What is the point of university? It used to be, when Harvard was founded in 1636, “to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity”. But in recent years the university has taken on an altogether narrower character. Learning is no longer enough. Activism is demanded. Yale and Harvard have come to resemble the mythical Ouroboros, eating their own tails to satisfy an insatiable appetite for conformity.
In 1951, William F. Buckley Jr. warned in God and Man at Yale of his alma mater’s inability to prepare its students for the real world. Its subtitle, The Superstitions of “Academic Freedom”, hinted at the already existing tendency for administrators to hire academics who only teach ideas they deem acceptable. Scepticism was banished: to Buckley, political radicals were subverting American society by indoctrinating their students with atheism and collectivism. Yet he remained an “epistemological optimist”, hoping that sense would prevail both in the Ivy League and across the nation.
More than 70 years later, that sense has manifestly not prevailed. Take the case of Roland Fryer. A hugely gifted and until recently celebrated black professor of economics at Harvard, he was suspended for two years without pay following the most tenuous sexual harassment claims. Many suspect the real reason for his humiliating treatment was his research showing that African Americans are not disproportionately the targets of lethal violence by the police. There were, Fryer wrote, “no racial differences in either the raw data or when contextual factors are taken into account”.
Though published well before the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 decided that the police were state-funded agents of racial oppression, Fryer’s research nevertheless made him enemies in the academic world. Though he was only following the evidence, he had offended the progressives who now dominate the university’s governance and culture. On Fryer’s return to campus after two years of exclusion, the Harvard Crimson newspaper had only this to say: “Fryer should not return to Harvard classrooms.” Similar stories can be told about other illustrious institutions. Joshua Katz, a tenured Classics professor at Princeton, was not merely suspended but fired this year over a long-ago relationship with a student. Given the investigation into his behaviour was based on selective evidence, it seems likely his real crime was daring to criticise Black Lives Matter.