Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Is Politicization Endangering Higher Education? (Michael Simkovic)

In August I warned that a perennial anti-higher-education narrative that was resurfacing in the conservative press could soon go mainstream, as it did in the 2010s.  According to this narrative, too many colleges (and law schools) are focusing on left-wing political indoctrination while charging students too much money and providing too little value in terms of preparation for careers. The criticism also notes the challenging labor market and high costs of financing education.

My prediction has already proven correct.

The New York Times coverage is here.  The story notes Pew surveys finding increasing hostility and to and reduced trust in higher education in recent years, especially from conservatives who think that educational institutions are trying to impose a left-wing political orthodoxy on their students and employees.

Judging from history, this could be the start of a sustained, multi-year campaign of public criticism of higher education by the mainstream press which will erode support, reduce student demand, and make higher education politically vulnerable to hostile taxation or regulation.  From the perspective of the media, criticizing higher education often pays for itself,* while universities’ limited resources make it difficult for them to defend themselves.

There is already evidence that law schools are losing support, particularly from demographic groups that they are perceived to discriminate against in admissions and hiring, and increasingly in law review editorships and opportunities for publication.  Applications from white men, and possibly to a lesser extent, white women, have fallen in recent years, according to LSAC data (see here and here).  Applicants from other groups have generally declined by less, held steady, or increased by too little to offset the overall decline in interest in law schools.  In other words, while law schools may be gaining interest from some groups and losing interest from others, overall they are turning students off.

Students of all political persuasions, and all demographic backgrounds, should feel welcomed and treated fairly.  Law schools must take care that well-meaning efforts to make some students feel more welcomed do not inadvertently make other students feel discriminated against, targeted, or unfairly accused of wrongdoing.

Law Schools can protect themselves by taking criticisms seriously and focusing on preparing students for bar passage and career success—in curriculum and in hiring of faculty and administrators and in the budgeting of limited resources—while curtailing politicization and sermons from the top. 

When university leaders attempt to speak for a whole university with one voice, they should restrict themselves to defending objective scientific facts and the open, rigorous, and data-driven process of inquiry that leads to scientific progress and improvements in productivity and public health. Universities do have real technical and scientific expertise about things like the effects of Climate Change, vaccination, and added sugar in food.  University leaders can and should support university scientists against unfair smears and misinformation campaigns.

But when university leaders attempt to lecture on subjective moral or political issues, they risk undermining and squandering universities' limited credibility, which is based on technical knowledge, skepticism and critical thinking, and an openness to the possibility that they themselves might be in error.  This process facilitates a self-correcting process of scientific discovery.  Universities credibility also rests on their contributions to scientific and technological progress, health, and labor productivity--which can be undermined by excessive preachiness.  

University leaders should assure the public that their resources will be used responsibly.  They should not attempt to impose a unitary political perspective that carries the implicit threat of punishment for heretical thoughts.  They should not engage in illegal discrimination, notwithstanding their personal views about the Supreme Court (which most of the public agrees with on racial preferences, notwithstanding the unpopularity of other recent decisions).  University leaders' sermonizing risks exposing them and their institutions to charges of hypocrisy for focusing on certain problems while arguably ignoring similar problems that are more pressing but would be more costly financially to address.**

While it may be tempting to use curricular mandates to try to change people’s minds about social issues, indoctrination tends to backfire more often than it succeeds.  In recent years, Churches that have attempted to impose controversial moral or political views on their members have seen precipitous declines in their membership.  Faiths that have eschewed efforts to establish a single creed or dogma regarding controversial social and political issues have fared better. 

Similarly, asset managers perceived to be too political have faced backlash and withdrawals of assets.  These asset managers successfully responded by passing through shareholder votes to dissident investors.  By avoiding imposing views on clients whom they are meant to serve, and by respecting the rights of clients to decide for themselves, asset managers kept their business.



* Media companies and their investors and advertisers often have strong financial ties to online education companies that provide an inferior product at a lower price point compared to traditional higher education, and to private student loan companies that want to scale back competition from federal student loans and other government financing.  Media companies can also extract advertising dollars from universities by targeting them for criticism.  Many studies find that media companies provide more positive news coverage of their sponsors and that industries respond to or deflect criticism by paying for advertising or providing other financial inducements.     

** For example, it is easy for critics to point out that many universities have benefited from donations by families that made their fortunes from slave labor and the Atlantic slave trade, appointed the scions of those slaveholding elites to University Boards of Trustees and admitted their children under relaxed academic standards--with no questions asked about the source of their wealth.  At the same time, universities have asked deeply invasive questions of prospective faculty and students and used the information gathered to discriminate against more recent immigrants, based on factors such as their race, sex or other prohibited characteristics.  Unlike elite universities, those that universities discriminate against in the name of remediating slavery have rarely inherited or been bequeathed any money from those who actually owned or traded slaves.  It is similarly easy to point out that many university leaders condemn police violence--and sometimes the police more generally--for targeting minorities, yet profit from allowing fast food, processed food, and beverage companies to advertise and sell addictive, slow-acting poison on campus that cuts down on people's life expectancy, especially the life expectancy of the poor and minorities, far more than the police ever have.   


Guest Blogger: Michael Simkovic | Permalink