Earlier this month, Nikole Hannah-Jones, the lead author of The New York Times’ controversial (and historically dubious) 1619 Project and an apparent supporter of the Cuban regime, declined an offer of tenure from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. If one recalls, she had initially been denied tenure, with her lack of academic credentials and the fact that the 1619 Project’s conclusions have been widely challenged by historians being cited as likely reasons.
As one has come to expect by now, however, the university’s leadership caved amid the backlash to the initial decision, which was replete with accusations of (you guessed it) “racism” and allegations of conservative intolerance to opposing viewpoints. The trustees then voted to offer tenure to Hannah-Jones, only for her to then thumb her nose at Chapel Hill’s change of heart.
For both of us, having spent considerable time in recent years on university campuses (at Chapel Hill and Yale, respectively), this flip-flop on the part of Chapel Hill’s trustees is hardly surprising. With Erich Prince having been on Yale’s campus in 2015—amid the now-infamous hysteria following an anodyne email about Halloween costumes—it has become clear that university administrators are experts at folding under pressure, whether such demands are coming from the national press, a small cadre of activist professors, or students themselves.
This was also on display when Gov. Pat McCrory taught a politics seminar at Chapel Hill in 2019, which was accompanied by frequent statements on the part of the faculty aiming to distance the university from the seminar, as if exposing students to different perspectives amounted to the political science department assuming a frightening degree of liability.
Certain statistics further make clear that universities, all of which receive considerable taxpayer money, including from the federal government, are not only overtly ideological projects but are also unmistakably hostile to conservative (or even simply non-left-wing) viewpoints. A 2020 study by The Harvard Crimson determined that only 1.46% of the faculty self-identified as conservative, with faculty campaign contributions also flowing overwhelmingly to Democrats. Students on campuses across the country are self-censoring; free speech at universities is consistently evaporating; and speakers who even remotely challenge prized left-wing orthodoxies are shouted down or barred from speaking.
As such, the time has come for conservatives concretely to respond. There are a number of steps universities, particularly ones with right-leaning presidents and boards of trustees, can undertake on their own. Now, instead of seeking to advance something akin to quotas demanding a certain number of conservative instructors or students on campus—something very much from the left’s playbook—we would instead prefer that universities become less political overall. This also prevents the ill-advised creation of oversight boards to monitor professors’ teaching content, something that would be just as at odds with free speech and earnest academic inquiry as some of the current forces overtaking academia.
The focus needs to return to teaching the subjects—whether that is accounting, physics, or history—with more attention to the actual content, rather than being sidetracked by politics and advocacy. Moving things in this direction might even take the form of basing a portion of instructors’ compensation on how students perform, with the idea being that if an instructor is spending his computer science class discussing race and gender, students are less likely to perform well when it comes time for a final exam that requires actually building a computer program. This can also be aided by following the lead of institutions such as Drexel University in Philadelphia that actively prioritize collaboration with industry.
Next, there should be less focus on “interdisciplinary” learning. This is how one or two rogue, activist departments tainted all of the other departments in the first place. Maintaining the independence and integrity of each academic department is paramount. Also, crucially, universities should not be having any sorts of committees or programs on “diversity, equity, and inclusion.” As has now become clear, these benign and feel-good-sounding terms are merely code for maligning and excluding anyone who does not support far-left, identitarian politics.
As universities continue to bandy about terms like “equity”; sidetrack entire semesters discussing identity politics rather than academic subjects; and invite the progenitors of critical race theory to be keynote speakers, it is clear that reasonable people need to push back. Conservatives, moderates, and even old-school liberals have for too long been guilty of ceding evermore ground to left-wing activists. And what starts in universities later plays out in corporate boardrooms, medical schools, and even the military. All the while, the views of conservative students and the hard-working, tuition-paying families from which they come are being stigmatized.
The decades ahead require qualified electrical engineers, thoughtful journalists, and competent doctors-to-be—not more activists. Although some commentators may be inclined to write off the possibility of even trying to repair higher education at this point, having functional and purpose-driven universities is a goal important enough to try once more to get right.