Impressions of “The Shadow University”

Last night I finished reading The Shadow University by Alan Kors and Harvey Silverglate. This was a book that I wasn’t necessarily looking forward to at first — it clocks in at 400 pages of microscopic font with a high frequency of legalese — but in the end, it will probably rank as one of the most influential books I’ve read.

The book’s influence can already be seen here at CO9s in some of the recent posts (here and here for starters) about academic bias and free speech, as well as the new categories on Academic Freedom and Free Speech. And I’ll probably have more to say about the book and these related areas as well in the future. But for now, here are some lessons I pulled from the book.

1. I come away from The Shadow University with a deep appreciation for the US Constitution and the ingenious, and hard-edged, ways in which freedom is guaranteed to US citizens. The genius of the Constitution is that it establishes a government that is inherently self-distrusting, placing restrictions on itself and making itself accountable to the citizens in a way that cannot be undone without undoing the Constitution itself. This book is partially a brilliant mini-course in the Constitution and civil rights, and seeing up close how the Constitution works gives me a profound sense of patriotism that no amount of fireworks or Lee Greenwood ballads ever could.

2. Kors and Silverglate make a point in the final chapter of the book that university faculty have a responsibility to maintain a free and open environment for inquiry at their institutions. I admit that I had never conceived of my role as a faculty member to be in part to remain vigilant against the abuses of free speech and academic freedom. But I do now, and I have a renewed commitment to pay attention to all those faculty meeting memos and so forth for creeping instances of restrictions of rights.

3. I was quite moved by the actions of university administrators in the book. That is, I was moved to disgust and anger at the majority of administrators in the book who valued careerism and political correctness over doing what is right, in particular over and against their colleges’ stated goals of being committed to free and open inquiry. They are the real villains of the story, and Kors and Silverglate have no love for them. (There are some brutal quotes from the book that are too long to include right now.) On the other hand, I was inspired by the (sadly, few) administrators who showed the principles, honesty, and courage to stand up to superiors and political forces to preserve the rights of students and faculty.

4. Another lesson about adminstrators: Throughout my career in higher ed so far, I’ve been fortunate to have worked mainly under administrators who possess dedication, honesty, integrity, and intelligence. Of the one or two administrators I’ve known who don’t possess these qualities (none of whom are at my current college, just in case my Dean is reading this and wondering), those folks were merely incompetent and out of their depth — not mean, dishonest, or just plain evil. And none of the administrators I’ve ever dealt with has the all-pervasive careerism that Kors and Silverglate cite as the primary motive for most administrators. This, if you go just from the book, is an anomaly, and I’m glad that I’ve gotten off better than one would expect.

5. Finally, I’m profoundly aware that there are deeper and more important issues at stake in society, and higher ed, today than the issues that normally delineate the political Left and Right. Free speech and academic freedom affect everyone, and this is not a Republican vs. Democrat scenario. If you read the political blogosphere, you will see mainly one side lobbing hand grenades over at the other side without any real progress on the issues that confront, even threaten, us all. If there’s anything good that comes out of some of the outrageous stories that Kors and Silverglate tell, it’s that Americans can still find common political ground when issues really come to the point. I hope that this remains the case.

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