American Liberal Arts Blog

Teaching the Liberal Arts in the American Context
Why Is It Wrong to Use the University for Political Purposes?
By David Kidd, April 1, 2012 in Outside the Classroom, What is Education?

If you like hearing people tell other people they aren't doing their job right, then you'll love "A Crisis of Competence: The Corrupting Effect of Political Activism in the University of California." The report, written by the California Association of Scholars (a division of the National Association of Scholars) is 81 pages of steely resolve and relentless truth-telling, and if it were roast beef, you wouldn't be able to cut it: it's that well done. I expect other contributors to this blog and I will revisit this report repeatedly over the coming weeks, as it provides a thorough and well-articulated condemnation of a persistent problem in academia today. It really is a strong document, and it deserves attention.

The authors of "A Crisis of Competence" contend that it is wrong to use the University (of California, but the same reasoning would apply to any state school) for political purposes. They open their argument with three moral and legal objections: First, they say that by advancing a political purpose, the University injures democracy. Using the resources of the state for the advantage of a political party (whether or not that party is currently in power) undermines the fair contest of ideas necessary for healthy deliberation in a democracy and runs afoul of the law. Second, the authors argue that partisan political activity by the University constitutes a misuse of state funds, since the University's funds were appropriated by the legislature for a different purpose. Third, the report authors contend that when a professor uses class time or other University resources for political purposes, he or she uses public goods for his or her private ends. This too is legally and morally wrong.

These seem to me to be fair points, and they should be obvious to anyone. When a university (or anyone else) receives goods with the stipulation that they not be used for a particular purpose, then the university shouldn't use them for that purpose, right? So what gives? Why are the inappropriately politically active professors not fewer in number? How did the scale of the problem become so large (as the report indicates)? Surely not because of simple ignorance, but if not then how?

Image credit: By Marc Tasman (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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Lee Trepanier on Apr 2, 2012 at 7:19 am

I think the explanation is fairly simple: university education has been re-conceived by some disciplines (mostly in the humanities and social science) to make students politically engaged and therefore any means to accomplish this task is legitimate. Of course, not every professor agrees with this reconception of education, but most do uncritically.

David Kidd on Apr 3, 2012 at 1:52 pm

I think what you say is true, Lee, but it's the leap from conceiving of a discipline as essentially political to the belief that therefore any political action is legitimate that I find perplexing.

about the author

David Kidd
David Kidd

I am ISI's Director of Internet Technology and chief designer/developer of ISI's websites. I graduated with a B.A. from Baylor University's University Scholars program and earned an M.A. in philosophy from Villanova University. My wife, a philosophy doctoral candidate at Villanova University, and I live in Wilmington, Delaware.