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The book cover for Derek Bok's Attacking the Elites.

Yale University Press

Higher education is facing a perfect storm. In polls taken before the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attacks in Israel, only 36 percent of Americans expressed confidence in higher education, down from 57 percent in 2015. A majority think higher education isn’t worth the time and money and is headed in the wrong direction.

Undergraduate enrollment in the United States slid 15 percent from 2010 to 2021 and is expected to continue to “shrink, year after year, for most of the next two decades.” An increasing number of colleges are closing or merging, and many more are struggling financially.

In a growing number of states, educational gag orders restrict “discussions of race, racism, gender, and American history.” Campaigns are underway to cut diversity, equity and inclusion programs and weaken tenure.

The Supreme Court has banned affirmative action in college admissions, undergraduate levels of anxiety and depression are at record highs, and many students are reluctant to discuss controversial issues.

And at some of the nation’s most prominent institutions, alumni are withholding gifts and waging public campaigns to force changes in what they see as equivocating responses from academic leaders to anti-Israel protests and antisemitism.

A tipping point was reached in early December, when the presidents of Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Pennsylvania gave legally correct but politically disastrous responses to questions from members of a House committee about whether calls for genocide against Jews violated campus policies. The testimony drew rebukes by the House of Representatives, the White House and many others, and the presidents of Penn and Harvard resigned.

The same House committee has introduced bipartisan legislation stripping universities with large endowments of their ability to offer federal student loans. Other proposals coming from Congress are even more draconian.

The U.S. Department of Education has opened investigations into more than two dozen institutions over complaints of antisemitism and Islamophobia. Alleging antisemitism, students filed lawsuits against universities including the University of California, Berkeley; New York University; Carnegie Mellon University; and the University of Pennsylvania.

Conservative critics insist that campus antisemitism is a direct product of higher education’s “woke” culture and DEI programs. After declaring that Claudine Gay’s resignation from the Harvard presidency is “just the beginning,” Representative Elise Stefanik promised Congress would “expose the rot in our most ‘prestigious’ higher education institutions.”

In Attacking the Elites: What Critics Get Wrong—and Right—About America’s Leading Universities (forthcoming this month from Yale University Press), Derek Bok, who served as Harvard’s president from 1971 to 1991 and interim president from 2006 to 2007, tackles many of the hot-button issues that animate higher education’s critics.

Bok—who is the author of many other books, including Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More (Princeton University Press, 2008) and (with William G. Bowen) The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions (Princeton, 2000)—takes strong positions on issues ranging from legacy admissions to free speech to varsity athletics that most sitting presidents find difficult to address candidly. Even more striking, however, is Bok’s frank acknowledgment that there appear to be no solutions to many of higher education’s most pressing problems.

Bok begins by celebrating the strengths of America’s elite universities. In “research, the quality of their students, the success of their graduates, and their efforts to expand opportunities” for disadvantaged students, he argues, “they have achieved most of what the nation can legitimately expect” of them.

Higher education’s critics, including liberals as well as conservatives, disagree, of course, and Bok devotes most of the book to their objections. Bok’s first step for addressing those objections is probably the hardest: recognizing that “there is usually a valid problem connected in some way to each of the complaints.”

In response to those who demand that universities do more to promote social justice, particularly through admissions and investment practices, Bok acknowledges that students from wealthy families and children of alumni and donors are overrepresented at highly selective institutions, and that preferences for recruited athletes, whose families can afford the time, coaching, travel and equipment that competitive athletics require, also benefit the wealthy. Bok recommends that universities drop early-admission policies and preferences for athletes, children of donors and legacies, even if doing so hurts donations, athletic excellence and alumni support, because it is the right thing to do, will promote the public interest and may reduce the risk of “lawsuits and government intervention.”

The impact of these practices, and the ability of institutions to manage without them, we would note, vary widely, depending on a college’s size, makeup, resources and competitive position. More importantly, as Bok admits, dropping these practices is unlikely to “lead to significant increases in the number of low-income students admitted,” since “most of the students who would be next in line … would probably look very much like the students already being admitted.”

Bok is skeptical of using divestment as a tool to achieve social justice. Divestment, he indicates, may hurt the performance of college and university endowments, invite external interference in university affairs, and inhibit the expression of opposing political views. And “selling stock is an ineffective way to try to change corporate policies.” While it’s hard to reconcile these arguments with Bok’s decision as president to sell tobacco stocks, his critique is worth considering amid escalating demands to divest from fossil fuel companies, arms manufacturers and companies doing business with Israel.

In addressing claims that left-wing professors indoctrinate students, Bok cites data showing that an “overwhelming majority” of students do not feel “pressured in class to change their political orientation.” Nonetheless, he believes, as do we, that the failure of colleges and universities to do more to ensure that conservative views are represented on campus limits political discourse, encourages allegations that colleges are engines of indoctrination and invites outside intervention.

Bok also tackles the tension between protecting free speech and fostering a climate in which all students feel welcome, an issue that has assumed center stage during the war between Israel and Hamas. Under First Amendment principles dealing with harassment, Bok rightly points out, administrators may not “penalize students or others for disrespectful or even hateful remarks” unless they are targeted at an individual and sufficiently “severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive” to deny “equal access to an institution’s resources and opportunities.”

Although many colleges pay lip service to free speech and academic freedom, Bok adds, they are too quick to intervene when students demand restrictions on speech offensive to members of vulnerable groups. The result is a climate in which “legitimate topics for discussion … have become minefields that students and professors hesitate to enter.” In the end, he concludes, “if one of the goals involved must be abandoned to achieve the other, there is good reason not to sacrifice freedom of speech.”

However valuable they are, Bok’s suggestions for resolving the tension between free speech and inclusion (e.g., training in civil discourse and condemning without sanctioning flagrantly disrespectful speech) have not, alas, satisfied critics.

Surprisingly, Bok’s greatest concerns for elite higher education are “three slow-growing problems with no evident solution.” Noting the trend for more segments of the university population (including graduate students) to unionize, he worries about strikes or other collective actions, the impact on university budgets and equitable treatment of groups that have not organized. Ever-increasing demands to raise money swallow a leader’s time, Bok writes, “corrupt” the admissions process; interfere with the size, makeup and function of university boards; and render universities too eager to “avoid negative publicity.” Lastly, Bok calls attention to the rapid increase in government interference in matters traditionally left to institutional discretion.

After thinking hard, and without much success, about feasible solutions, Bok tells us, “daybreak comes and my mind can return to simpler problems such as making breakfast.” When his “sober self” returns, he tries to “take solace from the fact that analysts have repeatedly forecast a dire future for higher education only to be proved wrong.” He adds, “Conceivably, fate will intervene once again.”

Perhaps. But those of us who believe fate may arrive too late or not at all would do well to treat Bok’s analysis and recommendations as a good place to start.

David Wippman is the president of Hamilton College. Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Emeritus Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

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