The American University

Darren McCollester/Newsmakers

The American University

A startling case study in higher education’s failure to produce leaders
From the June-July 2006 Trumpet Print Edition

Tercentenary Theater. It is one of the most scholarly and noble of vistas, a hallowed ground named after the school’s three centuries of academic nobility. Scholars quietly pace the famous crisscrossed footpaths of the Harvard Yard beneath a leafy canopy supported by elm columns. Surrounding these “best and brightest” of minds, stately brick halls with wood-fashioned hearts shelter more brilliance; some sitting here studying philosophical epistemology amid a stack of aged leather volumes, some stooping there over a cherry wood table comparing piles of public policy and comparative politics notes beneath brass lamps. The intellectual power emanating from within these grand and classic brick monoliths is almost palpable.

But this Ivy League institution is more than just a stately campus. Founded in 1636, it boasts America’s richest academic tradition, the largest university library on Earth, and the wealthiest endowment of any academic institution.

To walk from Matthews and Grays halls across the Old Yard to the well-worn steps of Widener Library, or to study in the colonial-style confines of University Hall, you must be something special. The signature American university is also one of the nation’s most selective, with fewer than 10 percent of its talented applicants ever entering the cathedral-like confines of Annenberg Hall as students.

From this comparatively tiny pool of intelligence, however, has come a waterfall of American presidents, authors, philosophers, and world leaders in politics, education, science, business and industry.

Harvard graduates founded many of the country’s other elite schools, and the Harvard model forms a basis for American secondary and post-secondary education. It is the epitome of American scholarship, fostering the nation’s most brilliant cluster of intellectual stars and its most radiant hopes for quality leadership in the world of tomorrow, when its “best and brightest” minds darken the doorways of society’s highest offices.

However, if you peer past the elegant confines of Johnston Gate and the pomp and circumstance of the American university’s proudly pronounced reputation, troubling clouds darken the Cambridge sky. Fraught with division, wracked with bickering self-interest factions and plagued with a hatred for real leadership, universities like Harvard are failing the acid test: They do not produce real leaders. In fact, our elite institutions attack leadership.

Case Study

Note this insight from Timothy Foote, class of 1952: “Many students drift through Harvard with a nagging sense of failure and anxiety,” he wrote in a 1982 Esquire article “The Trouble With Harvard,” adding that Harvard students are “turned loose in a system practically without discipline, or order, or viable requirements, or supervision, or even advice.” Foote quoted then-student Kiyo Morimoto: “There is so much freedom here that studies become extracurricular.” The article added that students at the prestigious institution skipped class and received virtually unlimited extensions for term-paper deadlines. But Foote’s most disturbing revelation is Harvard’s deep-seated opposition to authority—in any form. “Today,” he quoted Morimoto, “all authority is seen as negative.”

This, from the supposedly best and brightest American university for producing leaders. “Harvard is deeply ambiguous about authority,” Morimoto said.

Twenty-five more years of zero discipline, weak leadership, hatred for authority and an increasingly liberal, egalitarian mindset have only watered the poisonous seeds Mr. Foote unearthed.

In view of the resultant anti-educational weeds that have cropped up at the institution—the Harvard Corporation appointed wunderkind Lawrence H. Summers to its presidential post in 2001 to enact sweeping changes and, ultimately, to rectify the general failure of the institution and its graduates to lead society to higher ground. The gifted former World Bank chief economist and secretary of the Treasury was a straight-talking, reform-minded, visionary choice initially hailed as a man who could not only put the university back on the track of intellectual excellence, but also serve as the nation’s spokesman for educational ideals. He also passed higher education’s “entrance exam”: He was a liberal.

Summers’s plan included updating undergraduate curriculum, expanding development of the sciences, recruiting exceptional young scholars to replace aging tenured faculty, improving financial operations and recruiting the most outstanding students in the world.

Revolt Against Leadership

But shockingly enough, the new president’s agenda for recapturing the pursuit of academic excellence and having faculty teach students more—empowering the university and its graduates to change the world for the better—were ideals that a powerful segment of Harvard’s faculty vehemently opposed.

Ostensibly, the 370-year-old patriarch of American education has enjoyed a rich history of academic excellence. But this shining surface of intellectual leadership is somewhat gilded. In recent years, liberals and conservatives alike have decried urgent problems within Harvard and its counterparts, including complacency, meager faculty attention for undergraduates, division between faculty and administration, and faculty preoccupation with tenure, individual research, promotions and politics.

In one of his early efforts to improve Harvard, Summers made the seemingly straightforward request for a member of the Afro-American Studies faculty to devote more time to scholarship and less to recording rap music. However, not only did the professor take offense, but also several faculty members spoke out in indignant protest. The rapping professor packed his suitcase for Princeton.

The next academic hypocrisy Summers addressed came when he called efforts to revoke all Harvard’s investments in companies doing business with Israel “anti-Semitic in their effort if not in their intent.” Faculty members cried out against their leader’s remark—and never seriously addressed the issue he raised.

In the critical eyes of Arts and Sciences professors, Summers’s next “blunder” was to speak favorably of the United States military, American troops, and restoring the Reserve Officer Training Corps to the campus. Left-wing professors were furious.

In his fight for a quality of student experience “commensurate with their quality [and] the quality of the Harvard faculty” (as he later wrote), Summers campaigned for full professors to spend more time teaching—one of his most egregious sins.

Since senior professors receive comparatively little recognition or financial compensation for teaching undergraduates, universities attract faculty luminaries with light teaching loads and lots of graduate students to do the grunt work for their research. In great part, faculty elites are “paid” in numbers of weeks they can subtract from their teaching load. Since recognition and monetary rewards lie in research achievements, most of the actual teaching is left to junior faculty members and graduate students.

Summers pushed for a return to the practice of senior professors teaching introductory courses in a stronger, more well-rounded curriculum, leading to better-quality graduates. He also asked faculty members to stop handing out A’s en masse to the point that 90 percent of the school’s graduates leave Tercentenary Theater with honors.

The powerful Arts and Sciences faculty and liberals across campus were boiling. Though introductory core curriculum-based courses provide undergraduates with a better education, they are also time-consuming to develop and teach, and awarding B’s, C’s and D’s takes time away from writing and research to answer questions from students wanting to know why they received the grade they did.

For related reasons, course offerings at many schools are based less on core curricula standards than they are on whatever subject of study a professor is pursuing. As Thomas Sowell wrote in the Baltimore Sun, “Thus, in some colleges there may be a course on the history of motion pictures but no course on the history of Britain or Germany. Students can graduate from some of the most prestigious colleges in the land without a clue as to what World War ii or the Cold War was about. At Harvard, chances are nine out of ten that such uninformed students can graduate with honors” (March 9).

Summers lost his quest for higher-grade curricula. The final curriculum report called for almost no core requirements.

Espousing such controversial views as better education for students, increased devotion to teaching, selection of scholars according to ability and promise rather than racial background, and support of American troops, Summers’s mission to revive the institution had been doomed almost before it began.

Political Endgame

In early 2005, Summers bought his ticket out of Massachusetts at a “Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workforce” conference by citing research suggesting that the relative lack of women in physics, astronomy, mathematics and related fields was due less to discrimination and more to aptitude and personal choice, and calling for further research on the subject. The fact that this was one of the leading economists in the nation citing scientific research was drowned out in the din of a faculty that insisted, in the words of the Weekly Standard’s James Pierson, “it was wrong for the president to call for research on a subject about which they had made up their minds” (March 6). The message was clear: Presidents of American universities ought never to put research or the unburdened pursuit of academic excellence before “diversity.”

Challenging the central assumptions of “diversity” ideology resulted in the crimson wound from which Summers would never recover. Though the science and accuracy of his statements was not challenged, his character and office were. “The fallout from these remarks is vivid evidence that, of all the victim groups on campus, the feminists wield by far the greatest influence” (ibid., emphasis ours).

Liberal faculty members jumped on Summers like wolves on a stricken kill, demanding formal apology after formal apology and concession after concession from the weakened president. In one effort to mend fences, Summers appointed a faculty member to head up an initiative to improve the status of women in the university, a woman who said his words had granted “a moment of enormous possibility”—if feminists could spin it as long as possible and play the politics right. An advisory “deanship of diversity” also rose up to advance the position of women and minorities, and Summers announced a $50 million, 10-year plan to increase the number of female faculty members at Harvard.

For all his efforts and in spite of his apologies, Harvard’s faculty held a series of meetings denouncing Summers for his remarks, attempted reforms and—most of all—his apparent irreverence for the liberal faction’s ideals. A first-ever “no confidence” vote ensued: 218 to 185 against the embattled president. The accompanying resolution included this startling explanation (which was later removed from the document): The faculty wanted the president out for his “ongoing convictions about the capacities and rights not only of women but also of African Americans, Third World nations, gay people and colonized peoples.” The statement made it plain: The reason for the ouster was that the president challenged the ideology of the diversity-drunk Arts and Sciences Department.

Soon after, the Harvard Corporation, whose handful of members ranges from liberal to mega-liberal, began canvassing the Arts and Sciences faculty to see just how much backing the president still retained. Summers was not without support. Though caught in a wicked ultraliberal crossfire, he enjoyed strong support from deans of the Business, Law and Kennedy schools, alumni and important donors. Even more robust support came from the students. The Harvard Crimson editorialized in support of the president and published a poll in which students favored Summers three to one, noting that they liked him, saw him frequently on campus, and felt he was an effective leader.

Summers mistakenly chose to compromise, continuing to backpedal in hopes of reaching consensus and affecting some sort of minor improvement in the areas he was appointed to overhaul. But by February 21, it was too late. Summers drafted a letter to the Harvard community announcing that he would resign in June, saying that the rifts made it “infeasible for me to advance the agenda of renewal that I see as crucial to Harvard’s future.” Summers continued, “Believing deeply that complacency is among the greatest risks facing Harvard, I have sought for the last five years to prod and challenge the university to reach for the most ambitious goals in creative ways. … My sense of urgency has stemmed from my conviction that Harvard has a special ability to make a real difference in a world desperately in need of wisdom of all kinds.”

The world is in ominous need of wise leadership. But the Summers fiasco disputes Harvard’s “special ability,” when America’s greatest university has proven itself chronically unable to effect change within its own halls.

Representative Case

Unfortunately, observations from the Harvard experiment are confirmed in institutions across the nation and around the world, from Ivy League to Slippery Rock. William Cooper of the University of Richmond and Jeffrey S. Lehman of Cornell University both fell to subversive factions resistant to the changes these presidents were appointed to make.

“[T]he spectacle of a rebellious faculty’s toppling their president created new worries that the shifting balance of power could limit the effectiveness of future university presidents” (Newsweek, March 6). Translation: A ban on leadership.

The New York Sun’s Daniel Pipes reports that although the lack of leadership and liberal stranglehold on higher education seems obvious in the recent Harvard debacle, assuming smaller institutions are freer of such domination is bad logic. His case study, Pennsylvania’s publicly funded Slippery Rock University—representative of the low and middle classes of post-secondary education—is wracked with politics and the influence of the diversity regime, as exposed in Slippery Rock professor Alan Levy’s report to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives’ committee on academic freedom.

According to Levy, activity in the faculty union trumps classroom or scholarly excellence regarding tenure and promotions. Instructors are so political that students learn to echo their professors’ political views back to them for good marks. One feminist professor openly intimidates students as a matter of routine at the beginning of class. The curriculum review committee typically checks for one major credential in the bibliography: 50 percent female authors.

Neither the Ivy League nor Slippery Rock are safe havens for academic freedom, let alone the bold ideals of graduates leading the world into a brighter future.

Not Learning the Lesson

Though Harvard’s interim successor, even-more liberal Derek Bok, is as much a “winter” to Summers as dark is to light, even he recognizes the troubling problems his predecessor was hired to fix. The title of Bok’s latest book: Our Underachieving Colleges.

Bok shares the view of faculty members, reporters and analysts: Although some initiatives that Summers, Cooper, Lehman and others have championed are good, leaders must first learn to “build a consensus.” A bevy of articles assert that if leaders want to effect change, they must first humor the right faculty members and then work on reaching a middle ground.

According to these pundits, today’s lesson is: Don’t lead—compromise!

The question begs: How can you build a consensus among people who would leave your institution before agreeing to spend their time teaching students?

Universities will never enjoy quality leadership—let alone fulfill the premise of producing quality leaders—as long as compromise and the sprawling, intolerant dictatorship of diversity continue to rule.

The Lesson

As Key of David presenter Gerald Flurry asked, “Why are [universities] in such a crisis if they have knowledge that should show us how to solve our problems?”

Harvard began as a colonial college for the training of ministers of religion, funded with money and produce by farmers and citizens of New England. Today, it sprawls over 380 acres, claims over 31,000 total students and faculty, and enjoys a $26 billion endowment. Yet an educated guess tells us that for all its pomp and circumstance, Harvard was likely a far better institution for training leaders in the days of its humble beginning than it is 370 years later.

Despite Harvard’s present leadership problems, many of its graduates have, in fact, become leaders. Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and William Rehnquist were all Harvard men. The secretary and undersecretary of the United Nations, Israeli prime ministers, multiple American presidents and scores of the world’s academic, business, judicial and political leaders were trained as young men at America’s elite universities. But have these men—who have risen to the top of the top—led our society out of war, hatred, inequality and injustice? On the contrary, even those men who manage to become leaders fail this litmus test.

Some of Harvard’s earliest graduates, such as John Hancock, John Adams and Theodore Roosevelt, genuinely attempted to lead society into a better future. Even their noble efforts have ultimately failed. Though we would do well to look to these men more than today’s leaders, the grand total of all our efforts is a society on the brink of moral, criminal, financial and nuclear destruction.

Mankind has never turned wholeheartedly to God for leadership. Instead, it has forged its own way, stumbling deeper and deeper into unhappiness and destruction. Our society’s top institutions look only to academic scholarship—human reasoning—for answers to war, crime, corruption, disease and unhappiness. At best, university presidents like Lawrence Summers seek to find human solutions to these pressing problems afflicting millions through academic knowledge, hoping this will produce a by-product of beneficial leadership.

This has failed.

Though at one time, America’s best universities pushed students to at least address society’s pressing problems, now they have drifted from even this ideal. Classes and personal instruction on effective leadership are consumed in the blind march of the liberal agenda. As it turns out, even intellectual excellence can be sacrificed on the altar of liberal “diverse” ideology, regardless of science, research or truth. With each passing semester, mankind’s best and brightest institutions fail to educate tomorrow’s leaders properly even on the material level, turning instead into a corrupted haven for infighting, hypocrisy, and non-leadership.

“Veritas”—truth—the age-old motto of the crimson school, implies graduates who know the truth of the matter, and thus lead the world to societal high ground.

Ironic.

Those still harboring shreds of true vision or strong leadership are attacked, ostracized and dismissed by the suffocating, advancing mush of sacred liberal ideology, group-think and the diversity regime.

All told, the correct answer on the final exam is this: Man’s scientific experiment of leading and educating himself is failing.

Disappointing as it might be to see man’s brightest hope for change grow dimmer and dimmer, there is an even brighter hope—one that will not fail. Soon, God’s system of education will produce effective, fair leaders who will help Him implement the desperately needed solutions to all of the world’s problems. As the Prophet Habakkuk said, at that time shall the whole Earth “be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.”

Consider applying as a transfer student out of man’s fading educational system to a system that will work:God’s education.