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Silverglate: Political dysfunction thrives on college campuses

By HARVEY SILVERGLATE | January 16, 2023 at 12:20 a.m.

Even the sunniest optimist now must admit that the nation’s politics are dysfunctional. Whereas during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, the Republican president used to have regular meals with Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, the Democratic House Speaker (or, as Reagan liked to say, after 6 p.m. it’s time not for politics, but for friendship), the current leaders of the two major parties are barely on speaking terms.

Even within the parties one sees veritable civil war: On the Democratic side, the extreme left wing is at war with the more moderate liberals, while on the Republican side the traditional conservatives are at war with the Trump Republicans and others. The Republicans demonstrated great difficulty electing a House Speaker, with Rep. Kevin McCarthy having gone through vote after vote in his effort to win the post.

Those who have been around for a while, as I have, somehow are not surprised that our political institutions have taken this course. While it’s hard to sort out cause and effect, this same division has been seen in recent years on our college campuses. Beginning in the 1980s, control of our colleges and universities started to shift from the professoriate to the administrators – not necessarily to college presidents but, rather, to mid-level lifers. The “administrative university” became the enemy of individualism and fostered, instead, group identities. Those on the political left were favored, while conservatives were derided.

Administrators, partly in their search for something to do, promulgated speech codes, and kangaroo courts to enforce them. Suddenly, a male could be disciplined merely for saying something to a female schoolmate that made her somehow uncomfortable. Students with even mildly conservative political views were heckled and silenced. I saw this coming and tried to issue a warning. In 1998, I co-authored, with Professor Alan Charles Kors, “The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses.” The following year, in response to cries for help from students and faculty across the country, Kors and I co-founded The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, recently re-named The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression.

Indeed, at the end of a four-month sabbatical that I took from my law practice to teach a one-semester criminal law course at my alma mater, Harvard Law School, during the mid-1980s, I turned down the dean’s offer of a tenure-track position because I could see the handwriting on the wall. The left and right wings of the faculty were at war with each other. Eventually, the conservatives were driven out, with only a token remaining.

With this background, the dysfunctionality of our political system is easy enough to understand, and the Reagan/O’Neill relationship becomes a quaint relic of a bygone age.

The question is what to do about this dire situation. While influencing congressional politics may be deemed near impossible for the average civilian, reforming higher education is not. Alumni who are concerned about the dysfunctionality within colleges must become activists rather than merely a source of annual donations constantly being demanded by “development” bureaucrats. Faculty hires must be scrutinized to restore some sense of balance.

Admissions practices need to be reformed to restore objective criteria based on merit rather than “affirmative action” that focuses on race and ethnicity. Courses must be examined for academic merit in order that the curriculum not be watered down to cater to unqualified students.

In short, what happens on campus no longer stays on campus. We see this in all areas of modern life, even in Congress. To deal with dysfunctionality in the halls of power, we must unite to restore civility and cooperation within other institutions in our diverse nation, especially our colleges and universities. Harvey Silverglate, a Cambridge-based lawyer and writer, is seeking a place on the ballot as a petition candidate for the upcoming election to the Harvard Board of Oversees.

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