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The Great University Reform Debate (Video)

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Should We Appeal to Norms of Academic Freedom or Engage in a Strategy of Political Recapture?

Christopher F. Rufo
19 May 2023

Earlier this month, I participated in a friendly debate hosted by Stanford University’s Classical Liberalism Initiative, on the topic of “Academic Freedom and Higher Education Reform.”

I made the case that the modern university has lost its sense of purpose and requires significant institutional reform, even political recapture, to restore the principles of classical liberal education, while my interlocutor, Princeton professor Keith Whittington, argued for a more cautious approach, emphasizing the values of academic freedom, faculty governance, and institutional autonomy.

My belief is that the old right-libertarian solutions, which rely on procedural values, are doomed to fail. In fact, they are responsible, in large part, for the current mess. Rather than continue to pursue this dead end, I believe that we must revive the democratic governance of our public universities and shape them according to the principles and priorities of voters, who elect legislators to govern state institutions in the interest of the common good.

The following are some highlights from this debate.

On the Question of “Who Decides”

Christopher Rufo: These are all political decisions. And I think, in opposition to many of my libertarian friends, that the universities are not overly politicized. The universities are overly ideologized and insufficiently politicized. We should politicize the universities and understand that education is, at heart, a political question. Aristotle presents his theory of education in Book VIII of the Politics. The point of education, he says, is to train citizens for participation in the polis, in political life. And so, libertarian conservatives who would want to retreat are actually abdicating an enormous responsibility. These are public universities funded by taxpayers. This is not a free marketplace of ideas; this is a state-run monopoly on education institutions. And we have a duty and responsibility to use political power to shape them towards serving the citizens, towards serving the public good.

Keith Whittington: I do think that the core academic mission of the university and the core features of that academic mission do need to be under the control of faculty. I don’t particularly want to see board trustees, for example, trying to design the curriculum. I don’t need amateur boards of trustees to be making detailed personnel decisions about which faculty ought to be hired. I think that’s a bad path for universities to go down. It’s not going to be healthy for those institutions in the long run if that’s the direction we go out there. Although there may be some real temptations to do it in the short run. So, I think maintaining and preserving faculty governance, especially over core academic features of the university, is quite crucial.

On the Legislative Reforms in Florida and Texas

Rufo: Public universities have adopted race and sex narcissism to such a degree that they want all of the freedoms and none of the responsibilities [of institutional autonomy]. In my view, legislators are well within their rights and well within the correct course of action to say, “You’ve broken your end of the bargain, now we’re going to bring accountability.”

And so, I’d like to see deeper reforms. First, abolish the DEI offices altogether. I’d like to see the Kalven principles and the Chicago principles adopted as part of university policy statewide. I’d like to see reform in faculty hiring—we need to have more balance in the universities and the faculty is not going to self-select balance. We know that. That’s a fact. And I’d like to see boards of trustees taking a good look at the academic departments. I’d like to shut down altogether some of the most activist academic departments that don’t contribute toward scholarly knowledge. They take a public subsidy to engage in partisan political activism. You have a First Amendment right to pursue whatever lines of inquiry you want, but you don’t have an entitlement to public funding.

Whittington: In order to maintain public confidence in what it is universities are doing, it’s critical that we engage in the core enterprise that we’re supposed to be engaged in, which is, one, a free exploration of ideas. It’s hard for universities to defend themselves. This is what they ought to be doing if they, in fact, are not practicing it internally. I see lots of people outside of universities or seeing what’s happening in universities, don’t like it and, sometimes in pretty ham-handed way, I think, trying to intervene. But that backlash, I think, could be anticipated and really we should’ve done much more to avoid it. We have to clean up our own house if we’re going to make an effective response to these concerns. And, unfortunately, I don’t see us cleaning up our own house quite yet. Chris is very much on the pointy end of the spear of that backlash. Some of the ideas I think that he has advocated, I’m quite supportive of. I think others are much more troubling as to how they’re being implemented.

© 2023 Christopher F. Rufo
5114 Point Fosdick Dr., Suite F #3001
Gig Harbor, WA 98335-1733

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