Sunday, January 5, 2014

"Ye shall know the truth . . ." Have our great public universities lost touch with the people they were founded to serve?

Americans revere our Ivy League universities. Hundreds of American cities have a Harvard Street or a Yale Avenue. I live in the College Town subdivision of Baton Rouge, and Harvard Avenue is just a few blocks from my house.

But American adoration of the Ivy League colleges is misplaced. The real jewels in the crown of American higher education are our nation's great public universities: University of Wisconsin, University of Michigan, University of California and a few others. Founded and funded by state legislatures, these public universities were intended to be places where young men and women could receive a first-class education in their home states. 
University of Texas
"Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free."

University of Texas, where I attuned law school, certainly ranks with the University of Michigan and the University of California as one of the nation's leading public universities.  At one time, bright young men and women from the cities and small towns of Texas could enroll at UT at very little cost and see a whole new world open up--the world of great ideas and great ideals.

In North Toward Home, Willie Morris, who later became a noted journalist and editor of Harper's magazine, wrote of his experience at UT in the 1950s.  Morris grew up in the small town of Yazoo City, Mississippi and attended the University of Texas in the early 1950s. He later made his home among the intellectual elites of New York City.

Years later, this is how Morris described how the University of Texas changed his life. "I believe now," Morris wrote, "that the University of Texas was somehow beginning to give me an interest and a curiosity outside my parochial ego."  It was at the University of Texas, Morris reflected, where he came to accept the notion of ideas "as something worth living by."

I first read North Toward Home while a student at UT, and my experience was similar to Morris's.  I still recall standing in front of the University's Main Library and reading these words above the steps, chiseled in stone in letters two feet high: "Ye shall know the truth and the truth will set you free."

Those words thrilled me then, and I must say UT kept its promise.  The law school opened a whole new world for me--a world of disciplined and clear thinking, academic rigor, and a reverence for ordered law.

I attended UT Law School at minimal expense; tuition was only $500 per semester. At that time, the Law School existed primarily for Texans. In fact, the law school was legally obligated to admit 85 percent of each entering class from among Texas citizens.  I met young men and women from all over Texas: African Americans from Houston and Dallas, Latinos from the Rio Grande Valley, Anglo men and women from such small towns as Vernon and Longview.

Today, I fear, the great American public universities have morphed into entirely different entities from the ones envisioned by the state legislatures that founded them.  As state funding has shrunk, the universities have become more and more dependent on tuition, endowments, and research funds.

Over time the great public universities have become to look very much like our elite private universities. They have lost their connection to the people of their respective states.

I see this phenomenon illustrated by rising costs and by the elitist posturing of our major public universities on social issues.  At their best, these universities once offered an education to the bright young men and women of their states--regardless of race, class, or wealth.  And tuition was kept down so the cost of receiving a college education would not be prohibitively expensive.

Today, the law school I attended for $1,000 a year charges Texas residents $36,000 a year in tuition, and it takes race into account when making admission decisions.  In fact, I believe all the major public universities have aggressive affirmative action policies in place. Until the policy was struck down by the Supreme Court, the University of Michigan even had a point system for admitting undergraduates that gave special preference to minorities.

Our great public universities are not only obsessed with race, they have increasingly become hostile to tradition religious values. The University of California's Hastings Law School refused to recognize a campus chapter of the Christian Legal Society as a student organization on the grounds that it declined to accept members who did not subscribe to traditional Christian doctrine on sexual morality. The University of Texas tried to bar a student group from handing out literature opposing abortion.

Today, our major state universities still describe themselves as public institutions but they increasingly look like the elite private universities in terms of their values.  Serving the common people of their respective states is too parochial for them.  Leave that to the regional institutions like Sam Houston State University in Huntsville or Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.

This is fine, I suppose, but university leaders should be honest about their institutions' new identities.  Our most prestigious public universities now serve to advance a global culture of postmodernism and not the people of their states. In my view, state legislatures should cut all ties with these universities--formally designating them for what they really are: elitist private institutions.


Christian Legal Society Chapter of the University of California v. Martinez, 130 S. Ct. 2971 (2010).

Gratz v.Bollinger, 539 U.S. 244 (2003).

Justice For All v. Faulkner, 410 F.3d 760 (5th    Cir. 2005).

Willie Morris. North Toward Home. New York: Delta Books, 1967.

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