Higher Ed Reform in Red States

More of the same is not enough

Proposals to reform higher education have been bubbling around since William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale (1951). As conservatives have founded organizations like ACTA and National Association of Scholars to reform our increasingly ideological, incompetent universities, things have only gotten worse.

The Left now holds these institutions with an iron grip. Administrators and faculty on the Left control budgets, policies, supervisory powers, professional standards, hiring, promotion, curriculum, and student life. They credential those who can serve in universities. Administrators are products of the system. Faculty self-select those within the system. Pay is great. Security is good. Accountability is affirming.

Leftist control comes in the form of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) policies. As I show elsewhere, diversity policies involve racial preferences for faculty positions and student admissions so that more minorities and fewer “oppressors” are on campus. Inclusion policies concern favoring some forms of speech (anti-white and anti-Western, for instance) and associations (LGBTQ graduations) while disfavoring other forms of speech (any speech that challenges the DEI hegemony on campus).

Opponents of DEI have, reasonably enough, responded to it by banning racial preferences and seeking to protect free speech on campus. Even where they have banned racial preferences and protected free speech, however, the net effect of such policies has been pitifully ill-suited to reign in the DEI regime as it has burrowed into universities. Partly this is because universities evade the bans with creative hiring and admissions practices. Free speech policies do nothing to stop universities from using anti-discrimination laws or administrative machinations to punish dissenters. 

Despite the failures, reformers continue to demand more effective bans on racial preferences or better policies on free speech. Even many critics of DEI at Stanford’s recent conference on academic freedom bristled at the idea of using state power to wrest control of universities away from the Left or to dictate what universities should do. This lays bare the real issue, namely that reformers are fighting an asymmetrical battle against forces appealing to values that their opponents explicitly reject. Free speech and banning racial preferences do not stop DEI advocates from transforming universities into ideological monoliths. 

DEI advocates see universities as fundamentally missional and moral, implementing a set of core values that sow identity politics into the institutional fabric of modern universities. This is the reigning higher education regime. Years ago, the impetus for this moral transformation came from below, as entire disciplines from sociology to literary studies were won over to gender, race and class analysis. Today, the impetus comes more from university administrators who seek to ensure universities manifest DEI dogmas. Administrators have slowly brought more colleges and departments under their sway through training, DEI statements, DEI programming, and radical changes in curriculum and through “inclusion” policies that prohibit or stigmatize faculty against DEI.

As a result, increasing numbers of graduates leave modern universities convinced that the country is irredeemably racist, that our civilization is despicable, that a global patriarchy peddles love and motherhood as tools that oppress women, that the world is simply matter in motion, that gender is simply a social construct. Without attachment to a just order, hopes for decent family life, or a love of God, graduates come to celebrate their “independent” identities, while conforming to the deadening dogmas of DEI.

Conventional DEI critics answer this vision by embracing an open-ended classical liberal framework of rights. All views should be heard. All should really be welcomed on campus. Jobs and seats should be allocated on merit. And the truth will win out.

Free inquiry and meritocracy are indeed indispensable to well-functioning modern universities. Such values, however, always serve a higher end. DEI advocates are not attacking the idea of merit; they forward a new idea of merit, involving conformity to DEI principles. Same with free inquiry. For DEI advocates, inquiry is only free if it liberates supposedly oppressed minorities from the shackles of tradition and reason and shuts down or reinterprets the voices of that tradition. Our DEI-infused universities pursue excellence—just of a new kind called “inclusive excellence.” Conservative critics simply cannot join the moral battle against this DEI regime while remaining trapped within an open-ended framework of rights.

In this sense, appeals to free inquiry and meritocracy are distractions from the ongoing battle over the content of such ideals. Reformers pursue solutions based in narrow policy-wonkery and based on wishful thinking, that even if all its policy fixes were instantly implemented not much would change. This is the definition of political defeat. Conservatives (Christian colleges are not immune) especially have proven tongue-tied and disarmed, apologizing that they “favor diversity” (of course) and want to be as welcoming as the next guy.

Only governmental and private efforts to stigmatize and destroy our current educational establishment and replace them with a competitive, patriotic moral model suitable for a great country can work. As Richard Lowery of the University of Texas at Austin said at the Stanford Conference, “we need to tarnish the brand [of modern universities] to where we replace it with something else.”

Most of America’s most prestigious private universities and academic disciplines are past the point of no return. They cannot be reformed with their current personnel. Legislatures must make serious efforts to wrest universities away from the academic Left. Put yourself in the place of the Texas legislature charged with making laws and regulations for University of Texas at Austin, one of the most DEI-infused, fanatical universities in the country, for instance. What could be done?

Critics of DEI must move from “reform” to “stigmatize” and “reconquer.”  Stigmatizing may be difficult, but it starts with laying out the facts about how far DEI has conquered universities and why it is bad. As Lowery recognizes (at 7:30), “if we really work on tarnishing the brand [of higher ed], we could get the brand to look like Phillip Morris.” Because it is like the cigarette- peddling Phllip Morris. Such stigmatizing is a prerequisite for accomplishing institutional re-capture.

First, as late as 1960, only 8% of the country went to college. The United States should move toward 8% from its current 46%. States and professional agencies should encourage paths to work around higher ed, so that they do not have a credentialing monopoly on tomorrow’s professional class. Licensing requirements should be liberalized. Credentialing demands for promotion and salary increases in public sector jobs should be eliminated. Professions like school teaching and accountancy should not require college degrees; rather, as many professions as possible should, like lawyering but on a broader scale, establish apprenticeship-like tracks to credential new professionals.

Second, the legislature should heighten efforts to reform, exacting punitive personal costs to those charged with carrying out UT’s DEI mission. Legislatures could ban racial preferences. They could adopt the University of Chicago Free Speech principles, the Kalven report banning political and social action among university employees, the Shils report on excellence in university hiring, and campus free speech policies generally. This is the typical reformist play. However, the kicker would be to make university personnel civilly liable for violations of such policies (i.e., no sovereign immunity) and to allow for private causes of action that could be brought by anyone, with steep penalties. Make those who would implement DEI policies pay a steep price for allowing the heckler’s veto or hiring on the basis of racial preferences or using their government offices for political purposes. These causes of action are not intended to reign in DEI. They should weaken and stigmatize the DEI mission, all the easier to defeat it. Model legislation allowing for generous causes of action is available here.

Third, stigmatizing should involve denying public funds to universities informed by the new vision of “inclusive excellence.” Perhaps such efforts can begin small, with proscriptions on public funding to university-level DEI offices or DEI-infused degree programs like Queer Studies. They might grow to end public funding to thoroughly politicized and sometimes dying disciplines like social work, sociology, English and history. Actions could be taken to ensure that such departments or colleges lose their accreditation too. It is painful perhaps to recognize the utter corruption of these disciplines, especially for those who love and respect the Western tradition, but whatever may be worth saving is not reproducing itself. We live in a world of Literature Lost.

Generally, a Texas legislature should starve the DEI beast, through combinations of lower tuitions, tighter budgets with targeted DEI cuts, general budget cuts, and mandated program prioritization. An activist review board would audit universities for compliance.

At the same time, legislatures should begin efforts to divide and conquer. General education, often harmful at most universities, should be abolished and left to high schools or their equivalents. Where there are today four general universities with each offering humanities, social sciences, hard sciences and business, there should be four universities with each one specializing in one such field. One university for humanities. Another university for social sciences. Same for the hard sciences and business. Then let each university rise or fall based on its mission.  The number of English and History majors has been sinking in the past forty years, as each discipline becomes more DEI focused. Let an entire university of such Humanities departments try to make it on its own. If it fails, close it down and sell its campus at a discount rate to a new upstart university with an alternative vision.

Replacements must be missional. Universities that have resisted DEI over the long-haul are, generally, strongly missional places like Hillsdale College, New Saint Andrews College, or Thomas Aquinas College—private colleges all. Each has hired and built curriculum around a strong, clear moral vision distinct from the DEI regime. New green shoots with promise are popping up all around the country, focused on articulating a message different from the DEI emphasis. The closer a college or university is to having an alternative moral vision, the more it must strive to buttress it through intelligent missional administration. Hiring and admission especially must be done with mission-mindedness. They must be willing to forgo today’s Ph.D system for credentialing or at least to qualify its support for such practices. Today’s newly-minted Ph.Ds come from this wrecked and wrecking DEI environment: and they are guilty until proven innocent.

In addition, legislatures can dictate curriculum to universities, though they have long deferred to more expert bodies to determine what should be included in professional standards. In Texas, for instance, the Texas Administrative Code has imposed impressive civics education requirements in American history and government delivered through the general education in Texas universities. Other state systems could follow the lead of Texas. Texas could even tighten up its offerings to make DEI less able to sneak in through the side door of these requirements. 

States will have a difficult time conducting such radical reform if the national government continues a steady stream of funding for universities. Modern universities receive more than $40 billion in research funding annually from the national government. Earmarks sustain universities. Student loan programs sustain universities. Fiscal sanity at the national level seems a long way off. States could require that state universities become grantors of student loans and eschew dependence on the national government wherever it can.  

For too long the Right has sought to save universities from their own excesses. The result has been more and more excesses. The only solution at this point is to stigmatize and destroy, with the hopes that missional universities arise in the place occupied by our institutions of higher ed. Legislatures can play a crucial role in stigmatizing and dishonoring the dishonorable and dishonest practices of today’s universities. They have the tools. They must be willing to use them. And then those from outside today’s higher education blob must build anew. 

*Image Credit: Unsplash

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Scott Yenor

Scott Yenor is Director of State Coalition at the Claremont Institute’s Center for the American Way of Life and a professor of political science at Boise State University. His Recovery of Family Life (Baylor, 2020) is now out in paperback.