Despite the many problems in contemporary academia, working within the system is almost always preferable to seeking solutions imposed by legislators. A good example of the unintended consequences of outside intervention came a few years ago, when legislatures in several states (Ohio and Florida most prominently) considered an academic bill of rights. Despite the ostensible purpose of the measure—ensuring that extraneous ideological concerns didn’t infect classroom instruction—debate in both states got bogged down by the troubling efforts of Christian conservatives to challenge how science professors were teaching evolution. The legislators, in short, were behaving as far-right versions of the “diversity” extremists who dominated the Campus Culture Initiative.
Working within the system, of course, doesn’t mean that the faculty majority exercises total control, freed from all checks and balances. Administrators determined to promote wide-ranging debate on campus can take into consideration the position’s likelihood of promoting pedagogical diversity in awarding new faculty lines, rather than simply authorizing the hiring of yet another race/class/gender specialists. Trustees can and should take seriously their position as final decisionmakers on personnel and major curricular decisions, rather than simply rubber-stamping dubious decisions presented to them by the faculty. (For a good example of trustees looking the other way, to the detriment of their university, see the Columbia University decision to tenure the notorious and dubiously qualified Joseph Massad.) Alumni can and should carefully target donations to ensure that their moneys do not simply promote the groupthink mentality that too often dominates humanities and (some) social sciences departments.
Faculty members exercise predominant control over curricular matters. Remote indeed, therefore, are the chances of students receiving a pedagogically rich array of offerings from, say, such one-sided Duke departments as African-American Studies (80% of whom were members of the Group of 88) or the Cultural Anthropology (60% of whom were members of the Group of 88).
That said, one positive development in recent years has been the creation of academic programs reflecting the ideal of liberal learning. Such initiatives have included Duke’s Focus and Gerst Programs, which Russell Nieli profiled for the Pope Center in 2007. As Nieli noted, “In the early 1990s, several discerning faculty members and administrators realized that the university had gone badly astray and sought to reinvigorate the university’s undergraduate curriculum.” The results were the Focus Program, which pairs faculty members with students in interdisciplinary offerings; and the Gerst Program in Political, Economic, and Humanistic Studies. The program “aims at fostering an understanding of the central importance of freedom for democratic government, moral responsibility, and economic and cultural life,” by focusing “on the theoretical foundations of freedom and responsibility, the development of liberty in the Western and particularly the American historical context, the role of freedom in political and economic institutions, and the character of morally responsible behavior.”
Faculty participating in the Gerst program come from a variety of pedagogical perspectives. As is appropriate given the aims of the program, the faculty list includes a member with a race/class/gender perspective on the American past (Group of 88'er William Chafe). But, as also is appropriate, a race/class/gender perspective doesn't dominate, as so often is the case throughout Duke's humanities departments. Participating faculty come from a range of perspectives and departments, including Political Science, English, Classics, and Economics.
The Nieli article shows how a motivated donor—Gary Gerst (Duke Class of 1961)—could combine with talented faculty members to produce a first-rate program that ensures students a diverse viewpoint in a campus where (as we all learned in the lacrosse case) politically correct anti-Western fetishes and race/class/gender attitudes are overrepresented. (As Gerst correctly noted, Duke is no worse than most elite institutions in this regard, “but I see no reason why people who don’t agree with what is going on continue to shell out money to their universities” to perpetuate the status quo.) It’s also no surprise that the Gerst Program based its operations in the Political Science Department. Even though it includes Group of 88 extremist Paula McClain, the always excitable Kerry Haynie, and the renegade (non-tenure track) Kim Curtis, Political Science has shown a diversity of ideological and pedagogical approaches lacking in most Duke humanities and social sciences departments.
Even initiatives like the Gerst Program—oases within contemporary academia—operate under constant threat. Consider, for instance, the fate of the University of Texas’ Western Civilization and American Traditions program. Popular with donors and students like, the program was one of several profiled last year in the New York Times. The note in the Times that the Texas program was popular with conservatives, however, stirred the ire of “activist” faculty on campus, who quickly succeeded in bringing about the program director’s dismissal and neutering the program’s key objectives. The new program director indicated his fidelity to campus sensitivities, explaining, “The name ‘Western Civilizations and American [Traditions]’ sounds really right-wing.”
One theme of this blog has been the importance of the parental role in higher education, especially at elite universities. The college experience, obviously, is critical for fostering independence and intellectual growth for all students. But—to a far greater extent than in previous generations—parents also have a responsibility to ensure that their children actually get the education for which the parents have paid.
Many elite universities have programs like the Gerst Program (Brown’s Political Theory Project is another good example of a commendable curricular initiative). Both parents and prospective students need to search out such initiatives, since, unfortunately, they cannot presume quality instruction across the board.