by Eric Kaufmann
Tuesday, 2
November 2021
Debate
08:00

A war on universities won’t help free speech

We need to fix these institutions, not destroy them
by Eric Kaufmann
Abolishing tenure will not help. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Georgia and Iowa have both moved in the direction of abolishing tenure for academics at publicly-funded universities. This is a misguided policy that will bolster the hand of illiberal Leftists who are increasingly demanding the firing of academics who transgress the sacred race, sexuality and gender totems of woke ideology.

Tenure permits academics to challenge the government, their university, and the sacred values of an ideology such as cultural socialism without risking their job. It is essential for academics to have this security so they can speak out — which is why most of those who have challenged the illiberal Left have been tenured faculty like Dorian Abbot of the University of Chicago.

Aghast at the Left-wing ideological monoculture that has formed in universities — especially the social sciences and humanities — many conservatives and classical liberals want to burn the system down. Cut funding, let new providers emerge who will signal to prospective customers. People will vote with their feet for truth, open-mindedness and low cost over conformity to the ideology of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.

Even highly sensible centrists like Michael Lind and Richard Hanania espouse the need for cuts and the bracing winds of the Schumpeterian free market, believing that the entire university-industrial complex will collapse of its own contradictions.

I’m not against markets, but I’m afraid this view is utopian, and those that cleave to it will wind up abetting, not impeding, the Left’s colonisation of young minds.

There’s a good reason why most of the top universities in the US and Britain today are at least a century old while few top corporations are. Higher education is an object lesson in market failure. First, there are powerful network effects based on reputation and alumni. The longer a university has been around, the stronger its reputation, which attracts more high-quality students, produces more rich alumni, increasing its budget, improving its facilities, raising its profile further. 

Second, universities are a Giffen Good: higher prices attract better students and wealthier peers. These create a more exclusive customer base, which in turn pulls more elite customers in. I recall interviewing once at Northeastern University and being told that when they jacked up their fees, they got more applications from better students. Universities are a kind of luxury good in an affluent society, which makes people spend more to acquire the status symbol of a degree, and makes universities reluctant to reduce their prices. Universities also compete in a status game with other providers in which cutting prices or entry grades is seen to cheapen one’s reputation.

Third, universities provide the credentialing mechanism and a marital meet-market for the aspiring post-industrial status elite. Once again, the status system drives people toward universities. If they didn’t exist, something similar (finishing schools?) would pop up to take their place.

Utopian talk of slashing, burning and renewal raises false hopes for a quick fix, diverting attention from what works: academic freedom legislation, alongside the creation of a free speech bureaucracy populated by those committed to classical liberal values.

New free speech universities will be important in creating space for the conservative and classical liberal ideas that have been driven off campus by the tenured radicals who increasingly shape the climate of higher education. But the only lasting solution is for governments to regulate universities with proactive free speech offices like the UK’s new Director of Academic Freedom that can protect staff and students from cancel culture, political discrimination and activist administrators.

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Julia H
Julia H
10 months ago

I’d tackle it from the other end first. In the UK at least we need fewer but better graduates. I’d scrap funding for a variety of courses and also raise admission standards so that universities could revert to their original status as institutions for the minority of people who are academically able to benefit from the education on offer. Blair’s ambition to have 50% of school leavers attend university was always going to result in dumbing down and destroying the value of a university education. Not very bright young people are inflicting their tedious and ill informed bigotry on institutions that should never have admitted them in the first place. These people should be doing apprenticeships so that they can prepare themselves to be useful. Exposure to the world of work inhabited by sensible adults would also do them no harm.

James Joyce
James Joyce
10 months ago
Reply to  Julia H

Spot on! You correctly identify a problem, that, if anything is much worse in the US. Obama was a big proponent of the idea that everyone must go to college, and that was a measure of both education and success as a nation. Wrong on both counts.
Many young people, mostly men, would like to learn to work with their hands, not be forced to study poetry (I love poetry, but not everyone does), or listen to some woke moron like “Dr. Jilly” indoctrinate them. Community colleges serve a purpose, or used to serve a purpose before skills became unfashionable and everyone was supposed to get a degree in media studies.
In Europe, people are exposed to different career paths at a much earlier age–they get to try on certain hats. In the US, everyone is steered toward “higher education,” which is a huge investment and often a waste of time. When deciding what to study, I had no clue what an engineer actually does, beyond 2 words: design things. What does that even mean? How can one make an informed decision with such little accurate information. People become lawyers because they thought it’s like LA Law…..
That the author posits higher prices yields better students–it’s just so far off! And in the US, consider this: the posh with a pile can afford it, and the poor, and increasing number of supremely ill-prepared “students” go to “top” unis for free. But the middle class struggles to pay, and directly subsidizes the poor (and the rich through other means). The middle class pay much, much more and the extra is used to give the un-prepared poor a free lunch. These people overwhelming use this opportunity to take gender studies, black liberation, and other meaningless things.
Finally, the last sentence of the post is telling: in the US, young people do not seem to become adults until well into their twenties, thirties, forties, even beyond. I’m still gobsmacked by this but it is true in the USA. Young people have no sense of real life, no understanding of financial responsibility, and this is, in part, as a result of being coddled at the uni. I need my support animal! The professor said something I disagree with, I think I’ll cry…. So much easier to live in the basement, watch porn and play video games.
A lost generation, and the uni cannot be reformed. It is not the solution, it is the problem.

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
10 months ago

I must disagree. When a limb is diseased beyond repair, you amptutate. It is an extreme and regrettable decision but the alternative is worse. This is where we are with “university”. The author talks of the best young minds – does he really want more of them colonised with the appalling, intolerant nonsense passing for “higher education” today? Why sink them into such an environment? Unless they are training for medicine or law they would be better off in industry. Victorian Britain had few such institutions and yet it gave us Dickens, Thackeray, Tennyson, the Brownings, Arnold, George Eliot and the Brontes. University did little for any of them. Finally, many universities are futile, undistinguished institutions which merely put off the onset of grown-up responsibilities – for most of us the best education there has ever been. Indeed, it is precisely the degree to which the abstract has been privileged over the concrete which lies at the heart of so much that is wrong. If people with little original talent for thought are filled with a prejudice in favour of abstractions they cannot handle or challenge, they become no more than Diderot’s “monks” – mindless parrots of dogma with no talent for real activity. So close down the ugly factories of leftism as soon as may be; and pass free speech laws to constrain the unashamed totalitarians who survive within the few remaining tertiary institutions. Then we shall begin our recovery.

Last edited 10 months ago by Simon Denis
Judy Englander
Judy Englander
10 months ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

“Abstractions they cannot handle”: what a brilliant way of putting it.

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
10 months ago
Reply to  Judy Englander

Many thanks.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
10 months ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

Very well said. All our universities seem to be infected and there is no solution short of amputation that is going to work. Getting our education system to where it is now has been a very long process Those steering the ship have no intention of changing course and are not going to voluntarily cede control of the empire. Any attempt at reform is doomed to fail. The time has come to cut the Gordian knot.
Also as things stand these institutions do far more harm than good to the country so what is actually worth saving?

Last edited 10 months ago by Ethniciodo Rodenydo
James Joyce
James Joyce
10 months ago

Cheers, mate! What universe do you live in? Your comments are completely tone deaf! Wow!
I won’t bury the lead so I encourage UnHerd readers to Google “Professor” Brittney Cooper, a vile, filthy, disgusting animal who has called for the destruction of white people–from her perch as a tenured professor at a NJ uni. She has eloquently defended tenure. Just kidding, mate–she has defended tenure, eloquence is beyond her, but she has defended it. See her interesting thoughts. One major difference is that tenure is for life, so dead wood often simply refuses to leave. As a practical matter it does not defend academic freedom (See, Kathy Stock). As Prof. Cooper said, it is virtually impossible to get rid of her, and therefore she will pontificate in calling for the destruction of white people from the Ivory Tower.
The American uni is beyond hope and must be destroyed–it cannot be reformed. Just some quick examples, when I was a student some years ago, it was roughly 70% “real” professors, 30% “adjunct” professors, often practitioners with real world expertise who added some practical training to courses. Now that has flipped. American unis are run by ever-expanding administrators. When you have a Vice President for Trans Issues, this person needs a big office, a big budget, employees, and these budgets can never be cut, as that sends the wrong message. The American uni is not about education any more, it is about indoctrination in the right way of thinking.
Higher prices attract better students and wealthier peers…..
With respect, I disagree. Higher prices seem to have expanded posh scammers who donate to the unis to get their rich, spoiled, stupid, lazy kids in. Oh, wait….. They’re not stupid and lazy kids. They’re just bad test takers. Operation Varsity Blues? Perhaps you’ve heard of it? Why no mention?
Higher prices have sent many college girls into sex work such as OnlyFans and SeekingArrangement, where these girls look for “sponsors” who give them an “allowance” in exchange for companionship and perhaps certain acts, along with straight up prostitution. Go feminism! That “sugaring” seems to infantile women–Can I please have my allowance, Sugar Daddy? is perhaps a topic for another post.
I’ll have more on this later. Off to the gym. But your piece is so wildly wrong that it’s a pig’s breakfast! Wow!

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
10 months ago
Reply to  James Joyce

It is refreshing to read something so plain and straightforward in this stifled, euphemistic age of ours. Indeed, I’m surprised it got through. I have just tried to submit a far less trenchant opinion and found it parked for “approval” twice. I was scratching my head as to the nature of my offense…

James Joyce
James Joyce
10 months ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

Thanks mate. I’ll hit this again with a bit more polish, but no upvotes??wow?

James Joyce
James Joyce
10 months ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

I had a similar experience when I referred to a fluid that flows through our veins followed by the supposed final destination of bad people. Parked for a LONG time.
And yes, I’m pleasantly surprised that the rather harsh but deserved tone of my post went up. The woke needed to be called out every time and attacked without mercy. I am proudly not above attacking a moron who has openly and proudly called for the destruction of white people.

Ellen Finkle
Ellen Finkle
10 months ago

But the only lasting solution is for governments to regulate universities with proactive free speech offices like the UK’s new Director of Academic Freedom that can protect staff and students from cancel culture, political discrimination and activist administrators.
So more secure self serving bureaucrats will solve the problem of secure self serving burocrats?

Fiona Archbold
Fiona Archbold
10 months ago
Reply to  Ellen Finkle

Agree, not the solution

J Bryant
J Bryant
10 months ago

Another approach to dealing with the woke problem in universities is tying government funding of individual departments, and the amount of educational loan money available to students, to specific subjects. Specifically, stem subjects, including medicine, are better funded by the government than are the humanities and even law (there’s an oversupply of lawyers).
This is the approach now taken by the Australian government. It was done in the name of preparing “job-ready” students which partially sidesteps the accusation of political motivation for the funding differences.
Here in the famously litigious US, where eye-watering monetary damages are a real possibility, I think we need to see a few hefty judgments against universities that permit woke bullying and cancellation of staff members. Colleges will start to change their behavior when the bottom line is threatened.
US universities cannot be salvaged in the short term. The rot is too deep. It will be a generation long project.

Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
10 months ago

I don’t think tenure is much defense against the threat of violence.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
10 months ago

Universities have become extractive institutions in that they seek to leech off society rather than bolster it. They preach equality and promise social mobility, yet they leave their students tens of thousands of dollars in debt long before any of them are in any kind of gainful employment.
Not only do they scam the public at large but they also have the temerity to preach social justice and dictate morality to those who have ended up on the out-group list.
Higher Education needs a complete overhaul. It’s not the individual teachers or even the administrators – the entire structure is rotten to the core. The same could be said for our political system too, if I’m honest.

David Morley
David Morley
10 months ago

Second, universities are a Giffen Good: higher prices attract better students and wealthier peers. 

a Giffen good or a Veblen good?

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
10 months ago

If students could sue the university for selling them a faulty product, as say they could for car manufacturers – Then the universities would go back to the old thing of providing an education.

We need some big PACs to be formed by some Conservative billionaire which supports the right, and supports the expense, of graduates to sue the universities who just messed them up instead of giving them actual qualifications. Once Judaical president is established, for Education mal-practice, all the insane and wicked teachers would be run off to try to make a living as some race/gender studies experts elsewhere….. haha, like to see where they end up.

Political Action Committee (PAC) — A popular term for a political committee organized for the purpose of raising and spending money “

Alan Hawkes
Alan Hawkes
10 months ago

I am puzzled why there is so much debate on this topic. Universities need freedom of speech and tolerance of divergent opinions if they are to retain their purpose. Those who are unwilling to abide by this should be sent down, or dismissed. Anything else is like allowing mutineers to run the army.

LCarey Rowland
LCarey Rowland
10 months ago

I was a worthless English major at a major state university in the American south. I will never regret what I learned there.
But it did take me a while to make the adjustments need to “make a living.” I got into sales . . . life insurance, then newspaper advertising, then printing
At about the age of 27, I drifted into construction work, starting at the bottom, busting a concrete slab. But I was paying attention, “taking notes”, as one would say at University.
Long story short, my long slog into carpentry ultimately enabled me and my ICU nurse wife to raise our three young’uns. They went on to matriculate at two prestigious universities here in the southern USA.
With a little tweaking, perhaps my stilted path from philosophy to carpentry could have been simplified in some way by institutional incentives.
But who knows about such things? We might as well try and catch the wind, as to chart the courses of millions of young people of the western world who need to find their way through this labyrinth of life.
Finally, let me add a solid affirmation to the principle of free speech on campuses. At LSU, we had a “free speech alley” every Wednesday afternoon. That ongoing session was one of my most precious memories of the ole college days.
Esse quam videri.