The Moral Decline of Elite Universities

The Moral Decline of Elite Universities

Harvard, Princeton, and Yale were originally founded as seminaries. They are seminaries once again. The doctrine they embrace is both insecure and oppressive in its prohibition of insiders and outsiders from pursuing free inquiry. Rather than wrestle with hard questions about human dignity, individual agency, and speech, many in the Ivy League seem poised to double down on fanaticism. Cults tend to excuse their failures: The world is ending, but our mystic math was a little off. As this crisis unfolds, America’s elite academics are tinkering with their doctrinal formulas. Rather than abandon their theology, they’re attempting to rejigger the charts and reweight the numerology.

In the spring of 1994, the top executives of the seven largest tobacco companies testified under oath before Congress that nicotine is not addictive. Nearly 30 years later, Americans remember their laughable claims, their callous indifference, their lawyerly inability to speak plainly, and the general sense that they did not regard themselves as part of a shared American community. Those pampered executives, behaving with such Olympian detachment, put the pejorative big in Big Tobacco.

Last week, something similar happened. Thirty years from now, Americans will likely recall a witness table of presidents—representing not top corporations in one single sector, but the nation’s most powerful educational institutions—refusing to speak plainly, defiantly rejecting any sense that they are part of a “we,” and exhibiting smug moralistic certainty even as they embraced bizarrely immoral positions about anti-Semitism and genocide.

Despite the stylistic similarity of these two images, they had a substantive distinction. Yes, both sets of presidents sat atop sectors experiencing a collapse of public trust. Higher education commanded the confidence of 57 percent of Americans a mere eight years ago, but only 36 percent of Americans by this summer, and a steeper decline is likely coming as a consequence of the grotesqueries of the past two months. And yes, both sets of testimonies—of the tobacco executives, and the elite-education executives—revealed a deep moral decline inside their respective cultures. But here’s a difference: The tobacco executives were lying, and subsequent legal discovery showed how extensive their understanding of nicotine was. The three university presidents, however—with their moral confusion on naked display—were likely not lying; instead, we saw a set of true believers in a new kind of religion.

It is important to note that the three presidents who testified before Congress—Liz Magill, who subsequently resigned as president of the University of Pennsylvania; Sally Kornbluth, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Claudine Gay, of Harvard University—didn’t open themselves up to perjury charges. Instead, they revealed themselves as having drunk the Kool-Aid of a new and cultlike worldview. Along with so much of higher education, especially outside the hardest of sciences, they have become acolytes of a shallow new theology called “intersectionality.” This is neither a passing fad nor something that normies can roll our eyes at and ignore. As Andrew Sullivan presciently predicted a mere six years ago, the tenets of this all-encompassing ideology have quickly spilled beyond trendy humanities departments at top-30 universities, and its self-appointed priestly class tried tirelessly to enforce its ideology.

At root, intersectionality teaches that the relative victim status of various groups is the deepest truth, and this framework must drive our interpretation of both natural and built reality. Truth, moral claims, beauty, dignity, the explanatory value of a research insight—all of these must be subjugated to a prior determination of the historical power or powerlessness of certain sociological categories. This victimology decrees that the world, and every institution therein, must be divided by the awakened into categories of oppressors and oppressed. Immutable group identities, rather than the qualities, hopes, and yearnings of individuals, are the keys to unlocking the power structures behind any given moment: All the sheep and goats must be sorted.

The bullying certainty of this belief system is indeed boring, but that is not to say that every move is predictable. For instance, depending on their skin tone, sexual orientation, or religious views, tenured Ivy Leaguers earning five times the median American income may be categorized as oppressed. Conversely, depending on their skin tone, sexual orientation, or religious views, janitors at Walmart may be considered, within the intersectionality matrix, to be irredeemable oppressors.

By way of disclosure: I am a university president turned United States senator turned university president again. The institution I now lead, the University of Florida, faces all sorts of challenges, and Florida is the site of important battles about the responsibilities of academia to our society. As a public university, our incredibly talented and dedicated faculty aim to provide an elite education that promotes resilience and strength in our students so that they are tough enough, smart enough, and compassionate enough to engage big ideas in a world where people will always disagree.

Growing up, I idolized Martin Luther King Jr., who championed universal human dignity with clear-cut moral authority. From memory, writing in a jail cell in Birmingham, he synthesized, refined, and applied the Western canon’s greatest philosophers, from Socrates to Abraham Lincoln, to America’s predicament. While damning the original sin of white supremacy, he consistently offered hope that our country could overcome injustice with love. It’s gut-wrenching to think that America’s greatest civil-rights leader—one of the greatest Americans in the country’s entire history—would have his “Letter From Birmingham Jail” criticized and dismissed for citing only dead white males if it were written today. Too much of elite academia cares little for universal human dignity, leaves no space for forgiveness, and exhibits no interest in shared progress.

Today, free will, individual agency, forgiveness, personal improvement, and healthy cultural cross-pollination are all obliterated by omnipotent determinisms. This is why academics at the Smithsonian created a graphic for children that portrayed America as an irredeemably racist society, asserting that “rugged individualism,” “the nuclear family,” and “hard work” are “internalized … aspects of white culture.” The message is clear: Success is always a privilege given, never the result of hard work; virtues such as self-reliance are unattainable for minorities.

These elites believe that the world must be remade. Since the beginning of time, oppressors—the “privileged”—ran roughshod over the oppressed or marginalized. Now oppressors must be brought low to atone for history’s sins. It is a faith without guardrails, without grace, and certainly without reconciliation. It requires a life of moral struggle against the devil and the world, but with no eschatology of hope. There is no heaven coming here.

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