1970s student protest against the Vietnam War (Photo by H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images)
Artillery Row Books

The breakdown of higher education

A British-American professor explains how diversity ruined academia, and how to reform it

This autumn, publishers have released several critiques of higher education. Here I review a critique that is almost a memoir, by a fellow British émigré to American academia, and a fellow survivor of the University of California system (UC).

John M. Ellis is almost twice my age, and in this context I am jealous, because he experienced the heyday of academia. His formative experiences and training were in the 1950s, in London, “before ethnic divisions had yet become a significant factor in politics there.”

Later in the book, he adds this lament:

I began my career as a university teacher over 50 years ago. I remember well how cheerful it was at the beginning of each academic year to see eager young faces about to begin their university education … In the past, virtually everyone agreed that universities needed to be protected from political influence because it would corrupt them. That consensus is now gone. Today’s campuses are so predominantly and brazenly left-activist that nobody could regard them as politically neutral.

Ellis joined UC Santa Cruz in 1966, a year after its establishment. Thus, Ellis was part of the greatest expansion of higher education. The UC was already the largest university system in the world. Higher education was expanding all over America, to accommodate the baby boomers.

The results were falling standards and rising partisanship. A surge in students meant a surge in demand for faculty. Filling this demand meant lowering standards.

The Breakdown of Higher Education: How it Happened, The Damage it Does, and What Can Be Done, by John M. Ellis (Encounter Books, 2020) £18.99

Meanwhile, Marxists organized to use universities as a base for cultural and thence political revolution. The Vietnam War helped to radicalize the student demographic (for whom higher education was an alternative to the draft). The true liberal educators were too reasonable to contemplate Marxist hyperbole, and too individualistic to counter Marxist organizing.

The Marxists discriminated in favour of blacks, Hispanics, women, and fellow radical leftists. While equal opportunity is meritorious, affirmative action is not. Affirmative action to one is inherently negative discrimination to the other.

In theory, this negative discrimination was illegal at federal, state, and institutional levels. However, institutions hypocritically claim academic freedom to do whatever they want.

Academia became dominated by Marxism – culturally, politically, intellectually

Some white men took their cases of negative discrimination to the Supreme Court, which in 1978 fatefully reached a split decision. It confirmed that discrimination by race was unconstitutional. However, it allowed that “diversity” could be a worthy objective. The social justice warriors used this ruling to justify their prejudices. Thence, academia became dominated by Marxism – culturally, politically, intellectually. The Marxists “deconstructed” and “decolonized” everything, denied logic and empiricism, relegated social sciences behind new “studies” (ethnic, women’s, queer, peace, war), and normalized shout-downs, cancellations, and censorship as signals of intellectual and moral virtue.

During this tumultuous period, Ellis was employed as professor of German literature, Dean of his university’s graduate division, chair of the UC Council of Graduate Deans (twice), and chair of the UC report on personnel policies. After retirement in 1994, Ellis founded the California Association of Scholars (as a branch of the National Association, which campaigns for classical liberal education).

Ellis condemns all higher education for politicization, but most of his cases come from the UC. This is where he is most effective. Indeed, the book builds to his post-retirement confrontation with the UC. Perversely, the UC’s infuriating obfuscation is entertaining.

The UC is partisan from top to bottom. The UC President is one of the state governor’s political appointees. The President reports to the Board of Regents, most of whom are not educators, but wealthy contributors to the governor’s political campaign. The governor appoints most of the 26 voting members, each for 12-year terms.

In 2012, Ellis, acting as President of the California Association of Scholars, lodged with the Board of Regents a report on the many cases of politicization. The Chair of the Board of Regents refused to admit it on the agenda. (The chair then was the former actress and head of Paramount Pictures, Sherry Lansing.)

Ellis is an idealist about academic objectivity, but a realist about reform

The UC President (Mark Yudof) told Ellis that the UC Academic Senate would study the report. Months later, Ellis discovered on the Senate’s website a one-page letter to the UC President. The letter dismissed Ellis’s “anecdotes,” without specifying any, and quoted UC policies on hiring as evidence that nothing could go wrong. In fact, Ellis had cited those same policies as discrepant with actual hiring biases. Ellis reiterated to Yudof a list of questions based on his report’s major findings. Yudof ignored them.

Coincidentally, two professors at UCLA complained about a colleague using a classroom to promote a boycott of Israel. The chair of UCLA’s Academic Senate, ignoring due process, ordered the department to stop the colleague. The colleague appealed to the UCLA Committee on Academic Freedom, which found nothing wrong with his behaviour and rebuked the Senate. The chair of the Senate then ignored the issue.

Ellis wrote to Yudof, citing the case as evidence that the UC Academic Senate had been wrong to deny any partisanship or lack of institutional safeguards. Yudof pivoted to a claim that he could not intervene at UCLA. Ellis explained his point again. Yudof responded that one classroom did not prove anything. Ellis asked Yudof to stop dodging. Yudof replied that he was ending the correspondence.

The chair of the Board of Regents (Lansing) claimed that the Regents must defer to the UCLA Academic Senate. Ellis pointed out that the state constitution obliges the Board of Regents to reach an independent judgement. Lansing replied that the Regents had agreed not to act on his first report. Ellis replied that the Open Meeting Act requires the Board of Regents to reach decisions publicly. Lansing then said that the Regents had never discussed and never would discuss his report.

Ellis wants to purge the radicals and fakers

There ended Ellis’s lobbying, but not his writing. In subsequent years, his views on reform clearly hardened. Ellis is an idealist about academic objectivity, but a realist about reform. Ellis does not prescribe that serving academics should raise their voices against the tyranny. He expects such bravery to be foolhardy. Individuals won’t stimulate a movement in academia. (The few cancelled academics who have found a niche in social media are the exceptions that prove the rule, such as Bret Weinstein, hounded from Evergreen State College in 2017 for opposing a day of absence for white people.)

Ellis wants to purge the radicals and fakers. Reforming the procedures would be insufficient, because the radicals manipulate the procedures. For Ellis, the leftists should not be balanced by affirming conservatives, because his ideal is non-partisanship.

Ellis suggests the first step is public pressure on state legislatures via “a report from a committee of inquiry composed of some distinguished elder statesmen of the real academy.” That sounds like what he already tried as the California Association of Scholars, which failed.

Without admitting this, Ellis goes on to recommend that partisan academic departments should be taken into “receivership.” A new chair would be imposed, independent of the department’s legacy members, to make new hires. The department could be abolished, thereby abolishing current employees, including tenured professors, before restoring the department with new hires. Whole universities could be taken into receivership, so that the “diversity bureaucracy” could be dismantled.

Ellis imagines a state government setting a precedent, restoring merit and excellence to its state university system, attracting students and faculty from out of state, and encouraging other states, by competition, to follow suit.

Clearly, such ambition requires political intervention. Ellis imagines federal accreditation agencies withholding accreditation from universities that are partisan, while functional agencies withhold funds from the unaccredited.

Strangely, Ellis does not endorse the precedent set by Trump in March 2019, when he issued an executive order linking funds with performance on free speech. Trump threatened to remove federal funds for partisanship and educational failures too. However, Congress controls the purse, and no such use of funding is possible while the Democrats control the House of Representatives.

We need a government to enforce the law on non-partisan education

The likeliest state to fulfil Ellis’ prescription is Florida. In 2019, a Republican state representative (Ray Rodrigues) twice introduced a bill with provision to survey students and faculty on their politics, in pursuit of intellectual diversity, amongst other reforms. However, that provision was repeatedly voted down by Democrats. Instead, Rodrigues got assent to a non-partisan Florida Institute of Politics at Florida State University, whose mission includes the promotion of intellectual diversity. Republican gains during November’s election indicate that in 2021 the state could become the precedent that Ellis hopes.

Short of political intervention, Ellis imagines students and parents seeking cheaper and more competitive teaching from private schools online. Commercial competitiveness promotes merit over politics. However, higher education won’t feel competitive if public universities continue to be subsidized beyond utility.

This is the strongest lesson for Britain, where higher education is mostly protected from the market by public funding of every programme, irrespective of utility. While further education delivers most of the skills at a fraction of the price, higher education is teaching prejudices over skills. We need a government to enforce the law on non-partisan education, and to put the money where the skills are.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5

Critic magazine cover