The Crisis of Our Universities Is a Crisis of Left-Liberalism

The threat to free inquiry and free speech at our universities today flows from the ideology of left-liberalism. As measured by campaign donations and other indicators, the faculty and administrators are almost entirely on the left wing of the Democratic party. It is hard even to imagine that anyone but a left-liberal today could be appointed the head of any one of our top twenty universities.

Leftism and liberalism are in tension, because the former prioritizes equality while the latter prioritizes liberty.  Leftists focus on equality of result as opposed to equality before the law.  They are also enthusiastic about many forms of social engineering to reach a vision of substantive equality that is every changing.   Unlike those on the wholly collectivist left, left-liberals have traditionally been committed to preserving many of the tenets of liberalism– freedom of speech, belief, and the rule of law. But these liberal commitments often stand in the way of achieving their equality goals. Freedom of speech and belief empowers individuals to resist programs of greater substantive equality. The rule of law protects what leftists may regard as entrenched concentrations of power.

These tensions are playing out in the new wave of political correctness that is threatening our universities.  In the late nineteenth and twentieth century, free inquiry—itself a principle of the classical liberalism of the Enlightenment– replaced religion as the organizing principle of our great universities. Increasing knowledge, not promoting religion or politics, became the university’s guiding light. And with that objective came rules designed to promote knowledge— respect for free speech, rules of property and decorum, and the separation of the university from religious and political commitments.

But such neutral principles bump up against the left’s interest in using social institutions to help create the kind of society they prefer.  As a result, the left-liberals in charge of our universities are often willing to compromise the conditions for free and open inquiry, particularly when doing so helps the university become a better instrument for “social justice.”

For instance, Brown University has committed to even more “social justice” programs and seminars, further undermining the political neutrality of the university, given that social justice is now a code word for progressive change. President Chris Eisgruber of Princeton signed an agreement to end the occupation of his office as well as provide amnesty for the occupiers, undermining the principle that changes at a university should come by discussion not through the use of force.  And at Yale and other university the Presidents fail to vigorously defend the right of free speech of professors who may take stances unpopular with the left.  The greatest threats to universities today do not come from students but from their own stewards who will not fight for the integrity of their institutions.

John O. McGinnis

John O. McGinnis is the George C. Dix Professor in Constitutional Law at Northwestern University. His book Accelerating Democracy was published by Princeton University Press in 2012. McGinnis is also the coauthor with Mike Rappaport of Originalism and the Good Constitution published by Harvard University Press in 2013 . He is a graduate of Harvard College, Balliol College, Oxford, and Harvard Law School. He has published in leading law reviews, including the Harvard, Chicago, and Stanford Law Reviews and the Yale Law Journal, and in journals of opinion, including National Affairs and National Review.

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  1. libertarian jerry says

    The crisis in our universities is the final result of Political Correctness and diversity as outlined in the 80 plus years of the assault on our culture by the Cultural Marxists. The “Frankfurt School” founded by among others Antonio Gramsci and advanced by men such as Herbert Marcuse realized that a revolution,similar to the Russian Revolution,would be difficult in the West because of the large size of the Middle Classes who would have much to loose. The only answer for the Leftists was to work to change the culture in order to acclimate the Western Middle Classes into accepting a collectivist society. Thus,over time,the Left captured much of the Main Stream Media,Public education,the arts,Hollywood,TV and especially Academia. This assault on Academia was titled by the Left “the long march through the institutions.” The end results are that much of the West has become socialized with all 10 Planks to the Communist Manifesto (albeit in modified form) now a part of our culture. The final flowering is political correctness gone wild. Not only among a minority of “students” but among much of the faculty and university administrators. In essence,to a large extent,the Left has taken over the colleges and universities of America in order to dictate the concepts of leftist “social justice,” “diversity,” and collectivist thought. In the end,this makes a farce out of a “liberal” education,free speech and open minded free,critical thought. This situation in made worse with the ability of “students” to finance their education through government grants or low cost government backed loans. In essence productive Americans with their taxes are subsidizing Leftists on campus. The only answer is economic. That is to dismantle the Federal Department of Education,get government out of financing tuition and let the “students” pay for their own education. Along with this action government,at any level,would not be permitted to finance any universities or colleges. Pressure can also be applied by alumni refusing to donate to colleges and universities that discriminate against free and fair discussions by those that the faculty and or administration deem “politically incorrect.” Only with economic pressure will these organs of socialism be freed up from being havens of collectivist thought.

  2. nobody.really says

    Leftism and liberalism are in tension, because the former prioritizes equality while the latter prioritizes liberty. Leftists focus on equality of result as opposed to equality before the law. They are also enthusiastic about many forms of social engineering to reach a vision of substantive equality that is every changing. Unlike those on the wholly collectivist left, left-liberals have traditionally been committed to preserving many of the tenets of liberalism– freedom of speech, belief, and the rule of law. But these liberal commitments often stand in the way of achieving their equality goals. Freedom of speech and belief empowers individuals to resist programs of greater substantive equality. The rule of law protects what leftists may regard as entrenched concentrations of power.

    These tensions are playing out in the new wave of political correctness that is threatening our universities. In the late nineteenth and twentieth century, free inquiry—itself a principle of the classical liberalism of the Enlightenment– replaced religion as the organizing principle of our great universities. Increasing knowledge, not promoting religion or politics, became the university’s guiding light. And with that objective came rules designed to promote knowledge— respect for free speech, rules of property and decorum, and the separation of the university from religious and political commitments.

    Isn’t this a tired, facile thesis?

    Yes, freedom and equality are in tension. This observation is hardly new.

    Yes, the classical liberalism of the Enlightenment replaced religion with open inquiry as the organizing ideas of the university. Which explains why in the late 1800s universities were so heavily populated with women, ethnic minorities, religious minorities, poor people, openly gay people, physically disabled people, etc. And why members of all these groups are so well represented in the Libertarian Party.

    Alternatively, it demonstrates that we have long professed to be organized around principles of open inquiry, while having policies that in practice preclude the very openness we profess. And over time we’ve altered our policies in the effort to achieve in practice the openness we have professed – even if these new policies impinged upon the old ones. Does Affirmative Action make universities (and society) more open or less? People of good will can differ. But, whatever your opinion on this question, it is hardly new.

    Yup, students occupy campus buildings to get their way. Whatever your opinion of this, it is hardly new.

    About the only new dynamic I observe is the idea that students are now promoting policies that may impinge upon the interests of people in McGinnis’s social class. I don’t mean to dismiss his concerns; I share many of them. I merely observe that social norms always impinge upon someone’s interest, and I’m not persuaded that in practice today’s norms restrict openness more than any prior era’s.

    I wonder if there were some way to measure this? That would breathe some new life into this old discussion.

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