Political correctness transformed university culture to 'mediocracy'

Political correctness transformed university culture to 'mediocracy'
© Greg Nash

Following World War II, American society envisaged social promotion via a meritocratic system that would benefit underprivileged classes through public education. Republicans and Democrats agreed sufficiently on the general goals and enabled funding through state legislatures. 

When baby boomers entered post-secondary education in the 1960s, states were obliged to open many new public universities, and expand or broaden the mission of existing universities. The cost of attending these institutions was relatively modest, and government-subsidized loans opened college and university doors to previously excluded students. 

At the beginning of this period, 10 percent of the U.S. population had completed a four-year college or university program of study. Thirty years later, the figure had risen to 25 percent of the population, the Department of Education reported in 1993.

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When I taught French and comparative literature at the University of Virginia (1966-2007), the first 25 years of my tenure were a golden age of free expression and productive investigation of cultural problems. Classroom teaching and dissertation direction were marked by mutual respect and trust. 

The decisive turn in university culture dates to 1991 when, in a commencement speech at the University of Michigan, President George H.W. Bush — who, a year earlier, had declared his would be the “education presidency” — articulated the definition of political correctness that has prevailed ever since: “The notion of political correctness has ignited controversy across the land. And although the movement arises from the desire to sweep away the debris of racism, sexism and hatred, it replaces old prejudices with new ones. It declares certain topics off-limits, certain expressions off-limits, even certain gestures off-limits.”

Quite rapidly, the political and cultural right wing in the United States succeeded in associating the faculties and administrative bodies of elite American colleges and universities with a new censorship of conduct, thought and expression. Rather than launching a spirited counter-attack against freedom of expression, faculties and administrations began to double down. 

A courageous stance would have involved an admittedly difficult, but necessary, historical reassessment of past gender and racial errors. Instead, universities across the country chose the path of least resistance, establishing breast-beating and guilt in the administrative heart of university culture. Discriminatory terms were to be banned to avoid placing them in historical context.

Eventually, symbols, signs and statues were identified for removal. Obliterating the symbolism, it was thought, could make the problem go away. Quite to the contrary, lawsuits and removal of city councils have resulted from this initiative. Many institutions hired a new layer of administrators to assure that institutions satisfied federal regulations put in place to protect women and minorities.

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Within a decade, students began to complain if professors touched on “problematic” historical or cultural subjects that made them uncomfortable. Non-confrontational and often one-sided “conversations” replaced serious debate. The transition of the American university toward mediocracy — that is, a system that rewards mediocrity — is linked to these misguided decisions and administrative actions. 

Ultimately, it became clear that “political correctness” was the visible superstructure of a fundamental transformation of American higher education that has imposed new censorship on thought and speech. Many educators today live in fear of punishment for attempting to open the minds of their students.

Through international conferences, visiting professorships and short-term research appointments, I engaged in stimulating exchanges with colleagues from universities in France, The Netherlands, Germany, Russia, England and Australia. A common thread of these conversations is consternation at the repression of free expression and the new puritanism that has replaced it. The problem is systemic; it results from a fundamental shift in the mission of the university.

When new administrative echelons were put in place, the cost of public education spiraled upward. Convinced by right-wing critics that their universities were in the hands of a self-serving elite, state legislatures cut back drastically on contributions to university budgets. At the University of Virginia, for example, the state contribution to tuition and fees has fallen from 67 percent to 47 percent in the past 15 years. 

During that same period, meritocracy was dismantled and mediocracy took its place. Whose ends did this transformation serve, and what are the likely long-term results? At the structural level, universities imported from industry a managerial model that minimizes interpersonal conflict in the interest of maximum “product” output. Only “outcomes,” of the most immediate and quantifiable sort, are considered measurable and, therefore, legitimate. 

Our “product” was redefined as degrees conferred in a minimum amount of time, and in terms of jobs or careers directly related to the graduate’s degree program. At the University of Virginia, the undergraduate schools of Commerce and Nursing and the graduate faculties of law and medicine ranked high in this new management system. The faculty of arts and sciences did not; the departments of arts and humanities in which I labored made the worst possible showing. 

At present, the University of Virginia and others in the top tier of institutions have been able to maintain the relative autonomy of these departments. But for how long?

Albert James Arnold taught French and comparative literature at the University of Virginia from 1966 to 2007. Trinity College of Cambridge University made him a visiting fellow in 2007. In 2015, he was made a Knight of the Order of Academic Palms by the French government.