There is a moment in former University of Chicago President Hanna Gray’s memoir, An Academic Life (published this spring with Princeton University Press), when Gray is appointed to chair Ronald Reagan’s Task Force on the Arts and Humanities, a committee whose object was reputed to be the dismantling of the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities. Her co-chair is Charlton Heston, star of Planet of the Apes, outspoken social conservative and president of the NRA. We might expect a futile exercise in bureaucratic nihilism, but, as Gray describes the experience,
Charlton Heston and I got on well. We never discussed politics, or guns, and found ourselves in agreement on most of the matters before us. Charlton was intelligent, fair-minded, and hardworking, always courteous and tolerant, never full of himself, a good colleague … In the end, after four busy months of discussions and of hearings open to the public in different parts of the country, we concluded, with surprising agreement among committee members who actually represented a wide range of initial positions, that the federal government did indeed have a role [in arts funding].
Imagine this situation unfolding today: a prominent liberal academic chairing a presidential task force on the arts with, say, Chuck Norris, and charged with finding consensus among a mixed group of liberal and conservative academics, as well as several corporate CEOs.1 It’s not hard to see how this scenario would play out. Every academic on the committee would take to social media to attack his colleagues, all the academics not on the committee would take to social media to malign the members for lending their names and reputations to an evil administration, online petitions would be circulated against the institutional home of every participant alleging that they abet crimes against humanity by continuing to employ such reprobates, and, within a few rancorous weeks, everyone would have resigned, bitter and humiliated, leaving the president free to pursue whatever ill-conceived course he originally proposed.
This predictable farce gets to the heart of the weirdness of Gray’s memoir. Describing a life studying in, and serving, an impressive series of universities (including Northwestern, where she served as dean from 1972-74; Yale, where she served as provost from 1974-78; and the University of Chicago, where she served as president from 1978-93), the book depicts a world and an ethic that should strike most of us as quaint and anachronistic. It is full of stories of conflicts defused through structured committee meetings and well-designed faculty governance hierarchies. Gray compares the University of Chicago’s elaborate governance structure to “the constitution of the Republic of Venice in the late medieval and early modern eras,” but praises it for “offering an invaluable means of garnering advice and discussion on all kinds of issues … with the faculty at large.” Of course, that matters only if one intends to work with one’s colleagues rather than one’s Twitter followers.
Gray’s memoir is so insistently out of place among higher-education polemics that it might be worthwhile for that reason alone. She is an inveterate institutional loyalist, impervious to the appeal of the movements and ideologies to which many academics have openly and happily hitched their work. To call someone an institutional loyalist now cannot help but sound like an accusation of moral corruption—surely you’re not going defend Yale over justice? But in Gray’s depiction, correcting injustice rarely requires exposing the university to public humiliation, and, conversely, it is very unlikely that such humiliation will correct any injustice.
To read her memoir is to be launched into alien terrain. On this planet, there are universities full of good “citizens,” as Gray calls her colleagues, who sacrifice their time to perform often unrecognized and thankless service to guide their institutions through difficult financial straits and leadership impasses. Even the deepest clashes of principle, like those at stake in the anti-war protests, are worked out in committees and through personal discussions, with all parties satisfied that a “fair process” has been observed. In the most intractable cases—like the question of South African divestment, which was debated during Gray’s presidency at Chicago—task forces are convened to produce reports laying out broadly accepted guiding principles for the future. The various constituents of higher education may have quite divergent visions for their institutions but they can all, on the whole, be reasoned with.
To be sure, this alien planet also features some of the famous faces and familiar eccentricity of academia: Ernst Cassirer makes Gray a raspberry soda at his house while his wife tries unsuccessfully to teach her to sew; Herbert Marcuse calls Hannah Arendt a bluestocking at Gray’s parents’ house; Isaiah Berlin shows up late to teach a seminar with his pajamas sticking out of his pants; the astronomy department at Northwestern is led by an expert on UFOs; Allan Bloom blindsides President Gerald Ford with a rant about the decline of civilization; and the historian William McNeill proposes that the University of Chicago buy the Chicago Bears so that it can “sponsor lectures during halftime” in order to “demonstrate its intellectual prowess to millions of viewers tuned into the football game.”
But all this takes place in the context of inward-looking institutions, which engage with the outside world for the sake of scholarship, but are not open to its input about how they should be run. The comparison to the Venetian Republic is not so far off, for it is a kind of late-medieval republic, governed by and for its citizens. It’s not always well governed, but it is self-governed.
Gray’s almost unswervingly positive accounts of the faculty and administrators at every institution, even those which slighted her in ways that would today inspire national protest campaigns, are especially striking. By contemporary standards, Gray has pretty good cause for resentment. She is a Jew (at least by the expansive Nazi definition) who fled Germany with her family in 1934, she was a female academic in the 1950s and ’60s, and she is a multiple winner of the “first woman” prize for holding major administrative positions at American universities. She should have a list of grievances long enough to constitute a book of its own, but there is hardly a trace of bitterness in her account, and indeed, a surprising gratitude instead, even toward institutions that were expressly hostile to her—like Harvard, where women were prohibited from entering the college library and made to enter department meetings through a side door. Gray did not protest any of this, but she ended up occupying buildings in a different and more consequential way, namely by governing many of these institutions and overseeing the reversal of discriminatory policies.
Gray is hardly obtuse or reactionary, and she does not excuse or hide the sexism and anti-Semitism that she and others encountered in mid-century academia. But in the background of her experience is that of her parents, scholars who watched German universities succumb with hardly any resistance to Nazism, which sought to use the universities to transform society in its image. American higher education may have been deficient in certain ways, but its liberal core—the fundamental work of research and teaching—was nonetheless possible and even flourishing, and that made it worthy of gratitude and, importantly for Gray, the effort of preservation.
Gray is a historian of Renaissance humanism, and the spirit of humanism animates her assessment of universities. She understands this spirit as “an intellectual orientation, an attachment to the liberal arts based in a long ancient tradition as providing a set of educational goals for the shaping of human character, conduct, and understanding.” The Renaissance university was sometimes hospitable to this orientation, but it was ultimately not the only or even the major conduit for it. What was really responsible for the transmission of humanism were networks of individual scholars and writers in personal contact with one another, exchanging ideas through letters and manuscripts. These personal networks are the heart of what Gray likes to call “the higher learning.” It was the network of scholars in various fields whom her parents had befriended in Germany who became instrumental in her family’s escape and resettlement in the U.S. Such networks eventually brought thousands of refugee scholars from Central Europe, and these refugees in turn reshaped and invigorated American higher education.
Gray’s praise of these institutions of higher learning rests on the conviction that, despite their imperfections, they strengthen these scholarly networks and the free pursuit of knowledge. For this same reason, however, she rejects not only the intellectual utopianism of reformers like Robert Hutchins, but also the political utopianism of activists who seek to turn the university into “an ideal community, a Garden of Eden from which the serpent has been banished, a model for bettering the social order beyond its borders as well.” Both visions appeal to our longing to fill “an existing vacuum of spiritual enlightenment and purpose that might once have been the province of the church,” but they foreclose the freedom of inquiry that is at the heart of the humanist enterprise.2 The defense of the university against these ideological incursions is itself a political cause, distinct from the many political causes that have found homes on campus. A consensus on the perfect university is impossible, but it is better to find oneself in a “multiversity” with a department of turf science and a Division I football team than in a morally unified academic institution whose very single-mindedness stifles the freedom of inquiry.
So long as the university is committed to the humanist enterprise and its freedom, reform is possible without revolution. Institutional perversities can be rectified from within and with minimal disruption by focusing on and exploiting commonalities and agreements—as Gray did with Heston—instead of inflaming disagreements. Although the gentlemen of Harvard did not wish to extend their faculty privileges to women, Gray “took to going through the front door when on the way to department meetings, and everyone was too much a gentleman to stop me or say anything; the prohibition gradually faded away.” This was possible, it seems, because Gray’s colleagues were primarily motivated by scholarly purposes, not by a desire to keep women out of their ranks. Confronted in a gentle way with objections to institutional rules whose modification would not imperil these purposes, their revulsion against scandal led them to gradually abandon these rules. The alternative is, obviously, public protest, which works precisely to outrage and inflame, so that the university’s internal workings are submitted to public derision and its self-governance is thereby undermined.
Another strategy Gray adopted was to govern institutions, both directly as an administrator and through various boards and trusteeships. After serving on a committee tasked with determining the justice of a controversial tenure decision early in her career, Gray discovered that “I liked chairing meetings, finding ways to move toward consensus, and coming to consequential policy recommendations and actions.” Suffice it to say, these are words unlikely to be uttered by most ambitious people. But, as a member of the Harvard Corporation, Gray guided the university towards the final abolition of “the segregation of women” through the dissolution of Radcliffe, an outcome she had hoped for since her graduate-student days.
It takes a certain kind of personality, possessed of more tact and patience than most of us can muster, to succeed in the tedious offices Gray held and for as long as she held them. But there are always some people, even among the generally inept population of academics, who have it. The question her memoir raises is whether these attitudes and habits of institutional responsibility—“citizenship”—can still be encouraged in an era where going public is the potential outcome of every seminar, lecture and committee meeting rather than the nuclear option.
As the internal workings of universities have come under the scrutiny of the increasingly all-encompassing ideologies of the left and right, even the most routine college happenings have become tinder for national conflagrations. Dissatisfied with your dining hall offerings? Frame it as part of movement politics and the New York Times will obligingly air your concerns to the nation. Don’t like the people yelling on the quad? Film them and send it to your cause’s national organization to disseminate. Publicizing such complaints is now easy because the constituencies that can be activated to fan the flames of campus controversies have expanded far beyond those who have any personal investment in higher education, no less in the particular institution involved. Everyone has an opinion, and troll armies for both sides stand ever ready to dismantle privilege or own the libs wherever they can find them. Not even the most established members of these institutions—the faculty—seem able to resist the temptation to behave like protesters, circumventing the institutional channels of redress created for them and appealing directly to this ambivalent “public.”3
Few engaged in this kind of protest understand it as an effort to destroy universities. It is for the benefit of our schools that we expose the malpractices of their members. We invite public scrutiny into student and faculty conduct in order to pressure institutions to quickly punish it, and often that works well enough. But the victories are short-lived. The resident inflammatory conservative or leftist is thrown out, the event or policy is canceled, but the public concludes that the institution itself is a hotbed for lunatics—that it’s incompetent enough to let such people in, or that it’s incapable or unwilling to punish misconduct without public pressure, or (if one is on the side of the punished, as half the country is in any given case) that it’s too cowardly to defend its own integrity and members’ rights in the face of negative publicity. Some individuals always benefit from these scuffles, but institutions always suffer. Bret Weinstein’s public career was launched (however unintentionally) when his objection to Evergreen State College’s “Day of Absence” went viral, but the college’s already-tenuous finances were decimated by the publicity. There are certainly times when such reputational damage is warranted, as when institutions cover up actual crimes, but when Charles Murray is treated with the same abhorrence as Jerry Sandusky, public shaming has lost its salutary function.
We can blame the accessibility to public attention that social media permits for some of this, but there is another dynamic at play: the university has nurtured many partisan causes to which its members can devote themselves, but there seem to be few partisans of the university itself left. Gray describes a world where self-governance and institutional loyalty protected universities against cooptation by movement politics and public opinion. But who on either side of the partisan divide today looks back at this world and sees anything besides complacency and elitism? Even those who govern universities today sometimes act as if they are ashamed of their positions, condemning their institutions just as vociferously as any populist outsider, as if preemptive surrender to an angry mob ever spared anyone from the guillotine when the time came. The urgency of the now that animates movement politics has colonized higher education. To tolerate the injustice of sexism now, as Gray did then, in order to bring about some gradual melioration for the sake of long-term institutional preservation is itself an intolerable injustice. To compromise or cooperate with one’s colleagues across the aisle now, in these dire times, is a violation of “broader obligations to [our] fellow citizens.”4 If the university is not serving justice right now, it is necessarily obstructing it, and there is no clear reason to defend it. Not even the right is given pause any longer by the assumption that the university exists to serve justice, however much its free-speech-oriented understanding of justice differs from the left’s inclusivity-oriented one. The sameness of their responses to violations betrays the sameness of their assumptions.
Little will come of chastising this orientation or pleading for the depoliticization of higher education. Education is always political, but the politics and parties which it serves change. In Gray’s telling, there was a twentieth-century party of the university, and that party held that the free humanistic-scientific pursuit of knowledge itself served a political purpose. It was not a purpose above or free from politics, but nor did it understand the university as the educational arm of a society devoted to the pursuit of a single moral vision. When the party of the university lost in Germany to the party of (im)moral education, its members fled to hospitable regimes in Britain and the U.S. These regimes did not understand the university as an organ of justice, but as an institution devoted to often amoral inquiry.
Confronted by the New Left’s war against the party of the university, the conservative scholars Gray describes (including her own husband) initially responded with quiet dismay and a continued commitment to their scholarship and institutions. That today’s campus conservatives behave quite differently from those in Gray’s book signals a deeper shift in everyone’s allegiances and obligations—away from the scholarly networks she describes during and after the war, and towards partisan networks with goals that transcend higher education and certainly any particular institution. This turn originated in the campus activism of the left, but it has been taken up by the right, and with great zeal. There are now entire publications, like Campus Reform and The College Fix, devoted to publicizing and ridiculing leftist academic excesses.
It is not only for lack of willpower that we can no longer put aside the topics about which we disagree—“politics, or guns”—to “find ourselves in agreement on most of the matters before us.” Unless we can distinguish between the purpose of the university and the aims of movement politics, we can never come to any agreement on “matters before us” without prior agreement about politics and guns. To call those who disagree with us on these questions “intelligent, fair-minded, and hardworking, always courteous and tolerant” is a preposterous misunderstanding of these terms. So much for making a colleague of Charlton Heston, and so much, perhaps, for the party of the university as well.