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How realistic is an ‘ivory tower’ for conservatives?

There’s no doubt that the current aim of higher education – “reproduction of ideology and the formation of like-minded political activists” – is harming America and the students and taxpayers who pay vast sums to these indoctrination factories.

It’s hurting conservatives even worse: Their convictions are ridiculed by default, which may lead them to censor their views to make it through graduate school. They face “dismal job prospects” if they don’t hide their opinions as they complete their PhDs.

Heaven help them if they somehow manage to teach at the college level, Peter Berkowitz writes at RealClearPolitics:

Untenured conservative professors confront unwritten but rigorously enforced tests of methodological and political soundness. The few conservative scholars who obtain tenure must grapple with marginalization in their departments, disciplines, and the wider university community.

But what’s the alternative to this depressing system, which is so effective at replicating itself? Is it possible to create an “ivory tower” for conservatives?

Berkowitz, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, raises some practical objections to a proposal made by American Enterprise Institute scholars in the winter issue of National Affairs.

Frederick Hess and Brendan Bell of AEI’s education policy studies make the case that conservative donors can create a top-tier university from scratch – for under $3.5 billion – that will be self-sustaining in a couple decades.

It would serve as an “incubator” for “promising young intellectuals” to pursue “questions and subjects that don’t fit the progressive orthodoxy at today’s most prestigious institutions of higher learning.”

Its board, culture and bylaws would welcome but not require conservative views, and it would provide the “scaffolding - employment, funding, networks, and publication outlets — to enable [scholars] to achieve independent viability.”

Berkowitz calls this plan “an enticing prospect for promoting the public interest” but calls out “several substantial difficulties” ignored by Hess and Bell:

For example, the leading higher-education accreditation agencies impose intrusive and far-reaching requirements concerning student affirmative action and faculty gender and race that have a tendency to yield intellectual conformity. The creation of a university friendly to conservatives hinges on the creation of a new accrediting agency that recognizes the centrality of the free and robust exchange of ideas to the life of the university.

By the authors’ own account, higher education has suppressed the spirit of liberal education and largely purged conservative scholars. Where will the faculty and administration be found to staff the authors’ new university?

He’s also concerned that conservative donors will prefer to focus on “the political arena” rather than enable marginalized scholars and students “to follow the argument wherever it may lead.” It’s a “delicate balancing act” to reconcile “sectarian convictions” with the “devotion to intellectual rigor,” as Catholic and Quaker colleges know.

One thing is clear now: Right-leaning fellowships and summer programs, complemented by nonpartisan speech-defense groups, are largely playing defense against hostile higher ed trends, rather than gaining ground for non-leftist thought.

Read Berkowitz’s article and the National Affairs essay.

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