Are universities hotbeds of radical left-wing activism?
The question has possessed conservative writers for decades. But only in the last few years have centrists and left-leaning scholars taken the question seriously.
Recent studies of U.S. colleges and universities indicate that in most disciplines, conservative-minded professors are rare. Just nine per cent of American professors define themselves as “conservative,” and among administrators, the numbers tilt even further left, with six per cent self-identified as conservative compared to 71 per cent who say they are “liberal” or “very liberal.”
None of these figures would surprise Warren Treadgold, a professor of Byzantine studies at Saint Louis University.
He, like other critics of today’s university, say the academy’s liberal bias is obvious to anybody who cares to pay attention. The hard numbers only shake those with doubts from their dreams of diversity.
Treadgold says as much in his new book, The University We Need: Reforming American Higher Education.
A gossipy, insider look at the state of the contemporary university, The University We Need outlines the moral, administrative and existential challenges facing university educators.
These challenges include low-quality teaching and research, administrative bloat and a vocational mindset. But for Treadgold, the real problem is the postmodern ideology that dominates campus affairs and intimidates non-conformists in the faculty ranks – specifically, conservative professors.
To this poisoned environment, Treadgold suggests a range of treatments, including salary caps for administrators and financial penalties for professors who inflate grades.
His two most intriguing proposals – a national dissertation board and a national academic honesty board – transcend the conservative-liberal divide and deserve serious consideration.
The dissertation board would rank dissertations written across the U.S. and give university hiring committees a more reliable way of judging a candidate’s graduate work. The long-term hope is that, facing a public review, grad students and their supervisory committees would produce meaningful research.
The academic honesty board would upload cases of academic fraud out of individual universities, where administrators have an interest in smothering scholastic scandal, and into a board of independent academics that would adjudicate claims of intellectual dishonesty among the professorate.
The solution Treadgold most desires – “the university we need” that he identifies in the title – may be more problem than solution.
The university we need, Treadgold says, is an unabashedly conservative one. He sees this university sitting somewhere near Washington, D.C. Funded by wealthy conservatives, this much-needed university will ensure undergraduates learn a common foundation of knowledge (a superb idea), earn meaningful grades (excellent), and have same “impact” on scholarship that Fox News had on television (an unattractive metaphor, but we get the point: the university we apparently need will loudly and rudely upset the progressive consensus).
At bottom, The University We Need is a moral critique. In short: today’s universities have no moral centre. The university’s allegiance to truth crumbled when progressives embraced postmodernism, a philosophy that substitutes objective truth and morality with power relationships. When power is the only currency, violence is the only thing for sale. Breakdown is inevitable.
The last hope for an intellectual renaissance and the only way to stave off a new dark age brought about by amoral progressivism, according to Treadgold, lies in the hands of conservatives. Unlike their confused colleagues, conservative scholars still seek truth. Truth leads them to knowledge. Ipso facto, the university we need – the true university – must be conservative.
And this is the biggest problem with Treadgold’s proposal. The university he says we need will surely slide into the same puritanism we see consuming the left-most flanks of university education. Treadgold hasn’t balanced the scales, he’s merely flipped them.
No doubt, universities need to do better. Raising standards on teaching and research, creating structures to ensure quality and honesty in research, reducing bloat – these ideas are worth trying.
But the university we need isn’t a purity project where one view dominates.
Troy Media columnist Robert Price is an assistant professor at the University of Toronto Mississauga.