In 2003, the Supreme Court expected “that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary” in university admissions. That was the conventional wisdom of the time. Affirmative action was supposed to be a temporary deviation from the principle of nondiscrimination, a remedy for injustices past, a bit of accelerated democratization. When the Court considered the matter again last year, there was no mention of any expiration date. The conservatives opposed it on principle, as ever, but Anthony Kennedy abandoned everything he’d previously said on the matter and simply conformed his opinion to the wishes of the academy, represented by the University of Texas.
The curious thing about the case wasn’t that Kennedy surrendered to fashion; he’s been known to do that. It was the defendant. Texas, after all, is supposed to be dominated by conservatives. It’s been nearly a quarter of a century since a Democrat was elected to statewide office, and Republicans usually have something close to a supermajority in both houses of the legislature. Why don’t Texas Republicans simply ban racial considerations in admissions at public universities? Why don’t they go further, and clear out some of the rot? Why don’t they stand up for the Permanent Things? This is the essence of conservatism, yet these state Republicans distribute vast sums to nihilists who reject truth and beauty, who reduce all human experience to the same few clichés, who see the arc of history bending toward a unisex bathroom.
The problem is that the lawmakers themselves are complicit in the scheme, because the rich and powerful have been the primary beneficiaries of the system. On the basis of admissions preferences, politicians have been getting their kids and their wealthy supporters’ kids into UT despite their awful grades. If the advocates of affirmative action ever stopped to examine the results of the policy, they would find that vague “holistic” admissions standards meant to help the disadvantaged have actually created and obscured new advantages for rich white people.
Marx said that the “class which has the means of material production at its disposal has control at the same time over the means of mental production.” He would have had no trouble seeing affirmative action as an essential part of the ideology of the dominant class—ideology in his original sense of the word, meaning an idea that promotes that class’s interest while covering over injustice or oppression.
When the chancellor of the Texas university system discovered that lawmakers have been profiting from a back-door admissions system for their children and the children of their friends and donors, he forced UT’s president, Bill Powers, to resign. There was a scandal and an investigation, but things then took a curious turn. The chancellor resigned, and the new chancellor, Bill McRaven, released a report of the investigation scrubbed of names and filled with grossly misleading numbers that gave no hint of the scope of what the investigators had actually found. The board was implicated, but instead of resigning, its members supported McRaven’s decision not to close the back door but to make it official policy instead. The names of those given special access because of donor potential or political influence are not to be written down or shared with the board. Once a year, the president whispers to the chancellor how many times he opened the back door. And the chancellor has the support of the lawmakers who control the legislature.
Abuse of the admissions system came to light thanks to a board member, Wallace Hall, who had been appointed and supported by Gov. Rick Perry, but successor Gov. Greg Abbott replaced Hall, appointing six board members who favor sweeping all this under the rug. One appointee was so bold as to promise lawmakers at a hearing in January that she’d “serve your constituents in the way you deem appropriate.”
Fairness would require transparent admissions based on actual standards. Instead, the privileged have reasserted their privilege. The puzzling thing is why it’s tolerated, by Texans in general and by the professors themselves.
Many of us fail to see admissions preferences for what they are because nostalgia keeps us from seeing our universities for what they have become. In the minds of alumni, many lawmakers among them, UT means memories of Longhorns football, a vibrant music scene, and tubing down the Guadalupe River. If they visit campus for an event, they’ll probably encounter a few respectable old professors that the administration keeps around for that purpose. But UT has been turned into Berkeley South. That was Powers’ express aim: If you want to attract elite faculty, you can’t fight the Zeitgeist. The alumni catch only a glimpse of the culture on the news from time to time, as when students protest a law allowing guns on campus by marching around with autoerotic paraphernalia. Academic discourse at UT has gone from figurative to literal onanism, while Texas Republicans think they can solve the problem by throwing guns at it. Well, that’s not quite right. In the last decade, there have been three separate efforts by Texas conservatives to restore to the university some of its proper function. None was ideological. Yet with few exceptions, Republican lawmakers sat on their hands or openly opposed reform, while leftist ideologues attacked the motives of the reformers and invented stories. Meanwhile, most departments in the humanities have been entirely conquered by critical theorists.
Critical theory is the philosophy behind all of the idiocies your typical Republican thinks of as political correctness. Most folks outside the academy imagine it to be a sort of code of manners, requiring ostentatious deference to the sensitivities of a coddled generation. Its effect, we often assume, is that a professor might remove some material from his or xir syllabus to avoid getting caught up in la Terreur, but the project of education otherwise proceeds as we remember it. This is wrong. Critical theory negates everything that’s worth teaching. Critical theorists don’t teach Shakespeare or U.S. history; they overwrite Shakespeare and U.S. history with their stories of systematic oppression. At UT, one study found that 90 percent of junior faculty in the history department have a primary focus on race and gender issues, while military and intellectual history are ignored. There is infinite variety to the subjects dogmatized, but the story always ends the same way: Somebody white and powerful rigged the game to his benefit, exploiting somebody darker or feminine. This is one reason why UT seniors show little improvement in their ability to reason when compared with their peers in a standardized test. They’re not learning to think. They’re memorizing cant.
Some call this approach Cultural Marxism, which is correct in the sense that its lineage goes straight back to the heterodox Marxists of the Frankfurt School, through Habermas and Marcuse to Adorno, Fromm, and Horkheimer. But Marx never wrote much about culture, considering it mere superstructure. So it’s a bit like calling something Cultural Keynesianism. The label also attracts conspiracy theorizing. Antonio Gramsci and György Lukács may have wanted to tear down the institutions of Western civilization to clear the way for communism, but that doesn’t make the average professor an Agent of Gramsci, even if his intent is much the same.
Still, Marx’s influence is obvious. There’s the hatred of the bourgeois (translated as “white males”), and there’s the intense identification with the oppressed (gays and minorities replacing the proletariat). But there is also Marx’s method. Marx didn’t refute ideas. He explained them away as the rationalizations of the dominant class, proving that if you work hard enough at a tu quoque argument, you can elevate a fallacy to a philosophy. Critical theorists still do so today.
The Germans took Marx’s method, added Weber’s radical subjectivity and some Freudian categories, and created postmodernism, which quickly permeated the academy. Critical theory rode in on postmodernism’s coattails, and has come to dominate over the last 30 years. It’s popular because it’s easy to do. For all the jargon involved, there’s not that much to think about. Critical theorists purport to reject broad explanations as reductive metanarratives, yet their narrow and specific findings all fit the same categorical format: white, system, dominance, oppression, other.
The academic theorist fits somewhere between the unjust world as it is and an ideal world of endless human liberation from all forms of domination and oppression. His theorizing is part description, part prescription, but it is always critical, meant to dissolve institutions that we benighted rubes love: marriage, family, country, faith. Instead of truth and reason, this view offers a radical intersubjectivity that depends on the affirmation of others. This is one reason the academy would banish conservative dissenters: Paradoxically, critical theorists need harmony for their theory to work. A careful examination and awareness of the past threatens that harmony.
There are a few professors at UT who would like to present the great works of the past as subjects worthy of serious study. In 2002, some professors began to put together a Western Civilization and American Institutions program that took students through a series of Great Books seminars: Plato, Aristotle, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Hobbes, Locke, and onward. The program’s director, philosophy professor Rob Koons, explained the problem with the university’s grab-bag approach to a liberal education.
“The perfecting of the intellect and the formation of character through the attainment of what John Henry Newman called ‘liberal knowledge,’” Koons wrote,
have given way to engorgement with miscellaneous information. The suggestion that higher education should have something to do with acquiring moral wisdom is invariably met with the sophomoric query, “Whose ethics?” As Anthony Kronman has so well documented in his book The End of Education, nothing in the Uncurriculum encourages students to think through the great questions of life in a systematic manner, with the great minds of the Western tradition as their guides and interlocutors.
Koons and a few others raised $1.2 million for the program, which included academic views from left and right. It had a positive reception from alumni and students, but word got out that Koons was a Christian. Was he teaching American triumphalism? The chairs of the English, history, religious studies, and American studies departments had a meeting with the dean of the College of Liberal Arts to slam the program. Koons figured he was offering an alternative that matched a real human need: Enrollment in the humanities had been in steep decline for a generation, falling from more than half of undergraduate majors to less than a quarter. Three days after that meeting, an article appeared in the New York Times that doomed the program. “Conservatives Try New Tack on Campuses” (September 21, 2008) was the headline. Consequently, opposing the foolish notion that conservatives are trying to infiltrate the university—as if they have no place there to begin with—became the school’s animating idea. Of course, President Powers and his allies were smart enough to euphemize their defense of the race and gender theorists, so that they became defenders of academic freedom, research, and excellence.
In 2001, a disenchanted former director of the school’s entrepreneurship program gave a presentation at an event hosted by Governor Perry, introducing “Seven Breakthrough Solutions” for higher education. The ideas were nonideological, centering on incentives, student satisfaction, and measurements of efficiency and productivity. The board at UT hired an advisor to explore some of the ideas. Richard Vedder of Ohio University published a revealing paper which showed that “20 percent of UT Austin faculty are teaching 57 percent of student credit hours,” while another “20 percent of faculty teach only 2 percent of all student credit hours.” The university insisted its tenured faculty were busy with important research, even after Vedder revealed that “Research grant funds go almost entirely (99.8 percent) to a small minority (20 percent) of the faculty; only 2 percent of the faculty conduct 57 percent of funded research.” The mainstream media’s version of the story left out the numbers, which would have contradicted their narrative of philistine conservatives trying to turn a great institution into a diploma mill.
Board members, pressing UT for more numbers, quickly encountered resistance from the university itself, as well as flack from lawmakers. One of the most contentious issues involved a secret, private fund that spread money around the law school, which is right at the nexus of political power in Texas. One dean was forced to resign for approving a $500,000 forgivable loan to himself; Powers got $635,919 from the fund, but paid no price. (By sheer coincidence, many of the donors to the fund had seen their children accepted to UT’s School of Law.) Hall, the most persistent of the board members, and others ordered an investigation into the fund, which was later stalled by Abbott. Hall also began pressing for answers about lawmakers pulling strings in admissions, based on a few emails he had uncovered between administrators discussing whether to admit their underqualified children.
Knowing it had worked in the past, the media and the UT faculty fostered the narrative that conservatives were trying to infiltrate the campus. Hall was some sort of secret agent sent by Rick Perry to dig up dirt on Powers and wreak havoc on the university for reasons unknown—Aggie jealousy, Republican anti-intellectualism, whatever. The motive was different depending on who told the story. (A bit of postmodern suspicion of metanarratives might have done them all some good.) The truth took a year and a half to come out; meanwhile, Hall was put through the wringer, surviving impeachment and a grand-jury inquiry controlled by political opponents. But through Hall’s persistent questioning, my own reporting, a whistleblower in the admissions office, the whitewashed report, and then some more reporting on the whitewash, we got a picture of what was going on, and the names of a dozen or so parties, although most of the guilty will remain anonymous. (And that does appear to be how things will end. Hall sued to see all the investigative records that McRaven had refused to show him, and in January, the Supreme Court of Texas sided with McRaven, disregarding the state’s long-standing rule that a member of a government board has an inherent right to see documents under his jurisdiction.)
Daniel Golden won the Pulitzer Prize a decade ago by exposing how elite private universities lowered their admissions standards for the wealthy. But Golden found a lot of winks and nods, a lot of B students getting a bump. Powers went and systematized the approach. As president, amid a fundraising campaign, he admitted at least 764 undergraduates who had been initially rejected by the admissions office, and pushed some of them through despite the protests of admissions officers. Previously, as dean of the law school, he had accepted some truly abysmal cases—applicants with Law School Admissions Test scores in the bottom ten percent, one even in the very lowest percentile. As the Cato Institute concluded, in an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court, the back-door program likely “results in more admissions than . . . [the] ordinary ‘holistic review’ process.”
The very process by which the poor and disadvantaged are supposedly being offered opportunity is in fact a mechanism for the wealthy and well connected to maintain their positions. Something similar may well be taking place at other big state universities. In this light, I don’t think anyone can continue to oppose affirmative action without insisting for an end to admissions preferences in general. Admissions could be made completely transparent and based on actual standards, not holistic smokescreens.
I wouldn’t expect the UT faculty to join in this call. As Robert Jensen, a well-known UT radical, has written, the reason people condone privilege is that there are “rewards available to us when we are willing to subordinate our stated principles in service of oppressive systems.”