PROF ELLWANGER: Universities await the arrival of 2024’s freshman class

Because incoming freshman might play the most critical role in reforming our universities, I want to offer some direct advice to them as they begin their studies.

Adam Ellwanger is a professor of English at the University of Houston - Downtown. His primary areas of expertise are rhetoric and critical theory. He writes political and cultural commentary for outlets like Human Events, Quillette, American Greatness, The American Conservative, New Discourses, Minding the Campus, and many more.

I was a college freshman in 1996. Even then – almost 30 years ago now – there was clearly a strong bias against conservatives. As it would turn out, college would define the trajectory of my life. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 2000. After that, I worked on the campus of a northeastern medical school until 9/11. In the spring semester of 2002, I began graduate studies. In 2009, I finished a PhD in rhetoric. Since then, I’ve worked as an English professor at the University of Houston – Downtown.

Over the course of those years, I watched the university’s decline from a front-row seat, observing how institutionalized leftism destroyed the spirit of inquiry and dialogue that is a necessary prerequisite for imparting a liberal education. Since my freshman year, higher education has grown worse in every way. In 1996, universities expressed disdain for conservatives. In 2024, they express disdain for America. The recent and ongoing turmoil at elite schools illustrates how hollow American education has become.

The direct cause of the present violence and hatred on campus is Israel’s self-defense in the face of an unprecedented attack launched by Hamas from Gaza. But there are many indirect causes of the meltdown at our universities: the decline of academic standards, the decline of admission standards, and the injection of leftist ideology into curricula across the disciplines and at all levels of schooling. And none of this is to mention college administrators’ reflexive tolerance of left-wing agitators, their suppression of conservatives and conservative ideas, and their refusal to stand up for the traditional principles that make liberal education possible.

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This atmosphere of chaos presents an opportunity for America: We must make sure that citizens see the depth of the depravity and hypocrisy on campus, and we must underscore that it is the effect of the university’s systemic, deliberate rejection of traditional American values. If these truths register with regular Americans, this could be a major catalyst for meaningful change in the culture of academia.

Parents, students, donors, legislators, and concerned professors will play major roles in facilitating this transformation. So will the young people who decide not to attend college – whether that’s because it has become too expensive, because the value of the degrees has been diluted, because the training that the universities offer is of little value in the world beyond academia, or because the recent spectacles on campus suggest that they will not be welcome on campus. Those individuals – the ones who reject college – need to be much more vocal about why. Further, they’ll need to talk favorably about alternatives to the university and the other avenues they find to achieve professional success, financial stability, and personal satisfaction.

But because incoming freshman might play the most critical role in reforming our universities, I want to offer some direct advice to them as they begin their studies. Teachers and respected adults may have filled your heads with images of the university as a place of open inquiry or unfettered dialogue and debate. That university no longer exists, and it hasn’t in quite some time. When it comes to any of the critical debates playing out in the public sphere today – the ones that really matter – the universities generally enforce a single perspective. A general rule is that the more contentious a given debate is in the world beyond academia, the less accommodating the university will be in allowing frank debate about that topic on campus.

Sadly, it’s not just at campus events where divergent perspectives might be silenced. It’s in class discussions, where your peers and activist professors will try to make you embarrassed of (or feel guilty for) holding different beliefs. It’s even in your classwork, where precious few professors want to teach you to advocate for and defend your own ideas. Instead, most want to see evidence of “intellectual growth,” which at this point means rejecting your own opinions and adopting those of your professor and your left-activist peers.

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Those peers – the ones who already hold the approved points of view, or who show themselves willing to convert to them – will be quite happy with the current state of affairs on campus. Their passion will be well-rewarded by the institution (which will enable them and acquiesce to their demands), by professors (for whom ideological commitment is synonymous with academic achievement), and by other students (many of whom still see campus rebellion and anti-American sentiment as intellectually chic).

Thus, your first task as you prepare for college study is to determine what kind of university you want to have. Do you want an apparatus for political indoctrination, or do you want a space committed to honest, committed pursuit of timeless truths – even when those truths are unwelcome in the current cultural milieu?

If it’s the latter, you will need to inhabit the campus strategically: wise as serpents and gentle as doves. You must carefully consider when to speak and when to remain silent. When you choose the latter, you’ll need to constantly remind students, professors, and administrators that, by their own professed commitment to tolerance, diversity, and inclusion, your presence enriches campus life – not in spite of your different perspectives, but because of them. And you’ll need to take care to do this in a way that doesn’t sabotage your prospects for academic success, future recommendations, or job opportunities.

Still, you will find allies on campus. Look carefully for the cues that someone is sympathetic to your beliefs and aims, as many of our fellow travelers will be reluctant to state their commitments openly. Gain the trust of those people and give special consideration to building a network of those who share your views. As our opponents on the left constantly illustrate, there is power in numbers. All of our efforts combined – parents, teachers, donors, legislators, young people who reject college, and you – could restore the values of open inquiry and debate to higher education. Only then can our universities return to their proper function in our society, serving as the producers of knowledge, preservers of the past, and defenders of the intellectual traditions that made our nation great.

Editorials and op-eds reflect the opinion of the authors and not necessarily that of Campus Reform or the Leadership Institute.