Review Of John M. Ellis, the Breakdown Of Higher Education

September 2020

John M. Ellis, The Breakdown of Higher Education: How it Happened, the Damage it Does, and What Can be Done (Encounter Books, 2020).

University of California at Santa Cruz Professor Emeritus John Ellis pulls no punches in declaring the American university to be corrupt beyond redemption. Although he lays the blame for this at the feet of activist faculty members who are hostile to scholarship, he excoriates university administrators for aiding and abetting the activists in selling out the Enlightenment-inspired university. Moreover, he attributes direct responsibility to administrators for sparking and feeding the burgeoning diversity industry, staffed by anti-intellectual bureaucrats who need lots of on-campus oppression to justify their positions.

I was immediately struck by how unlikely the author’s blistering approach would persuade any of my social justice-oriented colleagues, but quickly realized that Ellis made no mistake in this regard. He believes that those who wrought damage on the university were aware of the likely outcomes of politicizing campuses, and that the destruction of traditional scholarship was precisely their goal. Consequently, this book was not written for those at the helm of today’s university, but rather for those who lament the crisis.

To set the scene, the first chapter of The Breakdown of Higher Education outlines a variety of recent near riots on American campuses that accompanied attempts to de-platform speakers whose views were known to be offensive to today’s one-party orthodoxy. In Chapter Two, Ellis turns back in time to trace the sequence of events that, although emerging serendipitously, provided the genesis for the destruction of the traditional university: 1) the Vietnam War and the growth of anti-war protest, 2) the vast expansion of universities through the late 1960s and 1970s (largely a result of the baby boom), and 3) the emergence of identity-based politics (often couched with the feel-good notion of diversity). That these events occurred in the way and time that they did reflected a fluke of sorts, but the consequences of each, separately and combined, led logically to where we find ourselves today.

Ellis notes that the left-right political orientation of the professoriate has shifted from approximately a 2:1 ratio favouring the left in the 1960s, to current estimates that are all above 10:1, even higher in the humanities and some social sciences. The author sees this imbalance as inevitably distorting the curriculum; he wonders, for example, how a political science department can offer a complete program when there is no real representation of the conservative position. An even greater problem than this extreme left-right lopsidedness is that those faculty situated at the hard left of the spectrum are running the university. In embracing Marxism, identity politics, and conflict theory to different degrees, woke faculty members share the belief that their primary mission is political activism. While rejecting traditional notions of dispassionate scholarship and the search for truth, they also demand that all others conform to their narrow political agenda. Their confidence has grown in the past five or so years to the extent that they no longer perceive the need to conceal their activist efforts and their contempt of scholarship. It is this segment of the professoriate that university administrators fear and to whom they are beholden.

Although this activist complement remains a numerical minority, it is rapidly growing towards majority status, having adopted a two-pronged strategy for completing the revolution. First, there are efforts to minimize dissent amongst tenured faculty by silencing them with social coercion and by marginalizing their scholarship with techniques like corrupt peer-review. The second strategy involves ensuring that only “true believers” gain tenure or even get in the door in the first place. The increasingly common requirement that new faculty lay out their diversity plans as part of the application process is one strikingly potent means by which the insistence for ideological purity is established.

Although this book is a very accessible read without the density or heaviness that characterizes the prose of many academics, it is surprisingly rich in the arguments and examples. Ellis remains relatively light on developing a theoretical framework for understanding the demise of the academy, opting instead for illustrating the mechanisms by which the traditional university has been taken down.

One example is the odd alliance that has been formed between radical faculty and university administrators. Both groups understand that advancing diversity as a feel-good proposition is much more palatable than promoting the virtues of tribalism. This strategy allows the growing swath of activist faculty committed to identity politics and intersectionalism to conceal their actual aspirations as part of the pursuit of social justice. For their part, administrators recognize the relative safety that comes in wrapping themselves in platitudes about diversity, inclusion, and equity, especially as a means by which to defend against the ever-critical attacks of radical faculty. From these beginnings came the rationale for funding more and more diversity (and, in the US, Title IX) positions that, in turn, created the need for more and more allegations of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and so on.

Ellis devotes his final chapter to possibilities for change, and it is here that he will lose many who believe in academic freedom, as this octogenarian Emeritus Professor turns out to be more of a revolutionary than a reformer. While emphasizing that he was very reform-oriented in the past, he believes the time when reform might have effected change has passed. His proposals now are directed to cutting activist professors out of the university altogether.

Ellis outlines a variety of ways that funding can be cut off from institutions and especially from errant departments to force activists to abandon their political activities and allow universities to return to their actual purpose. He recognizes that his view is draconian and not respectful of traditional views of academic freedom. He justifies his position by arguing that academic freedom was meant to support real scholarship and that the university has morphed into an entity that no longer meets the basic requirements of its pact with society.

He outlines why current efforts at reform are bound to fail and how today’s better-known reformers, like Jonathan Haidt of the Heterodox Academy, are well-intended but ineffectual. Consider, for example, efforts by certain governments to institute laws that mandate freedom of expression. Ellis points out that there are already sufficient laws to prevent the near riotous scenes led by social justice activists engaged in no-platforming efforts. Both university administrators and the civil police could quickly put an end to these shenanigans with existing law were there the political will to do so.

What about popular proposals requiring greater political balance amongst the professoriate with laws or policies that ensure a certain number of centrist or right of centre faculty are hired into tenure track positions – that is, affirmative action for conservatives? Ellis also rejects this plan as impractical given the magnitude of the problem. Moreover, real scholarship should be as dispassionate and apolitical as possible. The problem of politicization in the academy should not be remedied by injecting more politicization from the other side of the spectrum.

Still, if I were to take issue with this book, it would not be aimed at the stridency of the criticism of the contemporary university, but rather my sense that certain political values also colour Ellis’ vision of just what constitutes the ideal university. In advancing his idea of an education for citizenship, I am reminded of my public-school civics classes in the late 1960s. Although Ellis comes nowhere close to advocating commencing classes with one’s national anthem, he does lean towards there being a deliverable product, preferably one infused with conservative aspirations, that is to be packaged with the granting of a degree. However, even if Ellis is a little guilty of what he criticizes activist faculty of being a lot guilty of, he remains firmly in the “teach them how to think” category and not the “teach them what to think” camp that he so deplores.

What is to be made of Ellis’ contention that a complete eradication of activist faculty, through the cutting of funding, is the only means by which to save the university? First, one might argue that this is so implausible that it should not be raised at all. However, even were it a possibility, I remain enough of a traditional scholar that I am not ready to support the introduction of external forces necessary to make this proposition a reality. Given how the university is evolving, however, I may be ready to reconsider my position, say, this time next year.