People were making “Freudian slips” long before Sigmund Freud was born. And American colleges were showing contempt for reasoned discourse and intellectual rigor years before the phrase “politically correct” was coined. In 1982, Dr. Stephen H. Balch, a professor at John Jay College in New York City, decided to do something about it.
That year, Balch joined with a few colleagues at John Jay and formed a group to stand against these trends. By 1987 the group, by then known as the National Association of Scholars (NAS), had grown to 200 members teaching at a number of colleges. Today, NAS has over 4,000 members belonging to affiliates in 42 states. Its quarterly magazine, Academic Questions, provides detailed analysis of the most serious problems confronting higher education in America.
NAS describes its three-fold mission as “the restoration of intellectual substance, individual merit, and academic freedom in the university.” The question of intellectual substance is probably the least controversial. Academy watchers have long suspected that American higher education was abandoning the mission of transmitting knowledge of a common culture, instead offering a smorgasbord of trendy and easy courses.
As Balch notes, it is now possible to get a degree from nearly any American college, including the most prestigious, “by studying French New Wave cinema, 20th-century fashion, and heavy metal rock, but [without ever] encountering Shakespeare, American history, or philosophy.” NAS did more than accept the conventional wisdom on the subject. It studied and documented the decline through analysis of general education programs at 50 leading colleges and universities over an 80-year period.
In keeping with its mission of standing up for individual merit, NAS has also been involved in challenging affirmative action and multiculturalism—both prevalent on American campuses. It was two leaders of NAS’s California affiliate, the California Association of Scholars, Glynn Custred and Thomas Wood, who set in motion the events that led to that state’s Proposition 209.
Custred and Wood became alarmed in 1993 when the California legislature came close to enacting a law that would have required the state’s public universities not only to matriculate but graduate classes that had the same ethnic composition as the state’s population. The two drafted a ballot initiative prohibiting the state from discriminating against, or granting preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education or public contracting. Three years later, after an intense campaign that drew national media attention, Proposition 209 was approved by 55 percent of California’s voters.
But NAS is also concerned about academic freedom, a topic less in the news today than was the case ten year ago, when the term “political correctness” was introduced into the lexicon. There are fewer stories about campus speech codes in today’s papers, but the administrators and faculty members who labored to make America’s campuses what one wag called “islands of repression in a sea of freedom” have not changed their minds or their professions. And NAS has been there to push back.
As an example, a state affiliate of NAS recently challenged the speech code governing West Virginia University. Under it, both faculty and students were pressured by the university’s executive officer for social justice to “value alternative lifestyles” and “use language that is not gender specific. Instead of referring to anyone’s romantic partner as ‘girlfriend’ or ‘boyfriend,’ use positive generic terms such as ‘friend,’ ‘lover,’ or ‘partner.’” By publicizing and denouncing such foolishness, the West Virginia Association of Scholars forced the university to repeal the speech code.
The history and the programs of NAS offer encouragement to the donor who believes in the ideal of higher education but is skeptical of—or appalled by—the people who run it. NAS thus proves, again, that all philanthropy is about investing in people, and that the donor’s crucial task is not conjuring up new programs and ideas or enriching established institutions so much as finding individuals who are energetic and resourceful, and who have a clear understanding of a mission that excites the donor.
The Campus Coalition for Democracy could not have begun more informally. Scholars contacted their like-minded friends, who came to discussion groups held in the living rooms of private homes. Three years of such meetings went by before the Coalition received its first grant, a donation of $9,500 from the Institute for Educational Affairs, for a conference.
NAS is now significant enough to win acknowledgement from its adversaries, such as Gerald Graff, an English professor at the University of Chicago. Graff accuses NAS of “spreading misinformation and often unfair criticism,” but gives “grudging respect to a group that has demanded that professors explain themselves. It’s definitely a player.” In 1991 professor Graff founded Teachers for a Democratic Culture, a kind of anti-NAS. (Given that its membership and public profile are much lower than NAS’s, it’s not clear whether TDC is “a player.”)
Philanthropists who want to find a way to assist higher education without subsidizing the people who are ruining it can turn to NAS for more than inspiration—the organization offers donors both practical advice and useful contacts. NAS is pursuing a “top-down, bottom-up” strategy, according to Balch. That is, the organization is working to win a hearing and influence decisions among college trustees, state departments of higher education, and college presidents. At the same time, it looks for ways that its 4,000 members can do something significant to restore intellectual seriousness at their individual schools.
One such “bottom-up” effort involves professor David Mulroy, who worked with a dozen colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to devise an alternative general education program for the school. The program exposed students to concentrated readings from the Great Books, as well as demanding courses in science, mathematics, and a foreign language. Yet Mulroy’s curriculum was held up for over a year by opponents who considered it elitist and “Eurocentric,” despite the fact that it was optional for all students and required of none. Finally, as described by Balch in a book on the subject, the university “realized that denying students the chance to take an enriched course of study would entail more embarrassment than it could stomach. Today, the program flourishes, attracting not only first-rate students but also considerable philanthropic support. Moreover, its success has inspired emulation and dozens of campuses now have teams of professors seeking to duplicate Mulroy’s triumph.”
NAS has helped establish other organizations working on American higher education, such as the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. ACTA, as it is known, exists to give guidance and reassurance to people who care deeply about the college they attended or serve as trustees, but fear that the time or money they contribute to it will only strengthen the tenured radicals who are undermining and transforming the institution. It is almost always possible for ACTA or NAS to find a college, a department, or even a single professor who can advance a philanthropist’s mission.
At century’s end, there are plenty of reasons to be discouraged about the state of American higher education. Professor Alan Charles Kors, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania and long-time member of NAS, says that the real message many colleges are giving their students is, “We believe you to be the racist, sexist, homophobic progeny of a wicked America, and for $30,000 a year we will redress historical wrongs.”
But there is also ample reason not to be discouraged. The growth of NAS—less than two decades from living room to packed conference halls—shows how much impact a handful of dedicated people can have on any problem, no matter how forbidding. Now that it is a sizable organization working with a number of like-minded groups, NAS gives another reason for hope. It is a unique resource for friends of higher education, people who need ideas or contacts to learn how their own time, contributions, and talents can be integrated with the work of scholars around the country to restore the best qualities of the American university.
William Voegeli is a program officer at the John M. Olin Foundation in New York City.