Don’t Burn Down Harvard

Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Former Harvard President Lawrence Summers recently tweeted, “I cannot think of a worse stretch in Harvard history than the last few months.”

He has a point.

Last summer, the Supreme Court ruled in Students for Fair Admission v. Harvard that the university’s race-based admissions criteria violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. Then in December, President Claudine Gay struggled to condemn the harassment and threats that Jewish students faced on campus from pro-Palestinian activists after Hamas instigated a war against Israel. Apparently, the university rated as the worst in the nation for free speech by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression had finally encountered some speech it felt obliged to protect.

Harvard has also come under justifiable criticism for suspect and inconsistent academic standards. Gay resigned in January when reports emerged that her sparse publication record was rife with plagiarism. The university’s chief diversity officer and a prominent neuroscientist there are also facing serious allegations of research malpractice.

In the wake of all this, it can be tempting to just say, “Burn it all down.” For years, progressives at Harvard and its peers have sought to use these institutions as a platform to promote political and social agendas, cultivate groupthink, and marginalize conservative thought. 

Today, these institutions have lost the public’s faith, are being investigated by Congress, and are being rocked by angry donors and alumni challenges. Watching them finally get their comeuppance is gratifying. The idea of burning them down feels both just and richly deserved. But it would be wrong.

Why? Recall the late Sir Roger Scruton’s aphorism: “The work of destruction is quick, easy and exhilarating; the work of creation is slow, laborious and dull.” 

The right has historically understood the value of longstanding institutions, the way in which our past anchors us, and how easily outrage can turn into mindless nihilism. Harvard is a pretty good place to exhibit that kind of restraint. 

By definition, you can’t create 388-year-old institutions in a hurry. We can work at building newer, better institutions (witness hugely promising ventures like the University of Austin, which Kevin Williamson wrote about for The Dispatch, or Minerva University). However, the resources, relationships, alumni network, endowment, and influence that Harvard has acquired cannot be readily replicated.

We needn’t ignore the many failings of Harvard and other elite institutions to acknowledge the immense contributions they’ve made to American medicine, productivity, and national defense. Just last summer, Oppenheimer offered a pop culture reminder of how institutions like the University of Chicago, the University of California at Berkeley, and the California Institute of Technology helped win World War II—even while relying on researchers with some remarkably dubious politics. We shouldn’t overlook the degree to which scholars at these institutions have made extraordinary contributions to our nation, science, and civilization even as we call out their more corrosive contributions.

Moreover, Harvard and the nation’s 200 or 300 other most influential colleges play a hugely outsize role in anointing and cultivating America’s future leaders—even as they serve only a small share of all students. Whether we like that or not, it’s a reality that will likely change only gradually (if at all) over the next decade or two. 

Leading colleges should be places where knowledge is preserved, truth is pursued, ideas are debated, and accomplished scholars tutor talented students. They should help safeguard the store of human knowledge, promote scientific inquiry, and teach wisdom to a new generation of leaders. Too many prominent colleges have yielded to the agendas of bureaucrats and ideologues, with grave consequences for free inquiry, civil discourse, instruction, moral formation, and even affordability.

What would changing these shortcomings in American higher education entail? The more straightforward measures address issues of campus culture—especially workloads, professorial expectations, and rigor. 

Despite protestations from the editors of the Harvard Crimson that students today are subject to the “absurd expectation of constant productivity,” the truth is that college students need to work harder. Last winter, in a survey of full-time four-year college students, 64 percent said they put “a lot of effort” into school. Yet, even among these self-described hard workers, two-thirds said they studied less than 10 hours a week. In 1961, the average full-time student at a four-year college studied about 24 hours per week; by 2003, that was down to 14 hours. At the nation’s elite colleges, it’s normal for students to regard 20 or 25 hours of class and study time as a full work week. Full-time students should be working a 40-hour academic week between classes and studying. Expectations for course-taking and class workloads should be raised accordingly. 

University faculty also need to teach more. At the nation’s elite colleges, faculty typically teach one or two courses a semester. This equates to perhaps six hours a week (or less!) for 26 weeks of classes each year. Granted, good teaching also includes grading, mentoring, office hours, and more, so we’re not suggesting that a three-hour weekly course entails only three hours of work. But at elite colleges, faculty have learned to regard teaching and mentoring  as unwelcome distractions from research and grant-chasing. That needs to change. It would be fair to expect faculty to teach three to five courses a semester, yielding a teaching week (factoring in responsibilities like preparation and grading) of 20 to 35 hours, while allowing institutions to serve more students, cut costs, and shift energy from campus theatrics to classroom tutelage. Elite institutions could do all this and still provide faculty  with six months a year for research, writing, and other campus responsibilities.

And Harvard and its brethren need to raise their academic standards. Grade inflation has become pervasive at selective colleges: Harvard’s average GPA climbed from 3.0 in 1967 to 3.8 in 2022. Elite college students know that, once admitted, they needn’t worry about earning a diploma—given that their schools brag about their 96 percent completion rates. Students double down by downgrading professors who expect a lot from them via course evaluations and rating sites such as Rate My Professors. That makes it tough for individual faculty to stand firm—especially when professors hired and rewarded on the basis of publications and grants know that going easy means less time spent grading and more time for their own agendas. Colleges need a collective cultural reset in which faculty are empowered (and, when necessary, directed) to dramatically raise expectations for workloads and grading alike. 

There’s also a need for  reforms that address hiring, research, and the academic ecosystem. Today, it’s routine for academic cliques to use hiring and tenure decisions to build up the ranks of the like-minded—especially for scholars who inhabit the various “studies” departments or who have championed critical theory and the dissolution of the Western canon. What’s needed are arrangements that can help to establish a healthy heterodoxy, with academic departments consciously hiring the best candidates while ensuring that students are exposed to a variety of intellectual and methodological traditions.

Hiring should be driven less by the ability of scholars to publish barely read articles on hyperspecialized topics and more on their ability to generate knowledge, write clearly, and teach competently. This requires an unapologetic commitment to hiring accomplished scholars—especially in the humanities and social sciences—who will expose students to a broad array of viewpoints, philosophical perspectives, and modes of inquiry. 

It also requires finding ways to broaden the pipeline of research funding, by federal agencies and foundations alike, so that rigorous scholarship can receive funding whether it aligns with the pieties of the moment or not. And it requires, as we’ve seen at colleges like Arizona State and the University of Texas at Austin, a commitment to launching new academic departments that provide a home for the kinds of liberty-minded, virtue-oriented traditionalists who’ve had trouble finding a home in increasingly politicized academic departments. 

Pursuing such measures will oblige boards of trustees and principled campus leaders to ask hard questions, scrap troubling policies, and push campuses to hire and program in ways that will pop the bubble. That’s no easy lift, but it’s doable. 

And they most certainly don’t have to do it alone. The nation’s most influential colleges and universities have made themselves wards of the state. Public flagships, of course, are heavily subsidized by (and thus accountable to) elected officials. But even nominally “private” institutions accept hundreds of billions of dollars every year in aid, research grants, federal student loans, tax breaks, and more. That makes it wholly appropriate for elected officials to engage in oversight and insist these institutions serve their core mission.

We should do all we can to foster an array of new entrants, combat bureaucratic bloat, insist that colleges help recompense taxpayers for the cost of students who don’t repay their loans, support new academic departments that take civic virtue and the Western tradition seriously, and much more. But that work should be a complement to, not a substitute for, trying to help Harvard and its kin recover their footing. The drama and controversies of the past decade could prove to be a cleansing fire, one from which better, healthier institutions might yet emerge. 

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