Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Anti-Liberal University

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) had a wonderful colloquium at the Union League ClubAnne Neal, the head of ACTA, organized the event, and chair was Benno Schmidt, chair of the CUNY Board of Trustees.  The audience consisted of trustees like my great friend Candace de Russy, academics, and leaders in the academic reform movement like Greg Lukianoff, head of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.  Several leading philanthropists were among the 35 to 40 participants.  The speakers included Philip Hamburger of Columbia Law School, Neil Hamilton of the University of St. Thomas Law School, and Donald Downs, Alexander Meiklejohn Professor of Political Science, Law, and Journalism at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

The distinguished group of trustees, donors, activists, and academics engaged in a riveting dialogue.  Professor Downs and I have subsequently exchanged some emails about the nature of the university.  I emailed him my views on the history of the university:  Universities never had a golden age, for they have always been anti-liberal, and the political correctness since the 1980s follows directly from universities' totalitarian roots in Germany.  This is what I wrote to Professor Downs:

I agree except for this question:  Was the university ever a liberal institution?  Americans are liberals, and liberalism in America was due to the American people themselves, neither to the Founding Fathers nor to the Constitution.  As they have been induced to adopt state activism, which by definition is not liberalism (Louis Hartz notwithstanding; he is brilliant until he gets to FDR), they have discarded liberalism, and so has the Supreme Court.   The university has contributed to and possibly induced the rejection. 

Were American universities ever liberal institutions?  They began in America as Christian colleges; they were transformed in the late 19th century by Daniel Coit Gilman and Charles Eliot mimicking German universities.  The German universities were not liberal institutions, as Readings’s* history implies.  Their role was to support the German state.  State activist liberalism in America came from the German universities via the historical school of economics (Wisconsin’s Richard T. Ely and John R. Commons were pivotal in that regard).  The German historical school had fought with the Austrian school in the 19th century,  and it was ultimately triumphant when one of its last followers, Werner Sombart, evicted Ludwig von Mises from the German Sociological Society under the Nazi racial laws (Sombart was old then, and he died a year or two later).  

In other words, I suspect that from the beginning Johns Hopkins, Harvard, Wisconsin, etc. were formed by anti-liberal actors; the liberal intonation coopted popular American belief in liberalism and was context or background to the inner impulse of the university, which was anti-liberal from the beginning. 

People who (a) believe in liberalism and (b) believe in learning want to believe that there was a golden age of university liberalism, but I am doubtful.  I don’t think the histories of universities will bear out that belief.  It is true that someone like William Graham Sumner advocated laissez faire at Yale, but the Mugwump, Gilded-Age period was still one when the university was a Christian institution. Yale had not evolved into a research-based university until the end of or after Sumner’s career.   There was, I recall, a conflict involving Ely when he taught at Cornell, which caused him to be fired; he moved to Michigan before Johns Hopkins and Wisconsin. That was still during the Mugwump period, and as Progressivism became ascendant the AAUP adopted the principles of academic freedom based on liberal rhetoric.  But the AAUP and universities themselves were Progressive institutions; in a sense, they were the source of Progressivism.  The rise of Progressivism during the 1890-1920 period (I would argue we are still in the age of Progressivism) followed directly from the influence of the German university on America.

*Bill Readings, The University in Ruins

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