Anthony Kronman is no fan of current thinking in American higher education. Affirmative action? Renaming of buildings that honored those who embraced slavery? Political correctness, according to Kronman. And in case you didn't guess, he doesn't much like political correctness, either.
Kronman addresses these and other policies he finds fault with in The Assault on American Excellence (Simon & Schuster). He is a professor at Yale University's law school and was its dean from 1994 to 2004.
He responded to questions about his new book via email.
Q: You note the dangers of affirmative action. How are they evident at Yale?
A: My quarrel is not with affirmative action. That is, or was, a straightforward reparative program. It seeks, or sought, to extend the field of fair opportunity. What is disturbing, in my view, is the conversion of this political or social ideal into an academic and intellectual one, under the rubric of diversity.
The conversion was compelled by the decision in Bakke v. University of California, which denied colleges and universities the freedom to pursue programs of affirmative action more directly. When this happened, the identification of race and ethnicity with perspective or point of view was reinforced. It has today become an unchallenged maxim in higher education generally.
This means that the extraordinarily talented young people, of every complexion and ethnic origin, who arrive on Yale’s campus each fall, are encouraged, even before they have begun to get their bearings, to think of themselves as members of a group, first, and individuals second. They are steered, by the culture of the school, toward the affinity groups that today define the balkanized terrain of college life. As a result, the value of the very opportunity that programs of affirmative action were originally meant to enhance is lost or reduced.
Q: In your book, you note differences between a speakers' corner and a seminar room where students are gathered to study something on which there are varying opinions. What is the significance for those trying to understand American higher education?
A: Some who defend freedom of speech on campus do so in classical libertarian terms. They say speech should be as free on campus as off -- as it is at speakers’ corner. Others contend that a college or university is a special sort of community, whose members must be protected against hurtful and demeaning words.
Both sides get it wrong.
The faculty and students on campus do form a special community. But it is a community devoted to the shared pursuit of the truth, not mutual reassurance or support. This is a demanding goal. It is inconsistent with the restrictions on speech some would adopt to prevent what they call "dignitary" harms. But by the same token, it entails a greater responsibility than exists at speakers’ corner. It requires the participants to explain themselves to one another. They cannot just state their views and walk away, as those at speakers’ corner are free to do. Those on campus are trying to have a conversation. This requires even more speech, and speech of a more searching kind, than the libertarian notion a “marketplace of ideas” implies. A college seminar exemplifies this conversational ideal in practice.
Q: In American colleges, there is a third space for speech -- the invited lecture. What rules should govern who may appear?
A: Some campus speakers come at the invitation of the school itself. They are presumably chosen with an eye to the general interests of the faculty and students as a whole. Other speakers (the majority, perhaps) are invited by groups or organizations whose interests are narrower and more controversial.
This is a good thing. It promotes discussion and debate. On occasion, of course, a speaker will arouse fierce opposition. Sometimes, a speaker is chosen just to stir the pot. The choice may be unwise. It may reflect a less than generous attitude on the part of the sponsoring group. But to give the school a veto over who may speak and who may not, even in egregious cases, is a remedy worse than the disease. The right response is to provide an organized forum for criticism and competing views. Indeed, these are especially precious teaching moments: the more disturbing the speaker, the greater the opportunity to affirm the ideal of a conversational exchange. This is difficult and can be expensive. But no ideal is more closely tied to the very existence of the special way of life that a college or university embodies. The cost is always worth it.
Q: You note the expense at Yale and elsewhere of diversity offices. What's wrong with them?
A: Yale’s diversity offices are mostly staffed by administrators. They have a built-in incentive to find that the university is not doing enough to promote diversity on campus. The result is an increasingly complicated set of rules and regulations, some mandatory and others merely suggestive but influential nonetheless, requiring the faculty to give racial, ethnic and gender diversity an ever-greater weight in all aspects of academic life. Faculty judgments regarding excellence of achievement are subordinated to the moral imperative of greater diversity, as defined by a nonacademic corps of bureaucrats whose involvement in the work of teaching and learning is peripheral at best.
Q: You describe in several places in the book the way Yale renamed Calhoun College. What was wrong with that action?
A: We should live with our history, not erase it. The first is the harder task but essential in an academic institution that prides itself on its devotion to the truth and the cultivation of a capacity for living with moral complexity.
When Calhoun College was named in 1931, it was intended to honor the man. This represented an act of forgetfulness. Calhoun’s role in defending the South and slavery was conveniently forgotten.
A decision in 2016 to keep the name of the college could not conceivably have been interpreted as a similarly positive judgment on the man. It would have been understood as a way of honoring not John Calhoun himself, but Yale’s fitful and still imperfect effort to come to terms with its own past and that of the nation. That was something worth remembering. Renaming the college covered Yale’s disquieting past with a soothing blanket of moral righteousness instead. It represented a second act of forgetfulness -- one inconsistent with Yale’s responsibility to live in the full light of the truth, however painful that might be.
How much better it would have been to keep the name of the college and simultaneously endow a new center at Yale for the study of antebellum America, housed in an expanded Calhoun complex but named for Edward Bouchet, the first African American to earn a doctorate from any university in the country (Yale, Ph.D.,1876). If Yale had sought to raise $50 million for such a center, it would have had the money in a week.