books book reviews

books on reforming the universities

reviewed by T. Nelson


The Breakdown of Higher Education:
How It Happened, the Damage It Does, & What Can Be Done

by John M. Ellis
Threshold, 2020, 322 pages
reviewed by T. Nelson

Oh, if only I were a book editor. On page 23 of this one, the author writes “[A] study done by Gallup in June 2018 found that ‘No other institution has shown a larger drop in confidence over the past three years than higher education.’” That should have been the first sentence in this book.

Ellis is a professor emeritus from the University of California. He says the university system is damaged beyond repair. The question he asks is: why did this happen?

His answer is that it is the fault of the professors. Once they achieved a five to one ratio of left vs right, Ellis says, they were free to stuff the departments with fellow left-wingers. While that is certainly true, it doesn't explain how it started, why no one stopped it, or why they turned left instead of right.

Indeed, the question is irrelevant. Ellis himself says that no politics belong on campus; calling for ideological diversity and balance is misguided because universities are supposed to teach people, not indoctrinate them. But so much of the book talks about how our professors are Marxists and left-wing radicals that this point is lost.

Ellis's main message, where he turns eloquent, is buried deep in the middle of the book, where he writes:

In recent decades our society has recognized the need to empower black students to climb the social ladder by means of higher education . . . . But just when they needed it to lift them to full equality, it was no longer there for them. . . .

By telling minorities that racism is still undiminished everywhere, they undermine confidence that trying to succeed is worthwhile. By denigrating society as it is, they undermine a desire to seek a better place in it. [p. 109]

“Denying black students a mastery of the way that modernity came about,”, he says, “was denying them a fair chance for advancement.” This is the real problem; improving equality was the principal justification for creating D&I managers. This opened the door to politics, which destroyed the scholarly environment that once made them great. It harmed all students, but especially the ones they were trying to help.

What's the solution? Ellis points out that politiciz­ation is prohibited by professional standards and bylaws of university governing boards. Universities are also prohibited by law from advocating any political position, so radical politics can only be done by engaging in massive dishonesty. This is why university mission statements call it “social justice” instead of political proselytizing. The term social justice, Ellis says, is intended to deceive.

His solution is to replace politically proselytizing professors with actual scholars, “dismantling as far as possible, the radical faculty regime” by cutting state funding. Secondly, he recommends appointing a “new management team” to abolish “studies” departments. This gets around the problem of tenure, he says, as those positions will simply no longer exist. Students will flock to the reformed institution with the knowledge that they could get a good education there.

That might work, but our universities are on a flight path that will end with a controlled flight into terrain. Expecting state governments to introduce reforms won't happen until the situation becomes so dire that it can't be fixed. I've worked with people who were running their organization into the ground; if you tell them, however tactfully, that their flight level indicator is pointing way below the horizon they will just scoff. The universities will never reform themselves until they have no choice.

I propose eliminating the universities' nonprofit status until they demonstrate that they are places of free scholarly inquiry and that all political proselytizing is ended. Those “studies” departments that only harm the students they're intended to help need to be abolished.

We should also transfer STEM funding away from universities to corporations or independent nonprofit institutes, forcing the universities that wish to retain students to reinstate actual humanities programs that teach students how to think. Obviously, this would require strong controls to prevent corporate exec­utives from stealing it or using it to promote their commercial interest.

The situation is getting desperate. Other countries have leaders who know the economic benefits of good universities. They're working feverishly to reduce dependence on our failing product. My faculty colleagues may think everything is hunky-dory, but any pilot will tell you: once you see the ground coming up at you, it's too late to pull out of your dive.

aug 23, 2020