A useful exercise for the leaders of any kind of organization is to periodically get away from the day-to-day pressures of their jobs for the purpose of gaining perspective. I often recommend that corporate CEOs arrange an off-site meeting for their leadership teams once a year with no cell phones, email, or other types of electronic devices allowed. The format of the off-site meeting I recommend is informal and has only one agenda item. That item is an open discussion centered on just three questions: 1) What is the purpose of our organization? 2) Are we fulfilling our purpose? and 3) What factors, if any, are distracting us from fulfilling our purpose? My rationale for recommending this exercise is an immutable law of organizational behavior: Organizations that lose sight of their purpose—their very reason for being—eventually flounder and fail. This is precisely what is happening in higher education today. Colleges and universities have lost sight of their fundamental purpose.
The fact that colleges and universities in America have lost sight of their fundamental purpose is making them: 1) irrelevant, 2) more expensive than they are worth, and 3) open to legitimate criticism from the taxpayers who support them. In all my years of working in higher education and the private sector—48 plus and counting—I have never known any kind of organization that needed to step back and gain a better perspective on its fundamental purpose than our nation’s colleges and universities.
College and university presidents all across America need to organize off-site meetings with their leadership teams like the one described at the beginning of this column. During this off-site meeting they need to openly and honestly answer the three questions posed earlier. If they are honest with themselves and each other—I know this is a stretch–they will not like the answers to these questions. In the reminder of this column, I assess the state of affairs in higher education according to these three fundamental questions.
The first question is: What is the purpose of our organization? In our book, Liberal Tyranny in Higher Education, my co-author Archie Jones and I quote David Horowitz concerning the purpose of higher education: “The central purposes…are the pursuit of truth, the discovery of new knowledge through scholarship and research, the study and reasoned criticism of intellectual and cultural traditions, the teaching and general development of students to help them become creative individuals and productive citizens of a pluralistic democracy, and the transmission of knowledge and learning to a society at large. Free inquiry and free speech within the academic community are indispensable to the achievement of these goals.” The last line in this quote summarizes where universities have strayed. Free inquiry and free speech have been replaced by indoctrination, thought control, and the suppression of opinions that do not comport with liberal orthodoxy. Therefore, from the perspective of purpose, colleges and universities have gone off the tracks.
The second question is: Are we fulfilling our purpose? Are universities promoting, encouraging, and protecting the pursuit of truth, the discovery of new knowledge, and the use of reasoned criticism? Are free speech and free inquiry being promoted, encouraged, and protected in our nation’s colleges and universities? The answer to both of these questions is the same: no. Indoctrination, thought control, and the suppression of opinions that do not comport with liberal orthodoxy are collectively the antithesis of the purpose of higher education. When there is only one side of a debate allowed, the pursuit of truth goes out the window. When certain topics are ruled off limits, the discovery of knew knowledge is impossible. When indoctrination is the norm, reasoned criticism cannot be allowed. Too many of our nation’s colleges and universities could be more accurately called “re-education camps” in the mold of the communist world than educational institutions.
The third question is: What factors are detracting us from fulfilling our purpose? It is hard for me to imagine college and university administrators honestly answering this question. However, if they were willing to be honest with themselves, here are a few of the factors they would identify: 1) Allowing left wing thinkers to take control of every aspect of the institution rather than ensuring a balanced faculty that represents a broad spectrum of opinions and philosophies; 2) Allowing faculty members to use their power over students to coerce them into accepting liberal orthodoxy rather than thinking critically and independently; 3) Allowing faculty to view their jobs as leftwing indoctrination rather than teaching students how to think, reason, and apply logic; 4) Using the institution for social engineering rather than education; 5) Promoting the myth that everyone should go to college rather than treating a college education as a privilege for high-performing students who earn their seats at the table; 6) Exploiting federal financial aid to continually raise prices and increase the overall cost of a college education; 7) Inventing nonsense degrees to compensate for the fact that many of the people entering college do not belong there and never will; 8) Allowing intercollegiate athletics to become the tail that wags the dog (see Number 7); 9) Promoting a college education as a social imperative—a box that must be checked to be considered socially acceptable—rather than a way to prepare for a productive career and life; and 10) Allowing colleges and universities to become too dependent on federal dollars that come with strings attached, strings that require the institution to accept and help advance a political agenda that is not necessarily good for students, the institution, or the country.
Organizations that lose sight of their fundamental purpose eventually fail. This applies to colleges and universities in the same way it applies to corporations, sports teams, and military units. Colleges and universities, by losing sight of their fundamental purpose, are quickly making themselves high cost, irrelevant institutions at odds with the very society they were established to improve. This is a formula for failure.