Lewis Morris / November 9, 2022

Academic Freedom and the Future of Higher Ed

Attendees from across the political spectrum agree on one thing: higher ed is broken and desperately needs fixing.

Last weekend’s Academic Freedom Conference, sponsored by the Stanford University Graduate School of Business, attempted to tackle the major issues facing, even threatening, the future of higher education in America. College professors and administrators from across the political spectrum and across various academic disciplines and institutions gathered to discuss the problem and debate possible solutions.

Attendees at the invitation-only event agreed on at least one thing: Higher education is broken. A sustained attack on intellectual diversity and free speech has turned our colleges and universities into indoctrination centers, where the prevailing school of thought, dominated by the political Left, squelches any honest attempts at intellectual curiosity and exploratory thinking.

The debate through much of the conference was whether to try to fix the problem from within the institutions or to abandon traditional academia in search of alternatives.

University of Texas finance professor Richard Lowery took the view that fixing existing institutions is a lost cause. “The boards [of trustees] are a bunch of people who don’t know anything about universities who are the only ones who have the power to change anything. … What are the chances that your board is actually going to step up and do anything?”

Niall Ferguson, a senior fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution, spoke in favor of new institutional models, among them the University of Austin, which was founded in 2021. “The existing institutions will not fix themselves. Why would an institution 98 percent to the left vote to change itself? It’s not going to happen.”

John Rose of Duke University took the opposite approach: “I am in favor of fixing the existing institutions. If you want to create a culture of free speech on campus, it needs to start with the students in the classroom, not with faculty and administration. Students aren’t the problem; they are the solution.”

The argument over whether to fix what exists or start fresh with alternative schools wasn’t settled during the conference, but a robust to-do list was developed to give supporters of the conference some opportunities to take action. Among them:

  • Appoint vice presidents of academic freedom and free speech. Offices and VPs of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, also known as DEI (this is the Left’s acronym, not ours), are prevalent on most college campuses. Why not install some staff in the administration who are there to look out for everyone’s free speech rights?

  • Create a GED-like exam that allows brilliant young minds to test out of college. Every once in a while, a student comes along with the intellectual heft to go straight to graduate school without suffering through elective courses and pre-med, pre-law, or pre-science work. A special exam would allow such students to skip the first four years and get right to work on their passion.

  • Quantify and articulate the shortcomings of STEM. The higher education industry and many academics would have us believe that science, technology, engineering, and math are the be-all end-all of academics. However, in the rush to push STEM on incoming college students, there has been little accountability as to which courses and programs are worthwhile and which ones are faulty. Time to measure up.

The conference and its takeaways weren’t widely reported, and it’s hard to speculate as to its impact on the overall debate over academic freedom. The event and its attendees did, however, succeed in getting the message out that academics in America are under siege and that it’s up to everyone — left, right, and center — to do something about it. Either that, or future generations will continue to look elsewhere for opportunities away from higher education.

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