End grade inflation, obey the law, freeze hiring of critical studies professors, and more
American colleges and universities are among the world’s richest and most powerful institutions. They can afford to do what they want, even if it violates common sense, standards of excellence, or even sometimes the law.
But legislators, donors, and alumni can still make a difference, and students and their families can vote with their wallets and feet — they could support schools that have made common-sense reforms toward restoring their status as centers of learning and scholarship.
Here are five improvements higher education institutions should make in 2024:
Put a freeze on hiring critical ‘studies’ professors
Race, class and gender are important but often reductive ways of understanding the world. Academia’s emphasis on politicized views of these topics isn’t doing much good for their students or the general public.
More than 400 colleges in the United States offer a major in ethnic, cultural minority, gender, or group studies, according to U.S. News and World Report.
According to a 2017 academic journal article by Boston University religion Professor Anthony Petro, the identity politics of the 1960s informed the “studies” departments founded since that era.
This prompted a boom in hiring professors devoted to those topics, as John Ellis, professor emeritus of German literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz, wrote in his 2020 book, “The Breakdown of Higher Education.”
Due to these departments’ roots in political activism, their students are encouraged to think of race, class, gender and related topics in political terms as a clash between the oppressors and the oppressed.
For example, ethnic and Middle Eastern studies departments have taught students to think of Israel as a colonial oppressor, Steven Hayward wrote in October in The New York Post.
The academic institutionalization of identity politics is linked to its tendency to see sexism and racism everywhere. On Dec. 26, The College Fix collected 72 things higher ed declared racist in 2023, and there were no doubt many more.
Ellis wrote that identity politics has a “habitual focus on grievance rather than knowledge.”
Schools should hire scholars, not activists.
Stop preaching on public affairs
Universities are not churches; they do not need to pontificate on affairs that don’t directly concern them.
Colleges faced widespread criticism for their initial non-response to the Hamas terrorist attacks on Israel, and rightly so. Yet they wouldn’t be hypocrites if they hadn’t issued so many self-righteous pronouncements on topics such as Donald Trump’s election or Black Lives Matter.
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression wrote, “When colleges adopt official institutional positions on issues outside their mission, they risk establishing a campus orthodoxy that chills speech and undermines the knowledge-generating process.”
Universities should follow the University of Chicago’s 1967 Kalven committee report on the university’s role in politics, which states that “the university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic.”
Princeton political science Professor Greg Conti wrote correctly Dec. 28 in Compact that “university leaders must recognize that an organization that pontificates about everything can be trusted about nothing.”
Give students the grades they deserve
Yale is not unique. The Harvard Crimson reported in 2023 that most universities have inflated grades since the 1980s, according to retired Duke Professor Stuart Rojstaczer’s research at gradeinflation.com.
Ending grade inflation would require students to spend more time studying and less on uninformed activism. It also might require faculty to focus more on scholarship and less on politics.
It would also produce graduates more prepared for the demands of the workplace and the rest of adult life.
Giving students grades they deserve requires teaching them serious content. Colleges must return to basic subjects like English composition, science, math, and American history in their introductory and required courses. They should teach these classes as comprehensively as possible with minimal bias.
A good start would be mandating a course for college students on American institutions and ideals and requiring students to pass a civics literacy test as a graduation requirement, as recommended by a policy report from the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal. Colleges can make students pass the test required to become a citizen of the United States.
Setting high standards would also require colleges to uphold integrity throughout their institutions and especially at the highest levels, which Harvard for one has failed to do in the case of President Claudine Gay, now under fire for dozens of instances of plagiarism.
Talk less about diversity and more about excellence
Ellis wrote, “If you were to examine any speech made by a university president fifty years ago, you would find that the word ‘excellence’ occurs with great frequency.”
“If you made the same examination now, you’d find that ‘diversity’ had taken its place,” he wrote.
In the past several decades, administrative offices focused on “diversity, equity and inclusion” have proliferated, as The Fix has extensively documented. For example, in 2023, Oklahoma public universities were scrutinized for spending $83.4 million on DEI, The Fix reported.
In her 2018 book “The Diversity Delusion,” Heather Mac Donald lists all the diversity offices on the University of San Diego campus alone; the list takes up half a page.
However, excellence is the proper goal of the university. No other institutions have the same power to educate young adults without strong pressure to serve a cause or meet a bottom line. Higher education should cherish this opportunity, not exchange it for dubious political objectives.
Maintain order and obey the law
Colleges say they want to help students from difficult backgrounds, whose families may have sacrificed most for their education. Those students, as well as others, deserve to learn without frequent distractions by protesters and riots. They need a study space, not a battlefield.
Students have the right to protest in public forums, but colleges have the prerogative to prevent trespassing and enforce decorum rules for spaces like libraries and dorms.
The Fix reported in November that eight Harvard undergraduates face university-enforced consequences for occupying a campus building during a pro-Palestinian protest – even after a top administrator gave them Twizzlers and burritos while they camped inside. Disciplinary measures like these are a good start.
Universities also must follow this year’s Supreme Court rulings banning affirmative action, not least because violating the law destroys credibility.
In October, The Fix reported that Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine explored ways to “work around the [Supreme Court] ruling on affirmative action” while creating a scholarship program, according to public records documents obtained by anti-woke medical nonprofit Do No Harm.
Universities’ wealth and power should not put them above the law.
IMAGE: Oxford Union