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Commentary: True Academic Freedom Will Fix Higher Ed’s Problems

By Scott A. Shay

States don’t usually get the chance to make an investment that is almost guaranteed to succeed wildly, but here’s one: build a new university system based on academic freedom, intellectual integrity, and the right of students and faculty to express themselves freely. The motto would be a new university golden rule: Don’t treat others how you wouldn’t want to be treated yourself. The new university would become a hub of knowledge and innovation, enriching the state and nation.

How would such a place differ from today’s universities? By academic freedom, I mean faculty representing methodological, ideological, and thematic diversity. Take my undergraduate major of economics, for example. Faculty at the new college would include macroeconomists who ascribe to the Chicago School, Keynesianism, Marxism, rational-choice theory, and classical political economy, as well as microeconomists from across methodologies. Additionally, no departments would be dominated by one (usually ideological but sometimes methodological) school of thought.

By intellectual integrity, I mean scholars who abide by academic standards of evidence and argument, rather than embracing shoddy academic standards if the political message is “correct.” Today, renowned scholars from top universities publish academic books that are actually conspiracy theories masquerading as scholarship. This could not happen at the new university.

By freedom of expression, I mean students and faculty will be free to express themselves in and out of class without fear of Twitter mobs (or real mobs) massing against them. Students will wrestle with different – and yes, opposing – ideas and will be free to debate without worrying about being ostracized.

Great professors and the best students of all races, creeds, sexual orientations, and religions will flock to this new campus. The state that creates this new university will become known for creative solutions, fresh perspectives, broader knowledge, and new approaches – all helping to foster extraordinary new companies and medical and technological breakthroughs.

The founding of a new university is necessary because our current public and private universities will not self-correct, given their ideological commitment to uniformity. A U.S. News & World Report study of most of the top 60 universities found that 78% percent of all their departments had exclusively left-of-center to far-left faculty. This is no accident – alternative ideological perspectives are dismissed as immoral. Trends also suggest similarly forced homogenization of methodologies and of research topics. In the small number of conservative or religious universities, meantime, a similar concentration of viewpoints also exists, with the difference being that such universities make their preferences transparent – and they represent less than 1% of American college students.

Mainstream university students in the U.S. never learn that intelligent people disagree with the methods, viewpoints, and themes they are being taught. Nor are they given the opportunity to make up their own minds or develop an original perspective.

The torrent of money funding this indoctrination also means that our current institutions are a lost cause. Based on Department of Education data, U.S. universities received nearly $23 billion from foreign countries as of December 31, 2019. Indeed, scrutiny of the data caused American universities to fess up and disclose $6 billion of previously unreported gifts from such countries as Qatar, China, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Russia and Turkey were also significant donors. Is there any link to the fact that European colonialism and the United States are demonized at most universities, while Arab, Ottoman, and Chinese Empires are treated as benign and even progressive?

At this point, creating a new university system may be cheaper for a state than funding an existing campus. Over the last 50 years, college tuition has grown by nearly five times the Consumer Price Index, taking a greater share of GDP and state budgets to fund gargantuan bureaucracies.

States should take the lead now. Starting a new university is phenomenally expensive and will be tough for private innovators, such as the University of Austin. Given the $195 billion of COVID-19 stimulus money states received, some states have the money to do this. Using the bulk of the stimulus money to build a new university system from scratch would pay massive economic dividends.

In the course of my research, I heard from scores of professors who would like nothing better than to escape the thought control that has hijacked academia. John Ellis, a distinguished professor of literature who wrote The Breakdown of Higher Education, is one of them. A new university will be a magnet for the best students as well.

As for those students who would prefer to be told what to think, well, they have lots of schools to choose from.

Originally published by RealClearEducation. Republished with permission.

Scott A. Shay
Scott A. Shay
Scott A. Shay is the author of "Conspiracy U: A Case Study" (Wicked Son, 2021) and is co-founder and chairman of Signature Bank.

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