Riley, Texas, Bubba Jocks, Academic Conformity, Mob Rule, and the Real World

For all the lip service about universities being “market places of ideas” and havens for unpopular thoughts, three stories over the last week or two drive home the reality that there is a clamor by many  in the academic community for either ideological conformity or resistance to “interference” from the Real World that feeds it.

Naomi Riley puts up a blog that said what I believe many people in higher education have long believed but were largely afraid to say: Black-studies programs in the United States are weak academically; moreover,  employers have apparently not clamored for black-studies graduates, and enrollments are stagnant or falling in many institutions. Ms. Riley did not spend a lot of time researching the issue (which, in her defense, is not terribly unusual with blogs), and she could have eased the uproar a good deal by noting that academic weaknesses are not exclusively confined to black-studies programs. A similar criticism is often made about, say, colleges of education, and other so-called “studies” programs that are allegedly interdisciplinary in nature but often seem to me more nondisciplinary. Black studies is not the only area in the university seemingly driven as much by ideology as by facts and reason. Ms. Riley was crucified, accused of being racist (absurd given her marriage to a black man and mothering two inter-racial children), and after 6,500 people complained fiercely, she was dropped by the Chronicle. The editor said “Ms. Riley’s blog posting did not meet The Chronicle’s basic editorial standards for reporting and fairness in opinion articles.” Riley called it “mob rule,” and that got me thinking: Isn’t that a growing problem generally in higher education?

Over the last year or so, a seemingly altogether different kerfuffle has been brewing in Texas. The University of Texas or its supporters mobilized a frontal attack on the release of data on UT faculty teaching loads, and what was viewed as hostile analysis of it (I bore some of the brunt of that attack for the report I co-authored on faculty productivity and costs), and when 200,000 or so persons complained that know-nothings were trying to destroy the greatness of UT, the Board of Regents appeared to back off meaningful attempts at reform.  After a hiatus, the war has erupted again over the governor’s audacity to oppose a tuition increase at UT, which has nearly triple the endowment of any other public school. Again, it appears that the administration of UT is trying to mobilize public support to try to enact a tuition increase that is perceived important to maintaining the academic good life.

Also, controversy recently emerged from a Wall Street Journal article by Buzz Bissinger that advocated the end of intercollegiate football. This led to a huge response. The most astute came from Sally Schott, who opined “Of course, college football should be banned, along with war, pestilence, famine, disease, leaf blowers and wearing pajama pants in public… unlike college football, the latter six stand some remote eventual chance of riddance.”

Generalizing from this academic menage a trois, the academy loves to use group protests to intimidate or silence those with politically incorrect views, to preserve financial prosperity, and maintain academically dubious programs, be they black studies or high-level intercollegiate football.

Interestingly, some of the time, such as in the case of Naomi Riley, the academy uses intimidation and vicious name-calling to enforce a conformity of expressed views that is the very antithesis of the Enlightenment out of which the modern university sprung. In these cases, the academy argues that the Real World has no right to interfere, and that piddling little things like the First Amendment are irrelevant, since the Academy must be independent of the Real Word in order to function in a vibrant fashion.

Yet, on other occasions, such as when policy and opinion makers threaten revenues or something truly sacrosanct, like football, the Real World is mobilized to shut down proposals for change or innovation.  The groupie jock alums are mobilized to insist that we continue to pursue Greatness by spending more on ball-throwing contests.

Of course, serious scholarship on the African-American experience in America is going on in English, economics, and history departments, dramatically reducing the rationale for separate black-studies programs (side note: I did some pioneering work myself on the exploitation of slaves). Of course, UT’s endowment reportedly rose by well over $2-billion from FY 2010 to FY 2011 alone, and that the use of the interest on this money alone for current operations would allow tuition freezes or even reductions without new spending cuts at UT.  Of course, scandal on top of scandal  in college sports this year mars the academy (the best recent account: David Ridpath’s Tainted Glory).

Yet the academy increasingly says to scholars within its walls: conform or get out, and to others its says, keep giving us money (appropriations, gifts, ticket and sky box purchases) but leave us alone—unless we need you.

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