The Left’s Long March

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On June 2, FOX News’s The Five were discussing the Harvard commencement speech of ex-mayor Michael Bloomberg, in which he pointed out that something like 95 percent of the faculty had supported Obama.  Their discussion ended with Bob Beckel, the program’s voice from the left, wondering why so few conservatives went into college teaching, and going on to muse that it was probably because they were too stupid.

Does Beckel—whose full name, I’ve just discovered, is Robert Gilliland Beckel—really think that colleges are 95-percent liberal-left because lefties have a monopoly on brain power?  Everyone who knows anything at all about college and university campuses knows that what campus lefties have a monopoly on is political power.  The reason there are so few conservative faculty is that the lefties make sure that conservative applicants aren’t appointed in the first place.  This is certainly the case in humanities departments.  In the college from which I recently retired, I know of one remaining conservative.  He’s in the economics department, and he’s in his 50’s.

The preselection hiring process has been going on for a long time, but two interrelated changes that coalesced in the 1980’s rendered its effects well-nigh infallibly accurate.

The first was a recrudescence of Marxism in academic circles in the 1970’s.  No one expected this.  By all the normal rules of observation and inference Marxism was a fraud, just another 19th-century pseudoscience that only differed from competitors like August Comte’s Positivism in the appalling human damage it had caused.  Why prosperous, supposedly smart people in the graduate schools of Princeton, Yale, and UCLA would take up with Marxism is one of the puzzles of the age, but a clue is provided by another academic enthusiasm of the period.

In one of the stranger episodes of 20th-century American academic life, an immigrant Belgian adventurer calling himself Paul de Man, whom David Lehman recently characterized in the New York Review of Books as “a cheat, a liar, a forger, a thief, a bigamist, a cad, a swindler, a moocher, not to mention an enthusiastic Nazi propagandist,” ended up at Yale as Sterling Professor of Comparative Literature and guru to a whole generation of “deconstructionist” disciples all over America.

Try to figure that one out.

Whereas the Marxists strip literature of meaning by applying their own brand of reductionist analysis to it, De Man’s acolytes were taught, rather more simply though in impenetrably riddling English, that literature, like life, had no meaning at all.  What both these parties had in common was their membership: ex-student rebels and baby boomers looking for a stick with which to beat the life out of anything coming to them with the label “traditional” attached to it.

The second, associated change affected the way colleges and universities are governed.  For about 50 years, between 1925 and 1975, college faculties actually ran their institutions under a delegation of authority from the trustees.  Faculties not only were in charge of the curriculum—a responsibility that in my experience they took very seriously—but also regulated student life and organized every activity that took place on campus, including commencements and other ceremonials.  Presidents and deans were answerable to the faculty, and if they got out of line, the faculty would—as I heard a colleague put it many years ago—raise hell.

All this began to change in the 70’s when, owing to federal and foundation meddling, college administrations began to grow like kudzu, so that by the 80’s only about 25 percent of the average college’s turnover was spent on instruction.  Naturally enough, the administrators responsible for the other 75 percent began to feel very important, and they set about substituting their authority for the faculties’.  This is no secret.  People have been talking for years about colleges and universities being run “on the corporate model” by squadrons of provosts, vice presidents, deans, and assistant deans.  What isn’t so well known is that the faculties were complicit in the transfer of power.

The first real portent of the change, the cloud of coming upheavals no bigger than a man’s hand that no one except a few sharp-eyed prophets recognized, appeared in the mid-60’s when faculties everywhere refused point-blank to take responsibility for academic discipline in the face of students’ insubordination and violence.  In some cases, they cheered the students on.  It was left to the administrators to restore something like order.  And being administrators, operating under the motto “Anything for a quiet life,” they restored order by appeasing the rebels.

You want a role in governing this place?  Fine, we’ll put you on some faculty committees.

As a result, faculty committees that affected student life directly—on academic discipline, curriculum, and social life—acquired student members, and, in many cases, faculties eventually abdicated all responsibility for collegiate governance, so that the maintenance of social order among students is now the work of campus police.  Faculty have nothing to do with it.

With their heads full of slogans like “empowering the disempowered” and “privileging the underprivileged,” faculties cooperated enthusiastically in putting these changes through.  It did not occur to them that the same principles might be applied to their own procedures.  But in due course that is exactly what happened.

By the later 70’s, veterans of the student riots of the 60’s were beginning to appear on campuses as junior untenured faculty, a status they did not at all enjoy occupying.  They objected strongly to being treated as trainees, to having their classes visited, and to being expected to teach required materials in introductory courses, let alone whole required courses.  In some cases they even objected to teaching the subjects they had been hired to teach.  The senior faculty members’ response, always prodded by their administrations, was once again “to empower the disempowered.”  They put their juniors on senior faculty committees as regular members and allowed them to vote on just about everything except their own tenure.

Since committees staffed by untenured junior faculty could neither handle confidential material nor take a stand against either administrators or trustees, they soon became completely ineffectual.  And that is how college faculties lost whatever shards of academic authority were left to them, including control of their curricula.  All this was bad enough, but the worst effects appeared in the processes leading to appointment and tenure.

Under the old ways of proceeding, to find, appoint, and keep as good a department as possible was the chief responsibility of a department head or chairman.  This was certainly the case in the more reputable places.  The chairman, in consultation with senior colleagues, would decide what appointments were needed for the coming year, and would set about making them by advertisement and inquiry.  In the bigger places the department head and his executive committee did the whole job.  In smaller places, like the Northeastern liberal-arts colleges, the senior faculty might bring a prospective candidate to the campus for an interview.  But in all cases of appointment and promotion there was an iron rule in place everywhere: No one under the rank of full professor had any part in a case at or above his own rank, and untenured faculty had no vote in any case.

This easygoing way of doing things came under acute stress when the baby boom crested in the mid-60’s.  There were not enough newly minted candidates to fill the junior positions needed if those boomers were to be taught at all.  Competition for the better-qualified candidates became intense.  Berkeley and Princeton, I think, were the first to offer assistant professorships to first-time appointees, and once they did that everyone else had to follow suit.  As a consequence the rank of instructor disappeared—and the long-term effect of that loss was tenure for everyone in 7 years instead of 12 or 14, and a collapse of real standards all round.

Even so, the problem was by no means solved.  One year in the mid-60’s, Warner G. Rice, a legendary head of the English department at Michigan, came back from the MLA with 14 new assistant professors, and a very mixed bunch they were.  That department always began the new academic year with a tea party in the Rackham Graduate Building, and in the year of the 14 I went over to the Rackham tea with my friend Bill Coles, who stopped dead on the threshold of the room and said, “Who are all these people?”

In those years the smaller liberal-arts colleges like Smith and Amherst were out of the competition for new faculty altogether, and were reduced to giving jobs pretty much to anyone who got off the bus and knocked on the door.  Yet it was obvious to anyone who thought about the matter for five minutes that this was a temporary state of affairs, that the boomer wave was about to pass, that with its passing the expansion of higher education would end with a huge oversupply of Ph.D.’s looking for jobs, and the whole academic profession would seize up—which, by the mid-70’s, it did.

Meanwhile, all those marxisant, deconstructing ex-rebels, back on campus as assistant professors, now decided to take over appointment procedures, which they did with the backing of local administrators, and organizations like the American Association of University Professors and the Modern Language Association.  They were given voice and vote in all matters relating to appointments.  They were even allowed on search committees, and so found themselves voting on appointments at their own rank, an open invitation to corruption.

Simultaneously, new rules came in that had the effect of finally removing executive decisionmaking from the senior faculty, though not, of course, from the administrators.  All searches now had to be advertised “nationally,” and a temporary appointment could not be converted into a permanent one without a national search for the position.  This one rule abolished the most effective way departments formerly had of making good appointments, especially at the more senior levels, and turned the whole process over to the people who now controlled the search: the Marxist junior faculty and their pals.

Now, 30 or so years later, we are in a position to explain to Bob Beckel why there are so few conservatives in academic teaching.  The deconstructors are wilting away, but the Marxists are still with us in force because, having successfully taken over the appointment processes, they have filled up their departments with like-minded juniors.  Meanwhile, academic Marxism has metastasized into a whole set of subcults with names like new historicism, cultural studies, critical social thought, gender feminism, and gay studies—all of it now being taught everywhere at the undergraduate and graduate level in the name of the humanities.

So let us imagine that an English department at a “good” liberal-arts college needs to replace a distinguished Shakespeare scholar.  In the past they would have asked the administration for a senior appointment, and gone looking for an up-and-coming, already tenured figure.  That is now impossible because associate and assistant professors are a majority of the department, and will never vote to bring in a competitor above their own rank.  So instead they advertise a beginning-level position, and wait for the applications to come in.

About 450 hopefuls apply.  The entire department, operating as a committee of the whole, now sets about assembling a short list of about a dozen for interview.  None of them has the least clue about serious Shakespearean scholarship or criticism, let alone the wider field of Elizabethan drama and Renaissance literature, but (except for a couple of despairing traditionalists) they all know exactly what they are looking for, and it’s not a well-trained Shakespeare scholar.  No applicant giving off the least whiff of conservatism—scholarly, aesthetic, religious, or political—can make it through a process like that.

And that, Mr. Beckel, is why there are so few conservative or traditionally minded faculty on college campuses.  It is also the reason why history departments now teach so little European and English history, and why so many language departments no longer teach Goethe, Racine, Cervantes, Dante, or Petrarch.  It explains why it is now a rare English department that teaches Pope, Swift, or Johnson, and why, even if a student enrolls in something calling itself Shakespeare, there is no guarantee that he will learn much, if anything, about the actual subject.