In the recent book, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, Nancy MacLean traces the intellectual development of the libertarian right and its connection with the Koch Brothers and state programs to promote an ideologically-driven policy agenda.  She argues that many of the libertarian right’s policy proposals would be opposed if public discourse and majoritarian democracy prevailed. Consequently, she suggests, efforts are made to limit transparency, public discussion, and legislative and electoral participation in major public policies. 

Public universities are among the institutions in which the lack of transparency is becoming the norm. The tradition of shared governance is being trampled on. Educational decisions are being made by politicians, administrators and boards of trustees without any advice and consent from educators and taxpayers. Under the guise of a “business model” driven by metrics and profit-making, many years of educational practices are being overturned by administrators with little educational experience. Great state universities such as those in Wisconsin, Michigan, Texas, North Carolina, and Indiana are being reconstructed. Programs of teaching and research are being uprooted. Sometimes ongoing programs are abolished. And new liberal arts curricula measure success by creating narrowly trained job seekers. Research is increasingly channeled to meet the needs of corporations or the military.

The Vision of the 21st Century University

The President of Purdue University, Mitch Daniels, on October 12, 2018 received the Philip Merrill Award for Outstanding Contributions to Liberal Arts Education presented by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA). Daniels reported with enthusiasm that Purdue University is the third “most STEM-centric school in the country,” with over 60 percent of its undergraduate students matriculating in engineering, chemistry, physics, and agricultural and biological sciences. And he implied that there is a struggle going on in great universities everywhere about what should constitute liberal arts (Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. “Re-liberalizing the Liberal Arts,” Washington, October 12, 2018, From Daniels’ point of view, administrators cannot wait for liberal arts programs in the twenty-first century to transform themselves. This is so because liberal arts education today consists of “conformity of thought, intolerance of dissent and sometimes an authoritarian tendency to quash it, a rejection of the finest of the Western and Enlightenment traditions in favor of unscholarly revisionism and pseudo-disciplines.”

Daniels then railed against the “one-sided view of the world” being presented in liberal arts classrooms in opposition to critical thinking. He appropriately celebrated the “clash of competing ideas,” but characterized liberal arts curricula and research as dogmatic and authoritarian. (Many liberal arts educators would argue that old ideas are always revisited bringing new, diverse, perspectives to bear on traditional disciplinary formulations in the social sciences and humanities). In other words, while most scholars and students appreciate the openness and creativity of education and scholarship that has resulted from the last fifty years of ferment, debate, and thought characteristic of the intellectual life of higher education, Daniels advocates to the contrary that the newer scholarship and education should be challenged and expunged (Daniels referred in his lecture to some of his intellectual mentors including Charles Murray and Jeb Bush).

Daniels added that the tenure system protects dogmatists rather than what he would regard as free thinkers. He characterized modern liberal arts education as “the celebration of mediocrity;” the liberal arts as the home of “illiberal viewpoints;” and as the transmitter of “conformity of thought.” He condemned what he called “shoddy scholarship” as well. “Hopelessly abstruse, jargon-laden papers from so-called ‘studies’ programs read like self-parodies.” He claimed, with no evidence, that “…fewer than half the published studies across the social sciences can be replicated.”

And the final and most damaging claim Daniels made was that practitioners of liberal arts make their subject matter boring. He asserted that histories are written without heroes, excitement, “…glory, the human elements…” 

All this, Daniels suggested, requires reform of liberal arts from outside the clutches of the educators in the various fields he condemned. At Purdue University change is occurring because of a program called Cornerstone which brings STEM students to specially crafted liberal arts courses. “Enrollees will read Locke, Hobbes, and Jefferson as well as other works in the Great Books tradition.” Reading the great books, which according to Daniels are not already being taught in existing courses, and offering various dual degree and fast track three-year degrees, he said, are responses to the needs of the business community for liberal arts graduates. 

And as to free speech on campus, Daniels castigated students who, he asserted were coached by faculty, made unwarranted demands on him to denounce fascist and racist flyers on campus. And without any sense of irony, Daniels quoted 1960s Chancellor of the University of California system of higher education Clark Kerr who said that a proper university “is not engaged in making ideas safe for students. It is engaged in making students safe for ideas.” He apparently did not recall that students at the University of California launched the Free Speech Movement on their campus in 1964 because Kerr’s administration banned literature tables on campus. 

Discussions of Higher Education Are Held in Secret

Lastly, Daniels praised the work of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA). ACTA, formed in 1995, says it works “…to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives a philosophically rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.” Henry Giroux has characterized ACTA as “…not a friend of academic freedom, nor is it comfortable with John Dewey’s notion that education should be responsive to the deepest conflicts of our time…” (Henry Giroux, The University in Chains, Paragon Publishers, 2007, p. 161).

ACTA, while claiming to be independent, is an associate member of the State Policy Network. SPN is a “think tank” with affiliates in 49 states. SPN groups are affiliated with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) which was a creation of the billionaire Koch brothers and rightwing organizations such as the Bradley Foundation, to promote a radical libertarian policy agenda in virtually every state. Jane Mayer, Nancy MacLean and others have shown that ALEC, SPN, and ACTA leaders realized that public discourse and transparency in political and other institutions might lead publics, often majorities, to reject their anti-government, “free-market” agendas.

Universities historically have had public discussions about curricula and most universities, including Purdue University, have institutionalized mechanisms for decision-making on educational policy matters. Faculty Senates, curricula committees, and promotion and tenure committees, have been the lifeblood of higher education. And, appropriately enough, as a result of student movements on college campuses, students have been included in conversations about educational matters as well. And, some state universities value the input of citizens and a broad representative array of alumni from their universities, not just the wealthy who become the core of boards of trustees or the small number who can afford to donate millions of dollars.

What the Daniels speech represents is a capsule summary of the Daniels vision of what liberal arts should be. It is largely a series of claims about modern liberal arts programs, diametrically opposed to the reality. It is a policy brief for his campus that Daniels presented to the non-transparent ACTA, an affiliate of a larger covert institutional network with a presence in every state. The network is committed to a radical transformation of economic, political, and educational institutions, a radical libertarian America. Since the liberal arts tradition includes a rigorous conversation about this and other visions, questions of the direction of higher education at Purdue University deserve a rich diverse public conversation among educators, students, and citizens. Private conversations within and between organizations that restrict this conversation violate the spirit of higher education.

by Harry Targ