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Reforming Our Universities May Be the Top Challenge of Our Century

In the past few weeks, a crack has opened in American academia, exposing a poison that undermines the very ideals of higher education: political ideology.
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December 11, 2023
Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images

“There is a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in,” Leonard Cohen famously wrote in his sublime song, “Anthem.”

In the past few weeks, a crack has opened in American academia, exposing a poison that undermines the very ideals of higher education: political ideology.

What finally cracked the institutional ice was the congressional testimony heard around the world. Presidents of Ivy League universities, who bend over backward to protect minority groups from the tiniest microaggression, suddenly unraveled and equivocated when asked to protect Jewish students from antisemitic attacks. The double standard was so brazen, the ideological bias so blatant, it triggered an instant backlash from all corners.

Even a left-leaning network like CNN got into the act.

“America’s top universities should abandon their long misadventure into politics, retrain their gaze on their core strengths and rebuild their reputations as centers of research and learning,” CNN host Fareed Zacharia asserted on his weekly show, in a clip that quickly went viral.

Writing in The Free Press, historian Niall Ferguson further opened the crack.

“For nearly ten years,” he wrote, “I have also witnessed the willingness of trustees, donors, and alumni to tolerate the politicization of American universities by an illiberal coalition of ‘woke’ progressives, adherents of ‘critical race theory,’ and apologists for Islamist extremism.”

Many other prominent voices are speaking up. Beyond the obvious issue of antisemitism, the need to reform our universities is becoming a fundamental, national challenge. It’s hard to imagine a more urgent and consequential conversation for the future of our country.

Will the initial cracks lead to real change? Who knows. For now, my sense is that the issue is not going away any time soon. Too much light has already slipped through.

Let’s remember, for starters, that we’re dealing with America’s most hallowed institution. For a great majority of Americans, a college education is still viewed with awe. It has been integral to the American dream. Immigrants from around the world land on our shores to partake in the college dream. Damage the reputation of our universities and you damage America’s soul.

The other reason this issue has staying power is clarity. The fact that political ideology, whether from the left or right, undermines education is really not up for debate. How could it not undermine the search for truth?

It’s one thing, though, when political bias turns things like late-night comedy talk shows into predictable snoozefests; it’s quite another when it poisons the most elevated institution in our society.

How did it get so bad?

Among other things, we tolerated the progressive bias for so long because it fit the values of our mainstream institutions, from Hollywood to the legacy media. It helped, also, that the moral lingo lulled everyone to sleep. Who’s against diversity? Who’s against a safe space? Who’s against racial justice?

The net effect is that universities, as long as they kept going in the “right” direction, got a free ride. Yes, there were pushbacks, but these have lacked teeth and have been few and far between. Everyone in academia, from the faculty to the administrators to the leadership to even the students, have had an incentive to toe the progressive party line.

But what began with idealistic cliches soon morphed into a runaway train of pervasive progressive dogma backed by ever-expanding bureaucracies. Like addicts, the powers that be gorged on the power and the dogma. It was never enough. Something had to give.

The massacre of 1200 Israelis on October 7 changed everything.

The horror of the attacks, the mass rapes, the burning of families alive, the mutilation of bodies, the murder of babies in front of their parents, the taking of infants and elderly as hostages, every aspect of the atrocity shattered the pro-Israel community. It went from having a short fuse to having no fuse. Anything less than utter and unequivocal condemnation of the Hamas savagery was seen with suspicion.

Then the impossible happened: Things got even worse.

Even before Israel retaliated, a bullying movement began across college campuses defending Hamas, blaming Israel and intimidating Jewish students. In other words, Jewish students saw 1200 of their own brethren murdered in Israel and they became the bad guys. They became the ones who were afraid. That bewildering and cruel timing— terrifying Jews when they deserved maximum empathy—took the outrage to a stratospheric level.

It’s a straight line from that outrage to the congressional debacle with Ivy League presidents to the current demands to reform our universities. It’s not just that the presidents’ performances were lame; it’s that the context was the worst Jewish tragedy since the Holocaust. It is that extreme context, and that extreme outrage, that have fueled the relentless efforts from influential donors, alumni and other activists to finally “do something” about our universities.

It won’t be easy.

“It will take a lot more than a few high-profile resignations to reform the culture of America’s elite universities,” Ferguson writes. “It is much too entrenched in multiple departments, all dominated by a tenured faculty, to say nothing of the armies of DEI and Title IX officers who seem, at some colleges, now to outnumber the undergraduates.”

Something else, however, is also entrenched and highly visible: the insidious Jew hatred. As long as that hatred continues to proliferate and threaten Jewish students, exposing the hypocrisy of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) bureaucracy, which is anything but inclusive, the need to reform academia will stay on the national radar. How ironic if a massacre in the Zionist state ends up triggering the reform of American universities.

The task will be monumental for the same reason the political bias has been entrenched: We’re dealing with ideology, and ideology is emotional and visceral. If you believe you own the truth– whether about Western colonialism or white patriarchy or anti-racism or intersectionality or critical race theory or Zionist oppression or the violence of speech– there is no room for other truths. Instead of a marketplace of ideas, the campus becomes a canvas on which to paint your exclusive vision of how things should be.

The good news is that an alternate blueprint is under way in the city of Austin, Texas. The fledgling University of Austin (UATX), which we profiled in the Journal a few months ago and is now accepting applications for its inaugural Fall 2024 class, is starting with a blank slate that promotes the “fearless pursuit of truth.”

On its website, you see the kind of language that is the very antidote to ideological bias: “Dare to think,” “we champion academic freedom,” “we are committed to liberal education,” “we aspire to innovate,” “we practice wisdom,” “we reward excellence.”

To what extent they will fulfill those ideals is not as important as the fact that they have articulated them in the first place. Indeed, those ideals represent the ideals of America; they are the rays of light that are pushing through the cracks, begging to be seen by those who have the power to change things.

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