Blogs > Cliopatria > The AAC&U Confronts "Anti-Intellectualism," Or Itself

Feb 16, 2006 12:06 am

The AAC&U Confronts "Anti-Intellectualism," Or Itself

The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) recently concluded its annual conference. It’s ironic that a group whose agenda in many ways defines “anti-intellectualism” chose at its conference theme a denunciation of contemporary “anti-intellectualism.”

Despite copious rhetoric about promoting “excellence” and “quality” in providing a “21st century” education, the AAC&U made perfectly clear its intended audience: at a conference with dozens of sessions, panelists from three low-quality but AAC&U-oriented schools (Evergreen State, Cal. St.-Monterey Bay, and IUPUI) more than doubled the combined number of presenters from the eight Ivy League institutions, Cal.-Berkeley, Stanford, and the University of Chicago. (Two-thirds of those from the latter group came from Columbia’s Teachers’ College.) The AAC&U’s fundamental agenda—shifting the emphases of a college education away from instruction in the traditional disciplines of the liberal arts toward a focus on “skills,” and infusing the resulting courses with content designed to purge lower- and middle-class (white) students of their allegedly intrinsic racism and sexism—has no chance of adoption by any school in which parents or alumni play an active role. So the group targets middle and lower-tier, mostly public, colleges and universities. To date, around 20 colleges follow most of the AAC&U line, while the organization has some influence over the policies of perhaps 30 or 40 more schools.

Around a third of the conference panels (such as important one, by several people from CUNY, on how the “integrated university” concept has improved the opportunity for all CUNY students to receive a quality general education) represent the type of fare you would expect at any conference of a major higher education organization. The remainder, however, dealt with themes more central to the AAC&U’s approach.

The group’s elitism occasionally yielded unintentionally hilarious proposals. One of this year’s sessions, for instance, described “nutrition”(!) as among the “topics that often divide us.” Panelists intoned that all colleges must explore the nutrition issue, along with questions such as religion, philosophy, and human rights, because “nothing less than global dignity is the natural and logical end of liberal education.” Another panel urged abandoning the “variations on the teacher/scholar theme” seen in “visions of excellence emerging from ancient Athens and late 19th century Berlin.” To where should the academy look for a new conception of quality? Los Angeles!! (Or"L.A.," as the session description coolly notes.) With such an approach, attendees learned, “new, more capacious visions of scholarly excellence will be required.” Right.

Most of the sessions, however, were far less amusing. The AAC&U has consistently sought to blur the line between the faculty and support and co-curricular staff. And so a panel entitled “Collaborating for Excellence” discussed achieving “transformative learning” by creating “intentional partnerships” between the faculty and offices of student life/affairs. Any quick glance through Kors and Silverglate’s Shadow University will reveal the one-sided, heavily ideological orientation of student life offices. Giving such bodies any curricular role—much less a significant one—is deeply dangerous. Along similar lines, the AAC&U regularly promotes “service learning,” which one conference panel termed critical to fostering among students “essential dispositions, ways of thinking, and skills.” “Dispositions,” of course, is an important code word in itself, and while volunteer work is wonderful, surely course credits are more important. The recommendation of yet another panel that service learning become “a defining characteristic of higher education’s mission” represents a step in the wrong direction.

A second AAC&U focus is a war on the culture of academic research. The 2004 conference devoted a session to strategies for administrators in dealing with those tenured faculty members who defined academic merit through demonstrated skills as researchers or lecturers. Such a demand, one session noted, presented “barriers to realizing the benefits of inclusive excellence.” The theme received prominent play this year as well. One session worried about a personnel system that “rewards individual faculty performance” in research, rather than professors’ ability to structure courses “which are more collaboratively designed.” Another panel advocated “new pathways to tenure,” moving beyond evaluations based on “research, teaching, and service.” To what? Collegiality?

Third, AAC&U programs have consistently implied that “diversity” is incompatible with U.S. democracy as traditionally defined. (Association publications always describe as their goal fostering a “diverse democracy,” rather than a democracy; one session at this year’s conference suggested that the contemporary United States was a “would-be democracy.”) Along these lines, the organization urges colleges to foster not American but “global” civic ideals—such as combating the “continuing Eurocentric intellectual tradition,” or redefining globalization to support “empowering individuals, especially those who are non-western and non-white.” Public universities still rely on some taxpayer funds. Does anyone believe that even one state legislature appropriates moneys under the belief that their state’s colleges and universities will adopt such goals as central?

Fourth, along the lines of the ABA diversity resolution passed last weekend, the AAC&U has been at the forefront of efforts to blur the distinction Justice O’Connor made in the 2003 Michigan decisions—in which Gratz outlawed the use of racial quotas while Grutter upheld race-based admissions in the name of “diversity.” Groups such as the AAC&U have responded not by heeding O’Connor’s wish that higher education move beyond race-based admissions by 2028 but instead by attempting to institutionalize “diversity” as a central academic goal. (Indeed, AAC&U rhetoric strongly suggests that “diversity” should be the preeminent academic goal of colleges.) Such a strategy would require indefinitely retaining race-based admissions, since without them the rationale for a college education would vanish. One panel, which included Michigan’s senior vice-provost, urged AAC&U members to do more to “integrate diversity and quality initiatives on campus, so that diversity becomes an integral aspect of all students’ learning.” Another group, composed of several AAC&U senior officers, was even more blunt: in the “‘post-Michigan’ educational environment,” campuses should “connect their educational quality and inclusion efforts more fundamentally and comprehensively than ever before.” Therefore, colleges needed to show the courts how “diversity, as a component of academic excellence, is essential to higher education’s continuing relevance in the twenty-first century.”

In only one respect did the 2006 AAC&U conference depart from its customary pattern. In past years, the organization has been coy about overtly conceding its ideological motives, preferring to operate by stealth through coded phrases. Not so in 2006. Panel after panel demanded reorienting college curricula around promotion of “social justice”—an inherently political concept that has caused enormous problems when applied at Education schools. As applied at most of the two dozen or so institutions that have established programs in the field, “global studies” has been nothing more than a forum for professors to structure classes around their political beliefs. A session on the topic, entitled “The Politics of Interdisciplinary Engagement,” asked such loaded questions as, “Can or should faculty try to maintain political neutrality in the classroom? How can students learn what is involved in global citizenship without examining their geopolitical positions in the world?” A panel from the University of Southern Maine proclaimed that “neutrality's just another word,” since “advocacy and academic freedom” go hand-in-hand in the classroom at their institution, which defines its curricular goals as “an extended inquiry into democracy, sustainability, justice, and difference.” The panel asked, “Does the obligation to protect free and open debate demand a stance of neutrality? Or does it call us to model the passionate commitments and thoughtful engagement we hope to foster in our students?”

It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to determine which option conference attendees preferred. To borrow words from a perceptive movie review by Leon Wieseltier, the AAC&U “asks its questions in ways that make its preferred answers perfectly clear.”

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Oscar Chamberlain - 2/17/2006

Here is a link to a list of AAC&U member institutions. Considering the range of instiutions there--it includes Harvard by the way--what do you mean when you say that "AAC&U institutions often stress" diversity skills or anything else for that matter? More particularly, what do you mean by "often?"

Furthermore, looking at this list, how do you know that many first tier institutions aren't buying into what you hate; how do know that many second tier ones don't resist it?

Let me sum up what I have been trying to say--perhaps not well--over the past few posts: You make some interesting points concerning an educational philosophy you believe is being spread via this conference. Your thoughts on that philosophy are worth considering.

However, you undercut yourself by predicating your sense of the danger of these ideas on large-scale generalizations about the nature and quality of different institutions that you do not even begin to support.

Ralph E. Luker - 2/17/2006

I'd have to agree with KC on this one, Oscar. I didn't even move my family to where my last full-time faculty appointment was because I didn't want my daughters to be anywhere near the place.

Robert KC Johnson - 2/17/2006

It seems to me neither unfair nor unreasonable to use a conference's official program--put together with the imprimatur of the organization, with text supplied by the participants themselves, and then published--to describe the conference, especially when, as in this case, the pedagogical descriptions of the panels all proceeded in the same general direction and were consistent with the association's previous publications or the pedagogies (social justice, "globel studies") favored by the AAC&U. I was plain in the post to characterize the messages and topics of "sessions" rather than remarks of individual presenters--and, indeed, that's my chief concern anyway, since my critique is of the organization's educational philosophy.

Robert KC Johnson - 2/17/2006

Prestige and quality do not always coincide, I agree--which is why I framed the question as applying to the children of professors, the parents most likely to be able to determine what constitutes "quality." As far as I can tell, there's no publicly available data, but I'd love to see the percentage of faculty children at IUPUI, Monterey Bay, and Evergreen that actually attend these "21st century" institutions.

Some of this, of course, is a matter of resources, as I (re)discovered last spring when I taught at Harvard. Having state-of-the-art technology in all classrooms, superior library facilities, and a student body where there are very few weak students all but guarantees a higher-quality educational experience than at an institution that lacks such assets. The Ivies can supply such facilities, as can top-of-the-line liberal arts colleges and some large public universities. Regardless of what I do in the classroom at Brooklyn, there's no way I can provide any of these to our students.

Add on to this a higher-quality faculty, in terms of research accomplishments but also, as important, peer pressure to remain active scholars and to continue to produce new knowledge.

And, as you suggested, I am making a value judgment as well: I believe that a rigorous liberal arts education is the appropriate model for colleges to follow, rather than an emphasis on encouraging "global citizenship" or "diversity skills," as AAC&U institutions often stress.

Timothy James Burke - 2/17/2006

I acknowledge the difference between the types of conferences. I still think it's wrong to write a summary description of a meeting that implies a knowledge of what actually happened at that meeting--and that describing an event through a conference program ought to constrain at least slightly the kinds of conclusions and characterizations that can safely be made about it.

Oscar Chamberlain - 2/17/2006

That's not an answer, as prestige and quality do not always coincide.

I'm being dogged about this because your entire article is predicated on a lack of intellectual rigor being present at these institutions. How do you know that they are lacking in fact, regardless of their reputation?

Robert KC Johnson - 2/17/2006

My critique of Columbia's Middle East Studies Department speaks for itself, and focused on what I considered a consistent pattern of pedaogically and professionally suspect behavior by some MEALAC faculty, as I noted above.

I have publicly, and repeatedly, opposed the ABOR, partially because I fear it could be used to call for the teaching of things like flat-earth theory, or ID. To the extent you're linking these to Marxist economics, I could add that to the list of the reasons I fear ABOR wouldn't work.

Robert KC Johnson - 2/17/2006

Unlike a scholarly conference, where it's quite plausible that a presenter's research might have changed between submission of the panel and the conference, the AAC&U gathering featured two types of panels. The first amounted to presentations of educational policy statements; the second consisted of presenters describing their personal programs ("global studies" profs; faculty from USM).

On the first, I concede it's possible that, say, AAC&U senior presenters, when they actually spoke, presented a viewpoint at odds with both their panel description and their previous writings. It's similarly possible that, say, someone reviewing last year's ACTA conference, could have speculated that in the panel on pedagogical diversity in US history, regardless of my previous writings and the panel description, I maintained that we should celebrate the movement toward History Departments exclusively oriented around themes of race, class, and gender.

In both instances, however, such an outcome is highly implausible.

Regarding the second point, it is possible that presenters on the global studies panel said how terrible it is that their field amounts to political propaganda; or the USM faculty spoke out courageously against their institution's highly suspect curricular mission. It's also possible that Brooklyn will name me Mr. Collegiality 2006.

Louis Nelson Proyect - 2/17/2006

To Hank Bower,

You are entitled to your belief that Marxism is irrelevant. I am only addressing the topic of diversity. Rightwingers who want more "balance" in the sociology departments, where Marxism is far more represented, should take into account that it is underrepresented in the economics departments. For that matter, I would never advocate adminstrative diktats to remedy the situation. I'll leave that to characters like David Horowitz, who seems to have more than a smidgen of his Stalinist roots when it comes to bullying people and organizations.

Hank Bower - 2/16/2006

My only question is why there are any economics departments still teaching Marxist economics except as a bizarre historical theory long since passed by. Does any serious economist believe Marx provides any real understanding of economics that is useful for economic analysis?

The writing of Marxist theorists that I have read bears a greater resemblance to theology than to real economics; they quote Marx as theolgians quote the Apostle Paul.

Do Geography Departments have to have professors who teach the flat earth theory or Political Science Departments have Nazis teaching to show "intellectual diversity"?

Sorry to be so blunt, but all of the Marxist theorists' books that one of my very Marxist grad school professors assigned struck me as nonsense, bad history and bad economics. Obviously, I don't expect you to agree with me; but you might consider why all but three economics departments disagree with you.

Timothy James Burke - 2/16/2006

So you don't see a problem with writing a description of a conference from the conference program that makes categorical statements about what was actually said in a panel by the panelists?

Louis N Proyect - 2/16/2006

You aren't persuaded that the Marxist analysis is systematically excluded from the Columbia economics department? Good grief. Everybody knows that there only 3 economics departments in the USA where you can get a Marxist perspective: U. of Utah, U. of Massachusetts at Amherst, and the New School for Social Research. If you want to be taken seriously on such questions, KC, you will at least have to recognize the reality of the situation.

Robert KC Johnson - 2/16/2006

This is certainly a curious article. In the MEALAC case, we had instances of professors violating Columbia rules (Dabashi's dismissing his class to attend an anti-Israel rally); misstating facts to pursue their ideological agenda (Massad's claim that the Israelis originated airplane hijacking); and bizarre racial stereotypes (Khalidi's assertion that Arab-American students and only Arab-American students knew the "truth" about the Middle East). In the case of this article, we have a student by his own admission eschewing any "study of course curriculums [or] class Web sites" and having interviewed an unspecified (anonymous) number of his friends.

His claims might, indeed, be true. But on the basis of the evidence presented in this article, I'm not persuaded.

Robert KC Johnson - 2/16/2006

I agree completely. This approach is, of course, very difficult--since it results in an expanded amount of work for faculty. But when done properly, it can significantly enhance students' educational experiences, and, obviously, avoids the kinds of problems we've seen with offices of student life.

Robert KC Johnson - 2/16/2006

The AAC&U usually posts the papers a couple of months after the event; I'll review them, as I've done for their conferences the last four years. If in any way my descriptions of the panels appears to be inaccurate based on the papers, I'll do a post noting the correction.

I believe I have read every publication that the AAC&U has put out over the last four years (Brooklyn is one of the schools that follows the AAC&U line, and so it's important for those of us concerned with the college's direction to understand where we're headed.) If nothing else, the organization is consistent and very on-message in all of its publications.

Robert KC Johnson - 2/16/2006

A test: if financial considerations were not a factor, how many professors do you think would send their children to IUPUI over Stanford or Columbia?

Ralph E. Luker - 2/16/2006

In all honesty, Oscar, your accusation that KC's presentation of evidence was "dishonest" is, at the least, uncharitable. You may disagree with his characterization of these institutions, but they clearly are not in the front rank of American higher education. Moreover, I suspect that, if you were making an argument, you would marshall evidence that tends to support it; and, if there is evidence that doesn't tend to support your argument, you'd feel no obligation to include it. It's no surprise that we can't say everything that may be relevant to an event -- else we'd be writing at much too great a length. When you accuse KC of dishonesty, I think you're over-reacting.

Oscar Chamberlain - 2/16/2006

the relevance is simple. KC used his ranking as evidence that they were intellectually deficient. That of course supported his larger contention that the conference was flawed.

And, bluntly, I suspect KC was dishonest in doing this. By that I mean that if another conference with representatives from the same institutions had done something he liked, KC would not have qualified his accceptance by saying, "of course, the participants were second rate."

Actually I know something about IUPUI (Indiana University/Purdue University at Indianapolis). It probably began as an attempt by both to keep a third university from taking off and becoming the darling of the legislature. However, it's become somehing rather more.

Here's the link. While all university web sites are self-serving it certainly is not the drab backwater KC wanted us to assume--or perhaps honestly assumed himself.

Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs - 2/16/2006

A friend of mine,from Japan, who had taught at Leiden University, moved to a job at a well-known state university in the U.S.A. On the first day of class, he asked his students there to answer several questions, including what their first choice had been when applying for college entrance acceptance. Not one had named that university as their first choice. He concluded that he was teaching at a second-rate university, however good it might be.
If you think that the schools mentioned by Robert K. C. Johnson (Evergreen State, Cal. St. Monterey Bay, and IUPUI -whatever that is)were the first choices of students who did very well on achievement tests or other selective entrance measures, then perhaps he is inaccurate to describe them as "low-quality" when compared with Cal.-Berkely, Stanford, and the Univesity of Chicago. Alternatively, if you think that the faculties of the first three schools typically publish as much scholarship that commands professional attention as do the faculties of the other three, again he may be mistaken. Otherwise, what's the point of this question?

Louis Nelson Proyect - 2/16/2006

Timothy James Burke - 2/16/2006

KC, reading this, I had the strong impression you were reporting on a conference which you attended. For example, "Panelists intoned that all colleges must explore the nutrition issue, along with questions such as religion, philosophy, and human rights, because 'nothing less than global dignity is the natural and logical end of liberal education.'"

A panel "discussed", and so on.

Then I looked at the program, and realized that what you were doing was describing only what the panel abstracts said. Re-reading your entry, I saw that much of the time, you're clear that this is what you're doing. If you did attend this meeting, then I'm surprised you didn't offer more precise quotations of things actually said by panelists in their panel presentations or discussions.

You make remarkably strong statements nevertheless about what happened on a given panel, what the panelists as a whole said, what the content of the papers was, what the "discussion" was like, what *all* the panelists "intoned".

You also make assumptions that what is on the panels reflects in some sense the agenda of the organization as a whole, that panelists speak for the entirety. In fact, that the panels you object to better exemplify the whole organization than the many panels that you admit are perfectly "normal".

I know we keep going round and round on this, but there is something that borders on unprofessionalism in describing an event from a conference in the way that you have. Have you never been on a panel where you agreed to participate when someone called you up, and the panel description was a sort of bland or patchwork statement designed to connect the different perspectives of the presenters? Or where presenters showed up and gave talks whose content was actually not well described by either panel titles or paper titles? Where panelists disagreed with the premise of the panel? I've seen all of that happen, and with some frequency. A panel description often just hints at what is going to happen: I'd never take it as a very good post-facto summary of the actual presentations and discussions that took place.

I've also been on conferences committees, of the AHA, for example. There really isn't any way in most professional associations for the association to produce on-demand a coordinated series of panels that fit a preordained orthodoxy. The most that can happen is that some panels get selected because they please some narrow orthodoxy on a selection committee, but even that I'm guessing doesn't happen all that much--what gets on a program is most often what the discipline or group submits to the association as a whole. In some associations, there's a certain amount of horse-trading that goes on: you make sure there's a panel for this group and a panel for that group, a panel on this topic and a panel for that topic. When certain sub-groups get aggrieved enough by perceived exclusion, they may complain, and that probably gets them on the program next year.

Anyway, that's just to complicate some of the ways you read conference programs as synecdoches for some highly coordinated programmatic intent on the part of any association. More pressingly, I really think you should avoid analyzing a conference program as if it is a literal description of the content of panel discussions, as if you were *reporting* on an event that you witnessed.

Oscar Chamberlain - 2/16/2006

and give the evicence by which judged those those schools.

R.J. O'Hara - 2/16/2006

“Collaborating for Excellence” discussed achieving “transformative learning” by creating “intentional partnerships” between the faculty and offices of student life/affairs. Any quick glance through Kors and Silverglate’s Shadow University will reveal the one-sided, heavily ideological orientation of student life offices. Giving such bodies any curricular role—much less a significant one—is deeply dangerous.

Having had several years of up-close interactions with residence life departments, I agree completely with this assessment. The solution is to have faculty take over these roles, and that is a major challenge, both socially and in terms of campus politics. The way it will be and is being accomplished is through the creation of decentralized, faculty-led residential colleges within large universities. There is a movement underway to do just this on many campuses, and it is gathering steam. Interested readers are invited to visit my website, "The Collegiate Way: Residential Colleges and Higher Education Reform" (, which serves as an international clearinghouse for the movement. For a one-page introduction, visit the Collegiate Way's page on "Four Foundations for the Renewal of University Life."

-Bob O'Hara