You've successfully subscribed to American Purpose
Great! Next, complete checkout for full access to American Purpose
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
Success! Your account is fully activated, you now have access to all content.
Success! Your newsletter subscriptions is updated.
Newsletter subscriptions update failed.
Success! Your billing info is updated.
Billing info update failed.
Private Colleges Earn an F

Private Colleges Earn an F

Shielded from public scrutiny, America's private college boards are struggling to protect diverse and dissenting voices.

Andy Smarick

Generally speaking, when a congressional hearing with industry executives makes headlines, something has gone wrong with governance. And something has clearly gone wrong at many of America’s most prestigious universities, most notably with regard to free expression and intellectual inquiry.

Looking back on the infamous 1994 hearing with tobacco executives, the 2010 hearings with finance-industry executives, and the 2018 hearing with social media executives, what stands out is that those testifying—the day-to-day leaders of major institutions—had developed giant blind spots. Because they had operated for years inside an insular community, they didn’t grasp what everyone else was seeing and thinking. Elected officials, hardwired to understand public opinion, are perfectly positioned to exploit the gap between such blinkered views and national sentiment. 

But those discussions should have never gotten all the way to the Capitol. These organizations are governed by boards that hire and evaluate executives, set policies, and generally oversee the direction of their institutions. When something is going wrong with an organization’s culture, the board should act long before Congress intervenes. This is one way to understand the conditions at—and solutions for—some of America’s most elite private universities.

After the presidents of Harvard, MIT, and the University of Pennsylvania testified before a House education committee on campus antisemitism in December 2023, headlines understandably focused on what they had and hadn’t said. A fundamental question, however, lurks behind their words: What kind of organizational culture leads to such compromised leadership? On some campuses, conditions have deteriorated even farther since that hearing. Indeed, President Joe Biden and Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona have both expressed grave concern. Thirteen federal judges announced they would not hire future graduates of Columbia University until it makes significant changes. On May 23, the House will hold its third hearing in six months on the climate at such institutions—a series of hearings that might well continue until these boards show Congress that they are taking these problems seriously.

Although about three-quarters of U.S. college students attend public institutions, much (though not all) of the unrest and worrisome activity has occurred at private universities. This is important because private universities are subject to different rules and their boards are populated differently than public ones. For example, private organizations do not have to adhere to the same open-meeting or “sunshine“ rules, and their campuses are not bound by the First Amendment in the same ways. Also, while the boards of public universities are nearly always appointed via a public process (e.g., nominated by the governor and confirmed by the legislature), the members of private boards are typically chosen privately (e.g., picked by current board members). Public organizations also need to maintain the support of their states’ diverse taxpayers. 

On the upside, this combination of democratic forces appears to naturally encourage transparency and accommodation at most public campuses. But it also means that the boards of private universities must work overtime to ensure that the protected space afforded them doesn’t compromise their campus learning environments. If these boards want Congress to back off, they need to act. 

Such action begins with clear university statements on free speech and inquiry. The growth of knowledge depends on the expression and contestation of ideas, especially unpopular ideas. Groundbreaking but initially controversial contributions to knowledge about gravity, inoculations, evolution, markets, and much more might have never taken root if they had been subject to the veto of dissenters.

But statements are not enough. Unfortunately, in recent years some schools have not uniformly, consistently protected diverse and dissenting voices. A true learning community wouldn’t silence some unpopular positions but then defend others in the name of intellectual liberty. Private boards must ensure that their schools are serious about protecting all academically sound speech and inquiry that is open to scrutiny.

Second, homogeneity can be toxic to a learning environment. It can produce narrow thinking and hostility to the out group. When tomorrow’s private board members are selected by today’s private board members, affinity bias can rear its head: Members will likely choose people similar to themselves in background, sensibilities, politics, and more. That can then lead to the selection of presidents, deans, professors, and staff who share the exact same views and characteristics, which shapes what students are taught. Private boards must take this risk seriously and investigate whether their campuses are places where narrow worldviews and antagonism toward those with differing views have become commonplace. Boards must understand this as central to their duty to maintain healthy learning cultures. 

Lastly, free inquiry and diversity of thought are not enough. A learning community needs to teach students the habits and dispositions of democratic citizenship and then maintain an environment that enables those students to learn. This includes teaching civility, accommodation, humility, curiosity, and prudence. It means reinforcing to students that certainty is the hemlock of wisdom. 

Students must practice engaging with ideas that conflict with their own. A student taught capitalism or critical theories of power and oppression must also be taught alternative schools of thought. A student taught the justice of Rawls must be taught the justice of Aquinas, Mill, and Nozick. And schools must not allow some students—no matter how passionate—to stand in the way of other students’ learning. That means clear rules, faithfully administered, against shouting down speakers, denying access to campus spaces, and occupying buildings. Faculty and administrators may feel pressured to cave on these matters; boards should have the independence to stand firm.

Private universities are an invaluable component of American higher education and civil society more broadly. They reflect our wide array of cultures and traditions, and they’ve contributed mightily to this nation’s technical prowess and elites. But the unruly scenes of the last few months have almost certainly compounded the public’s declining trust in higher education. That is reason for concern among all of us who care about the future of America’s colleges and universities. This summer, the boards of these private schools have the opportunity to stave off further congressional inquiries by recommitting their campuses to the fundamentals of higher education. America and its students will greatly benefit if they do.

Andy Smarick is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. He is a member of a public university board; all views expressed here are his.

Image: A person holding a stack of encyclopedias. (Unsplash: Siora Photography)

CultureDemocracyUnited States