Higher education needs an intervention

Higher education is failing to meet its potential.

Universities have become insular and homogenous, estranged not just from those who finance them but from those who support their purpose in general. As a result, educational quality suffers and scholarly innovation declines. It is time to reflect on how we can improve.

Universities are dominated by left-wing ideology. In an extensive
, professors Jon Shields and Josh Dunn found that only 5-17% of social science faculty and 4-8% of humanities faculty considered themselves conservative. University administrators are even more liberal.
One study
found that “liberal staff members outnumber their conservative counterparts by the astonishing ratio of 12-to-one.”

This homogeneity on campus limits the quality of students’ education. Intellectual diversity in instruction and content teaches critical thinking skills, improves one’s public speaking skills, and strengthens one’s writing. But universities appear to offer less of these challenges as they focus on ideologically left-leaning agendas and identity politics. Perhaps it should be no surprise, then, that college graduates today lack the skills needed to be effective in the workforce. One chief human resource officer
recently lamented
the “lack of creative problem-solving” among new college graduates. According to
another report
, 60% of businesses surveyed claimed that today’s college graduates lack critical thinking skills, 56% said graduates lack attention to detail, 44% said they do not write well, and 39% reported that they cannot speak publicly. Universities do not own all these problems, but they may be making them worse.

Higher education groupthink also may stifle scholarship. The peer-review process only works as intended when editors and reviewers are open-minded and do not block studies that challenge existing beliefs and when editors and reviewers do not promote other studies by glossing over their weaknesses because they conform to the predominant viewpoint. Remove those features and the peer-review process morphs from necessary gatekeeping into a protective racket. If we are to follow “the science,” which is a good general policy, we must ensure that those who create “the science” are honest brokers open to challenge.

Academic groupthink also limits those who enter the discipline. Numerous students have told me they chose not to enter academia because it is biased against conservatives and that they do not want to be “the token conservative that gets kicked around.” These are bright students who would add considerably to academia. But they did not wish to pursue the career out of fear. For conservatives, higher education today is almost always uncomfortable, often irritating, and sometimes downright intolerant. That state of affairs keeps conservatives out of the profession and robs us of bright minds.

To improve our universities, we must undertake at least three actions. First, we must open up the higher education monastery and allow nonacademics to be administrators. It is unwise to hire only tenured faculty to be administrators. The skills needed to be a good researcher often differ from those required of effective administrators. More importantly, leaders from the outside may bring a perspective that can change the culture of higher education, rein in some of its excesses, and yield efficiencies. A university or college is not so inherently different from other professions that a dedicated person from the private sector could not effectively lead it.

Second, we need to enhance free speech and civic knowledge on college campuses. Every college student should be required to take a class on the First Amendment. Good citizenship requires an understanding of the marketplace of ideas. In fact, universities already impose a number of requirements on students. All students at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, must take three credits of ethnic studies before they graduate. When they arrive as freshmen, they must take training courses on diversity, alcohol abuse, and sexual assault. Why not require them to take a class on the First Amendment so they leave the university understanding the importance of dialogue and free speech instead of leaving, as some students do, eager to
suppress opposing views

Third, universities ought to provide more credit for on-the-job learning. Academia is prioritizing wokeness, while the workforce wants practical skills. Why not make the final year or semester of courses actual on-the-job learning? Students who know the profession in which they want to work could earn course credit to work at firms or businesses. They might learn some marketable skills. Businesses could “test-drive” students as hires. Perhaps such learning would even allow students to graduate earlier if they could arrange their schedules accordingly.

A well-functioning higher education system can help people of all races, all socioeconomic backgrounds, and all beliefs. Education really is the vehicle to advancement. But we must take care that we are good stewards of it. The insularity and ideological homogeneity of universities today are strangling the virtue of higher education and leaving us with its vices. We need to protect higher education and help it meet its potential.

Ryan Owens is the George C. and Carmella P. Edwards professor of American politics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.