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Distrust in higher education is no longer a purely partisan matter. When college presidents have lost the confidence of Lawrence Tribe, Pennsylvania governor Josh Shapiro and the Biden White House, mistrust runs deep.

It’s all too easy to dismiss last week’s congressional hearing about campus antisemitism as political theater, as a sexist assault on female leaders or as a symbol of incipient McCarthyism, but that would be a mistake. I doubt that Drew Gilpin Faust, Amy Gutmann, Jenny Martinez or Ruth Simmons would have been met with the same negative response. And none of this might have happened had the three institutions on the hot seat held truly open forums on the Israel-Hamas conflict, like Dartmouth’s, which were organized by Jewish studies and Middle Eastern studies departments and where the campus community had a chance to hear from participating faculty, pose questions, vent and be heard.

I do wish one of the presidents had said something like this:

“Invective, bullying, harassment and incitement to violence have no place on my campus, and we have rules to prevent that, which I pledge to enforce forthwith. That said, sensationalist media have grossly exaggerated and misrepresented what is occurring on my campus.

“While I have no doubt that antisemitism is on the rise at colleges and universities and especially elsewhere, from what I know about what’s happening at my campus is that few truly harmful incidents have occurred. Instead, what we read are reports of students ‘feeling unsafe’ but not actually experiencing real harm. I say this not to diminish the feelings of those who are facing trauma, but to say, all in all, my campus remains a protected, safe place and students are continuing to study.”

I read one acid comment that strikes me as plausible: “What we’re seeing is that the qualities that led the presidents to be hired—the willingness to placate the loudest, most insistent voices on campus—are not the qualities that play well outside the ivory tower.”

As the public reaction to the House hearing makes clear, the congressional questions and presidential responses touched a nerve. Public faith in higher education is vaporizing.

Just read a New York Times opinion essay entitled “What Is Happening at the Columbia School of Social Work?” which describes, in highly negative terms, the social justice framework organized around power, privilege, race and oppression that informs the school’s curriculum. Tuition at the school is currently $55,644 a year, excluding the mandatory activity fee, services and support fees, IT fee, health services feed, medical insurance, events fee, and document fee. Total estimated yearly cost: $88,704.

To any outside observer, this is an eye-opener and a shocking example of blatant hypocrisy, intellectually and practically.

Of course, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. As with Harvard, Columbia constantly says it values inclusivity while admitting legacies, athletes and wealthy students. The various contradictions have been laid bare.

Distrust—whether in relationships or public institutions—proceeds a bit like bankruptcy: it begins slowly then surfaces suddenly. We ignored the termites gnawing away at public trust in higher ed for far too long. Now, the damage had spread beyond the right wing and can be found among many leading liberals.

A series of developments have contributed to mounting public distrust in higher ed, especially at its elite level. Some are obvious. Tuition that rose far faster than inflation for far too long. Scandalous salaries for athletic coaches. Star architecture, luxury-infused dorms, climbing walls and lazy rivers that made well-resourced campuses look like resorts. The Varsity Blues scandal.

To be sure, devious right-wing politicians called out academic theories—especially critical race theory and postmodern and postcolonial frameworks—for their own ends. The right has been looking for ways to discredit DEI and to get back at what they see as anticonservative bias on campus. A series of incidents—Harvard’s social justice place mats and shout-downs at Middlebury and Yale and Stanford Law Schools—have played into their unprincipled hands.

But what made these attacks effective is that they came to symbolize a system of higher education, especially at the elite level, that had lost its way.

Let me count the ways.

  1. The politicization of the professoriate. Faculty members, of course, have always had political views, but these were largely invisible because either they 1) conformed to the liberal consensus or 2) were suppressed in the classroom because of a Weber-like belief in the importance of scholarly objectivity and neutrality or an embrace of a New Critics–like approach that decontextualize texts and read them independently of their political implications.

Something has changed. A growing number of faculty are outspoken in their political views, are willing to question the liberal consensus and have, through social media, new ways to disseminate their opinions widely. I think it is appropriate for campus leaders to inform faculty that while they are wholly free to use their expertise to inform public date and advance the public good, they must clearly state that their personal views do not represent their institution’s position and that they have a professional responsibility to ensure that their statements do not suggest an inability to fairly grade students with opinions that contradict their own or to run classrooms open to opposing points of view.

  1. The federal mandate to ensure that students do not encounter a hostile learning environment. At Hamline (and to a certain extent at Macalester) this idea was taken to an extreme: that students should not have to encounter ideas or representations that might potentially harm them. But that idea can be found elsewhere. Campuses like my own have not been willing to openly defend the principle that a college education should subject all ideas to critical scrutiny, challenge all orthodoxies and the conventional wisdom in a fair-minded way and expose students to ideas and concepts and creative works that might seem threatening or even immoral.
  2. Administrative double standards. At my university, administrators tolerated the shouting down of speakers; investigated a (conservative) sociologist for his research findings (about lesbian parenting practices that were published following peer review in a major journal); and said nothing when students (not right-wing students) picketed a classics professor’s house because he studied pedophilia in the ancient world. What we see to be witnessing is a failure to evenhandedly enforce existing rules designed to ensure a reasonably civil campus environment.
  3. Eroding grading standards. The drift, especially in the humanities, toward an all-A grading scale suggests that students aren’t getting the kind of constructive but rigorous feedback and evaluation that they need and deserve. At Yale, 80 percent of all grades are now A’s or A-minuses.  Which begs the question: Is anyone checking on how and if feedback is delivered and whether that feedback is equitable and robust?
  4. Exploitative online programs. Here, I’m referring to extraordinarily high-priced online master’s programs that fail to meet any imaginable cost-benefit analysis.
  5. The bureaucratization of higher ed. When Yale and its peers have as many administrators and other nonteaching professionals as undergraduates, something seems wrong. The fastest growth in high ed employment is among nonteaching professionals. Much is, of course necessary and desirable. Our campuses need to comply with government mandates and expand Instructional Technology and enhance advising, learning support and psychological and disability services. But much of the growth is taking place in other, more controversial areas, including student life and, yes, athletics and needs to be subject to close scrutiny.
  6. The proliferation of academic programs with no obvious career-related outcomes. As new fields of learning open up—in artificial intelligence, data science and machine learning, among others—and valuable areas appear, like arts and technology, new majors need to appear. But much of the programmatic growth is elsewhere, and these programs tend to be eccentric (like vinoculture, cannabis or leisure studies) or, in some instances, politically motivated (like my own campus’s Civitas Institute). Some of these new programs represent an attempt to attract students and diversify coverage. But whether these programs reflect an accurate assessment of academic priorities or the economy’s needs remains unclear.
  7. Requirements and gen ed courses that bear little relationship with what we expect college graduates to know or be able to do. Are our campuses paying serious and sustained attention to student writing or statistical, data and scientific and social scientific literacy? Do a potpourri of disconnected, discipline-based introductory courses truly meet the goals of a general liberal education? We need to ask ourselves, are our requirements truly aligned with our sense of what a college degree ought to mean? Or are these requirements merely a political compromise that serves the interests of tenured faculty and existing departments?
  8. The intensifying stratification of higher education. Even within my own university system, we’re seeing a growing disparity in the kind of education one can get: in available courses and majors, in student support services, in the quality of facilities, in access to co- and extracurricular activities, internships, study abroad and experiential learning opportunities.

In other words, there are good reasons for the diminishing public faith in higher ed. That political partisans would weaponize public distrust was to be expected. That elite colleges would largely downplay the public suspicion and cynicism, however, has proven to be a grave mistake.

As I have argued elsewhere, I don’t think wealthy private universities recognize how vulnerable they are: not so much from donor revolts, but from endowment taxes, federal investigations, eliminations of tax exemptions and other threats, including Title VI lawsuits.

Other threats might well come from within. Just imagine if the Wharton School were to secede from Penn—or if law, business or even engineering schools were to tire of their role as university cash cows.

Nor will these attacks just come solely from the right. Cities are eager to tax private universities’ property and income. Those on the left want to reshape admissions policies. Activists want to impose new kinds of regulations and mandates. Less well-funded institutions would love to redirect federal and state grants away from elite privates and flagships and land grant campuses. Disrupters are eager to advance cheaper, faster alternate educational models that do not require a research faculty.

We should also remember: the real heavy lifting in higher education is taking place at community colleges, where the teaching loads are absurdly high and the students’ needs are enormous. It may be time for the Ivy-plus and top institutions to share the wealth.

Plummeting public confidence in higher ed is likely to have real-world consequences—even for institutions, like Harvard, that might seem immune.

To be sure, some campuses, like Michigan, Michigan State and Southern Cal, have survived scandal after scandal, and it’s not as if their admissions numbers are down. It might not be a miscalculation to believe that the government will ever go through with decreasing funding or ripping the nontax status away.

But this time might be different. As a presidential election approaches, negative attention on elite higher education might not go away. We need to hear from senior leadership how they plan to counter mounting public distrust.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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