The Wall Street Journal published an OpEd last Friday by Peter Berkowitz, titled “How California’s Colleges Indoctrinate Students.” Berkowitz argues that higher ed has been “politicized” by “activist professors and compliant university administrators,” leading to the hollowing out of education and erosion of civic cohesion. He bases these claims on a provocatively-titled new report by the California Association of Scholars (a division of the National Association of Scholars), “A Crisis of Competence: The Corrupting Effect of Political Activism in the University of California.”
I don’t teach in the UC system. I have some friends who do, and I’ve never heard them talk about waves of activist professors, but maybe that’s because their attention has been diverted to the furloughs and salary cuts that they have faced for the past several years. The UC system has plenty of problems, but those problems stem from the defunding of higher ed.
Still, what really caught my eye with this report was the organization behind it. I am a scholar. What’s this national association all about, and how come I’ve never heard from them before. Did I miss the signup date? What gives? It’s not as though I’m that hard to track down. I go to a TON of conferences. Where’s their booth at the APSA annual meeting?
A few minutes of snooping around their website answered that question. NAS is a conservative front-group concerned with issues like “Broad imposition of the “sustainability” agenda on university activity and campus life” and “neglect of character education.”* Their membership includes “all who share a commitment” to their core principles, be they “undergraduate students, teachers, college administrators, independent scholars, [or] non-academic citizens.” They also have their very own journal, “Academic Questions.” There’s probably a very good reason why I’ve never heard of this journal before.
…So, by “National Association of Scholars,” they actually mean “DC lobby of conservative opinioneers.” That’s some fiiiiiine corporate double-speak. What’s interesting to me is that they have never even tried to interact with an actual professor like myself. If their goal is to improve the quality of rational debate on college campuses, they might consider participating in one from time to time.
Falsely-labeled conservative front-groups are nothing new, of course. The environmental movement has had to face up to groups like this for decades. “Concerned Citizens for Responsible Energy Policy” (a name that I just made up, then googled to make sure it isn’t a thing), which turns out upon deeper inspection to be a shell title for Shell Oil’s lobbying efforts. It’s a solid investment on their part — journalists will turn to them when looking quotes from “both sides” of a debate. Those same journalists are unlikely to devote a whole paragraph of their article to explaining that the group is pure astroturf (that would be godawful prose). Then readers are left believing that the debate is between serious-sounding citizens groups and think tanks, rather than between citizens groups and Big Oil.
Still, I’d like to make one modest proposal: when we engage in debates about university research, how about if we hold ourselves to the standards of university research?
Apply a dollop of academic integrity and call your organization what it is. You are not a National Association of Scholars if you do not even make an attempt to engage, associate with, or provide representation of professional scholars. The name demonstrates equal parts media-savvy and intellectual hackery. Do better than that.
In their mission statement, the NAS states that “The NAS advocates for excellence by encouraging commitment to high intellectual standards, individual merit, institutional integrity, good governance, and sound public policy.”
…High intellectual standards, institutional integrity, and good governance. This organization does not even live up to its own mission statement.
What an embarrassment.
*I’ll be working on some new course designs for the fall. I’m curious where on the syllabus I ought to include “character education.” Are they envisioning Socratic method or lecture? Scantrons or essay questions?