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What Happened to Columbia University?

Seventy years of an educational ideology steeped in ‘openness’ has wreaked havoc on the United States, and what we see at Columbia University (and at other American universities) is clear proof of that.”

As a recent Columbia University graduate, I have been watching the events unfolding at my alma mater with anger and sadness. Earlier this week, Columbia President Minouche Shafik wisely decided to suspend traditional in-person classes and instead hold virtual classes. This was done after the arrest of 108 pro-Palestinian Columbia and Barnard College students from their “Gaza Solidarity Encampment,” which was set up at the center of Columbia University’s campus. Amid the chaos, New England Patriots owner, businessman, and Columbia alumnus Robert Kraft rescinded his substantial financial support until the Columbia University administration deals with the “virulent hate” on display on campus. 

Additionally, Chair of the House Republican Conference Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) called for Shafik’s immediate resignation on April 21st. As expected, most academics are labeling the arrest of pro-Palestinian protestors a repression of free speech and freedom of expression. They further argue that it is incumbent on the administration of Ivy League universities to ensure “academic freedom,” a nebulous term if ever there was one. For the last few weeks, my cellphone has been blowing up with emails, voicemails, and text messages from friends asking me what about the goings-on at Columbia. While I do not claim to have definitive answers and do not wish to get into the weeds of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in this piece, my general theory as to the nature of the problem is as follows: As is usually the case, there is nothing new under the sun, and what we see here is the modern-day manifestation of the argument William F. Buckley makes in his influential 1951 book God and Man at Yale

Even if one has never read the book, Buckley’s argument will be quite familiar to most conservatives following the situation at Columbia. Radical professors and the administration of Yale University were destroying American society—according to Buckley—by indoctrinating the nation’s “best and brightest” with Marxist-inspired ideas about collectivism and atheism. This subversion was made possible under the auspices of “academic freedom.” Buckley rightly asserted that academic freedom was an illusion, arguing that the Yale sociology department would never hire a professor who lectured about the anthropological superiority of the Aryan race. To the disdain of the liberals of his time, Buckley opposed the idea of an open society. 

Later, on his show Firing Line, Buckley interviewed American economist Leo Cherne, who reminded Buckley that the open society “was an urgently necessary aspect of all that we value.” Buckley responded that he “did not want society open to certain ideas and did not feel the obligation to protect the liberties of a Nazi or a communist.” Buckley’s most crucial point was that the wealthy benefactors of Yale University should discontinue their financial support of the university until the nascent communism and atheism on campus were squelched. The historical record shows that Buckley was ignored, but current events make clear that we would be wise to reacquaint ourselves with some of his most fundamental ideas. Seventy years of an educational ideology steeped in “openness” has wreaked havoc on the United States, and what we see at Columbia University (and at other American universities) is clear proof of that.

Although many on the Left preach from their self-professed moral high ground, it is evident that they are not actually interested in an open society, and neither are most American universities. Universities like Columbia promote certain values and ideas to the exclusion of others—most notably the view that America is irredeemable and built upon white supremacy, white privilege, and colonialism, as well as that equity is preferable to equality. These ideas are not rigorously contested much in practice. 

Shafik is in a difficult situation, and as I have sought to argue with the help of Buckley, it has been many years in the making and long predated her arrival on campus. She should be allowed to try to rectify the damage, even when politicians interested in political theater are calling on her to resign. Of course, many who preceded her in the Columbia University administration kowtowed to radical activists and provided fertile ground for this anarchy to take root. Whatever Shafik decides to do will make her a target, incurring the wrath of both the Left and the Right. While free speech is fundamental in a democracy, lawlessness, threats, and violence are not. Shafik seems to understand that, albeit a bit late. Columbia University must raise standards rather than lower them. Most of all, while the university seems to have lost its sense of mission, it is not too late for Columbia to instill the idea that America, despite its faults, is still the “shining city on a hill.” If Columbia (and all Ivy League universities) continue on their current trajectory though, a degree from once prestigious universities will be increasingly worthless. More importantly, the United States will continue to shed its reputation as the world’s last and best hope for humanity as mob rule replaces instilling values. Here’s hoping that Shafik dares to rise to the occasion.

Tony D. Senatore is a graduate of Columbia University, and, in addition to contributing periodically to Merion West, he maintains a blog at The Times of Israel

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