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In Praise of Private Colleges

When professors politicize public universities, it's hard not to expect politicians to respond in kind.
Wake Forest Reynolda Hall

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 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 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, 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 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 Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.