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Within days, M. Elizabeth Magill, president of the University of Pennsylvania, stepped down from her position. And this week, Claudine Gay, facing a growing number of plagiarism accusations, announced her resignation as president of Harvard University. “This is just the beginning of exposing the rot in our most ‘prestigious’ higher-education institutions,” said Rep. Elise Stefanik, Republican of New York, after Gay resigned.
The public shaming and subsequent resignations of the leaders of some of America’s top universities may shock some observers. After all, these institutions dominate every list of the world’s finest universities. Their faculty members figure prominently in each new crop of Nobel Prize winners. Students still clamor to gain admission, to such a point that Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford admit fewer than 5 percent of the students who apply. And year after year, these universities receive hundreds of millions of dollars in donations from individuals and foundations.
Yet these same institutions are under intense attack from both ends of the political spectrum. Liberals berate them for not doing more to enroll low-income students, pressure them to divest from companies that pollute the environment, and urge them to pay reparations for their complicity with slavery centuries ago. Meanwhile, conservatives — chiefly governors, legislators, and right-wing pundits — accuse them of indoctrinating students with liberal beliefs and paying excessive attention to the welfare of minority and LGBTQ students.
These complaints and the angry reaction by members of Congress to the responses of the presidents to questions about antisemitism are not a recent development. They are the product of changes that have gradually taken place over the past four decades, both in the fortunes of leading institutions and also in the attitudes toward them by the society as a whole. To understand the current situation of elite universities, and why it matters to all colleges, it is helpful to keep these developments in mind.
Although large endowments were a blessing for the universities that possessed them, they brought disadvantages as well. Among liberals, such accumulations of wealth led to demands on these universities to use their money to achieve social goals such as increasing social mobility, fighting global warming, and pressing companies that did business in Israel to cease their operations to induce the government to stop oppressing Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. When universities did not accept their demands, liberal professors expressed their disapproval in books and articles, while students often resorted to public criticism and disruptive behavior to force the universities to cooperate.
The huge gifts given to prominent universities have likewise brought many benefits, but they have also led some megadonors to believe that their generosity should give them considerable influence over university policies. Since the start of the war between Hamas and Israel, several major donors have threatened to stop giving to their university if its leaders were not more resolute in supporting Israel and protecting Jewish students from intimidation by supporters of Palestinians and other expressions of antisemitism.
Even the findings of economists demonstrating the importance of research by elite universities for the national economy and the boost that students gained in their careers from graduating from these institutions have had mixed results. They increased the prestige of top universities, improved their rankings in U.S. News & World Report, and thus persuaded more high-school seniors to seek admission. At the same time, the findings gave further impetus to costly and impractical demands by critics, such as proposals that elite universities build entire new campuses in order to admit more low-income students. Once applications to these universities rose and admission was shown to increase the chances of achieving success in later life, legislators as well as critics began to take a greater interest in the way that elite universities selected their students and the quality of the education they received after they enrolled.
Changes in the larger society also made elite universities more vulnerable to public opinion and government intervention. The Democrats became increasingly the party of college-educated professionals and minority voters while the Republicans tended to attract white Americans who had not completed college. As a result, Democrats looked more favorably on elite universities than Republicans but were increasingly inclined to feel that they should eliminate admissions policies that favored the wealthy. Republicans, on the other hand, tended to oppose minority preferences and look askance at elite universities for encouraging students to embrace liberal ideas and serving as a principal source of ideas for Democratic policymakers.
The suspicions of Republicans were heightened by the fact that university faculties, especially at elite institutions, became more and more liberal in their political orientation. Careful studies have found that this tendency has not come about primarily through conscious discrimination in hiring professors but is chiefly a result of liberals’ being more attracted than conservatives to academic careers. This tendency seems to begin even before students reach college and is enhanced by the distaste of many highly educated people for a political party that opposes abortion, gun control, and efforts to cope with climate change.
All of these trends have been aggravated by the growing discontent within the public over the state of the nation. Trust in almost every institution, including higher education, has been gradually declining for the past 15 years, even during times of prosperity and full employment. While all segments of the public have exhibited diminishing confidence in universities, the tendency has been most acute among Republicans. An important reason is the suspicion among many conservatives that professors are not only predominantly liberal but too inclined to bring their political beliefs into the classroom.
As a result of these trends, politicians are now more willing to regulate the academic activities of universities. In 1957, Justice Felix Frankfurter, concurring with a majority of the Supreme Court, set forth what he described as the four essential freedoms of a university: to decide who will teach, what they should teach, how they will teach, and who should be admitted to study. He recognized that these freedoms could not be absolute but added that the government should not intervene except under circumstances that were “exigent and obviously compelling.” During the decades that followed, however, the courts have become less and less inclined to accept his formulation. In 1978 the Supreme Court began a process of regulating and eventually forbidding the use of racial preferences in deciding “who shall be admitted to study.” As Steve Sanders recently detailed in the pages of The Chronicle, the court’s eventual decision in 2023 to end the use of racial preferences was only the latest in a series of cases in which judges displayed a diminishing trust in the academic judgments of universities.
State officials have also shown an increasing willingness to overrule colleges’ decisions on whom to appoint to their faculties. In several Republican-led states, politically appointed trustees have tried to block the hiring of Black candidates for academic-leadership roles. Republican legislatures have also interfered with the curriculum of public colleges and universities by refusing to fund courses that teach “critical race theory,” (an examination of the pervasive influence of racial discrimination in American institutions). Several other states have prohibited their universities from establishing diversity, equity, and inclusion programs and policies.
Finally, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida has invaded the last of Justice Frankfurter’s four freedoms by issuing an order for state universities and public schools that prescribes in detail how instructors should teach about race. More recently, Governor DeSantis, a Republican, has gone even further by vowing to turn a state college known for its liberal orientation into a conservative institution. To achieve this objective, he has installed several hand-picked trustees who quickly fired the president and chose a more conservative successor while blocking the appointments of professors who were deemed too liberal and hiring conservative scholars in their place.
Most instances of governmental interference have involved only public universities for which state legislatures have a direct responsibility. But governments can also exert influence over private universities by threatening to deprive them of public funds or taxing their endowments. In 2017, Congress imposed a 1.4-percent tax on the earnings of endowments above $5 billion. Following the massacre of Israelis by Hamas on October 7, 2023, several members of Congress threatened to stop all federal funding of universities that did not act appropriately to prevent acts of antisemitism on their campus. In 2022, Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas introduced a bill that would deny eligibility for government-backed loans to any university charging tuitions greater than $20,000 per year unless they reduced the size of their administrative staff by 50 percent within a few years. More recently, Donald Trump announced that if elected president in 2024, he would create a free online university to be paid for by “billions and billions of dollars that we will collect by taxing, fining, and suing excessively large private university endowments.”
The inroads made on Justice Frankfurter’s four university freedoms portend further government regulation of academic institutions. This prospect bodes ill for the quality of higher education. Government officials rarely know as much about academic issues as the faculties they regulate. The sweeping rules they enact often fail to reflect the varying needs of the many different institutions to which they apply. The decisions they make are frequently influenced more by political considerations and constituent pressures than by a desire to improve the quality of education. It is no wonder, then, that the dozen or more American institutions that regularly appear on lists of the leading universities in the world are virtually all private.
Why aren’t elite leaders doing more to protect themselves? Perhaps they think that their institutions are too valuable to suffer much harm. Perhaps they believe that the danger will pass before real damage is done. If so, they may well be mistaken. The steady erosion of Justice Frankfurter’s essential freedoms has now continued over several decades and shows no signs of abating.
So how can elite universities better protect themselves? It will surely not do to take out ads or try to plant friendly stories in the media reminding readers of their lofty international rankings or the number of their graduates who win Rhodes scholarships and Nobel prizes. Such stories will simply make the elites look more arrogant and self-satisfied. At a minimum, however, they could try to correct the obvious errors in many of the criticisms made against them. For example, in response to the repeated attacks on elite universities for failing to admit more low-income students, someone should point out that the oft-repeated accusation that Yale and Princeton admit more students from families in the top 1 percent of incomes than they do from the bottom 50 percent are based on outdated statistics and do not reflect the fact that these universities not only admit more than 20 percent of their students from families in the bottom half of the income scale but enable them to graduate without paying anything or incurring any debt. Someone should likewise explain why the endowments of wealthy universities are not bottomless pools of money that can be used to pay for even the most costly proposals since most of these funds are restricted to the purposes prescribed by the donor that the university is legally bound to honor.
At the same time, while several common criticisms of elite universities are exaggerated or incorrect, others are clearly valid. Universities should act to correct these flaws without being ordered to do so. For example, some admissions practices that may once have seemed innocuous are hard to defend now that entering leading universities has become so competitive and has been shown to convey a significant advantage for eventually becoming wealthy, successful, and influential. Preferences given to legacies or applicants whose parents are potential donors are especially suspect. Even preferences for the children of faculty and staff and the still greater advantages given to promising athletes seem highly questionable, though harder to remedy.
A problem that is especially difficult to correct is the predominance of liberal and liberal-leaning professors, especially in social-science and humanities departments, where they often outnumber conservatives by 10 or even 15 to one. As a result, there is an important body of conservative thought that is now nearly or completely absent on the faculties of many eminent universities. That is not ideal for educating students or for fruitful collegial discussion and disagreement within the faculty. Surveys show that most professors in most universities agree.
In seeking to solve this problem, universities should certainly not compromise their rigorous standards for making faculty appointments. Still, it is possible to make some immediate progress by trying to hire conservatives as visiting professors or lecturers while also encouraging conservative students with ability to consider embarking on an academic career.
Universities with predominantly liberal faculties also need to take particular care not to indoctrinate their students or appear to be doing so. In surveys of undergraduates, large numbers of respondents report that many of their professors express their political opinions during class, most often on matters unrelated to the subject matter of the course. Although large majorities of the students say they are not influenced by their instructors’ opinions, conservatives are unlikely to consider this evidence convincing. Moreover, in several courses that have been introduced in recent decades on subjects such as women’s studies and race relations, the line between indoctrination and a simple statement of facts can be hard to draw. For these reasons, universities would be well advised to initiate a discussion in their faculties to determine how to avoid teaching in ways that could be reasonably described as indoctrination.
Finally, one of the most effective ways to build the confidence of the public would be to embark on a visible effort to improve the education of students. Two such improvements seem particularly appropriate for elite universities, whose graduates are especially likely to eventually occupy positions of importance in government and the professions. One of these possibilities would be to devise a truly successful model of civic education, and the other is to develop an effective way to help all students acquire a knowledge of practical ethics and a proficiency in moral reasoning. While there are plenty of courses on each of these subjects, neither one is currently studied in most colleges by all or even a majority of undergraduates. Yet most professors agree that both are either “very important” or “essential” parts of a liberal education. At this time of acute concern about the condition of our democracy and diminished confidence in the leadership of our major institutions, a visible effort by elite universities to strengthen these subjects and teach them to larger numbers of students would surely be beneficial and appreciated by the general public.
Others may have better ideas about how to rebuild the trust and confidence of the public. The essential message I mean to convey is simply that our leading universities, for all their outward signs of wealth and success, are now in greater danger than they have been in a very long time. It is hardly prudent to wait for things to get better. Those who lead and those who teach in these institutions need to recognize the gravity of the threat and do their utmost to regain the trust and respect that universities must have if they are to thrive and do their best work.
Fortunately, elite universities have remarkable strengths and continue to do a great deal to serve America and help it to prosper. With sufficient time and effort, they should be able to survive the dangers that currently confront them and emerge better and stronger as a result.