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A New Private University may be needed that reflects intellectual opinions

Jul 7

Written by: Del Meyer
07/07/2018 7:49 AM 

‘The University We Need’ Review: Rethinking College

A new private university may be needed, one that reflects the intellectual opinions of a spectrum of educated Americans outside academe.

John Leo | WSJ, | July 18, 2018 reviews
“The University We Need” | by Warren Treadgold.

Higher education is in a lot of trouble, barely kept on track by massive price increases, grade inflation that keeps the mostly inattentive customers sedated, and a class of academic serfs, called adjuncts, who work for meager wages. The adjunct system is telltale: a classic bait-and-switch operation, wherein customers—that is, students and their parents—imagine that, for the money they are paying, they are accessing professors though they are mostly renting local substitutes.

And what does the money buy? The most detailed and rigorous research project aimed at measuring how much college students learn concluded, in essence, “not much,” in part because students don’t study. That finding—revealed in the 2011 book “Academically Adrift,” by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa—caused a brief stir, but university administrators basically ignored the news and kept on their wayward course.

In “The University We Need,” Warren Treadgold, a professor of Byzantine studies and history at Saint Louis University, offers his own assessment of what ails America’s colleges and universities and ponders what might be done to improve them—if anything can indeed be done. While acknowledging the financial burdens of higher education—even if the average price for a public college education could be cut by a third, $50,000 is still far too much to pay for students not to learn anything”—and many other problems, he focuses on the corrosive effects of identity politics. 

In recent years, Mr. Treadgold argues, the campus left has tightened its grip on college and universities. The tighter the grip, he says, the simpler the message—that Western civilization, including the history of the American republic, is a long narrative of oppression. The essence of the humanities has thus been transformed into the study of victim groups and their supposed oppressors—capitalism, colonialism, religious belief, “privilege”—at the expense of other subjects. Relatedly, the demand for “diversity” now drives the curriculum, not to mention the admissions process.

One result of this approach has been, Mr. Treadgold says, a growing intolerance toward traditional points of view—including incidents of confrontation and virtual censorship. Another is a growing anti-white sentiment. Arguably, the sentiment was latent in the early stages of identity-politics protests, but it has become overt in recent years, with attacks on “white privilege” and courses deriding “white culture.” Some college teachers have adopted “progressive stacking” in class, calling on students by racial and gender category in a predetermined order with women of color first and white males last.

At the same time, college administrators have often been unwilling to penalize disrupters and censors or to defend scholars attacked for stepping outside the left consensus. One pertinent example, though not one cited by Mr. Treadgold: Bruce Gilley, a political science professor at Portland State, wrote a peer-reviewed article in 2017 for Third World Quarterly titled “The Case for Colonialism.” The reaction: a storm of criticism and even death threats; the resignation, in protest, of 15 members of the journal’s editorial board; and two petitions signed by more than 16,000 academics and others demanding that the journal retract the article. In the event, the article was withdrawn with Mr. Gilley’s consent. Portland State has spent months investigating him over the article. From the classroom and campus to scholarly journals, an orthodoxy is decided upon and enforced.

So what is to be done? Senior professors and retiring presidents of august universities churn out books on our beleaguered colleges and universities without coming close to an original idea for reform. Often they settle on some favorite old idea, such as eliminating tenure or offering a bachelor’s degree in three years instead of four, neither of which would help much. The “no college” movement, ignited by Peter Thiel’s offer of $100,000 to selected students who (as he puts it) “want to build new things instead of sitting in a classroom,” is gaining admirers. And Bryan Caplan’s recent book, “The Case Against Education”—arguing that a college degree is often not worth the price—has been well reviewed and much discussed.

Mr. Treadgold thinks that a new private university may be needed, not an explicitly right-wing one but one that reflects the intellectual opinions of a spectrum of educated Americans outside academe. When Leland Stanford founded Stanford University in the 1880s, Mr. Treadgold notes, he possessed a considerable fortune, though it would be too small in today’s dollars to put him on the Forbes 400. A lot of even wealthier donors are now available, and many of them are troubled by universities’ hostility to free speech, capitalism, religion and traditional education. A gift of $1 billion, he believes, would trigger the rest of the donations needed to launch such a university. A planning group could seek and find roughly 1,000 good scholars willing to join the faculty. The college itself need not, he says, be larger than Princeton—i.e., about 5,000 undergraduates.

Other universities are bogged down worrying about “elitism” and the need for diversity and “inclusiveness.” The new university would just try to be the best in the nation—offering a substantial curriculum untainted by mandatory leftism. But Mr. Treadgold thinks the time is short—in 20 years or so, he says, it may be difficult or impossible to find 1,000 first-rate scholars in the U.S. At the moment, founding a new university may seem like a fantasy. But if things get worse—and they will—it may well come to look like the only obvious option.

Mr. Leo is the founder and editor of Minding the Campus, a digital magazine that aims to bring intellectual diversity to public and private campuses.

Appeared in the July 19, 2018, WSJ, print edition as ‘Rethinking College.’

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