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Opinion >  Syndicated columns

George F. Will: When colleges take political positions, they show who isn’t wanted

By George F. Will Washington Post

Academic intellectuals, who often are the last to understand things, seem unable to fathom this: They might be taken more seriously if they did not take themselves so seriously. Which is why it is in their interest to stop the spreading practice of having colleges and universities make pronouncements to the nation concerning particular political issues. And compelling applicants for faculty jobs or promotions to pledge allegiance to political agendas.

Last June, when the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision overturned Roe v. Wade, Michael V. Drake, president of the University of California, issued a statement, not in his personal capacity, that included this edict: “The Court’s decision is antithetical to the University of California’s mission and values.”

So, any UC faculty member or student who believes that Roe was produced by shoddy constitutional reasoning – which some supporters of liberal abortion policies do – was, because of their deviation from the official orthodoxy, declared discordant with their institution. Of course, Drake’s institution has a large, muscular bureaucracy to promote and enforce “diversity” (but not regarding public constitutional reasoning) and “inclusion” (but not full inclusion of deviationists). Drake’s announcement was notably gratuitous, given that Dobbs will have no effect on access to abortion in California, where state law is maximally permissive.

Other academic institutions also notified the nation of their disapproval of Dobbs. Even schools within universities have taken to announcing stances on public controversies, or more sweeping judgments, such as this from the University of California at Berkeley School of Public Health: “Racism and white supremacy are our nation’s original sin, and a big reason for where we find ourselves at this moment in history.” Students or faculty who have more nuanced views of U.S. history might wonder how welcome they, as heretics, are in that progressive chapel.

Leave aside colleges’ and universities’ delusions that the larger society is interested in their advertisements of their predictable politics. The advertisement makes the advertisers feel good, a sufficient justification. But they really should read a 55-year-old report.

In 1967, when many campuses were inflamed and the University of Chicago was under internal pressure to announce opposition to the Vietnam War, the university produced the Kalven Report, which said campus free speech and the academic mission depend on a “heavy presumption” in favor of institutional neutrality regarding political matters:

“The instrument of dissent and criticism is the individual faculty member or the individual student. The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic… . There is no mechanism by which it can reach a collective position without inhibiting that full freedom of dissent on which it thrives … if it takes collective action, therefore, it does so at the price of censuring any minority who do not agree with the view adopted.”

More pervasive and sinister than institutions taking collective political stances is their policy of requiring applicants for faculty positions to express enthusiasm for a political agenda. In 2021, the American Enterprise Institute found that 19% of colleges and universities require applicants to submit DEI – diversity, equity and inclusion – statements affirming support of, and sometimes promising activism on behalf of, various race-conscious pedagogies and other policies. An American Association of University Professors survey found that 21.5% of such institutions take “DEI criteria” into account when awarding tenure, and 50% are considering it. This is a mechanism for producing institutions so politically monochrome that they can comfortably make political proclamations without worrying about what a vanishingly small minority of dissenters might think.

An essay in the Jan. 6 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education is titled “The Apolitical University: Should Institutions Remain Neutral on Controversial Issues? Is that Even Possible?” Of course it is possible; they have done it for generations; abandoning neutrality is a choice. The essay, however, quotes Brian Rosenberg, visiting professor in Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, who insists: “You cannot escape politics. Your choice is to act as though you have no stake in those arguments or you can have a little more courage and actively engage in those debates.”

Now, this is defining courage down: The courage of academics consists of hopping, like frogs on lily pads, from one progressive choir to another, fearlessly expressing what the campus majority believes. Note how Rosenberg transforms a progressive aspiration – saturation politics, everywhere, always – into an inevitability: “You cannot escape politics.”

Today’s thoroughly saturated academia is a reminder: The defining characteristic of totalitarian societies is not that the individual cannot participate in politics, but that the individual cannot not participate.

George Will’s email address is georgewill@washpost.com.

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