In the Academy StillIn the Academy StillBy Scott Herring, posted April 25, 2012 The National Association of Scholars recently released one of the most thorough autopsies of political bias in a university system I have ever seen, and happily, the university system is my own.  A Crisis of Competence: The Corrupting Effect of Political Activism in the University of California does not merely establish the bias, but quantifies it and shows that it is actively destructive, producing an ever more inferior UC, year after year.

A Crisis of Competence is packed with data, but what struck me most were the stories undergrads told, including this report from a lonely student at UC Santa Barbara.  That used to be my favorite UC, I thought, remembering a golden weekend I spent there at an academic conference.  Then I noticed that I was actually remembering the beach.


The student had a different experience, in a course that claimed to be Sociology 1, which turned into


…10 weeks of anti-capitalist, anti-globalization rhetoric.  We were shown several theories on globalization that portrayed Western civilization as almost demonic, heartless, and ruthless beasts that enslave the world for financial gain.  When I asked whether there were other models of globalism…the professor threw an angry glare my way and said there are no other models.  She then added that even if there were, it would be unconscionable to mention them when there was so much oppression and exploitation going on….One of the questions on the multiple choice final for the class asked: “What system is based on the division and exploitation of classes?”  The answer to the question was capitalism, and in order to receive a good grade on the test I was forced to select that answer although I did not agree.


A Crisis of Competence is packed with this kind of evidence, enough to convince anyone.  I was a little disappointed to learn that the literature departments I used to work in are actually just out of the lead in pure leftist bias, behind PoliSci and other departments that have a more overtly political focus.  No matter: literature is still in the big leagues.  My experience there made it easy to understand the official response the report has generated so far.

We are still waiting for a response from the Regents, but the president of the university, Mark Yudof, wrote a letter to the NAS curtly dismissing all the charges.  I was unsurprised at his line of attack, if it really rose to the level of “attack”:



I entirely disagree with the report’s suggestion that the University is not maintaining quality and that student achievement is declining.  UC’s graduation rates are among the highest of all public research universities and compare favorably with the best private universities.  We take seriously student course evaluations and any complaints of which we are aware.  Continuous faculty review strongly encourages our faculty to maintain the quality of their work.  As a result of such scrutiny, UC’s academic departments consistently rank with the very best.


UC BerkeleyUC BerkeleyYes, they do take student evaluations seriously.  That is why all the students pass with flying colors, and we have that high graduation rate.  More to the point is a little piece of what linguists call “linguistic ambiguity,” the bureaucrat’s friend.  Is “faculty review” simply review of the faculty, or review of faculty by faculty?  It has to be the latter, because faculty at a university always have things arranged so that only professors in their precise field are fit to even figure out what they are doing.

So actually, when we are told that Harvard and Yale have the best English programs, we rarely hear the hidden truth behind the sentence: that Harvard and Yale have the top programs in the opinion of some of the nation’s literature professors.  If a group of especially literate physicists or geneticists got together to evaluate those programs, they might end up recommending that they be shut down, and the ivy-covered department offices used to store the lawn mowers and ivy-shampoo.

Since I (temporarily) have this truth in the front of my mind, I am not looking forward to any exciting response from the Regents of the University of California to A Crisis of Competence.  Let me use my own experience of California higher education to explain why.

I am entirely a product of California schools, at every level: kindergarten in El Segundo, then grades one through twelve in Burbank, where dad got a job building sets and rigging lights at NBC.  Mom’s house is still full of leftover lumber, ductwork, and even pieces of furniture from Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, a half-dozen Bob Hope specials, and a new Tonight Show set for Johnny Carson.  As a directionless and frequently stoned undergrad, I drifted through the local outlet of California’s second-rung campuses, California State University.  After finishing a BA in English, and spending five years in that Real World, I returned to the same campus for a master’s degree in English.

More important than the degree, I learned to teach college-level courses.  Therein lies the great, unadvertised advantage of an advanced humanities degree: unless the grad student is a spendthrift, or has retained the habit from undergrad years of wandering around stoned, that person can graduate with no debt at all, because the department has the grad students doing paid and skilled work from the start.  I even saved money.  I was soon a solo instructor, and ended my time with the MA program as an expert at a job that is not easy.  To support myself and hone my skills, I worked as a tutor for the Los Angeles Community College District.  I managed to leverage my way into that top public tier, the University of California, specifically the Ph.D. program in English at Davis.  I have been here ever since, teaching at almost every level, and for about fifteen years.

So I have interacted with K-12 teachers and university professors numbering in the many hundreds, perhaps thousands, and have been trained and supervised by many dozens.  It may not surprise you to hear that never once did any of them order me to design my courses so that they indoctrinated students into a hard-left ideology.  No one even hinted that I should do so.  I was not even encouraged to be a Great Society liberal.  Of course, every university department I had anything to do with was rotten with far-out leftists.  I did not have to be told what to do, because my elders always assumed that I was just like them.  Normally, but for my own eccentricities, they would have been correct.  I was pulled leftward by the textbooks that the department sometimes selected for me, but when I gained the necessary seniority, I dumped the texts.  That was the only political influence my superiors had over me at every campus, in departments that otherwise regularly sounded like one of the crowd scenes in the Warren Beatty movie Reds.

But why?  Why are humanities departments like that?  One explanation I have seen from conservative pundits relies on comparison with the more level-headed side of campus.  While UC scientists and engineers may be liberal, we do not find the craziness there.  We have no courses called String Theory and Marxism, or Freudian Metallurgy 101, or Feminist Crop Genomics.  The idea, according to these conservative pundits, is that the scientists and engineers are saved by the power of the fundamental scientific technique.  A meaningful and satisfying interaction with reality keeps them grounded.

This explanation works to some extent, but I know now that it assigns too much credit to the university experience itself.  The people at the practical end of campus, the claim goes, learn to be sensible from their sensible discipline.

Cart before HorseCart before HorseThe cart, however, is way out in front of the horse.  Future English majors begin toying with outmoded leftist thinking while still in high school.  They gravitate toward the place they fit, and those who stick with academia retire as elderly professors (or elderly adjuncts with congestive heart failure from the stress) thinking more sophisticated versions of the same thoughts they played with as teens.  They are not made that way by grad school.  Those tattoos and piercings started to accumulate long before grad school.

So did all the characteristic attitudes.  I cannot tell you why it happens, and heaven knows we will not answer the question here, but in every generation, some people are—born or made—liberal, a smaller number very liberal, and a still smaller number chewing-the-carpet-in-rage leftists.  When you are chewing on the carpet, you are not looking for modest solutions to the world’s problems, the result of long-thought-out and careful research.  You want villains, massive conspiracies, and an all-embracing theory to embrace, one that promises to overturn everyone and everything vile in the world, which is pretty much everyone and everything, “Especially my [expletive] parents.”

Humanities departments are the way they are as the result of a sorting that happens to those pierced, tattooed, and angry kids between high school and the bachelor’s degree.  Here, a useful analogy pops up from elsewhere in politics.  I have heard it said, more than once, that leftists like both government itself and government jobs because so many of their centrally-important ideas do not work.  Nationalization of industries, approaches to crime that involve turning all the criminals loose, attempts to make friends with enemy nations by apologizing and disarming—the list could go on.  All have been tried, and we know the results.  But in government work, results do not matter.  In a bureaucracy, the bureaucrat is rewarded not for solving problems, but for increasing the size of the bureau.

Our freshmen arrive—the angry ones—already carrying half-formed ideas that take more definite shape when they reach higher education because their anger fits well with totalizing explanations and prescriptions for the world that are demonstrably false and harmful, but that are part of the atmosphere of every university: Marxism, Maoism, anarchism, Freudian psychoanalysis, weirder French versions of psychoanalysis, even weirder French versions of feminism, deconstructive criticism (French, mostly—sorry for the anti-Gallic tone, here, but the French theorists, and the Germans too, have much to answer for).

Rube GoldbergRube GoldbergThen the sorting happens, generation after generation.  The kids are pulled one direction or the other by the way knowledge is produced in different fields.  In the sciences, evidence matters.  Professional reputation rides on it.  In science, and in engineering, people can even die when the thinker loses touch with reality.  The kids who want a false but totalizing Theory of Everything drift over into the humanities, where evidence matters less and less the further they get from the science buildings.  They may end up in the English and Comparative Literature departments I know well, where evidence is just a mass of words, with only imaginary reference points out in reality.  A long-standing joke states that the English Department is where old ideas go to die, but it is a poor joke, because the ideas do not die.  Those of Marx, those of Freud, they live on and on and on.

In its ideology, at least, these departments have the scientists beat.  They have created a perpetual motion machine.

These are the unwritten facts that back up President Yudof’s wave-of-the-hand dismissal of the National Association of Scholars report on the politicization of the University of California.  He knows that biased scholars will be reviewing the work of biased scholars, and will give them a bright thumbs-up.  He also knows that the situation will not change.  The sorting mechanism will keep working indefinitely.  Even if he decided the report was so devastating that he (illegally) fired all the politically-biased faculty in the UC system, they could only be replaced by grad students who, sorted by the system and fueled by the anger of youth, would be more wildly leftist than the elders they would be replacing.

I am not dismissing the NAS report.  No, it will not effect a revolution.  It does, however, define the size and nature of the problem, and for those who need it, it furnishes proof that the problem exists.  Those who may need it most are the elderly wealthy who, in a teary recollection of youthful joys, brought on by intimations of mortality, write their alma mater into their wills.

These people need to know that the UC Berkeley of 1955, the one they remember so fondly, hardly exists even as a memory.  They would find contemporary Berkeley surprising…no, frightening is the word I want.  If nothing else, they should know to restrict their behests to departments that deserve them.

Scott HerringScott HerringScott Herring teaches writing and literature at the University of California, Davis.  Before he got his Ph.D., he worked for years in Yellowstone National Park, and still carries on a hopeless love affair with the place.  In the photograph, he’s hanging from a cliff therein.


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