Opinion: Daily Journal

Fortuitous Praise for Duke Leaders

RALEIGH – On March 13, the anniversary of the Duke lacrosse party that led to a national uproar and the notorious Nifonging of three young men, the release of a significant new study prompted praise for Duke University for its leadership in higher education.

Coincidence? Yes. The report didn’t come from the PR shop at Duke. Its author was Dr. Russell Nieli, a Duke graduate who now teaches at Princeton University, and its publisher was the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, formerly a division of JLF. They chose the timing. That they happened to praise Duke’s leaders on a day that many critics were excoriating them on a different matter was merely a fortuitous palliative.

Nieli examined two programs at Duke that seek to address what he calls the “two great failings” in what is otherwise an effective and well-respected American university system. The first program is Focus, a cluster of freshman classes and other programming intended to combat what Nieli called “curriculum incoherence,” the proliferation of electives and narrowly drawn courses that may satisfy the personal interests of faculty members but do little to convey core academic knowledge to undergraduates.

Focus brings together professors from a variety of disciplines to teach a theme of academic content. The 30 participating freshmen take two of four classes in the Focus theme, plus a special writing seminar. The students also live together in a common dormitory and meet every Thursday evening with the faculty and a guest speaker to share a meal and thought-provoking conversation. For example, 30 Duke freshmen recently formed a Focus group on the theme of “Global Islam.” The four classes examined Koranic interpretation, women and Islam, non-Arabic Muslims cultures, and Islam as portrayed in popular literature and film.

At big universities, undergraduates are often given a sprawling course guide, a relatively elastic set of curriculum requirements, and a reclusive or incompetent faculty adviser. Then they are urged to “go get an education.” For many, the result is a mess. They don’t have the shared experience of studying a truly core curriculum in the arts and sciences. In choosing classes, many gravitate towards the trivial, the easy, or the trivially easy. The Focus program offers an orderly, rigorous alternative to the chaos – an increasingly popular alternative, with nearly a third of all Duke students now participating in some form.

The second great failing in American higher education, Nieli says, is the “lack of viewpoint diversity” in the classroom and on campus more generally. Based on survey research, it’s fair to say that in most academic departments faculty members who would identify themselves as left of center outnumber right-of-center faculty by about nine to one. In certain departments, usually social sciences, the ratio is far higher – as much as 16 to 1. In others – usually hard sciences, professional schools, or economics – the ratio is sometimes lower.

If the political predilections of the faculty stayed outside the classroom, this wouldn’t be a major problem. Unfortunately, that’s not what happens in most cases. Ideas and works from conservative, free-market, or conventionally religious scholars receive less attention, and are often openly mocked by teachers. Sometimes, these teachers use the classroom to lecture students on political or social topics far afield from the coursework and discipline. Although the propaganda doesn’t stick as much as the tenured radicals would like – in part because of general student inattention, I’m afraid – it still provides a cramped, warped picture of politics and intellectual life. For students looking just to make a grade on their way to a degree and professional career, the prospect of expressing disagreement can be scary.

Duke’s Gerst program is a promising corrective. Named after Gary Gerst, a philanthropist and Duke engineering alumnus, it doesn’t simply try to set up a conservative echo chamber in a corner of a liberal concert hall. It seeks to ensure a true diversity of opinions in its faculty, coursework, readings, and public lectures. For example, a Focus theme conducted by the Gerst program on “Recent Visions of Freedom” included a course on the Locke-Mill-Jefferson tradition of classical liberalism and a course on criticism of this tradition by Marxists, fascists, poststructuralists, and other radicals.

Reforming higher education to encourage more emphasis on a core curriculum and true diversity of thought doesn’t mean replacing a Chinese menu with K-rations, or a sea of solid blue political signs with a sea of red ones. It means elevating the university as a place to explore the life of the mind rather than just a means of getting your ticket punched on the way to a job, or an excuse to party on someone else’s dime, or a recruitment ground for political activists.

Sounds like Duke is heading in the right direction – on this issue.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.