The University as Barney

by Professor Jack

Summary: American higher education, especially in the humanities and social sciences, is sick, but is not yet aware of it. This is not only a matter of faculty bias, as is commonly supposed, but results from bloated and increasingly politicized administrations. The University of Minnesota provides a case study of the extent to which public university administrations, in conjunction with tenured faculty, have become therapeutic agencies in the transmission of a particular worldview. Students and aspiring faculty, especially conservative aspirants, have been the losers. 


Last weekend’s Wall Street Journal had a front page article by Douglas Belkin and Scott Thurm on the growth of bureaucracy at the University of Minnesota. Heads should roll in Minneapolis, but probably won’t. The article illustrates what many of us have long been thinking: That one of the defining battles of these times is an administrative state pitted against a republic of ordered liberties. Behind all the rhetoric and political posturing, this is the struggle being acted out in Washington between Republicans and Democrats over issues of taxes, spending, fiscal cliffs, debt ceilings, regulations, and curtailment of basic rights. 

In the world of higher education this same struggle, though writ a bit smaller, has already been waged and is a thing of the past. There, the bureaucratic state has won. The story of the University of Minnesota and many other public and private institutions tells what happens when unelected and unaccountable elites take over society’s institutions and organs of power. This story has much to say of trends in our times far beyond the ivy-covered walls of academia.



Let’s look at higher education. What is happening there is instructive, but only if we get a few things clearly defined. 

Belkin & Thrum paint a picture of a bureaucracy rapidly increasing out of proportion to the general growth of other university populations. “ Between 2001 and last spring, the University of Minnesota “added more than 1,000 administrators… Their ranks grew 37%, more than twice as fast as the teaching corps and nearly twice as fast as the student body.” This, the authors write, is typical of American higher education. And not all of these are secretaries and campus police officers. “Administrative employees make up an increasing share of the university’s higher paid people. The school employs 353 people earning more than $200,000 a year.” Among these, “81 today have administrative titles, versus 39 in 2001.”  

It gets worse. “In its Office of Equity and Diversity, the number of people with ‘director’ in their title grew to 10 in the 2011-2012 school year from just four directors five years earlier.” This 100-plus percent increase is not just an expansion; it’s an order of magnitude. 

Across higher education, Belkin & Thrum report, “employees hired by colleges and universities to manage or administer people, programs and regulations increased 50% faster than the number of instructors between 2001 and 2011.” And during that same period, tuition has doubled. At U of M, annual tuition is now $13,524, more than 50% higher than the average state university. Someone has to pay for all these bureaucrats.



Well, who are all these new people working in “higher education?” Benjamin Ginsberg, in his recent book The Fall of the Faculty, states that they comprise a vast layer of mid-level apparatchiks who scarcely know what a university does, or is supposed to do. He calls these swarms of bureaucrats “deanlets.”  Whereas in former generations deans were few in number and were usually former teachers and academics, they are now more likely to be technocrats with MBAs and degrees in cultural, gender and diversity studies. They head up programs and events, rather than departments. They initiate programs on “life skills”—eating properly, campus speech code expectations, freshman orientation activities and ceremonies, and the like. Many of them are in public relations and fund-raising. The University of Minnesota, according to Belkin & Thrum, employs 139 people just to market and promote various aspects of the university’s life.  

The modern university is a complex of professionals fine-tuning the private and public lives of thousands of students. But in no regard are students more regulated than in what are considered acceptable norms regarding sexuality, race and culture. Higher education, which once prided itself on its academic freedom, its protected environment of intellectual dissent and inquiry, now promulgates and enforces a permissive orthodoxy of thought and behavior. Speech codes in academia are far more repressive than they ever were in 1950s “Ozzie and Harriet” America. And in order for such repression to obtain, lots of overseers are necessary. 

Naturally, these ranks of bureaucrats wear innocuous, politically-correct titles. Once in a while, however, someone tallies it all up, and it’s ugly. As Heather MacDonald recently wrote in City Journal: “The University of California at San Diego… is creating a new full-time ‘vice chancellor for equity, diversity, and inclusion.’ This position would augment UC San Diego’s already massive diversity apparatus, which includes the Chancellor’s Diversity Office, the assistant vice chancellor for faculty equity, the assistant vice chancellor for diversity, the faculty equity advisors, the graduate diversity coordinators, the staff diversity liaison, the undergraduate student diversity liaison, the graduate student diversity liaison, the chief diversity officer, the director of development for diversity initiatives, the Office of Academic Diversity and Equal Opportunity, the Committee on Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation issues, the Committee on the Status of Women, the Campus Council on Climate, Culture and Inclusion, the Diversity Council, and the directors of the Cross-Cultural Center, the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Resource Center, and the Women’s Center.”



Of course, anybody who has attended a public university, or even most private universities, knows that it is not only at the administrative level that a particular political and cultural orthodoxy is both made normative and closely supervised. The faculty of most schools is complicit in this as well. Indeed, the faculty is where young minds full of mush are often informed, or should we say conformed—to the reigning ethos of the progressive canon. Most higher education faculties are overwhelmingly liberal and Democrat. Oh sure, there are the exceptions (e.g., Mark Noll at Notre Dame, Harvey Mansfield at Harvard, and John Yoo at Berkeley), and this dictum applies more to humanities and social science faculties than to those who teach the so-called STEM courses (science, technology, engineering and math). But even in the harder sciences, bias is not uncommon. Climate change, biology and even physics are prone to their own versions of  metaphysics. 

Tenure, which once protected teachers from punishment for holding views unpopular with the administration and surrounding community, has become a mechanism for the protection of groupthink. Tenure was always meant to be the achievement of a six-year probation period during which a prospective full or assistant professor proved his academic mettle. If he or she taught well, published significantly, and demonstrated collegiality through sitting on committees, then he or she might join the inner circle in spite of belief or opinion. 

Tenure operates quite differently now. Not only are far fewer teachers allowed anywhere near the inner circle, universities and colleges are doing much of their teaching through associate professors and adjunct teachers. These educators earn far less than their tenured counterparts, sometimes 75% less, and they can be hired and fired at will. The proliferation of doctoral level degrees in this country has ensured an unending supply of part-time, dispensable experts with advanced degrees who make far less money than a journeyman plumber or a scrub tech at the local hospital.



But tenure does more than insulate the overlords of the faculty from economic competition from similarly-credentialed upstarts. Tenure ensures ideological and moral homogeneity across the privileged caste of inner-circle professors. If faculty senates do not hesitate to make symbolic votes on political issues that have little to do with academia, they likewise show little reluctance in  protecting their turf from intellectual dissent. Although most academics take pride in their “independence,” it is amazing how most of them end up voting Democratic. 

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, author of the best-selling The Righteous Mind, conducted an experiment a few years ago. At an academic conference he asked for a show of hands from those who considered themselves conservative. Of the hundreds of participants, only three people raised their hands. Though there were likely a few more present, the fact that they did not self-identify as conservative says much in itself. Haidt pointed out the obvious but unacceptable when he told the audience: “Anywhere in the world that social psychologists see women or minorities underrepresented by a factor of two or three, our minds jump to discrimination as the explanation. But when we find out that conservatives are underrepresented among us by a factor of more than 100, suddenly everyone finds it quite easy to generate alternate explanations.”  

For those who aver that conservatives lack the intelligence of liberals and thus avoid careers in academic teaching, the truth might be quite different, and not nearly so self-serving. In a study for the Association for Psychological Sciences, two Dutch researchers came to the following conclusion: “In decisions ranging from paper reviews to hiring, many social and personality psychologists said that they would discriminate against openly conservative colleagues. The more liberal respondents were, the more they said they would discriminate.”



What are we to make of these observations?

The administration and the faculty at modern universities thrive in a symbiotic relationship of self-reinforcing liberalism. The administration, through its diversity and multicultural programs and its technological guardianship, reduces students to a compliant population where strict social norms and lax personal habits coexist side by side. The faculty in turn provides a conceptual framework for this arrangement that rewards and punishes students according to adherence to the tenets of postmodern relativism. 

Public universities are full of pre-adults who often appear more like junior-high children than human agents in-the-making. Visit the Facebook page of almost any student you know who attends public university. Then read the study of American college-age youth conducted by sociologist Christian Smith, et al. titled Lost in Transition. Although college has always provided a kind of pretend environment that is neither adolescent nor adult, the infantilizing of America’s college cohort is more complete, and more general, these days. 

Students often emerge from these Orwellian Ministries of Truth less intellectually equipped than when they entered. Outfitted with their tattoos, their naïve radicalism, their abandoned faiths, their loosened morals and their lockstep liberalism, they try to enter a workplace where many of them can’t possibly fit in. Their trophy-kid mentality and  general sense of grievance put off prospective employers. The students decide at that point that it is the fault of the free-market economy. Many of them drop out of life, and go home for a few years, eventually taking entry-level jobs if they can find work at all. Still others join the Occupy Wall Street movement to protest their own unfungible academic degrees and large student loans. A majority of them vote for Barack Obama and Democrats, who promise to make some of their misery go away, or at least blame it on someone else. 

It occurs to very few of these young products of public universities that they were cheated by the very institutions to which they had entrusted the formative years of their intellectual lives. While universities gorged themselves on federal money for noble but ineffective programs in communal coexistence, their faculties were allowed to become closed systems of conventional dogma. All of this was done in the name of critical thinking and heightened consciousness. That con job is just one of the many paradoxes of the modern university. 

Underlying the crisis of the contemporary university is the peculiarly modern belief that students are not real people until they are instilled with the right information and attitudes. Gone is the classic view of education that considered the young to be in need of self-discipline leading to virtue. Virtue is now a social construct that consists of adhering to certain approved political and cultural doctrines. Tolerance is the summum bonum of this new ethos, having replaced the discrimination that was the key moral algorithm of previous generations. 

Is it any wonder that graduating from university these days, especially in the humanities and social sciences, means a student has acquired little more than (1) a catechism of progressive notions and a corresponding lexicon of selected moral outrage, or (2) a general sense of hopeless, amoral ennui?