The University of California once led the way for the rest of the nation in building great public university systems. Now, sadly, it is now leading the decline.
UC’s financial crisis is common knowledge. The state’s struggling economy is no longer able to keep up appropriations at previous levels, and services continue to be cut even though tuitions have nearly doubled since the 2008-9 school year. Yet, there has been little acknowledgment of an even greater crisis that UC schools are facing: one of overt politicization, which is undermining the very things for which the university exists: education, objective research, and social cohesion.
The problem has now grown so severe that UC’s Board of Regents finally seems to be paying some attention to political activism in the universities. On April 2, the California Association of Scholars (CAS), a branch of the National Association of Scholars faculty organization, presented a report to the Regents that makes a powerful case for ending the ideological debasement that is consuming the UC system. The Regents will discuss the report on May 15; let us hope that they don’t shrug it off.
The report, entitled “A Crisis of Competence: The Corrupting Effect of Political Activism in the University of California,” shows a university system in denial of this growing threat to its utility and social value. Despite a clear legal mandate to keep partisan activities out of the public colleges, regents, administrators, legislators and faculty have either turned a blind eye to the problem, or have even supported it.
As a result, radical politics have been flourishing in the system since the 1960s, with many students force-fed a steady stream of ethnic victimology, anti-capitalism, and gender politics—all intended to alienate students from what their professors perceive to be an intrinsically immoral America.
The authors of the CAS report cite numerous first-hand accounts by students who took classes expecting to study an objective body of knowledge, only to have experiences similar to the one described by this UC-Berkeley U.S. History student: “’He [the professor] focused excessively on negative aspects of American history to portray a country of lies and contradictions, while applauding Socialists and Anarchists….He seemed to be more interested in creating Leftist activists than making sure students had an accurate grasp of U.S. History.’”
In another example, a student who signed up for “Introduction to Sociology” at UC-Santa Barbara was not taught the basics of sociology as expected, but instead received “10 weeks of anti-capitalist, anti-globalist rhetoric. We were shown several theories on globalization that portrayed Western civilization as almost demonic, heartless, and ruthless beasts that enslave the world for financial gain.”
Such campus activism cannot coexist with the free and objective spirit of inquiry that is at the heart of the modern university, explain the authors. Activism starts with a predetermined goal, whereas objective inquiry follows facts and logic wherever they lead. Activists—including those masquerading as educators—cannot permit investigations into the true nature of things to reach conclusions that contradict their political goals, or else those goals eventually will be defeated.
Despite the lack of official acknowledgment of the problem, it is both real and verifiable, as the authors demonstrate. In the humanities and social sciences, voter registrations of academics show the sort of exaggerated one-sidedness that does not happen randomly: in University of California humanities departments in 2004, there were 17 registered Democrats for every Republican and, in the social sciences, the imbalance was 21 to 1.
But voter registrations are only one small indication of the problem. The CAS authors uncovered a mountain of other evidence. By citing multiple examples of the various elements of academia—department mission statements, course descriptions, orientation programs, invited lecturers, student comments, required courses, and reading assignments—they verified not just that classroom politicization exists, but that its depth and scope far exceed the occasional incident the academic establishment will admit to.
Consider the syllabus of a political science course at UC-Santa Cruz that asks the question “How did Bush and Cheney build the fiction that Al Qaeda was a participant in the 9/11 attacks?” Or a UC Berkeley “Social Welfare” course description that states the class “incorporates a social change and social justice perspective….change-focused direct practice, community organizing, legislative action, and other activities designed to give expression to the professor’s social justice commitments.” Or a UCLA Women’s studies class that “wants to promote social activism for its own political aims by giving students the “conceptual tools for social change.”
The fact that there is not yet a majority of professors who have turned their classrooms into their personal political soapboxes is no cause for celebration. Documents such as course descriptions and syllabi must be “reviewed and approved by deans, department chairs, and academic senate committees;” the open existence of the above classes and other examples are enough to show that UC governance is letting politicization occur.
Another destructive aspect of politicization is the rejection of the university’s role as a repository of the world’s accumulated knowledge. Instead of passing on that legacy to the next generation, “radicals tend to denigrate the past to make their case for the need to conduct the sweeping change” needed for a future Utopia, say the CAS authors. With required courses in U.S. History increasingly replaced by optional courses intended to instill “alienation, hostility, and cynicism” toward the American system, we are developing a “weakening sense of who we are and how we came to be.”
Even those who share the political leanings of the tenured radicals should be concerned that politicization is leading to an inferior education. The authors included discussion of a study conducted by the federal National Center for Education Statistics that discovered that “only 31 percent of college graduates can be classified as proficient in reading” (defined as “the ability to read a complex book and extrapolate from it”) as opposed to 1992, when 40 percent were proficient.
Real education requires effort, while “absorbing a simple political narrative takes little time or effort.” The authors cite a study by two professors in the University of California system, Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks, entitled “Leisure College, USA: The Decline in Student Study Time,” which found that the average amount a college student studies has dropped from 24 hours a week in 1961 to 14 hours in 2003; 37 percent now study five hours or less.
Furthermore, according to the authors, the absence of an objective dialogue promotes “shallow, superficial thinking” and “habits of mind” that are “in every respect the exact opposite of those we expect a college education to develop.” Dogmatic, one-sided discussions have produced an intellectual climate reminiscent of a passage from John Stuart Mill quoted by the authors: “’He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.’" Another study included in the report, introduced by the book Academically Adrift, found that 45 percent of the 2,300 students they tested showed “no statistically significant gains in thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills” after their first two years of college.
As tuitions soar, class sizes rise, and the number of course offerings shrink, money issues dominate the UC discussion. But it’s time to ask, even if the financial problems could be resolved, to what end are we spending all that money, if what we teach is false?
It will be tempting for the Regents to continue kicking the can down the road, since any struggle to end campus politicization—really a struggle for the soul of the universities—will likely be both messy and vicious, with many career casualties. But further procrastination will be disastrous; let us hope that the CAS report becomes, not just one more lost cry in the ideological wilderness, but rather a clarion call for reform.