If knowledge is power, why are so many college presidents weak? Why do they bend so easily before every wind that blows across their campuses?
The timidity of those who run the nation's institutions of higher education has become epidemic. Fearful of seeming insensitive, easily daunted, college and university authorities now routinely tolerate the smothering of open discussion, the punishing of innocent people, the adoption of mindless rules, even the teaching of falsehoods.
Who is surprised anymore when a tenured professor fills a course syllabus with Afrocentric mumbo-jumbo or "transgender liberation" theory? Or when vandals shut down a college newspaper and the school's president rushes to meet their demands? Or when university officials, crumpling in the face of protests, un-invite a guest speaker?
The problem is widespread. But not universal. One prominent exception to the trend is Boston University's president, John Silber, who has been attacking academic cowardice throughout his long career. Two years ago, in bracing statements to the university's trustees and faculty, Silber renewed a pledge not to succumb to the "ideological fads" and "epistemopathologies" that are poisoning the wells of academe.
"We have resisted relativism as an official intellectual dogma," he said in part. "We have resisted the fad toward critical legal studies. . . . In the English department and the departments of literature, we have not allowed the structuralists or the deconstructionists to take over. . . . We have resisted the official dogmas of radical feminism. . . . We recognize that Western culture, so-called, is in fact a universal culture."
Silber has flaws, but lack of courage isn't among them. Likewise his protege Jon Westling, BU's executive vice president and provost, whom the trustees have designated to become president upon Silber's retirement.
Boston University's Jon Westling
"American higher education is on the verge of losing its most precious asset," he warned. "It is abandoning or being forced to abandon its robust independence, and it will fade into something worse than mediocrity if the government's regulatory assault is not stopped."
Take, he said, guaranteed student loans. The program started out with fine aims: Poor but worthy students could borrow the money to pay for tuition at any institution whose graduates would repay the loans. But gradually the government turned student loans into a wing of the welfare state. One by one, the struts on which their financial viability had depended were kicked out.
The loan default rate was initially held to about the level a commercial lender would tolerate. When it transpired that students at trade schools and "historically black colleges" were defaulting in great numbers, Congress raised the default ceiling. Then raised it again. And again. And again. Today, up to 30 percent of a school's alumni can refuse to pay back their loans before the school is ruled ineligible to participate.
"At the same time," Westling reported, "the government began lowering the minimum academic standards necessary to qualify for loans. Today, neither a high school diploma nor equivalency exam is required for taking out a federally guaranteed loan." On top of that, "the government is unwilling to require 'disadvantaged' members of society to pay back the loans."
Result? Unqualified students are admitted to cheesy schools, where they receive a lousy education, paid for with subsidized loans, on which they subsequently welsh. Your tax dollars at work.
Westling ran the numbers.
"In 1970, the taxpayer's bill for guaranteed student loans was $2.3 million, on a volume of $770 million. In 1993, the bill had grown to $5 billion, on a volume of $ 18 billion. . . . The cost to taxpayers per dollar loaned has risen from about 0.29 cents in 1970 to 27.0 cents in 1993. That is a 9,900 percent increase."
None of this would have happened had the feds been content simply to guarantee the loans, trusting colleges and lenders to select students who would take their debts seriously. The culprit, he said, "was Congress, which insisted that the real decisions about who would receive the student loans would be made by the federal government."
It isn't just student loans. Westling diagnosed ailment after ailment: incompetent accreditation agencies, the stranglehold of tenure, a tidal wave of disabled-rights litigation, choking paperwork. All of these are sources of universities' distress; all have been made worse by government interference.
Most leaders of major universities preserve a diplomatic silence about the destruction Washington is wreaking on the campuses of America. Jon Westling isn't like most leaders of major universities. For which everyone who cares about the fate of higher learning has reason to be grateful.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)