Higher Education’s Deeper Sickness


Political imbalance causes intellectual degradation. Riots against free speech are only a symptom.


By John M. Ellis


The sheer public spectacle of near-riots has forced some college administrators to take a stand for free expression and provide massive police protection when controversial speakers like Ben Shapiro come to campus. But when Mr. Shapiro leaves, the conditions that necessitated those extraordinary measures are still there. Administrators will keep having to choose between censoring moderate-to-conservative speakers, exposing their students to the threat of violence, and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on every speaker. It’s an expensive treatment that provides only momentary relief from a symptom.


What then is the disease? We are now close to the end of a half-century process by which the campuses have been emptied of centrist and right-of-center voices. Many scholars have studied the political allegiances of the faculty during this time. There have been some differences of opinion about methodology, but the main outline is not in doubt. In 1969 the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education found that there were overall about twice as many left-of-center as right-of-center faculty. Various studies document the rise of that ratio to 5 to 1 at the century’s end, and to 8 to 1 a decade later, until in 2016 Mitchell Langbert, Dan Klein, and Tony Quain find it in the region of 10 to 1 and still rising.


Even these figures understate the matter. The overall campus figures include professional schools and science, technology, business and mathematics departments. In most humanities and social-science departments—especially those central to a liberal education, such as history, English and political science—the share of left-of-center faculty already approaches 100%.


The imbalance is not only a question of numbers. Well-balanced opposing views act as a corrective for each other: The weaker arguments of one side are pounced on and picked off by the other. Both remain consequently healthier and more intellectually viable. But intellectual dominance promotes stupidity. As one side becomes numerically stronger, its discipline weakens. The greater the imbalance between the two sides, the more incoherent and irrational the majority will become.


What we are now seeing on the campuses illustrates this general principle perfectly. The nearly complete exclusion of one side has led to complete irrationality on the other. With almost no intellectual opponents remaining, campus radicals have lost the ability to engage with arguments and resort instead to the lazy alternative of name-calling: Opponents are all “fascists,” “racists” or “white supremacists.”


In a state of balance between the two sides, leadership flows naturally to those better able to make the case for their side against the other. That takes knowledge and skill. But when one side has the field to itself, leadership flows instead to those who make the most uncompromising and therefore intellectually least defensible case, one that rouses followers to enthusiasm but can’t stand up to scrutiny. Extremism and demagoguery win out. Physical violence is the endpoint of this intellectual decay—the stage at which academic thought and indeed higher education have ceased to exist.


That is the condition that remains after Mr. Shapiro and the legions of police have left campus: More than half of the spectrum of political and social ideas has been banished from the classrooms, and what remains has degenerated as a result. The treatment of visiting speakers calls attention to that condition but is not itself the problem. No matter how much money is spent on security, no matter how many statements supporting free speech are released, the underlying disease continues to metastasize.


During the long period in which the campus radical left was cleansing the campuses of opposition, it insisted that wasn’t what it was doing. Those denials have suddenly been reversed. The exclusion of any last trace of contrary opinion is not only acknowledged but affirmed. Students and faculty even demand “safe spaces” where there is no danger that they will be exposed to any contrary beliefs.


It is important to understand why the radical left cleared the campuses of opposing voices. It was not to advance higher education, for that must involve learning to evaluate competing ideas, to analyze the pros and cons of rival arguments and concepts. Shutting down all but one viewpoint is done to achieve the opposite: to pre-empt analysis and understanding. Only in the absence of competing ideas can the radical sect that now controls so much of the campuses hope to thrive and increase its numbers, because it can’t survive open debate and analysis, and its adherents know it.


Given that treating only symptoms is ultimately pointless, is there any cure for the disease? The radical left won’t voluntarily give up the stranglehold on higher education that it has worked unrelentingly to gain. But that can’t be the end of the matter: The public pays huge sums, both through tuition and taxation, to educate young people, and except in STEM subjects most of that money is being wasted. Those who pay the bills have the power to stop this abuse of higher education if they organize themselves effectively.


Colleges need to be accredited; state universities answer to governing boards. Accrediting agencies and governing boards are created through a political process. What if voters were to insist that those agencies demand answers to some elementary questions? For example: How can a department of political science that excludes half the spectrum of viable political ideas be competent to offer degrees in the field? How can a history curriculum be taught competently when only one extremist attitude to social and political questions is present in a department? How can a campus humanities faculty with the same limitation teach competently? How can these extraordinary deficiencies deserve either accreditation, or support by state and federal funds?


The campus radical monopoly on political ideas amounts to the shutting down of liberal higher education as we have known it. That, not the increasingly frequent violent flare-ups, is the real crisis.


Mr. Ellis is a professor emeritus of German literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and chairman of the California Association of Scholars.