Rebecca Blank has been a good administrator, but she has not defended classical liberal values.
The UW Madison chancellor is heading to Northwestern at the end of this school year after almost a decade here. Let’s start by giving her the credit she deserves for what she has accomplished. This is how the Wisconsin State Journal summed it up in their story from this morning:
Among other accomplishments UW-Madison officials highlighted in Monday’s announcement of Blank’s departure were:
* Record-high graduation rates that place the university among the top 10 of public universities;
* Recently concluding a $4 billion fundraising campaign, the most successful in UW-Madison history;
* Establishing 255 new endowed faculty positions, an increase of 300%;
* Reducing the graduation gap between white undergraduate students and students of color nearly in half over the last 10 years;
* Enrolling the most recent freshman class that includes just over a quarter of students identifying as people of color, an all time high; and,
* Achieving a 93% COVID-19 vaccination rate on campus this fall without a mandate.
And it needs to be acknowledged that she achieved these things with a hostile Legislature, a hostile governor for eight of those years and a Board of Regents that was controlled by Scott Walker. She mostly just stayed above that fray by being realistic. She never had much hope that state government was going to return to fully funding the UW, so she didn’t invest much time or political capital fighting a losing battle. That was a smart move.
But what Blank did not do is tackle the fundamental problem facing higher education today: the growing chasm between universities and the rest of society. By more or less disengaging from state politics she was able to sidestep the uncomfortable conversation that starts with this question: Why do so many legislators and the last governor find it to their political advantage to attack the university?
I know, I know. Because they’re all rubes. Maybe they are, but a broad minded university should have a place for rube studies.
My own view is that the problem could be — if not solved than at least ameliorated — if universities would just do what they’re supposed to do. That is, be places of reason and open inquiry, places where any idea is welcome so long as it can be defended.
But that’s not what today’s campuses have become. Instead, they are places of rigid orthodoxy where students and faculty with views that don’t conform self-censor for fear of being attacked by virtual (or real) mobs. Classical liberal values of reason, free speech, the rule of law and the presumption of innocence are out of fashion in the very places where they should be revered. Institutions that should be citadels of tolerance are instead now national leaders in shutting down ideas deemed politically incorrect.
As New York Times columnist Bret Stephens put it, “Our universities are failing at the task of educating students in the habits of a free mind. Instead, they are becoming islands of illiberal ideology and factories of moral certitude, more often at war with the values of liberal democracy than in their service.”
Blank didn’t invent this situation, but she did little to use her position to counteract it.
The most egregious example is the case of Frederic March. March was a UW alum and successful actor. Proud of his success, the Memorial Union named a spot after him, the Frederic March Play Circle. Then, a few years ago, someone discovered that March had briefly belonged to a campus group called the Ku Klux Klan. Blank asked for a background report. She learned that this KKK had no affiliation with the national racist group and apparently said and did nothing racist itself. Moreover, during his career March was an outspoken champion of civil rights. So, much so that the NAACP organized a letter to Blank on his behalf.
No matter. Blank sifted. She winnowed. She found the truth. And then she ignored it. Blank went along when the Union’s student governing board stripped March’s name from the play circle despite knowing his record. And when she received that letter from the NAACP a few weeks ago, along with some stiff criticism from Black New York Times columnist John McWhorter, she doubled own on her anti-intellectualism. She would do nothing to restore March’s name. She set aside facts and reasoned arguments in favor of uninformed emotionalism.
In a less egregious, but still telling, incident she caved to students demanding that the Chamberlin Rock be hauled off campus for having committed the offense of being referred to by a racist name. Once. In 1925.
The irony of all this is that Blank is sticking up for baseless symbolism while being on the side of real social injustice when it comes to paying college athletes their share of the billions they produce for everyone else. Blank has been a shameless leader in defending the NCAA’s cartel.
To some extent (but only to some extent) universities are under attack from conservatives because they are, in fact, out of touch with the taxpayers who pick up at least some of the bills. Blank did nothing to get at the problems that are at the heart of public higher education today.
Rebecca Blank did okay. She kept the lid on and the trains running. She navigated choppy political waters. She deserves our thanks and best wishes. But she didn’t rise to the challenge that goes to the very heart of what higher education is supposed to be about.
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