The Problem Is Academia

The explosion of violent and shockingly antisemitic protests on college campuses is just the latest in a series of self-inflicted black eyes for higher education in the United States. In March last year, a group of students at Stanford Law School shut down a talk by federal Judge Kyle Duncan, screaming vulgar epithets and refusing to allow him to speak. In October, the presidents of Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Pennsylvania embarrassed themselves in congressional hearings convened to ask about combating antisemitism on their campuses. Penn President Liz Magill resigned immediately thereafter. Harvard’s President Claudine Gay survived that controversy but resigned a few weeks later when multiple instances of plagiarism in her research were exposed.

This week, protests have erupted not only at Ivy League schools like Columbia, Harvard and Brown but the University of Southern California, the University of Michigan, the University of Texas, Emory University and elsewhere, causing enormous disruption. Jewish students at Columbia left campus, after which the administration announced that classes will be hybrid (in-person and virtual) for the remainder of the semester. USC has canceled its public commencement ceremony. Dozens have been arrested on multiple campuses.

Americans are understandably asking, what’s the problem in academia?

I’ve worked as a professor and administrator at multiple institutions since 1991. Despite its historic strengths (and there are many), there is a great deal wrong with our system of higher education. A comprehensive list is impossible given space constraints, but here are some issues that have contributed to the damaged culture in academia.

— Academia is dominated by one political perspective. A 2017 article from Inside Higher Ed cited a study showing that just over 9% of faculty surveyed identified as “conservative.” A more recent article from the American Institute for Economic Research points out that this trend has worsened in the past few years, with the number of faculty who identify as “far left” more than doubling. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the disciplines where leftist ideology is most monolithic — up to 80% — are the humanities and social sciences; subjects all students are exposed to, regardless of their majors.

— Standards for publication contribute to the proliferation of nonsense. Faculty are required to publish significantly more than was the case decades ago. Candidates for tenure are evaluated not only for publishing in “A” journals but for the number of times their work is cited by other scholars. While this can demonstrate serious and groundbreaking work, it also incentivizes taking radical or inflammatory positions for the sake of getting attention. (On the internet, this is called “clickbait.” We’ll call this practice “citebait.”)

In 2018, scholars Peter Boghossian, Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay revealed another consequence of the “publish — a lot — or perish” culture. The three crafted multiple papers with deliberately absurd theses — calling for “feminist astrology” or arguing for the existence of “rape culture” in dog parks — and several were accepted for publication. (In a disturbing display of defensive embarrassment, Boghossian’s employer, Portland State, accused him of “academic fraud” and commenced a disciplinary investigation. He resigned in protest.)

— Research is captured by politics and money. When headlines proclaim that “most researchers agree,” readers may assume scientists with competing ideas duked it out, and the theory with the most proof prevailed. That isn’t necessarily true. A 2019 article in medical news journal Stat revealed that research into alternative theories about the causes of Alzheimer’s was thwarted by “experts” who didn’t want their theories challenged: Scholars’ papers weren’t published, their grant applications were rejected, speaking engagements were denied, faculty candidates were denied tenure. This has happened in other disciplines as well, including nutrition, climate change and gender dysphoria. Dissenters from the orthodoxy are dealt with harshly.

— Tenure is a big part of the problem. The “third rail” in any discussion about academic policies, tenure is supposed to promote diversity of viewpoints, encourage scholarly exploration and protect faculty from retaliation. In practice, however, as noted above, it has contributed to publishing “churn” and been used as a weapon against scholars whose work challenges or repudiates prevailing viewpoints.

It has also insulated faculty who espouse societally destructive ideologies from any accountability. It’s one thing to posit a controversial theory of particle physics and be proven wrong. It’s altogether different to defend a political philosophy like Marxism — as many professors continue to do. By way of comparison, if a company or industry produced a product that killed 100 million people, it’s safe to say there would be some blowback. Why should faculty be able to preach doctrines like collectivism, moral relativism or the nonexistence of truth without being called to account for the consequences?

Tenure also gives arguably undeserved credibility to “theories” that often amount to little more than the authors’ worldviews. Those viewpoints make their way into corporate boardrooms, government regulations and K-12 education policies, foisted onto an unsuspecting public that has had little to no opportunity to evaluate their merits.

Even before last year’s congressional hearings or the protests about the Israel-Hamas war, the constant drumbeat of academic scandals (Varsity Blues, sexual assault at Michigan State, skyrocketing tuition) had already produced calls for more oversight. Here in Indiana, our governor signed a bill last month designed to promote “intellectual diversity” and “free inquiry,” and changing the criteria for tenure at our public universities.

Faculty are concerned that such oversight could be abused. But the universal lesson here is to govern yourself or be governed. Cornell Law School professor William Jacobson opined in an interview earlier this year that higher education “cannot be reformed from within.” Whether or not he’s right, American colleges and universities have for decades hidden behind “academic freedom” when confronted with the socially destructive behavior that seems to be the aftermath of terrible ideologies. The general public has grown weary of it.

In academia, as elsewhere, a few bad apples create problems for everyone else. Most doctors don’t commit malpractice, most teachers don’t sleep with their students, most business owners don’t commit fraud. Similarly, most faculty are people with deep interest in their subject matter and sincere concern for the education and well-being of the college students they teach. But, unlike the other professions noted above, ours has not been willing to root out the bad actors — or indeed had any real mechanism for doing so.

If we don’t do it ourselves, it will be done for us.

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Laura Hollis

Laura Hirschfeld Hollis is a native of Champaign, Illinois. She received her undergraduate degree in English and her law degree from the University of Notre Dame. Hollis' career as an attorney has spanned 28 years, the past 23 of which have been in higher education. She has taught law at the graduate and undergraduate levels, and has nearly 15 years' experience in the development and delivery of entrepreneurship courses, seminars and workshops for multiple audiences. Her scholarly interests include entrepreneurship and public policy, economic development, technology commercialization and general business law. In addition to her legal publications, Hollis has been a freelance political writer since 1993, writing for The Detroit News, HOUR Detroit magazine, and the Christian Post, on matters of politics and culture. She is a frequent public speaker. Hollis has received numerous awards for her teaching, research, community service and contributions to entrepreneurship education. She is married to Jess Hollis, a musician, voiceover artist and audio engineer, and they live in Indiana with their two children, Alistair and Celeste.

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