Seeing Crimson

How did I miss the Wall Street Journal’s emergence as a new voice in higher education commentary? Maybe, in part, because it happened as I was emerging myself: in the fall of 2016, I must have been too focused on graduation to notice the debut of the WSJ/Times Higher Education rankings. It’s also possible I had missed some issues, having negotiated one day a week off from teaching at our language school in Midtown Atlanta—where Murdoch’s Folly is free, like the espresso—to attend one of my seminars in Athens. The thing is, I seldom read past the letters to the editor, because I simply can’t. The most likely reason I didn’t realize how much space they were devoting to ivory tower matters was because online, the Journal withdraws behind a paywall. Putting up with the Chronicle is bad enough.

But I was intrigued. Throughout the spring, I had noticed an inordinate amount of attention paid to Yale, particularly the decision to rename Calhoun College. A couple of weeks ago, Alana Dunagan weighed in on one of the year’s bigger controversies in the sector, Purdue University’s purchase of for-profit Kaplan University (“The Innovator’s Dilemma Hits Higher Ed,” May 16). I made sure to snap up Bret Weinstein’s account of the campus backlash that greeted his objection to Evergreen State University’s “Day of Absence” for white students and faculty (“The Campus Mob Came for Me—And You, Professor, Could Be Next,” May 31), lest the cleaning crew dispose of it. I turned to my local library, only to find that back issues are recycled every couple of months; still, I managed to acquire Jonathan Haidt’s “unorthodox” insights into the recent disturbances at Middlebury and Berkeley (“The Cultural Roots of Campus Rage,” April 1) and a hit job on the ACLU for siding with the protesters at those places (“Where’s the ACLU When You Need It?” May 11). Was there a story here? Today, I succumbed to scholarly curiosity and pawned my credit card for a two-month trial subscription.

It turns out the Journal’s interest in postsecondary education themes isn’t new, though I have not probed farther back than Suzy Lee Weiss’s snarky “To (All) the Colleges That Rejected Me” (March 29, 2013). The name sounded familiar: the following year, associate books editor Bari Weiss (author of last month’s Haidt profile) penned an indictment of the colleges that presumably did not reject her sibling (“How To Survive—And Maybe Enjoy—PC University,” August 26, 2014). Roger Kimball of Tenured Radicals fame was early on the reportorial front lines of the student unrest that seized institutions across the country in 2015 (“The Rise of the Campus Crybullies,” November 13, 2015). Since January, Kimball has been one of the paper’s unofficial Yale correspondents; given the interest the paper has lately shown in this particular university, one was clearly not enough. Kimball first addressed the Yale Problem in his Swiftian piece, “The College Formerly Known as Yale” (August 8, 2016), which proposed that if the administration was going to remove the name of John Calhoun from one of its colleges, it should do the same for the name of the university, given Elihu Yale’s contribution to the slave trade. (For those who missed the article, Kimball helpfully recycled his argument this February, after Calhoun was rechristened Grace Murray Hopper College.)

This year marks an unusually prolific outpouring of higher education opinion in the Journal. Some of it merits attention, whether a reader ends up agreeing with it or not. Wesleyan president Michael Roth wrote on the need for an “affirmative-action program for conservative, libertarian and religious modes of thinking” when it comes to faculty hiring (“The Opening of the Liberal Mind,” May 11). In “Yale’s Quiet Majority” (May 3), James Freeman shared the results of a university poll revealing that more than two-thirds of Yale undergraduates opposed the idea of speech codes regulating the speech of students and faculty (interestingly, the poll also reported that an even larger proportion rejected the idea of renaming Yale). But as the Weiss-Haidt feature and others suggest, the lion’s share of commentary space on the multivalent subject of the American university is devoted to free speech and its enemies.

Nothing wrong with that. If I had to name the three most commonly indexed keywords in the literature, academic freedom would be among them. It’s just that the other two don’t seem to command the Journal’s attention quite like the censoriousness of the illiberal left. Specifically:

Financial aid. Complicit as journalists across the political spectrum have long been in misrepresenting a school’s “tuition” as the bulging five-figure price tag advertised on U.S. News and World Report—they simply don’t seem able to comprehend, or perhaps believe in the existence of, tuition discounting—for the most part the media have been all over the very real student loan bubble with a fair number of constructive suggestions for dealing with it, from income-share agreements (championed by no less an WSJ darling than Purdue’s Mitch Daniels, albeit in the Washington Post) to university-based financial wellness programs like those described by Indiana University’s Michael McRobbie in the Chronicle. The Journal? Earlier this year, there was a bit of straight reportage on the precipitous drop in student loan repayment rates (“Student Debt Payback Far Worse Than Believed,” January 18), but for the most part, the editorial response has been muted, and on occasion, tone-deaf as well—see “Why Wealthy Families Should Apply For College Financial Aid” (January 15, 2016).

Technology transfer. Maybe I haven’t been creative enough with my search terms, but if I had to bet on which of the top three higher ed keywords would inspire leads and ideas on the Journal staff, tech transfer would be it; or maybe I’m confusing the paper’s unique enthusiasms with those who study universities for a living, who may not even care what the Journal thinks, and whose use of terms like “academic capitalism” may do them more harm than good in the eyes of capitalists who don’t need adjectives. In any case, the paper seems to have little interest in the subject, unless you count the occasional update on a gene-splicing patent dispute between the University of California and Harvard-MIT (April 13). In fact, the Journal doesn’t seem to know what it thinks about the kind of research that universities should be engaged in: in the space of thirty days, the opinion page featured L. Rafael Reif of MIT arguing for the kind of fundamental research whose ROI is too slow for the private sector (“The Dividends of Funding Basic Science,” December 5, 2016) and Tom Stossel of the American Enterprise Institute inveighing against “the government-academic biomedical complex” (“Don’t Thank Big Government for Medical Breakthroughs,” January 5, 2017).

I am no PC-U skeptic. As an undergraduate at a big, ambitious Southern research university in the early 1990s, I participated in or observed a wide range of spectacular misunderstandings, in and out of the lecture hall, in which entire points of view were dismissed by drawing attention to the viewholder’s race or gender. The culture wars were already well underway back then. I can still see and hear one of my better professors, someone I admired and still do, expertly refereeing my choice of words before a live audience as I tried to work out an idea that, whatever its demerits, never quite survived the rinsing process. But I also know that I was a child of Reagan; even in my early twenties, I would have been a semi-reformed 80s preppy who knew that a working knowledge of T.S. Eliot and Matthew Arnold was all you needed to make sense of what life could throw at you, that the most interesting thing about Michel Foucault was that he died of AIDS, and that feminism was a rhetorical device for winning arguments.

The point is, there is nothing new in the notion that universities are playpens for progressive ideas and causes that would perish in an instant in today’s zero-sum economy. On the other hand, it is disingenuous to pretend that there is any place left except the university in which progressive ideas and causes can find free—as well as awkward, experimental, even self-destructive—expression and experimentation, something the Internet can, at best, simulate. I don’t have a problem with affirmative-action policies for conservative views in what appears to be a liberal-biased environment; I just wonder why conservatives are still clamoring for a place in what the Journal only today (“The Diminishing Returns of a College Degree,” June 5) deemed a sector that may one day be granting master’s degrees to the janitors who toss out our free newspapers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s