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Universities Are Making Us Dumber

Lifting the Iron Curtain from academia won’t be easy. Then again, we have no choice.

Sergiu Klainerman
February 27, 2024

Library of Congress

In the wake of Harvard, Penn, and MIT’s congressional testimony debacle, followed by the plagiarizing travails of Harvard’s President Claudine Gay and her reluctant and ungracious resignation, it is broadly recognized that America’s elite universities are afflicted by a rapidly metastasizing cancer. Harvard, our oldest and most admired university, is now the poster child for this terrible affliction.

Calls for reform are widespread, with some pointing, correctly, to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives as a uniquely destructive bureaucratic instrument that needs to be abolished. Specific measures to improve our campuses include reviving free speech, institutional neutrality, viewpoint diversity, and individual merit as the only admissible criteria of selection for hiring and promotion. Such reforms are all self-evident within the framework of the traditional telos of the university, which prizes uncompromising dedication to truth and the pursuit of wisdom. If these ideas are controversial at all, it is only because the old telos has been eroded by new demands made in the name of social justice, in which every visible disparity between groups has its origin in discrimination.

As direct forms of discrimination are now virtually nonexistent in academia, discrimination has been redefined as an invisible, structural form of bigotry that is suddenly everywhere. Like witchcraft, this form of prejudice cannot be observed directly. Rather, it manifests instead through unequal outcomes. Once justice was reformulated in terms of equality of results, it became untenable to insist on merit and the pursuit of truth; these values had to be abandoned or redefined, whenever they came into conflict with the new orthodoxy.

To reverse past injustices, DEI (or “wokeism”) follows Ibram Kendi’s famous “anti-racist” formula: “the only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination.” Since “white Americans” are guilty of past discrimination, it is just that “they” should now be discriminated against, as indeed they are: Only 21% of the 2024 Stanford class, and 34% of the 2024 Harvard class, are “white”—which includes Jews and other groups that may not even think of themselves as such—despite the fact that they make up more than 70% of the country. Opposing such trends by insisting on merit-based admissions, meanwhile, is deemed racist.

As this logic has unfolded on the ground, entire departments—especially in the humanities and social sciences—have become populated by people selected less according to academic credentials and achievement than the thinly disguised quotas required by DEI. When the process of change was deemed too slow, new programs and departments were created with the obvious mission of filling quotas while advancing the ideology of DEI and creating future elite cadres, especially within university administrations. Once you have created enough woke tenured faculty, and subjected the nonwoke faculty to legions of woke administrators, it becomes close to impossible to reverse the trend.

Elite research universities have been the hardest hit by these developments. According to the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), among 248 universities ranked in 2023, Brown is the only Ivy which is listed in the top 70. My own institution, Princeton University, ranks a dismal 189. All the others are below 200, with Penn (247) and Harvard (248) coming in dead last. Top non-Ivies like MIT, Caltech, or Berkeley do slightly better, while Stanford (207) is as bad as the Ivies. If one regards the absence of free speech as a likely indicator of future academic prowess, then America’s top universities are headed for greatness. If not, their futures look dismal. And so does the future of the U.S. by virtue of being run by elites educated at these very “elite” universities.

As direct forms of discrimination are now virtually nonexistent in academia, discrimination has been redefined as an invisible, structural form of bigotry that is suddenly everywhere. Like witchcraft, this form of prejudice cannot be observed directly.

The political affiliations of the faculty now appear to be appropriately synchronized. According to Mitchell Langbert’s 2018 “Homogenous: The Political Affiliations of Elite Liberal Arts Faculty,” faculty members at the top academically ranked universities vote Democrat to Republican at a 21.5 to 1 ratio. At the lowest tier schools, that ratio is 6.9 to 1. The ratio of liberal to conservative faculty at Harvard, per The Harvard Crimson, is 56.4 to 1. If one imagines that sharing the exact same political viewpoints as one’s colleagues is a likely sign of intellectual independence and originality, then places like Harvard are clearly thriving. Yet, to most people, these institutions now look less like traditional universities than places of worship, where congregants sing and chant in unison.

Not all disciplines are equally affected by the woke disease. The fact that our elite institutions continue to be unmatched in science and engineering would appear to offer at least a ray of hope. The degree of woke infection of a particular academic discipline appears to be inversely proportional to the level of its mathematical sophistication. The STEM disciplines are thus the least affected. Social sciences, economics, and business departments appear less compromised than sociology, anthropology or history departments. This pattern appears also to correlate with variance in political orientation. According to Langbert, the Democratic/Republican ratio varies across fields from around 5.5 and 6.3 to 1 in professional schools and the hard sciences to 31.9 to 1 in humanities and 108 to 1 in communications departments and what are called interdisciplinary studies (such as gender studies, American studies, etc.). There is also a factor of 3 difference between the corresponding ratios for female and male faculty, consistent with the higher proportion of women represented in the social sciences and humanities.

As a result, top U.S. universities continue to be able, at least for the moment, to recruit the most talented mathematicians, scientists, and engineers from all over the world. Approximately 80% of the best paper prizes in mathematics, physics, and computer science awarded at the 2023 International Congress of Basic Science in Beijing were authored by American scientists (though most of them foreign-born). Yet the accelerating pace at which the woke disease is spreading from the humanities and social sciences to the hard sciences suggests that present U.S. dominance in the hard sciences is also in jeopardy. Compelling examples of how DEI is subverting research and scientific literacy abound. China, meanwhile, is pouring huge amounts of money into fundamental research, and is well-positioned to take advantage of America’s decline.

While it may appear that the relatively healthy state of STEM disciplines is enough to assuage the worst fears about the state of our universities, I believe that the opposite is true. While a society may still prosper without being dominant in the sciences and technology, it cannot survive if its core foundations are compromised. It suffices to point out that STEM majors rarely become journalists, politicians, artists, heads of unions, business leaders, or leaders of any other important opinion-shaping or decision-making institutions.

So can universities be reformed? Many reform-oriented academics insist that this can be achieved, at least in part, by demanding that universities commit to the Chicago principles of academic freedom, the Kalven report on institutional neutrality, and the Shils report on merit-based hiring. It is doubtful, however, that they will be all adopted or, if adopted, if they will be implemented by the current university administrations. Princeton, for example, boasts of its strong commitment to academic freedom, but in practice has no difficulty ignoring its own regulations. Calls for abolishing the DEI bureaucracy, an integral part of our ever-expanding managerial class, seem equally futile in the present circumstances, as DEI could simply change its name without changing its habits.

Efforts to create new universities, such as the University of Austin in Texas, or independent, heterodox, academic centers within existing universities, such as the venerable Hoover Institute at Stanford, the Madison program at Princeton, or the new Hamilton Center for Classical and Civic Education at the University of Florida, are more promising. Alas, there are too few of these and they are mostly powerless to change the overall climate in existing universities.

More hopeful, I believe, are the attempts to force in new, reform-minded boards of trustees at select public universities, as was the case recently at the New College in Florida. This trend, if extended to other states, and done with the intent to restore the old telos rather than to replace the present indoctrination from the left with a future one from the right, could have a significant impact in some Republican states.

Reformers can also take advantage of the growing backlash to DEI among America’s voters. Most U.S. universities benefit from policies related to government grants, tax exemptions, and student loans, all of which are conditioned on the implementation of various social justice and DEI goals. An effective reform movement could make the case to the public that these interventionist DEI policies generate bad results, such as insidious new forms of discrimination, the abrupt decline in patriotism among the young, a lack of trust in our main institutions, and the weakening of U.S. competitiveness in the sciences. Such appeals to the public are necessary because it is hard to see how America’s universities can be reformed without the involvement of federal and state governments.

But in the end, though all these measures are important, they are akin to treating the symptoms of a disease rather than curing it. An organism afflicted by a rapidly spreading cancer does not get better without some kind of massive intervention.

The degree of woke infection of a particular academic discipline appears to be inversely proportional to the level of its mathematical sophistication.

Given the degree of penetration of the disease in our society, a cure cannot be implemented by simply insisting on procedural principles, no matter how well intended or well formulated. In a recent article in City Journal, Christopher Rufo rightly points out that what is needed is a broad-based counterrevolution that attacks the intellectual and moral foundations that made DEI possible in the first place, with the goal of restoring “the nation’s founding principle of citizen rule over the state.”

While Rufo clearly states that “the challenge must be met not solely in the realm of policy debate but on the deepest political and philosophical grounds,” he is less specific in how this might be done. Yet nothing seems more urgent.

The left has an enormous advantage in its debate with conservative ideas anchored in America’s founding principles—individual civil liberties, limited government, and the rule of law. Conservatives, who have a visceral understanding of the inherent conflict among the basic human aspirations for freedom, justice, and equality, personal security, self-expression, spirituality, and the rights of the individual versus societal cohesion, are in the difficult position of having to find the right balance among them, which in turn requires uninspiring compromises. The progressive left, meanwhile, vehemently insists that this or that form of inequality or injury is unacceptable, and never bothers to explain how its vision of greater equality would be compatible with freedom, or how extensive individual freedoms for some do not interfere with the freedom or personal safety of others.

American conservatives are thus perpetually on the defensive, in the difficult position of explaining complex abstract ideas of separation of powers, restrained governments, personal responsibility, and so on, while the left appeals effectively to emotions and is constantly on the offensive. If a conservative reform movement is to be successful, it must shed its defensive posture and lead instead a principled but vigorous attack on the concrete, abominable, consequences of the current progressive ideology. Thus, while no sane person today would defend fascist ideology, Marxism and its various mutations—including neo-Marxist, neo-racist, anti-western, anti-capitalist social justice ideology—has been allowed to spread freely throughout academia. Alas, a great opportunity was missed after the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe to treat socialism and communism as pariah ideologies, the way fascism and Nazism were treated following WWII. The former Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukowsky traced the present malignancy of Putinism to the failure of putting the old Russian communism system on trial. Though it may be too late for a formal Nuremberg trial, it is beyond understanding how an ideology that claimed more than 100 million victims has been given a free pass.

Deconstructing Marxism and its successor ideologies is a good start, but the root of the current confusion of ideas goes a lot deeper. Marxism claims to provide a scientific explanation of the world, anchored in materialism, the venerable philosophical system intimately tied to modern science. In that it is not alone: Materialism is the dominant philosophy of educated classes all over the world. In essence, materialism asserts that matter is whatever exists objectively outside human consciousness and, since human consciousness also exists, concludes that this latter must also have a Materialist explanation.

Though circular at its core, materialism provides a popular, useful foundation to the physical sciences, where, by choice, it must deal only with the natural world outside the mind. Visible matter, perceptible through our senses, became comprehensible, as well as a lot more malleable to human needs, once science revealed its constituents (molecules, atoms, elementary particles, etc.) and their interactions. The link between these forms of matter and the forces acting on them, expressed by physical laws, is provided by mathematics, a body of abstractions accessible to our minds but whose objectivity, manifestly stronger than anything to which we can access by the senses, is not itself reducible to matter. Yet the entire edifice of modern science disappears if you take away its mathematical foundations.

The claim, which reduces the mind to the material content of the brain, leads, besides to obvious contradictions, to many nefarious moral consequences. Religious faith, which embodies so much of the Western moral and cultural traditions, is out of place in a materialist, reductionist, world devoid of meaning, ruled by the accidental product of physical and chemical processes. Yet humans need faith at least as much as reason and thus the void created by the absence of meaning—the “death of God”—has been filled by various secular pseudo-religions such as the Marxism-Leninism of communist societies or now “wokeism,” the secular religion of DEI. And, not surprisingly, both have ultimately rejected reason in favor of blind faith in their ideologies. The rejection of reason and common sense on issues concerning race, gender, obesity, or climate change is a particular hallmark of woke religion.

To succeed, a cultural counterrevolution, as called for by Rufo, faces a formidable uphill battle. It has not only to demolish Marxism and its successor ideologies, it also has to engage in a principled debate with materialism. That debate must take place on the common ground of reason, informed by the best understanding of science, mathematics, philosophy, social sciences, as well as religion. The goal is to arrive at forms of faith that are compatible with reason, in which human dignity and hope for improvements in human flourishing make sense again. That kind of large-scale cultural renewal can in turn only emerge from a renewed culture of intellectual honesty and courage in which our leading minds are no longer afraid to pursue truth on controversial issues. At the least, one needs to recreate an environment where, in the words of Solzhenitsyn, “we should all refuse to say what we do not think.”

The forms of liberation that freed hundreds of millions of people behind the Iron Curtain must now happen a second time, here.

Sergiu Klainerman is the Eugene Higgins Professor of Mathematics at Princeton University, where he has taught since 1987.