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In Praise of Private Colleges

Recently I noticed a comment on Twitter that the very idea of the poor being dependent on private charity, rather than being cared for by the state, is “monstrous.” It was a neat, if unremarkable, example of the hypermoral tone of much American political rhetoric. The question of whether the poor benefit more from state-funded and state-administered programs or by private charitable organizations strikes me as an empirical one, the sort of thing that people ought to be able to discuss rationally and peaceably while trying out new ideas [1] and sorting through the available evidence; but clearly that is not how some (many, I think) on the left see it. It is for them simply an article of faith that the morality of a society must be manifested through its government, and that any other vehicle is not just inferior but … well, monstrous.

(This sort of thing happens on the right too, of course, as I’ve discovered when I’ve said that I don’t believe the Second Amendment says anything one way or another about private gun ownership. A topic for another day, perhaps.)

Many of my lefty friends are academics, and it seems to me that the current controversy over what’s happening to the University of Wisconsin system [2] should cause them to rethink their reliance on the government to uphold academic values in particular. The legislative changes to academic governance in Wisconsin are complex, but most of the attention is focused on tenure, which, some say, the Wisconsin legislature has just abolished within its system. However, legislators insist that they have done no such thing, but have only shifted responsibility for the status of tenure from state law to the university system’s Board of Regents. Time will tell [3], I suppose.

In general, Republican legislators are not big fans of tenure, largely because they see it as a way for lefty professors to keep themselves in power. And many lefty professors agree that that’s what tenure is for. See for example this post [4] by Michael Schwalbe of North Carolina State University, who celebrates “professors as a left force in U.S. society” but then complains about “the usual conservative attacks on professors.” Well, yes: if you teach at a publicly funded university and want to use your position to promote and consolidate a particular political stance, then legislators with different politics than yours will probably want to defund you. Sauce, goose, gander.

This raises the question of whether it’s reasonable for people who want their universities to be sites of resistance to “neoliberal ideology” to demand that a neoliberal government support their work. A question that answers itself.

Perhaps, then, the work that Schwalbe wants the university to do might better be done by private schools. This is, after all, a lesson those of us who work in Christian higher education learned a long time ago. We understand that we have a distinctive take on the world, a distinctive mission that won’t be shared by all Americans, and take advantage of this country’s rich and longstanding tradition of private education to pursue our own vision.

This is not to say that I don’t place a high value on public higher education. I was myself educated entirely in public schools, and am thankful for what I learned there. Nor is it to say that I support what the Republicans in Wisconsin are doing—I don’t. But I’m thankful for my own education in part because so few of my teachers thought it was their job to tell me what my politics should be. Certainly there are disadvantages to an educational model that tries to remain politically neutral and dispassionate; but one of the advantages, in the public domain anyway, is that it stands a chance of being funded no matter which political party is in power.

But if you want a college or university that has a strong ideological bent, that has a clear political purpose (using the term “political” in a broad sense), then perhaps you should not look to public institutions as the ideal venues through which to pursue your goals. There is a long tradition in America of intellectually powerful private universities with distinctive missions, and that tradition is worthy of our best efforts to sustain it. I hope it’s not monstrous to say so.


Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors [5] Program at Baylor University [6] in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography [7].

14 Comments (Open | Close)

14 Comments To "In Praise of Private Colleges"

#1 Comment By Antony On June 9, 2015 @ 1:24 pm

It sounds so reasonable here to divorce liberal political attitudes from public universities. After all, they’re government institutions funded by everyone. Why don’t we also seek to remove conservative political tendencies from law enforcement, corrections, and the military?

#2 Comment By RonBill On June 9, 2015 @ 2:22 pm

Nothing monstrous at all. But how private are they? When 39% of students at private non-profits receive federal grant aid averaging nearly $4500/year, versus 47% at publics averaging $4400 (in 2011-12), the distinction between private and public gets a little murky. Title IV is what keeps all but the richest privates from going under. Federal research funds also flow generously to them. Taxpayers are funding institutional politics either way.


#3 Comment By M DeGroat On June 9, 2015 @ 2:25 pm

I actually recently wrote an academic paper in praise of the American private college, as a possible bulwark against utilitarian views of education that threaten to reduce the university to an undeservedly glorified trade school (and that are sadly on prominent display among the myopic Wisconsin Republicans, who apparently think the purpose of UW-Madison should be to “meet the state’s workforce needs”).

But then came the recent spate of commencement speaker cancellations: Ayaan Hirsi Ali (at Brandeis), Christine Lagarde (at Smith), Robert Zoellick at Swarthmore. The most prominent of these (with the exception of Condoleezza Rice at Rutgers) were all at elite private schools. But one speaker who didn’t get “disinvited” despite intense SJW student pressure was Bill Maher at Berkeley, and that had everything to do with that university’s unique public governance structure.

It made me rethink my position somewhat. I no longer feel that tenure and academic freedom are necessarily any better protected in the private sector (witness the shameful recent events at Marquette); in fact, we may be at the point the state constitutional requirements imposed on many publicly funded university systems are the only things that can keep them alive.

#4 Comment By cka2nd On June 9, 2015 @ 9:03 pm

“It is for them simply an article of faith that the morality of a society must be manifested through its government, and that any other vehicle is not just inferior but … well, monstrous.”

Maybe things have changed but I remember when many small-L leftists founded co-operatives and private “free schools,” not to mention women’s shelters and self-help and consciousness-raising groups. “Small is beautiful” had many fans on the liberal-lefty-progressive side, you know, and doesn’t only apply to government.

Recently, in the wake of conservative successes in shutting down abortion clinics, funds have been set up to raise money to help women get abortions, and there are probably still hundreds if not thousands of women and men escorting patients into facilities that provide abortions every Saturday morning.

Of course, many of these organizations and activists have been captured by big donors, just like on the right. The late Alexander Cockburn wrote extensively on the divide between grassroots environmental organizations and those that had sold their soul for foundation support, tote bag sales and “access” to government officials.

On the OTHER hand, when one compares the quality of life in states with extensive public safety nets, funding for public education and somewhat more generous social services to those without such public expenditures, the latter states tend to look not so great, especially after the Right’s (and Center’s) anti-government crusade of the last 35 years.

#5 Comment By Harry Huntington On June 9, 2015 @ 9:16 pm

I have never understood the point of tenure in a public university. The point of any election is to be able to reward friends with the spoils. Why shouldn’t the math department, biology, chemistry or physics turn over entirely after an election to suit the political whim of the sitting governor in some state. If the Republicans win the elections, 18 year olds should never be made to suffer at the hands (or chalk boards) of democratic mechanical engineers who believe in a woman’s right to choose or in affirmative action. We all know that ban abortion calculus is radically different from pro-choice calculus. Was it Newton who favored one and Leibniz the other? And god forbid a gay man teach chemistry.

It is clear that tenure should end. Contracts should be short term. And the University should stand up and work to support the state government.

#6 Comment By Sean S. On June 10, 2015 @ 1:32 am

I’ll take the bait and point out, that yes, being reliant on private charity versus state administered programs is monstrous for reasons that obvious when anyone besides a passing understanding of actually caring for people would get. While its nice that their are novel micro-finance initiatives out there, as the WSJ article pointed out (and which various organs of the US Government have tried out at well, to various success) these are relatively minor in the grand scheme of things. How would private charity exactly run long-term care programs, many of which absorb millions of dollars in expenses and medical care? No amount of saving (unless your Mitt Romney) will cover the long-term care costs of a patient with dementia, for example, or a child who has a developmental disability from birth. And it is hard to imagine, why, or even how, a private charity would be able to raise enough money to cover such costs reliably. And what if there is a religious test? Many non-HUD homeless shelters require people staying with them to attend religious services. I’m not sure the most religious person would want to see faith be a pre-requisite to charity, because those AMens may be a little cynical. Even the LSS mentioned in that article mostly functions administering government funded programs, such as refugee assistance, HUD housing, and other block grants. Catholic hospitals rely off Medicaid/Medicare funding. Very few “private” charities exist that do work on a mass scale, and if you think about the tax benefits of donating, they also are explicitly subsidized by the government.

So yes, as others have pointed out, the reality is that few large scale organizations, including universities, can exist without the tap of government funding. I guess you could cut it off, and see where the chips fall, but what if everyone decides they want to donate to historical preservation rather than your nursing home? Or money flows only to the Ivy’s, as it so often does from its alumni’s, and public universities are dismantled? While I guess you could say that it’s “tough” for everyone else, until of course you or a loved one have to go for those programs that no longer exist.

#7 Comment By John On June 10, 2015 @ 7:47 am

This is a great article. Having attended private, Christian schools for the majority of my education, I firmly believe private schools are where we can educate according to the mission of the school (political, religious, whatever).

Public education should be much more inclusive to the point of excess when it comes to curricula. Include as much as you can from as many points of view as you can. The leftist monopoly on public schooling is frightening. In my wife’s home state, they’ve started a program called Pathways that forces students to select a career path in 7th or 8th grade and then in high school, all the classes they’ll take will be within that field. So, what’s frightening is the segregational emphasis placed on students at a young age and the loss of a holistic attitude towards education. In the sentiments of Wendell Berry (“Discipline and Hope”) education is becoming more and more just training and interpolation.

It’s a Marxist nightmare: workers becoming drones, and the left doesn’t seem to care.

I’m also beginning my PhD in literature at a big research institution and it’s incredible how the professors and other graduate students just swallow up Marxist and leftist thought without even challenging their base assumptions about the economic, social, and political viability and ramifications of their points of view, especially when a Marxist society (albeit altered by the likes of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao) have been empirically proven to be failures. The loss of critical free thinking at the graduate level is astounding.

If the lefty profs and grad students want to betray education and the humanities in favor of groupthink and noncritical dialectical discourse, they should form their own insular communities at their own privates schools rather than betraying the students who come expecting and education and not training and at some level indoctrination.

#8 Comment By libertarian jerry On June 10, 2015 @ 8:13 am

There is no doubt that since the onslaught of Cultural Marxism,over the past decades,that the “Long March trough the Institutions,”as the Left calls it has captured much of the academic agenda. This agenda,especially in the “soft sciences,” has been used,by many on the Left,to propagate their collectivist views. Why should parents,taxpayers and students who pay for their education be subjected to views that they might disagree with? The only answer,as I see it,is a complete and total separation of education from the state. There should be a Constitutional Amendment,on the Federal level,similar to the 1st Amendment. The 1st Amendment prohibits the establishment of a state religion and separates church and state. The new Federal Amendment would separate education from the state thus forcing governments on all levels to either close down or transfer ownership of all Public Schools,Community Colleges and State Universities into private hands along with closing down all Boards of Education including all State and Federal Departments of Education. There should be no state aid of any kind on any level. If,as a society,we can keep God out of anything involving the State,why shouldn’t we do the same to the god called socialism.

#9 Comment By Balance On June 10, 2015 @ 8:36 am

Professors who can’t exercise self-control, who inject their political, social, or cultural beliefs and prejudices into their teaching or research, should not be on the public payroll.

We have mostly successfully removed religion from public education. It is past time that we also removed people with political, social, or cultural agendas.

#10 Comment By Ellen Montei On June 10, 2015 @ 10:08 am

Thanks for this perspective… which offers valuable insight. Oddly missing is any mention of the cost of private education…which has become prohibitively expensive for any but the most privileged or the most subsidized. A private school education is largely unavailable for the middle class student.

#11 Comment By Alan Jacobs On June 10, 2015 @ 12:45 pm

Sorry, folks, for taking so long to approve comments — I forgot that I needed to do that, having not been here for a while.

#12 Comment By Sean S. On June 10, 2015 @ 1:01 pm

It’s a Marxist nightmare: workers becoming drones, and the left doesn’t seem to care.

Evidently you have done little research into how many education professionals despise tracking, which is exactly what the kind of program you have described is. I remember reviewing those same policies when I was in grad school, and in fact have consistently heard complaints from teacher unions about the issues of standardized testing and using it to pigeon hole kids.

But we continue to instill tracking not become of some oppressive government structure, but because that’s what parents are constantly demanding. Parent’s are always demanding that their children be tracked into higher requirement programs; it’s why we have popular books such as Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother which encourage you to forcibly track your children into activities and educational pursuits that are deemed higher up the socio-economic or cultural rungs. I’m not sure, but I’m pretty sure Amy Chua and her acolytes are not exactly public school supporters, and are the exact kind of people arguing for private school vouchers and charter schools.

The flip side is if you are tracking one group of kids into the better funded, allegedly more selective programs, than where do you track the rest of the kids? Without fail those kids are tracked into vocational and low level pursuits, ostensibly because hey, what poor black kid from Detroit really,/I> wants to learn music? I really suggest reading Women Without Class by Julie Bettie, for an exploration of how this tracking dynamic ends up playing out in one school divided on ethnic and economic lines.

#13 Comment By EliteCommInc. On June 14, 2015 @ 7:36 am

“Professors who can’t exercise self-control, who inject their political, social, or cultural beliefs and prejudices into their teaching or research, should not be on the public payroll.”

If one has studied a particular subject over “x” amount of years, they areprobably going to develop some ideologucal perspective and in the course of teaching I would expect them to express that view, even bt married to it.

The problem and quite peculiar view for anyone in education is that any other view must be shut out. That by being an instructor means by definition, one must be liberal has cornered the market on liberal education(traditional understanding of liberal — multiple offerings — not: I must embrace the choice to engage in homosexual lifestyle or be proabortion in the womb).

That is why I bemoan the departure of conservatives, even traditional christians from public education, the farm of political formulation. It will continue to erode conservative influence, by sheer numbers.

If what is described by Kersten Powers in her book Silencing is happening in public education and i think it is, conservatives do not have enough private farms to stem the tide.

It’s not they express their political thought, but tat studnets are being exposed to so little differences of the same.

#14 Comment By Andrew On June 20, 2015 @ 7:59 pm

I agree with Libertarian Jerry 100%. There should be a “separation of school and state” amendment. Considering that proper education is supposed to create discerning minds, there is a direct conflict of interest regarding the state and education. In my opinion, all education is taught from one viewpoint or another, either explicitly or implicitly. Wouldn’t it be better to have private schools that are clear and straight forward about their beliefs and missions statement? I think public schools pretending to be unbiased is a great contributor to our culture of political correctness, as many in public settings seek to avoid controversy at any cost to avoid the obvious appearance of bias. How are students supposed to develop a discerning intellect in such an environment?