Like many books criticizing higher education, The University We Need (Encounter Books) portrays academe as too liberal, too easy and too expensive. In a twist, the book proposes the creation of a new university to provide competition for top students and scholars. And the book proposes punishments for colleges that don't minimize their spending on administrative costs. The book is already drawing attention and praise from The Wall Street Journal and National Review.
The author is Warren Treadgold, who is the National Endowment for the Humanities Professor of Byzantine Studies and professor of history at Saint Louis University.
Via email, Treadgold responded to questions about his new book.
Q: Many books have critiqued colleges as dominated by liberal thinking. How do you see your book as different?
A: In two main ways. First, I describe problems that go beyond the leftist monoculture on campus, including grading so lax that many students don’t bother to learn anything at all, hiring so slipshod that many professors are poorly qualified, and enormously inflated spending on administration and buildings. Second, I propose concrete solutions to these problems, including caps on administrative spending, new government boards to rate doctoral dissertations and enforce academic honesty, and a new university to serve as an example of excellence and scholarly objectivity -- that is, rejection of the “postmodern” view that nothing is absolutely true and that all that matters in education is promoting progressive social change. Finally, many earlier books that discussed the liberal dominance of higher education have begun to be out of date as that dominance has become much more complete and extreme in the last few years.
Q: To the extent you worry about insufficient respect for those holding minority (conservative) views at institutions where most people are liberal, what should be done to protect those people?
A: The courts should protect professors, students and outside speakers who express dissenting views from being dismissed or harassed contrary to the stated procedures of the institutions themselves, as recently happened in a case at Marquette University in Wisconsin. Founding a new university could also allow some of the best conservative and moderate scholars to get jobs there.
But nothing much can be done to make most universities hire conservative or even moderate professors. In a free society, institutions that insist that their “mission” is “progressive” social change are free to discriminate against conservatives and moderates regardless of their academic qualifications. Of course, state legislatures that disagree with the policies of their state institutions are free to cut their funding, as has happened in many places, and donors who disagree with the policies of public and private institutions are also free to stop giving them money.
Q: Conservative thinkers generally favor minimal government regulation. Why would a limit on administration at private colleges not run against those principles? And aren't many of those expenditures associated with the research and medical functions of research universities?
A: I suggest eliminating the tax exemption of colleges and universities that spend more than 20 percent of their budgets on administration after a transition period of five years. (Harvard spends about 40 percent of its budget on administration; Caltech spends only about 5 percent). The reason for the tax exemption of nonprofit universities (as of charities) is that they’re supposed to be promoting public benefits like teaching and research. Most university administrators are actually harming teaching and research, by rewarding grade inflation, diverting money away from education and requiring policies and paperwork that burden or penalize good teachers and researchers. Why should the government give up tax revenue to subsidize this?
Q: Elite private universities, even if seen as liberal by those who are not, are flooded with applicants. Prominent conservatives push to get their children enrolled. George W. Bush's daughters attended Yale University and the University of Texas at Austin. President Trump may be no fan of Ivies, but he boasts of his children attending his alma mater, Penn. Can these universities really be so intolerant of conservative minds that such people (and the many nonfamous students who organize Young Republican clubs, etc.) attend?
A: The 80 percent or so of parents and students who aren’t as far left as most colleges and universities have almost no choice. Nonleftist colleges and universities are few, and most of the few that exist do an even worse job of teaching and research than the leftist ones, and consequently have a deservedly bad academic reputation and little prestige. That’s why I think we desperately need at least one elite private university that’s not leftist.
Q: How would you like to see a new university created? How would you assure it would remain different from others that you view as too liberal?
A: My book includes a fairly detailed description of how a new university might be started. If the money were available -- and all it would take is for many conservative and moderate donors to give the new university as much money as they now give leftist universities -- the new university should try to hire the best conservative and moderate professors, who are now marginalized and silenced at leftist institutions or underappreciated at nonleftist but second-rate institutions.
The number of professors needed would be only about a thousand (out of over 1.5 million in the U.S.). These professors could then train a new generation of undergraduate and graduate students, who like them would be committed to excellence and opposed to the ideas that nothing is true and leftist dogma is all that matters. Those ideas are so hard to defend that even on leftist campuses they need to be protected by relentless discrimination against dissenters. I’m not worried that that ideology could take over a new university. I think the new university would be much more likely to influence other universities than to be influenced by them.