Among the most shocking side effects of Hamas’ horrific October 7th attack on Israel has been to expose the indecency at the heart of the American university. The question is what to do about it.
Before the Israeli victims’ blood had dried celebrations broke out on American campuses, applauding Hamas’ “audacity” and “ingenuity” in bringing murder, rape, torture and kidnapping to some 1,200 Israelis.
University administrators responded clumsily, with only a small percentage issuing statements (as opposed to their quick responses to the killing of George Floyd and other outrages). This set into motion three hugely consequential series of events.
One was outrage from pro-Hamas students and faculty, who exposed their enthusiasm for violence in the name of ‘decolonization.’ Programmed to see the world in terms of ‘oppressed’ and ‘oppressor’ their protests were rooted in barely disguised Jew hatred, while their defenses of eliminationist rhetoric like “From the river to the sea Palestine will be free” were simple sophistry. Disgust was widespread and deserved.
The second was shock from wealthy donors, appalled by the moral stupidity of institutions they had eagerly supported to the tune of billions of dollars. Their ire was focused mostly on university administrations which issued clumsy clarifications that, yes, indeed, they were against Hamas’ slaughter of Israeli partygoers and kidnapping of Israeli babies. These transparently self-serving statements fooled no one.
The third event were Congressional hearings. Presidents of three of America’s most prestigious universities, the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, appeared before a committee and fumbled a softball question: would calls for genocide directed against Jews violate a university code of context?
“It is a context-dependent decision,” replied now ex-president of Penn Liz Magill.
The hapless presidents walked into a trap and were snared by their own arrogance and smugness. Coached by the same $1500 an hour law firm they could not be troubled to explain that as private institutions they are able to set limits on free speech and that perhaps calling for genocide crosses a line. These are the same administrations which become indignant when speakers advocate for women-only sports teams, or charge exorbitant ‘security fees’ when ‘unsafe’ figures like Ben Shapiro come to campus. “Academic freedom” has long been a one way street.
More disasters have followed. Harvard president Claudine Gay appears caught in a plagiarism scandal. The faculty has rallied to her support but reports indicate that at least a billion dollars in donations have been lost. Penn lost a $100 million donation thanks to Magill. The reputational harm to elite institutions in particular is vast, approaching that of Disney or Bud Light. And students are going elsewhere.
But the question of how to reform universities remains. The most profitable non-profit industry in American, from the perspective of its well-compensated and bloated management, is deeply entrenched. Its faculty is outwardly radicalized by a relatively small percentage of Israel and America haters, but supported by a much larger percentage of believers in the absolute sanctity of their own freedom from oversight. And billions of dollars in Qatari donations have skewed priorities towards indulgence of the right sorts of intolerance.
So what’s a donor to do? Four possibilities may be suggested.
The easiest and fastest route has already been taken, denying universities donations. Harvard’s billion dollar loss, the lowering of the “donor” door for special consideration from tens of millions to a mere $2 million, and the $1 dollar donation protests by disgruntled alums, are impossible for universities to ignore. Take away more money, loudly.
But simply denying universities money (or students) isn’t enough. Make the point clearer with large and well-advertised donations to other institutions. For example, the Great Books oriented St. John’s College, the staunchly independent Hillsdale College, and the sectarian Yeshiva University are deserving institutions which have kept their wits about them. Even a few million would send a powerful message to vastly larger and better funded schools that the gravy train is over.
Competition is key. Consider starting new institutions, recognizing that these have higher costs and longer timelines. The upstart University of Austin took some $200 million and three years to launch. A full on STEM competitor would be even more costly, but corporations could undertake this as part of industrial reshoring. Why not an IBM/Amazon Web Services University?
The revoked $100 million donation to Penn alone could seed the next liberal arts college. There are plenty of defunct campuses and shuttered office parks and malls ready to be repurposed. And there are plenty of talented scholars ready to do the job. What is needed is vision and leadership.
That’s why the hardest course is reforming existing institutions. Most Americans, donors included, are only now realizing how deeply institutions are gripped by ideologues and bureaucrats. Here the emphasis on ‘diversity, equity, inclusion’ programs is misguided. Problems hide everywhere.
Rooting out ideologues and bureaucrats means digging into every committee and department and every administrative process, admissions, student life, hiring, promotion and tenure, the office of every dean and associate dean, research center, and every budget line. Many do nothing; some are deeply destructive.
Vast middle management is looting the American university, just as it is looting other corporations and government. It seems nearly impossible to locate much less uproot the thousands of bureaucrats dedicated to their own preservation, and perverse ideals like DEI and decolonization.
Moreover, the number of faculty dedicated to the same cannot be removed under the current conceptions of tenure. Massive downsizing and centralized control over curriculums, hiring and admissions are the core of reform and may simply be impossible.
But enough persuasion in the forms of dollars lost, reputations sullied, and good students gone elsewhere might be enough to nudge the titans of American higher education on to another course, if only for self-preservation. Investigating their books and taxing their endowments, both long overdue, will also be persuasive.
This is a once in a century opportunity to reform a pillar of American society. So donors, get with it. Make your money talk.