The Next Stage in the University Battles: Break Up the Universities!

Departments and units with DEI sown into their DNA should all be reassigned to a College of Grievance Studies.

American higher education is undergoing several revolutions at the same time. The DEI revolution, ongoing for decades, has reached a tipping point. The professorial class and campus administrations are close to cementing it as the official ideology of American universities. However, a rearguard action, led by Gov. Ron DeSantis in Florida, finds its state legislature aiming to eliminate the DEI offices that symbolize and spearhead this radicalization, pointing toward an education that emphasizes professional competence and reasonable patriotism.

We are making slow progress, it seems.

Soon, shrinking enrollments and a demographic cliff will strain many colleges and universities to the breaking point. Enrollments, 20.5 million in 2011, the high crest, shrank to around 17.75 million in 2020. Education analysts now consider annual losses of .5% of students or about 100,000 students to be “stabilizing” improvements on the more dramatic annual declines. This is nothing compared to what is coming. Demographers predict an average 15% decline in the number of students attending college every four years after 2025-2026 (a loss of about nearly 600,000 students every four years), as our low birth rate collides with our education institutions. The failed forces of nature cannot be avoided like angry legislators.

A shrinking number of “customers,” a “product” less valued than it once was, due in part to an insidious theory that has infected its self-understanding, means higher education is ripe for reorganization. State legislatures and Boards of Regents should now consider policies of patriotic downsizing and reorganizing. New modes and orders will make opportunities for new leaders, and new modes will definitely be called for.

Universities have long been organized into colleges devoted to subject matter and methods. Colleges of arts and humanities emphasize ways of knowing when and where artists and thinkers gave an account of the human condition through paintings, operas, literature, and history. Colleges of social science study human things with social science methods. Colleges of natural science study the laws of nature. Other disciplines like engineering and medicine apply the findings of natural science to professional training.

The pervasiveness of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion ideology, has, in decisive ways, rendered this division of academic disciplines obsolete. DEI ideology now forces a lens through which increasing numbers of disciplines must approach their work. Humane disciplines now insist that the human condition must be seen through the lens of the golden triad of race, gender, and sexual orientation. Those who dissent from this new orthodoxy have difficulty publishing, completing graduate school or finding jobs. Things are the same in many social science disciplines like sociology and social work.

Jonathan Haidt recognized in 2016 that some elements of universities hold social justice ideology sacred, while other elements prioritize the advancement of knowledge. He saw both groups occupying, in essence, two separate universities. This insight should guide reorganization of our universities. Departments and units with DEI sown into their DNA should all be reassigned to a College of Grievance Studies (COGS), while other units should consolidate and divide along functional lines.

COGS would have a separate provost, development officers, admissions, graduation ceremonies, career counselling, and general education offerings from the rest of the university—perhaps even coming to have a separate tuition schedule and tenure policies for faculty. It should be housed in the least classical, most postmodern building on campus, too.

COGS would attract a certain type of leader, filled with zeal for the cause of DEI. Such zealous leaders should be allowed to run wild in COGS college, with racial preferences, DEI statements, limits on free speech, shouting down speakers, etc. Students who want a DEI-infused degree can sign up for COGS.

In contrast, in other colleges, by law and regulation, all offices and faculty dedicated to DEI would be prohibited. Those who simply want a finance degree might find it in the school of business and economics. The social justice ideology, unquestioned in COGS, would be diminished and perhaps, eventually, eliminated in the other colleges, which would emphasize mastery, competency, professionalism and an appreciation for Western civilization. Students might even have to sign a contract or apply for admission into other schools. 

After conceiving this plan, job number one is identifying units committed to social justice analysis. Units must be placed in COGS, not allowed to self-select. A university board, akin to the old tariff commissions, and staffed with older faculty and higher ed reform advocates, should analyze department mission statements, course offerings, and professional standards for each area of study. Units that have DEI political objectives and leftist political activism sown into their mission and professional standards would be destined for COGS.

When units have a national accreditor like Departments of Social Work, then the board should consider accreditation standards in their review. When there is no national accreditor, national associations like the National Council for Black Studies or Sexuality Studies Association (for Queer Studies) or the American Sociological Association should be used for reviews. Individual departments should be scrutinized as well, to check if they follow the mission outlined in the national associations.

Take Women’s Studies. The National Women’s Studies Association defines what Women’s Studies is and identifies the major tenets and provisions of the movement:

Women’s studies has its roots in the student, civil rights, and women’s movements of the 1960s and 70s. In its early years the field’s teachers and scholars principally asked, “Where are the women?”…

Today the field’s interrogation of identity, power, and privilege go far beyond the category “woman.” Drawing on the feminist scholarship of U.S. and Third World women of color, women’s studies has made the conceptual claims and theoretical practices of intersectionality, which examines how categories of identity (e.g., sexuality, race, class, gender, age, ability, etc.) and structures of inequality are mutually constituted and must continually be understood in relationship to one another, and transnationalism, which focuses on cultures, structures and relationships that are formed as a result of the flows of people and resources across geopolitical borders, foundations of the discipline.

Specific political commitments are sown into the very nature of the discipline. Inequities are traceable to “identity, power and privilege” and “structures of inequality” that can only be fought through a transnational feminist revolution that the discipline hopes to populate.

Individual women’s studies programs mirror and even exaggerate the aspirations of the National Women’s Studies Association. The University of Michigan’s Women’s and Gender Studies program, for instance, promises to promote “social transformation” when it explains “about us.” It promotes “hand-on, activist projects.” It has subgroups within the discipline such as Students for Choice and “It’s Great to be a Girl Feminist Mentorship Program.” Women’s Studies is going to COGS.

Such a review board might consider independent evidence to verify the political nature of a particular discipline. Do its graduates go into political activism? Do the leading disciplinary journals have a DEI bent? Do its faculty have a slanted partisan identification? Does the research of faculty members reflect a focus on the DEI lens? Do course syllabi? Departments where more than 75% of faculty focus 75% of their research or teaching on DEI lens would qualify for COGS.

This process may well yield surprising results. English may end up in COGS. Indeed, the distance between what English could be and what it is is the largest of any unit on the modern university. At its height, literature combines what came to be called psychology with philosophy in the most artistic form. In reality, literature is, as John Ellis demonstrates in his book, lost to modern gender and race ideology. Even History—so crucial to anyone’s genuine education—may be so far gone from its original mission that it too would find itself in COGS.

In the short run, such units and disciplines could operate within university, but eventually COGS could become a separate university. If the units are successful and grow, if graduates are able to get jobs, they can thrive. If they shrink, and the “student product” is poor, belts might have to be tightened. The results will quickly make themselves apparent.

Leaders in other parts of the university could operate without social justice warriors disguised as legitimate academics being much of a bother. A College of science could operate without equity and diversity demands coming from other colleagues, though such leaders would have to resist pressure from outside the university. Perhaps several social sciences would survive the sifting process—and they would similarly be in a better position to resist the woke agenda on their campuses. If their disciplines go woke, the departments would go off to the COGS.

Perhaps someday, COGS would be seen as the vanguard of a future revolution—or perhaps as an irrelevant intellectual backwater. Let it rise and fall on its merits. Let students decide where their future lies. And let serious professions and disciplines survive under anti-woke leadership.

Much needs to be stigmatized for there to be any restoration or reconstitution on campuses. If done right, dividing the campuses may contribute to stigmatizing to the most unhealthy branches of university life, while creating conditions for much restoration.

Scott Yenor is Senior Director of State Coalitions at the Claremont Institute’s Center for the American Way of Life and a professor of political science at Boise State University.