Our Failed Colleges: Time to Get Radical

America’s need for a robust higher education system, where students learn to think deeply, engage respectfully, and disagree constructively, is greater than ever.
December 20, 2023
Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

They are now the smirks seen ‘round the world. Three leading university presidents arrogantly, dismissively, explained that Harvard, MIT and UPenn students could freely call “for the genocide of Jews” and it wouldn’t even be a microaggression, “depending on the context.” 

Outsiders think these leaders let their institutions down. Even if you agree that freedom of speech allows people to say awful things, and even if you understand that context matters, their academic callousness and hypocrisy were unforgivable. It was bad enough that the presidents showed no empathy for the many Jewish students who feel threatened by calls for Jewish genocide. But all three institutions have cancelled professors and students for far milder transgressions. In short, this precious presidential “context” actually persecutes speakers when a favored “oppressed” group endures even microaggressions, while suddenly protecting wild speech when targeting those deemed “oppressors,” especially the “privileged” Jews, absorbing their deserved daily quotas of nano-aggressions.

In fact, these ambitious academic pols knew their haughtiness would play well on campus.  The “smirks” revealed that they were appealing to their key constituents, to the anti-colonial professors and Poisoned Ivy bureaucrats who risk turning these centers of learning into moral cesspools of totalitarian indoctrination, especially in the humanities and social sciences.

The smirks were the smirks that helped elect Donald Trump, sure that Representative Elise Stefanik, a mere “deplorable,” could never outsmart them, just like a buffoonish Trump would never win. They were the smirks of those who, as soon as Trump and Ron DeSantis attacked “wokeness,” defined being woke far-too-benignly, as just wanting to treat everyone equally, while simultaneously denying it existed. 

And they were the smirks of the academic racketeers, these gatekeepers guarding access to America’s most cherished credentials, who have executed the greatest bait-and-switch in educational history. Decades ago, it was corrupt enough: Parents paid thousands, thinking they were buying the best teachers for their kids, while we professors were hired based on research skills not classroom effectiveness. Today, parents pay hundreds of thousands, while donors fork over tens of millions, thinking they are buying the best liberal education for their kids, fostering critical thought. However, many professors now are hired based on fealty to one particular ideology, which they impose in the classroom. How odd. Millions of parents collectively pay billions so their children can be bullied into buying an anti-American, Marxist-infused ideology demeaning those who can afford the insane tuition bills these very institutions charge. No wonder this scam’s beneficiaries keep smirking.

And no wonder over 700 Harvard faculty members supported President Claudine Gay and she kept her job, despite doing more reputational damage to Harvard in her short presidency than any of her predecessors in Harvard’s 400-year history, as the donor-activist Bill Ackman bristled. No wonder The Chronicle of Higher Education cheered, saying “the presidents couldn’t answer yes or no,” because “they behaved liked academics” and “that’s a good thing.” Apparently, “their visions … conjure colleges as oases of enlightened society … places where expression does not lead to oppression.”  

The Harvard Corporation didn’t fire Claudine Gay because she is doing what she was hired to do. Her thin scholarly resume is balanced by a thick commitment to the “Anti-Racism” ideology that, like the more popularly-targeted anti-colonial mindset, also rotates on the simplistic, Marxist, oppressed-versus-oppressor axis. 

Note, Anti-Racism is not the same as opposing racism or all bigotry. “Anti-Racism” is the vision Ibram X. Kendi popularized in his blockbuster “How to be an Anti-Racist.” The strategy, propagated now in many leading high schools, let alone universities, stresses outcomes not attitudes, while demanding total submission. Kendi explains: “there is no neutrality in the racist struggle. The opposite of ‘racist’ isn’t ‘not racist.’ It is ‘anti-racist’ … One endorses either the idea of a racial hierarchy as a racist, or racial equality as an anti-racist … One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist. There is no in-between safe space of ‘not racist.’”

Such absolutism pervades Claudine Gay’s post-George Floyd August 20, 2020 memo, recently posted on X by the author C. Bradley Thomson. Serving as dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), Dr. Gay proclaimed: “Our engagement in anti-racist action and the infusion of inclusive practices into all aspects of our teaching and research mission reflect a new sense of institutional responsibility and will require sustained effort over time … The work of racial justice is not a one-time project. We must be relentless, constructively critical, and action-oriented in our pursuit to build the thriving, more equitable FAS we all deserve.” This memo apparently helped propel Gay into Harvard’s presidency.

In the traditional university, her memo’s call for “Inclusive Excellence” would express a subtle blending of two values which most Americans now accept: Keeping standards high while broadening the faculty to incorporate more diverse perspectives and welcome still-highly-qualified but traditionally under-represented minorities. 

Alas, in today’s antiracist university, “inclusive excellence,” works about as well as “meritocratic nepotism.” Especially at the insistence of the multi-billion-dollar DEI (Diversity Equity and Inclusivity) Complex, inclusivity keeps trumping excellence. Hiring committees define professors by the group they belong to not the accomplishments they achieved. It’s the same Manichean oppressed-versus-oppressor mentality that decides that threatening members of certain groups is never acceptable, while menacing others is somehow OK, depending on the context, of course. 

In this struggle, beware cheap victories. Liz Magill of the University of Pennsylvania may have resigned, but the ideological and moral rot runs deeper. A generation of professors now views scholarship as advocacy, treating the lecture podium as a political platform.  This goes far beyond who gets hired or promoted. Most scholarly associations have turned anti-racist, anti-colonial and thus activist. That means that anyone seeking letters of recommendations, searching for jobs or hoping for prizes must embrace the reigning ideology.

The American Sociological Association proclaims: “As a national association, we place value on dismantling power inequalities.” Declaring racism “systemic,” it explains that “Anti-racism education lays bare these systemic inequities, which is a critical step in understanding how to move toward a more just society.” The American Studies Association (ASA), whose bylaws claim that “The association is organized exclusively for education and academic study purposes,” nevertheless had its Executive Committee issue a biased Statement on Gaza. It emphasized that “ASA continues to stand with the Palestinian people and their ongoing struggle for liberation” and “calls on the U.S. to end support of Israeli apartheid and work toward negotiations.” Racializing this national conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, the statement declares:  “Our struggles as Black, Brown and Indigenous peoples are real, and they connect us … The Palestinian struggle is also the struggle for global Black solidarity in our collective liberation.”

Naturally, the National Women’s Studies Association, which has traditionally seen its professors as “feminist educators” working “to transform … the society at large,” and declared in May 2021 that “Palestinian solidarity is a feminist issue,” has silently consented to Hamas’s mass rape. It had no comment about Hamas’s perverse breakthrough in mounting the largest, most-self-publicized, campaign of gendered violence in history on October 7. 

Amid their two recent calls for Israel to end its “genocidal war on Gaza,” these pick-and-choose feminists acknowledged that “violence and war often inflict gendered and sexualized harms on women and queer, trans and non-binary people.” But by Oct. 11, they insisted that “The current escalation must be viewed in the context of decades of illegal Israeli military occupation and systemic violent campaigns in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. To end the violence, its root causes must be addressed.”

These Victimization Olympics help no one, this addiction to grievance must end. The DEI regime should be dismantled, not enhanced. Jews don’t need special status – we all need to return to an academic liberalism that seeks to treat everyone equally as individuals.

In this environment, those fighting Jew-hatred should not lobby for Jews, or even Israelis, to become one of the favored groups, swept up in DEI bureaucrats’ ever-growing maw. These Victimization Olympics help no one, this addiction to grievance must end. The DEI regime should be dismantled, not enhanced. Jews don’t need special status – we all need to return to an academic liberalism that seeks to treat everyone equally as individuals.

The Poisoned Ivy League will not be fixed easily or quickly. It took decades since the 1960s of identity politics, assaults on Western Civ and the canon, of political correctness, postmodernism, decolonization theory, intersectionality, Wokeness, and anti-racism, for this revolution to succeed. A full-fledged assault will fail. 

A partisan fight will also fail. A New York Times article shortly after Liz Magill resigned framed the problem in ways that will doom the necessary counterattack. Headlines proclaiming “As Fury Erupts Over Campus Antisemitism, Conservatives Seize the Moment,” return the conversation to the polarization seen during Trump’s tenure. Disgust with Trump neutralized any restraints as the universities veered Woke. Most Ivy League parents and alumni are Democrats. Especially with the Republican Party still going full-MAGA, few of them wish to give any conservatives a victory.

The battle to save America’s universities must be framed around non-partisan issues. These include improving the quality of student life, fighting educational malpractice and preserving liberal democratic values.

The battle to save America’s universities must be framed around non-partisan issues. These include improving the quality of student life, fighting educational malpractice, preserving liberal democratic values, and protecting the particular school’s brand while justifying the liberal arts themselves.

Donors, parents, and students should try shrinking the problem, while creating centers of scholarly integrity. You shrink the problem by attacking educational malpractice, asking if students feel comfortable in the classroom disagreeing with others, and if professors offer a range of views, while also emphasizing the quality of the teaching more broadly. You shrink the problem by creating forums for students to complain if they feel bullied politically in class, let alone physically or emotionally, by faculty and fellow students. You shrink the problem by insisting that schools start reducing their DEI bureaucracies as part of a broader reduction of academic administrators, to cut costs while focusing on student-faculty ratios.  Forbes recently reported that between 1976 and 2018, full-time administrators and other professionals” soared “by 164% and 452%, respectively, as the number of students only grew by 78% and the number of instructors grew by 92%.

Because credential-obsessed American parents remain addicted to the college brands, it’s time to start sending students to institutions that may be less prestigious but are less doctrinaire too. Over time, universities’ reputations can be burnished by careful investment, broader recruitment, and ambitious leadership.

Meanwhile, in every major university, donors should offer to endow one center for liberal education, an honors college of sorts, with a binding contract serving as a charter guaranteeing a focus on nonpartisan liberal ideals – and a commitment to teaching critical thought. With donors’ help, academics working in these centers may need to establish their own ecosystem: fellowships, prizes, a scholarly association truly committed to scholarly pursuits. 

In the 1980s, conservative intellectuals fled the university and created a network of think tanks. In doing so, they abandoned the campus – and the students – to the decolonizing fanatics.  Campuses must be saved, one new center at a time, dedicated to excellence, critical thought, clear writing, broad reading, and open discussion.

At the same time, Jewish parents should also start looking to gap year programs in Israel that at least help inoculate their children for a year before plunging into the academic indoctrination camps, or Israeli universities as four-year alternatives. More gap year programs should focus on academic excellence and teaching liberal arts, in addition to fostering Jewish identity and offering positive Israel experiences. 

Donors in the Diaspora and administrators in Israel must beef up Israel’s English-language offerings, especially in the humanities and social science. While actually improving the quality, they also should launch PR campaigns improving the brands of Israeli universities. The target should be ambitious American Jewish parents and the broader American community that hires graduates. 

I take no joy in watching the campuses explode and the Ivy League brand get singed. I am a case of arrested development: I got to university when I was 18 and never left. Many of us have watched the problems fester – and saw our warnings ignored. 

For others, the Congressional hearing – parts of which have been watched over 1 billion times – was a wake-up call. It’s time to get radical. The problems are, ahem, systemic. But America’s need for a robust higher education system, where students learn to think deeply, engage respectfully, and disagree constructively, is greater than ever. We owe it to our students to succeed – we owe it to ourselves, too.

Professor Gil Troy, a Senior Fellow in Zionist Thought at the JPPI, the Global Think Tank of the Jewish People, is an American presidential historian, and, most recently, the editor of the three-volume set, Theodor Herzl: Zionist Writings, the inaugural publication of The Library of the Jewish People.

Did you enjoy this article?
You'll love our roundtable.

Editor's Picks

Latest Articles

Beauty Without Borders

I was amused by this scene of an elderly, ultra-Orthodox couple enjoying a coffee while a sensual French song came on. Do they have any idea what this song is about? I wondered.

More news and opinions than at a
Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.