‘Social engineering, not academic merit’, Fareed Zakaria's stark reality check for American universities
Fareed Zakaria had a word of warning for American instituions of higher learning.
In the very first scene of The Newsroom, the fictional newsman Will McAvoy delivered what is one of the greatest monologues in television history where he eviscerates the idea that America was the “greatest nation on the planet”.
Recently, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria channelled his inner McAvoy in a blistering takedown of American universities in which he pointed out that Americans were losing faith in institutions of higher learning which seemed hellbent more on “promoting political agendas than academic excellence”. He also pointed out that the lack of political diversity was also damaging the student body’s ability to analyse things.
Zakaria’s comments came in the backdrop of the presidents of MIT, Harvard and University of Pennsylvania facing calls to resign after a disastrous testimony on antisemitism on college campuses that saw calls for all three to resign. At the time of writing, the Penn State president Lizz Magill had resigned. Meanwhile, Harvard President Claudine Gay had apologised in The Harvard Crimson, while the MIT board issued a statement backing Sally Kornbluth.
Explaining why the American public was “losing faith in these universities”, he argued: “American universities have been neglecting excellence in order to pursue a variety of agendas — many of them clustered around diversity and inclusion. It started with the best of intentions. Colleges wanted to make sure young people of all backgrounds had access to higher education and felt comfortable on campus. But those good intentions have morphed into a dogmatic ideology and turned these universities into places where the pervasive goals are political and social engineering, not academic merit.”
He pointed out that universities had downplayed the Supreme Court verdict on affirmative action, which incidentally would hurt meritorious students of various minority groups including Asian Americans, in favour of racial quotas, arguing that this would hurt bright students from poor backgrounds who use tests like SAT to demonstrate their qualifications.
Sticking the knife into humanities departments at major universities, he said that these days all academic positions would center on the race and gender of the applicant and the subject matter which needed to be about marginalised groups.
He argued: “Based on conversations with dozens of academics, my impression is that today a White man studying the US presidency does not have a prayer of getting tenure at a major history department in America.”
He also pointed out that grade inflation in humanities was “rampant” and a lot of new subjects weren’t academic fields but “political agendas”.
He also said that this growing “bureaucracy devoted to diversity, equity and inclusion” would lead to a lack of political diversity which “clearly affects their ability to analyze many issues”.
While the culture of diversity had led to ideas like “safe spaces, trigger warnings, and micro aggressions”, Zakaria wondered: “In this context, it is understandable that Jewish groups would wonder, why do safe spaces, microaggressions, and hate speech not apply to us? If universities can take positions against free speech to make some groups feel safe, why not us? Having coddled so many student groups for so long, university administrators found themselves squirming, unable to explain why certain groups (Jews, Asians) don’t seem to count in these conversations.”
Finally, Zakaria left the audience with a warning: “What we saw in the House hearing this week was the inevitable result of decades of the politicization of universities. America’s top colleges are no longer seen as bastions of excellence but as partisan outfits, which means they will keep getting buffeted by these political storms as they emerge. They should abandon this long misadventure into politics, retrain their gaze on their core strengths and rebuild their reputations as centers of research and learning.”