WSJ | Alan Charles Kors | May. 27, 2008
The academic world that I first encountered was one of both intellectual beauty and profound flaws. I was taught at Princeton, in the early 1960s—in history and literature, above all—before the congeries that we term “the ’60s” began. Most of my professors were probably men of the left—that’s what the surveys tell me—but that fact was never apparent to me, because, except in rare cases, their politics or even their ideological leanings were not inferable from their teaching or syllabi. Reasoned and informed dissent from professorial devil’s advocacy or interpretation was encouraged and rewarded, including challenges to the very terms of an examination question.
The power of universities comes from their monopoly of credentials. As Richard Vedder so deeply understands in his “Going Broke by Degree,” they are the only institutions allowed to separate young individuals by IQ and by the ability to complete complex tasks. They do not add value to that, except in technical fields. Recruiters do not pay premiums because of what the Ivy League or the flagship state universities teach in English, history, political science, or sociology. They hire there despite, not because of, that. Recruiters do not pay premiums because our children have been sent to multicultural centers for sensitivity training. Recruiters pay premiums for the value already there, which universities merely identify. So long as recruiters pay premiums, however, it is rational for parents who wish to gain the most options for their children to send them to the university with the most prestigious degree. That will not change in the current scheme.
We now have closed-shop, massively subsidized, intolerant political fiefdoms, and they are the gatekeepers of society’s rewards. Without incentives for different models of higher education, we shall have this same system of colleges and universities as far as the mind can foresee. The tax-free mega-endowments will grow. The legislators and the public will not end the subsidy. The alumni will continue their bequests. The trustees will proudly attend the administrative dog-and-pony shows, the most efficient act on any campus. Well-intentioned donors will support ghettoized “centers” (without faculty lines, cross-listed courses, graduate fellowships, or degrees) that marginalize inquiries that should be central to the academy. These provide protective coloration for administrators, help with fund raising in certain quarters, and permit a transfer of funds to the accelerating thirst for ever new forms of regnant campus orthodoxies. Until civil society makes administrators pay a price for the politicized hiring, curriculum and student life offices they administer, nothing truly will be reformed.
In my fantasies, I try to imagine a way to force these academic enterprises to engage in the truth in advertising they claim to value. Let colleges and universities have the courage, if they truly believe what they say privately to themselves and to me, to put it on page one of their catalogues, fundraising letters and appeals to the state assembly: “This University believes that your sons and daughters are the racist, sexist, homophobic, Eurocentric progeny or victims of an oppressive society from which most of them receive unjust privilege. In return for tuition and massive taxpayer subsidy, we shall assign rights on a compensatory basis and undertake by coercion their moral and political enlightenment.” It won’t happen.
One still can protect a few individuals and keep a hint of pluralism alive by means of honest exposure, shame and ridicule, but this is work—vital and moral, and an end in itself—that affects only the margins. The sad bottom line is that there are no incentives for administrators to offer a different product, such as a niche of high-quality education, equal treatment, liberty and merit. Parents invest understandably in the value of degrees, not in the quality of curriculum and faculty.
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