Winfield Myers, director of academic affairs at the Middle East Forum and head of its Campus Watch project, spoke to participants in a September 11 Middle East Forum webinar (video) about how concerned citizens can pressure universities facing fiscal crises to reform and improve politicized academic departments. These strategies will be reviewed in greater detail in a soon-to-be-published handbook on higher education reform by the Middle East Forum.
"The modern university is an extremely politicized place," said Myers. In the humanities and social sciences, this politicization pervades curriculum and instruction, which "tends to be intellectually homogeneous" and "results in the indoctrination rather than the education of students."
This indoctrination is especially egregious in the field of Middle East studies, which Campus Watch was established to monitor, and other interdisciplinary fields – "anything ending in the name 'studies' ... American studies, women's studies, any kind of ethnic studies, gender studies, sexuality studies, and the like." Such departments are generally "founded not to perform and produce rigorous scholarship, but instead to produce writing and teaching that supports a foreordained conclusion," Myers explained. "It isn't research in search of the truth. It is instead a means of legitimizing a particular radical, usually political, agenda." The problem "has gotten progressively worse over the last several decades."
Increasingly the higher education system "graduates students who are neck deep in debt ... [and] barely educated at all," yet "believe that they have grasped the brass ring, [that] they really have profound insights into the world because they know the entire world is racist or the entire world is unfair and that all civilizations are equal except the West, which is the worst of all, and on and on and on." Many "find themselves hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt and unemployed."
The goal, then, is to "depoliticize universities" and "bring them back to teach rigorously whatever the subject may be, and to ensure that their graduates are possessed of a degree of knowledge that allows them to think critically."
The current economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is an opportune time to bring pressure to bear on universities. Given the budget shortfalls "caused by tax revenue drop-offs [and] donation declines, especially during the height of the economic shutdown," these institutions will be asking donors for money, particularly those that are tuition-dependent with smaller endowments.
"You have to be persistent, you have to be smart, and you have to be numerous."
That places more power in the hands of consumers to make their voices heard – particularly alumni. Networks of like-minded people family, friends, and colleagues should organized letter-writing campaigns to "bombard" university presidents, provosts, deans, and administrators with calls for reform of politicized university departments. Letters to state government leaders, such as governors and chairmen of legislative education and appropriations committees, can also be effective, particularly in "red states" where Republicans are in power.
Myers offered a number of tips for letter-writers, including:
- "Don't be vague. Don't simply say, 'Higher education is a mess.' ... The more specific you can be, the better off you will be and the more seriously you will be taken." Single out specific department and centers. "Don't hesitate to name names ... [of] professors who are particularly politicized."
- Avoid vitriolic language. "You don't want to sound unhinged. You'll be easily dismissed. Even though the situation may call for apocalyptic language, it doesn't help."
- Write physical letters. "Given the sheer quantity, you may have to rely on email, and that's okay, but a few well-placed letters will get people's attention these days because they're so rare."
Myers emphasized that making your voices heard is particularly important in light of recent reports on the influx of foreign funding to American universities from governments with a vested interest in biased curriculum, particularly China, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. But he cautioned that "worrisome" foreign funding is not cause for defeatism:
Don't assume that because you have large enemies that your voice is useless or that your objection won't be heard. In sufficient numbers, your objections will be heard. I'm quite confident of that. But you have to be persistent, you have to be smart, and you have to be numerous. There has to be a lot of you in doing this.
Absent public pushback against university politicization, Myers believes the problem can and will get worse. Although the hard sciences have deviated less from the search for empirical truth than the social sciences and humanities, "we should never assume that they can't be compromised," he warned. "The politicization of the sciences after all was something that occurred in Germany in the '30s very rapidly. And you had world-renowned physicists thrown out of the country, running for their lives, being arrested, and so on in the most advanced country in the world."