technical skills are only positive when utilized in pursuit of the good. In an immoral society, they are useless or actively harmful. It was the Western tradition that led to the great technological advances we enjoy, and they cannot be sustained if that tradition is eradicated.

These campuses, as most of us know all too well, have been ideological cesspits for years. In 2020, as America burned from the Mostly Peaceful Protests, presidents of top universities fell over themselves in their efforts to see who could most obsequiously heap praise on Black Lives Matter. But the rot goes back even further, to the violent student revolts of the 1960s. This era, unfairly valorized in the public memory, has become the campus radicals’ Finest Hour, to which all their subsequent demonstrations hark back. Many of the current anti-Israel protests have, indeed, been quite open about the fact that they are coasting on nostalgia for the Vietnam-era antiwar movement.

However, the Oct. 7 response may have been a meaningful turning point. To see students, and even some professors, at major American institutions justifying a brutal Islamic terror attack against civilians was a bridge too far for many. It did not surprise anyone who had been paying attention, particularly since 2020 during the university-sanctioned Black Lives Matter riots, but it surprised a good number of casual observers. Now is the time to capitalize on the public discontent and take the final step.

There is a risk that defunding these universities will push them further into the hands of foreign donors, including those from openly hostile nations such as China, with fewer scruples about funding anti-American ideology. Well, let them. If the institutions are going to embark on a death spiral, it is our job to help them along.

Campuses such as the Ivy Leagues, with their storied centuries-old history, should optimally be salvaged and rededicated to their laudable mission, but if they cannot, then scuttling them will suffice. Perhaps something new can be built on their ashes. At best, the threat of losing their federal funds can be used to scare these universities straight.

To defund the universities at present, with Democrats controlling the White House and Senate, is of course a pipe dream. But one day, whether in 2025 or later, Republicans will again have tripartite control. When they do, they should not for a moment forget just how much damage the universities have done America, and they should make defunding them a top legislative priority. We cannot afford to wait any longer.

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