Ivory Cower · 27 September 2005

University presidents have lost their dignity

By Victor David Hanson--OpinionJournal.com--09/27/05

Whether or not you agreed with them, university presidents used to be dignified figures on the American scene. They often were distinguished scholars, capable of bringing their own brand of independent thinking to bear on the operation and reform of their institutions. Above all, they took seriously the university's mission to seek and transmit the Truth, and thereby to strengthen the free society that made such inquiry possible.

But it has been a long time since Woodrow Wilson (at Princeton), Robert Hutchens (at Chicago) or James Bryant Conant (at Harvard) set the tone for American campuses. Over the past year, four university presidents have been in the news--from Harvard; the University of California, Santa Cruz; the University of Colorado; and the University of California, Berkeley. In each case, the curtains have briefly parted, allowing the public to glimpse the campus wizards working the levers behind the scenes, and confirming that something has gone terribly wrong at our best public and private universities.

Hypocrisy, faddishness, arrogance and intellectual cowardice are among the ailments of the American university today, and it is hard to say whether even a great president could save higher education from its now institutionalized vices. Amid the variety of scandals afflicting the campuses, the one constant is how the rhetoric of "diversity" trumps almost all other considerations--and how race and gender can be manipulated by either the college president or the faculty in ways that have nothing to do with educating America's youth, but everything to do with personal aggrandizement in an increasingly archaic and unexamined enclave.

At Harvard University, beleaguered President Lawrence Summers challenged notions of "diversity" and paid a steep price. He suggested--off the record, at a conference of the National Bureau of Economic Research--that factors other than institutional prejudice and cultural pressure might help explain the relative dearth of women faculty in the hard sciences at Harvard and other elite universities. If the intent of that mildly provocative, off-the-cuff exegesis was to jumpstart debate among serious thinkers, it proved a big mistake. Within seconds, one tough-minded feminist was reduced to bouts of nausea and swooning, and within hours many were calling for Mr. Summers to apologize, if not resign.

As the country soon learned, Mr. Summers had touched the live wire of the contemporary campus by hinting that inequality of result might be due to something other than invidious and institutional discrimination. Mr. Summers fell back limp from that high-voltage jolt; only massive and repeated doses of self-abasement could resuscitate him. Accordingly, he quickly renounced and denounced his own musings, promising task forces, "independent listeners," investigations, committees and ample largesse (including $50 million from Harvard's own bulging coffers) to be distributed to the purported victims of his insensitivity--who are in fact some of the most educated, privileged and upscale women on the planet.

But to save Mr. Summers's job it will probably cost much more than his pledge of $5 million a year for a decade. His special task force already has urged the appointment of a senior "vice provost for diversity and faculty development," along with improved recruitment and the "mentoring" of junior faculty members. According to a communiqu?rom his office, the members of his task force "propose a series of reforms and enhancements to the way women pursuing science and engineering are treated at every point along the 'pipeline,' from undergraduates, to graduate students, to post-doctoral fellows, to the faculty ranks." And lest we think $50 million is too much, Mr. Summers's statement also added that it is merely a down payment: "There is no doubt that these initiatives will require significant additional expenditures. But we want to make clear at the outset that this is a serious effort calling for a serious commitment of resources."

Somehow the former secretary of the Treasury, who once helped manage the Byzantine world of global commerce, failed to realize that the entire campus industry of mandated retroactive compensation--targeted fellowships, release time (i.e., excusing teachers from teaching), ideological curricula, favorable hiring and promotion considerations, tenure decisions based on criteria other than merit, and other forms of recompense that Mr. Summers in fact scrambled to grant--would be imperiled by a few politically incorrect syllables. Perhaps Mr. Summers naively thought that Harvard was about free speech and unfettered discourse--its motto, after all, is Veritas, "Truth." In any event, he quickly recovered, winning back through penance, self-censorship, and spoils a job that he had almost forfeited in a passing moment of intellectual curiosity.

One of President Summers's chief critics, Denice Denton, the newly appointed chancellor of the University of California, Santa Cruz, heralded Mr. Summers's public humiliation as a "teachable moment." As one president to another, she objected: "Here was this economist lecturing pompously [to] this room full of the country's most accomplished scholars on women's issues in science and engineering, and he kept saying things we had refuted in the first half of the day."

But Chancellor Denton has her own shortcomings. They do not revolve around mere impromptu remarks, nor have they been trailed by public apologies and task forces. Yet in its own way her controversy goes to the heart of the same contemporary race-and-gender credo that governs the university, enjoying exemption from normal scrutiny and simple logic.

Before her arrival, Ms. Denton arranged the creation of a special billet--ad hoc, unannounced and closed to all applicants but one: Ms. Denton's live-in girlfriend of seven years, Gretchen Kalonji. Most recognize this as the sort of personal accommodation--old-boy networking, really--that Ms. Denton presumably wishes to replace with affirmative action, thus ending backroom deals and crass nepotism.

But if race and gender--what we now refer to as "diversity"--are to be taken seriously, one wonders whether there was not a qualified African-American or Latina woman who could at least have been interviewed for the lucrative UC position. After all, Chancellor Denton herself praised UC Santa Cruz for its "celebration of diversity." And earlier, she insisted that "it is really shocking to hear the president of Harvard make statements like that," i.e., statements that ever so gently questioned the diversity shibboleth. Consider the reaction had President Summers arrived at a public, tax-supported university and arranged for his live-in girlfriend to have lifelong employment in a specially created job, complete with a subsidized move into a rent-free home.

And a six-figure salary: Gretchen Kalonji's unusual position pays $192,000 a year. Now, it happens that Chancellor Denton--whose salary is $275,000--was granted $68,750 to subsidize the move into the rent-free University President's House. But Ms. Kalonji, too, received a grant for expenses incurred during her "transition" to the Santa Cruz campus--$50,000, in fact.

The decision to pay $120,000 in public money for moving expenses to a couple with a combined salary of $467,000 can be defended, perhaps, but one group was certainly outraged: the university's maintenance staff, secretaries, and blue-collar workers. UC Santa Cruz's workers had not received a raise in three years. Yet in response to questions about her controversial partner accommodation--and the message that it sent to less-fortunate others on the campus--Chancellor Denton did not sound like a woman of the Left. "It's a typical practice," she explained in an interview with the local Santa Cruz Sentinel, "in the corporate world or academia." As if turning for support to the suspect world of capitalism was not enough, Ms. Denton also sought the sanctuary of victimhood, of someone at the mercy of red-state yahoos: "We got caught in the middle of national forces, gay marriage, red-state/blue-state issues and a state ruling. It's a hot item right now, and it heightened the tension. I was kind of surprised at the San Francisco Chronicle coverage saying 'lesbian lover.' It seemed more like a tabloid headline."

It proved impossible for a white male like Larry Summers to find shelter from the storm. But a gay woman had simply to ignore questions of social equity by playing the diversity card herself--in addition to claiming corporate precedents for her own unusual perks. Aware of the growing controversy over the hire, Ms. Denton returned to the mantra of diversity to explain her own decision to come to Santa Cruz. "The focus on diversity and social justice is important to me," she emphasized to the Sentinel, recalling how she had spoken out against Mr. Summers's remarks: "We need to address the issue of equity and access. It requires a cultural change and university presidents have to provide leadership."

Gretchen Kalonji certainly had "access," and Ms. Denton certainly provided "leadership" in assuring "equity" to her partner. Perhaps Ms. Kalonji's hiring even resulted in the desired "cultural change." But it is fortunate for Chancellor Denton that she does not share the politics of, say, Rep. Tom DeLay, who endured far more obloquy for hiring his wife, for far less money, to work on his congressional campaigns.

Now we come to the third case: University of Colorado President Elizabeth Hoffman. She recently resigned, ostensibly following athletic scandals, but more likely as a result of the uproar over Ward Churchill. We remember him now as the strange professor who compared the 3,000 murdered in the Twin Towers and Pentagon to "Little Eichmanns," supposed cogs in the military-industrial wheel who deserved their fate. The public grudgingly accepted that Mr. Churchill's wartime praise for the 9/11 murderers ("combat teams" rightfully avenging America's murder of "500,000 Iraqi children") is protected free speech. But it could not quite fathom why Mr. Churchill was not summarily dismissed for other sins.

And they were legion. He had fabricated a Native American heritage, lying on affidavits about his ethnic identity to help make up for his lack of credentials and suspect work. Mr. Churchill had been promoted to full professor at a major research university without the requisite Ph.D. degree, enjoying apparent ethnic immunity from a series of old allegations involving theft of intellectual property, plagiarism and academic misrepresentation. Most people outside the university were amazed not so much that Mr. Churchill was not immediately terminated as that he had been hired and promoted in the first place. To them he seemed like a swerving drunk driver, who when pulled over is found to have a long rap sheet. Yet how many others like the $112,000-a-year, department-chairing Mr. Churchill scramble about in the unexamined sanctuaries of the modern university, parlaying real or imagined victim status into lucrative careers?

President Hoffman did her best to deflect attention from the Churchill mess by a now-familiar victimization gambit. The scandal was not Mr. Churchill and his remarks but the reaction to them: academic freedom was under assault from--what else?--"a New McCarthyism." At the barricades, as it were, she boasted to her faculty senate that "I was a tiger about speech. There was no way I was going to touch speech." She went on, "We are in dangerous times. I'm very concerned. .?.?. It's looking a lot like [former CU president] George Norlin being asked to fire all the Catholics and Jews or the McCarthy era. We need to make sure we don't let ourselves go down that path, no matter how much shouting there is from the outside. There are forces that would push us down that path if we let them."

Meanwhile, the media-savvy Mr. Churchill--replete with long gray locks, beaded headband, shades, buckskin and the Native American name Keezjunnahbeh (which means "kind-hearted man"; Ward Churchill is his "colonial" name)--was determined to capitalize on his windfall fame. Indeed, he was undoubtedly grateful, after years of toiling in painful obscurity, that the media had at long last noticed his outrageous behavior. He grasped that he was already eligible for lucrative retirement benefits, which now could be enhanced by a generous golden parachute from the University of Colorado, eager to avoid millions of dollars in lawsuits and more bad press.

So Mr. Churchill keeps on touring and speaking to audiences about American culpability for September?11, praising those who murder Americans and vowing hostility to the very idea of America. President Hoffman announced her resignation in March, and Mr. Churchill's lawyer now negotiates the promised buyout with her successor.

Finally, there is Robert J. Birgeneau, the new chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley. Upon arriving in the Bay Area, he quickly vowed to solve the problems he had found. Surprisingly, these had nothing to do with a decline in academic standards, deterioration in the quality of Berkeley's key departments, or a state funding crisis. Instead, the chancellor complained that Berkeley has fewer Native American, Hispanic, and African-American students enrolled than it should--the campus was only 3% black, 9.5% Hispanic, and 0.4% Native American, in contrast with about 45% Asian-American and about 33% white. (The California population comprises 6.5% blacks, 33% Hispanics, 0.92% Native Americans, 11% Asian-Americans, and 45% whites.) Mr. Birgeneau is obsessed with racial diversity, as determined by percentages and quotas. But as we shall see, the numbers, under closer examination, may make him regret pandering to the diversity industry.

Chancellor Birgeneau blames the apparent statistical injustices on Proposition 209, the 1996 California ballot initiative that forbids the use of racial criteria in state hiring; it passed with the support of 55% of the electorate. In his view, however, democracy ought to defer to elite opinion; thus, to this Canadian academic the state's voters were obviously misguided: "I personally don't believe that most of the people who voted for 209 intended this consequence."

One can learn a lot about the pathologies of the contemporary university from what its presidents say--and don't say. A close look at the data suggests a different picture from the one implied by Mr. Birgeneau's gratuitous lamentations about the lack of diversity. Whites, for instance, are underenrolled at Berkeley: They amount to around 35% of undergraduates versus 45% of the state's population. Given this fact, why doesn't the Chancellor complain about the shortage of whites on campus?

He is oddly quiet, too, about the more explosive issue of the Asian-American presence. This group constitutes almost half the Berkeley student population, even though Asians make up only about 11% of California residents and 4% of the general U.S. population. Why doesn't Mr. Birgeneau admit that achieving his racial utopia would require deliberately reducing the enrollment of Asian-American students--presumably by discounting meritocratic criteria and test scores and instead emphasizing "community service" or other nebulous standards designed to circumvent Proposition 209? But because the new chancellor is obviously a sensitive sort, he cannot say what he apparently means: something like, "We have too many Asians, almost five times too many, and I am here to impose a quota on them and other suspect races." Instead, he worries about "underrepresentation" of some, while denying the logical corollary of "overrepresentation" of others. The same logic applies to gender, by the way. UC campuses enroll thousands more women than men, very much out of proportion to the general population, and yet Mr. Birgeneau does not decry the "overabundance" of women.

Remember, too, that Asians have suffered a particularly long history of discrimination in California. Despite everything from immigration quotas to forced internment during World War II, they have the highest high-school graduation rates in the state, while blacks and Hispanics suffer the lowest. What, then, could we learn from the Asian-American experience that seems to render past hurdles to achievement irrelevant to present academic performance? Don't expect Chancellor Birgeneau to take the lead in asking this question.

There is enormous intellectual arrogance on the campus these days, manifested in condescension towards the average taxpaying citizen. We sense such haughtiness when for the last 30 years the rate of tuition increases has exceeded inflation, without either much worry or accountability from university administrators. They assume that the public has no business questioning whether tenure, release time, research perks, top-heavy administration, and therapeutic programs constitute a wise use of education funds.

Instead, Mr. Birgeneau declares that he intends to reopen the question of Proposition 209, to begin a scholarly and, ultimately, popular campaign for its repeal or effective repeal. He refuses to concede the wisdom, much less the justice, of the voters' deliberate endorsement of it. This unfortunate outcome, he argues, could have been reversed by a change of just five percentage points--what he calls a "quite small percentage of the population." But he is blind to the fact that Proposition 209, far from being an aberration or exception, was part of the deliberate, continuing public disapproval of tribal and ethnic separatism and of deviations from traditional respect for legality, merit selection and national unity--as manifested, for instance, in opposition to bilingualism in schools and to illegal immigration.

Nor does the chancellor entertain the possibility that racial rubrics themselves are increasingly irrelevant, especially in California, where exogamy (marriage proper and cohabitation) among the Asian and Hispanic population runs between 25% and 50% in the younger cohorts. Any faculty member in the California State University system can attest that it is now nearly the norm to teach students who are, to take a few examples, one-quarter Asian, one-half Hispanic, or three-quarters white, many of whom decline to list themselves as official minorities of any sort on state forms.

We are quickly reaching the stage where the chancellor's pie graphs evoke the racial categories of the Old Confederacy, as he tries to ascertain whether Jason Martinez, one-fourth Hispanic, or Na Wilson, half Cambodian, should be counted as a minority.

Then there is the matter of hypocrisy. As we have seen with Colorado's Chancellor Denton, there is one standard for some and another for the anointed. And as we know from Mr. Birgeneau's rhetoric, racial and ethnic symbolism is paramount; so if there is a statewide imbalance in the number of UC administrators of color, then his own presence is palpably a contribution to it. One of the reasons the people turned against affirmative action in the first place was that they tired of the preening of opportunistic senior white males, who adopted an apr?moi le deluge attitude toward the younger generation: remonstrating about the need for punitive hiring criteria that they almost certainly never applied to themselves.

For some two decades, I often watched entire departments of 50-something white male philosophy and English professors, themselves often hired ABD ("all but dissertation": a graduate student who hasn't finished his thesis) in the booming job markets of the 1960s--and who subsequently became mostly unpublished and undistinguished classroom teachers--take it upon themselves to hire only minorities and women, lecturing passed-over young white males about the need for diversity. These entrenched and often mediocre senior professors did everything for the cause except take early retirement, though many advised the perennially exploited part-time instructors to "move on" or "get a life."

In the chancellor's defense, it might be said that he realized the liability of being a white-male-Canadian-physicist in the racial cauldron of Berkeley--and grasped that he was hired precisely because he was known as a "diversity" president back at the University of Toronto, one prone to giving soapbox lectures with the same mind-numbing slogans and clich?he tried out right away at Berkeley.

Mr. Birgeneau urges "equity" and "access," but does not apply those inflexible, numbers-based egalitarian strictures to himself. Chancellor Denton, even worse, adopted the very kind of discriminatory insider-dealing policies she denounced in her praise of diversity and its handmaiden, affirmative-action hiring. Prof. Churchill wishes to revolt against our capitalist system but does not reject its furnishing of his ample salary; his deer-in-the-headlights president doesn't know what to do except retreat to the easy slurs of "McCarthyism." And Harvard's President Summers learned the hard way that today's campus gender autocrats will aggressively put down any attempts to question the unfortunate status quo.

No wonder that Mr. Summers's brand of candid common sense--Are race policies what we want? What does account for student success? Do public administrators have any responsibility toward the taxpayers who fund them?--is in short supply, even with Mr. Summers himself. Administrative failure or success is not measured by keeping tuition increases within moderate limits or turning out better-educated graduates, but by conspicuous concern for racial and sexual agendas. Those who pay them lip service, such as Denice Denton, have plenty of leeway in other areas. Those who don't, like poor Larry Summers, do not.

In the end, why should we care about a few high-flying administrators who feel that diversity is the engine that runs the university? Because the U.S. is struggling in an increasingly competitive world in which Europe, China, Japan and India vie for global talent and national advantage through merit-based higher education. They don't care about the racial make-up of the teams that create breakthrough gene therapies or software programs, but only whether such innovations are valuable and superior to the competition.

As our own industrial, agricultural and manufacturing sectors decline, and as we suffer from increasing national debt, trade deficits, energy dilemmas and weak currency, Americans have maintained relative parity largely through information-based technology and superior research--all predicated on a superb system of higher education. At some point, Mr. Summers, Ms. Denton, Ms. Hoffman and Mr. Birgeneau might have wondered what precisely was the system that produced their lavish salaries and great campuses--and what protocols of merit, transparency, intellectual honesty and scholarly rigor were necessary to maintain them.

More importantly, we have lost sight of what university presidents are supposed to be. Their first allegiance ought to be to honesty and truth, not campus orthodoxy masquerading as intellectual bravery amid a supposedly reactionary society. In a world of intellectual integrity, Robert Birgeneau would ask, "Why are Asians excelling, and what can Berkeley do to encourage emulation of their success by other ethnic groups?" Denice Denton might wonder whether open hiring, monitored by affirmative action officers, applies to university staff or only those who are not associates of the president. President Hoffman would decry Ward Churchill's crass behavior and order a complete review of affirmative action and the politicized nature of hiring, retention, and tenure practices at Colorado. And Larry Summers? In the old world of the campus, he would defend free inquiry and expression, and remind faculty that all questions are up for discussion at Harvard. And if self-appointed censors wished to fire him for that, then he would dare them to go ahead and try.

The signs of erosion on our campuses are undeniable, whether we examine declining test scores, spiraling costs, or college graduates' ignorance of basic facts and ideas. In response, our academic leadership is not talking about a more competitive curriculum, higher standards of academic accomplishment, or the critical need freely to debate important issues. Instead, it remains obsessed with a racial, ideological, and sexual spoils system called "diversity." Even as the airline industry was deregulated in the 1970s, and Wall Street now has come under long-overdue scrutiny, it is time for Americans, if we are to ensure our privileged future, to re-examine our era's politicized university.

Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow in at the Hoover Institution and author of the forthcoming "A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War" (Random House). This essay appears in the Summer issue of the Claremont Review of Books.