Academic strife: the American University in the slough of despond

By preaching the virtues of 'cultural competence', the academy betrays its lack of confidence.

Norman Levitt

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A new buzzword has entered the lexicon of academic fashion in the USA, threatening to drown poor professors like me in yet another wave of coy euphemism. The term is ‘cultural competence’.

Like its predecessors ‘affirmative action,’ ‘diversity,’ and ‘multiculturalism’, it attempts to cloak problematical and even disturbing policy initiatives in linguistic vestments that suggest that no right-minded person could possibly demur. A ‘culturally competent’ academic, one might naively surmise, would be one who has absorbed and is able to propound some of the deep values – ethical, aesthetic or epistemological – that embody the stellar achievements of Western culture, one who could explain, for instance, why Dante or Kant or Ingres is present, at least subtly, in the assumptions under which we all live. Or something like that.

This, alas, would be a comical error. ‘Cultural competence’ is, in essence, a bureaucratic weapon. ‘Cultural competence’, or rather, your presumed lack thereof, is what you will be clobbered with if you are imprudent enough to challenge or merely to have qualms about ‘affirmative action’, ‘diversity’ and ‘multiculturalism’, as those principles are now espoused by their most fervent academic advocates. Cultural competence, like the UK’s proposed new identity card, is something a professor is supposed to keep handy at all times, and to display with a straight face whenever confronted with a socially or ethnically charged situation, in order to dispel any suspicion of racism, sexism or Eurocentrism that might arise in the minds of the professionally suspicious.

What is ‘cultural competence’?

The term has been around for a couple of years, drastically mutating as it puts down deeper roots. Originally, it was fairly innocuous. It was largely restricted to the healthcare professions, and referred to the ability to function effectively with members of ethnic minorities and immigrant groups by dint of insights into the local community’s idiosyncratic prejudices, fears and assumptions, insofar as these differed from the norms of middle-class white society. It seems obvious that such knowledge could be helpful to a doctor, nurse or social worker hoping to convince patients or clients from these groups to keep medical appointments, complete a course of antibiotics or have their children vaccinated. Though cultural competence, in this sense, presumes a degree of open-mindedness and empathy, it seems only vaguely political, at most.

Now, however, cast loose from its original moorings, the phrase has become emphatically political. I offer the reader, with some trepidation, the formal definition as jargonistically set out by some purported educators:

Cultural competence requires that individuals and organisations:

a) Have a defined set of values and principles, demonstrated behaviours, attitudes, policies and structures that enable them to work effectively in a cross-cultural manner;

b) Demonstrate the capacity to 1) value diversity, 2) engage in self-reflection, 3) manage the dynamics of difference, 4) acquire and institutionalise cultural knowledge, and 5) adapt to the diversity and the cultural contexts of the communities they serve;

c) Incorporate and advocate the above in all aspects of leadership, policymaking, administration, practice and service delivery while systematically involving staff, students, families, key stakeholders and communities.

If we divest this of its thick integument of happy talk and explore the details, we find that in practice it means deference, even servility, toward the norms and values espoused by fervent multiculturalists, along with tame assent to whatever measures they propose to achieve their aims. Attempts to explicate the idea occasionally slip into language that reveals the underlying political programme:

[C]ultural competence entails actively challenging the status quo and advocating for equity and social justice.

In the context of higher education, cultural competence necessitates abject refusal to articulate or defend ideas that might make certain protected groups uncomfortable. Professors can only be deemed ‘culturally competent’ if they openly profess the approved corpus of received values.

Here is an illustrative if fragmentary list of transgressions that would likely strip an academic of any chance of being designated culturally competent:

· Suggesting that affirmative action might conflict with other standards of justice and equity, or that opponents of affirmative action are not ipso facto Klansmen waiting for their white sheets to come back from the laundry;

· Taking issue with the claim that Malcolm X was a paragon of humanitarianism and political genius;

· Disputing the wisdom of feminist theory as regards the social constructedness of gender;

· Asserting that the early demographic history of the Americas is more accurately revealed by scientific anthropology than by the Native American folklore and myth celebrated by tribal militants;

· Expressing doubts that ‘queer theory’ should be made the epicenter of literary studies.

Likewise, to maintain that hiring, retention and promotion within the university should focus on the traditional academic virtues of the scholar, rather than assigning enormous importance to the candidate’s race, ethnicity, sex or sexuality, would banish one permanently from the culturally competent elect. To deny that feminist theorists should call all the shots on matters having to do with sexual harassment would be an act of self-immolation.

The University of Oregon: a cautionary tale

Where has this orthodoxy come from? The State of Oregon on the West Coast seems to have been the seedbed of the cultural competence movement in American education (1). Why this should be so is not at all clear. Oregon is scenically glorious and politically moderate, and its colleges and universities have not notably suffered from racial or ethnic tensions. Nonetheless, it was at the state’s flagship university, the University of Oregon, that advocates of cultural competence recently grew so rash as to provoke an enormous uproar that will doubtless make the term into a new red flag in the Culture Wars and set off endless rounds of vituperation.

The trigger was the emergence of a concrete proposal to implement cultural competence standards on campus. This long, turgid document called for more of the things you would expect such a declaration to call for more of – ‘diversity’ admissions, multicultural courses, programmes to enhance cross-cultural sensitivity, and, of course, an assortment of administrators and committees to effectuate all this righteousness. But this much was predictable boiler-plate; the real fireworks showed up in the section mandating development of cultural competence among the faculty.

Here the authors, obviously feeling their oats, launched a serious power play. They prescribed a draconian regime of attitude adjustment aimed at professors and instructors. They proposed that all faculty be required to ‘participate in ongoing cultural competence professional development’ under their tutelage. But this was just the beginning. The drafters further called for academic departments, across the board, to reconstruct their hiring policies so as to make affirmative action the central factor in generating job offers. They insisted that every course in the school be scrutinised for its consistency with multicultural doctrine. Above all, in hiring, promotion and determination of salary, they called for a formal evaluation of the candidate’s cultural competence!

Stripping it down to its essence, the message to faculty was this: you’re going to adopt our sociopolitical point of view (or pretend to) or pay the price; so far as hiring and retention is concerned, your professional standards shall be modified or overruled to insure the predominance of people of whom we approve because of their race, sex, sexuality or doctrinal purity; if you give us any trouble, lacking tenure you’ll be out on your ear, and even with tenure you’ll be out a lot of money.

The faculty, not being particularly obtuse, certainly got the message – and promptly began to raise considerable hell. The upshot was that the higher-ups in the university administration, who had been primed to endorse the report, did a prompt volte-face and downgraded it to a preliminary draft slated to be drastically amended before implementation. Its principal author, like some misbegotten super-hero, slunk off to a new job far away.

The ultimate fate of these proposals thus seems pretty clear. The bureaucracy will masticate them over and over in an interminable cycle of revisions and re-revisions. In the end, a diluted and attenuated version will finally emerge. It will render some lip-service to cultural competence in the abstract and grant some funds to its proponents. But it will leave the faculty to continue largely unmolested in its well-worn paths.

On this somewhat hopeful note, this particular Political Correctness horror story now ends, for the time being. But why is it especially salient, given the long line of PC horror stories of which it constitutes just one more episode? Perhaps it isn’t all that consequential; yet it is instructive for a number of reasons.

Faction fighting

My tale demonstrates the staying power of the ethos of (left-wing) Political Correctness (or whatever you choose to call it) in the face of many years of scorn and ridicule. It shows how little its proponents have adjusted to discouraging realities, most notably the fact that the chief effect of PC-sponsored initiatives has been to make the sponsors unpopular while doing virtually nothing concrete to ameliorate the painful real-world situations that provoke these projects in the first place.

Most folks on a typical US campus think of PC as tiresome and even silly, and regard its advocates as self-righteous and censorious to the point of nastiness. The chief beneficiaries of PC antics, indeed, are the right-wing talk show hosts, bloggers and columnists who gleefully decry them at every opportunity.

Even more, the story tends to underline the fragmentation of university culture in a much wider context. Why, one might ask, are university administrators, largely bureaucrats rather than ideologues, still willing to accommodate PC enthusiasts? Perhaps because to be an American university administrator these days entails being all things to all men, women and transgendered persons, the servant of all masters (yet master of them all). Each constituency exacts its own tribute, and the shrewd administrator is one who knows how to render it up without sparking the ire of another faction whose view of the world might be markedly different. A list of these groups, at least roughly representative of the implicit infrastructure of most American universities, might be helpful here, if we allow for the fact that boundaries are sometimes blurry.

First of all, there is Profland, the traditional faculty, oriented, presumably, to serious scholarship and its code of values. But Profland lacks real cohesion. Its postmodern wing, for instance, usually doubles as a faction of the PC Mafia. This is even more true of the Myrmidons of the Downtrodden, who staff the various ‘oppression studies’ programmes – Women’s Studies, Black Studies, Latino Studies, Queer Studies, Native American Studies, and so forth. Collectively, they are the consiglieri of the PC Mafia.

The most self-satisfied subtribe, on the other hand, is They Who Could Make a MUCH Better Living in the Real World and Often Do – that is to say, the faculty of the Law School, the Medical School and the Business School. They are in Profland but not of it; unlike professors of English or archaeology, they have enough worldly clout that they needn’t seek solace by anointing themselves intellectual holy men.

At the other end of the self-esteem spectrum, we find the SubAcademic Wannabes who teach in not-quite-intellectually-respectable programmes: Education, Social Work, Journalism, and so forth. They seem to be part of Profland, but are haunted by the knowledge that in that enchanted realm, they will always be placed below the salt, mere squires rather than cavaliers. The Entrepreneurs should be singled out as well, scientists and engineers whose research is directly translatable into technology, patents and royalties accruing (if they’re shrewd) to themselves as well as to the university.

Beyond Profland, the Undergraduate Eloi predominate, drenching the campus in booze, sex, downloaded music cuts and annoying ring-tones. They are only distant cousins of the less-numerous Grad Student Helotry, essentially passive and resigned creatures who can occasionally be rousted from their library carrels long enough to make a bit of a fuss – but not for long. The latter, however, are not so forlorn as the Academic Gypsies who constitute the provisional or part-time instructional staff. These grossly underpaid wretches are doomed to aspire to Profland without much chance of ever getting there.

Most anomalous and therefore most surprising to those not long immersed in American tribal culture is the Jockocracy, a faction of immense power at most public and many private universities despite being utterly alien to education, scholarship or learning in any form. This consists of the administrators and chief functionaries of the athletic programme, most notably the coaches heading the school’s football and basketball teams. Such programmes are run for the economic benefit of these worthies while also enriching media outlets, purveyors of jock-related trinkets, and manufacturers of athletic shoes. Their viability depends, ultimately, on the eagerness of young athletes, typically profoundly deficient in academic skills, to be ruthlessly exploited while largely surrendering their personal autonomy. The underlying looniness of the situation is epitomised by the fact, no doubt mind-boggling to most non-Americans, that at a university with a ‘big-time’ team, the football coach will earn eight or nine times as much as the most distinguished professor. Athletics is the most hypocritical, corrupt, cynical, vicious and depraved aspect of university culture and, therefore, it is the one aspect of university culture unreservedly approved of by politicians, businessmen and the general public.

Public universities must take special notice of the Pols, the state governors and legislators, along with the appointees thereof, who ultimately run the place, de juro. These touchy people require periodic jollying-up and, on dire occasions, fervent propitiation. The amorphous mass of Alums can also be a powerful, if unseen, force, though it’s not easy to give a categorical description of what will antagonise or please them. Pols and Alums are the clans most likely to sympathise with a relatively new formation, the Dark Side, political and religious conservatives who have been organising recently to demand greater representation in Profland, a club that has welcomed very few of their protégés heretofore.

Dark Siders are characterised not only by their expressed loathing for the PC Mafia, but for their cynical habit of counting as PC anyone to the left of Rush Limbaugh. Oddly enough, however, they align with the PC Mafia on some crucial matters. There are certain texts they are obligated to deplore – JS Mill’s On Liberty and The Origin of Species, for instance – that rank high on the PC shitlist as well. Though they are frantic to abjure the term, Dark Siders also strongly favour affirmative action for certain under-represented minorities – in this instance, free marketers, born-again Christians, Intelligent Design theorists and Bushmen in general.

The last and, in some sense, most significant faction is the Ringmasters – that is to say, the administrators who try to keep the whole circus going. The most notable thing about this clan is that, in recent years, its traditional roots in Profland have withered. These functionaries – in American parlance usually called Presidents, Provosts and Deans, in descending order of majesty – have become a tribe unto themselves. Fewer and fewer, at least at the highest level, are primus inter pares professors raised to the seat of power from within the faculty (a practice much more common years ago). More and more of them are drawn from a distinct professional mandarinate, people who cut their ties to teaching and research fairly early in the game (if, indeed, they ever spent time in Profland), and who readily move from one institution to another as they climb the career ladder.

Over the past decade or so, the tone of academic administration has changed considerably. It has become ‘managerial’ rather than strictly academic. Budgetary and financial matters predominate at the highest administrative level. Perhaps this has always been so, but today’s preoccupation with money seems single-minded and intense to an unprecedented degree.

This attitude is reflected in policy towards faculty and curriculum. Narrow or esoteric disciplines that draw few paying students are luxury items that have disappeared from many campuses. Increasingly, especially in technical areas, a professor is judged by his ability to support his own financial weight through research grants or even by fecundity in coming up with marketable inventions. The typical university now relies to an unprecedented extent on Academic Gypsies, along with Grad Student Helots, to handle teaching responsibilities. Regular faculty with tenure or serious prospects thereof form an ever-shrinking proportion of the teaching staff, simply because they cost so much in terms of pay and benefits. For fear of losing paying customers, schools cater more and more to the shallow tastes of the Undergraduate Eloi, providing courses that are long on entertainment value and generous in their grading standards.

At most schools, the president is above all the fundraiser-in-chief, and endures or is cast aside depending on whether the revenue stream he generates is munificent or meager. Most schools now have elaborate fundraising machinery staffed by specialists in this field. Inevitably, institutional plans and ambitions are increasingly shaped by the enthusiasms of large donors. Additionally, at publicly supported institutions, presidents must continually dance attendance on Pols and the politically well-connected to ensure that appropriations are not choked off.

Management through diversity

In consequence of all this, universities must increasingly play to public opinion. The prominence of athletic programmes is one result. Another is the emphasis on ‘diversity’, though this policy has repeatedly turned into a public relations minefield. Most faculty and student supporters of diversity – in blunter terms, preferences accorded to certain racial and ethnic minorities – see their position as arising from the quest for social justice. Most administrators, however, see it as a way of buying social peace or at least deflecting nasty social conflict from the university’s doorstep.

Diversity policies play, obviously, to the liberal sentiments of most of the faculty, and to those of many students as well. But, under ideal circumstances, they play to a certain strain of conservative opinion, too. Despite the reputation of conservative activists and intellectuals as adamant opponents of affirmative action, racial preferences, quotas and the like, much of the business community, conservative or Republican in its general outlook, views affirmative action programmes and diversity goals as a way of mollifying the black and Latino populations. They help to ease the tension of day-to-day life in communities where different ethnicities continually interact. This is why anti-affirmative action politics has received only lukewarm support even in conservative states and cities. For pragmatic conservatives, social placidity is more important than ideological consistency.

So it is no surprise that even somewhat conservative university administrators will advocate and defend their school’s affirmative action programmes. Affirmative action is, from one point of view, a way of co-opting the brightest and most ambitious minority youth, bringing them to identify, in the long run, with conventional bourgeois values rather than oppositional doctrines. Conservatives are likewise content with speech codes, broad anti-harassment regulations and the like, on the theory that these will eliminate or dampen the flashpoints that set off militant protests and even violence. In fact, when these statutes are applied to some kinds of ‘sexual harassment’ cases – the current definition of sexual harassment is both broad and vague – it is hard to tell whether the ideology being served is radical feminism or the conservative prudery of traditional religion. But above all, administrators are fearful of rekindling the militant passions of the 1960s, to which nostalgic faculty are as susceptible as ardent young students. Race is the one issue that has the potential to set this off. Therefore, it is an issue that impels pragmatic rightists to find rationalisations for ignoring their individualistic principles.

But this is only part of the long, unremitting balancing act that university administrations must perform. Like a music-hall juggler keeping a dozen plates spinning precariously on as many twirling sticks, an American university president, along with his subalterns, is continually on the run between one touchy faction and another, trying to keep them all functioning without smashing into one another’s egos. It is not a task that is well suited to anyone obsessed with ideological or even intellectual consistency. There are too many Meccas to bow to at too many different points of the compass. Under the circumstances, it would be absurd to expect the leader of a school to personify the sense of scholarly mission and the thirst for knowledge that universities are supposed to embody.

The academic who actually admits to having been inspired or encouraged by the eloquence, the philosophy or the deeds of his president must be the rarest creature on Earth. A president simply doesn’t expect to be admired for incarnating the academic ethos. The best he can hope for is to be thought well of for his cleverness in bringing in donations and his prudence in keeping his nose out of things that don’t concern him, which covers everything from the drill-sergeant methods of the overpaid football coach to the double-talk of the overpaid literary theorist.

Enforced diffidence

So where, then, do the values of the university repose? Where have they taken firm enough root to guide and inspire the thoughts and words of faculty and students? Profland, by and large, flatters itself that the ancient virtues flourish in its soil, that mercenary or hypocritical though the university may be in many respects, its professors, at least, incarnate these ideals.

There may be a little truth to this; professors honestly dedicated to advancing knowledge and to nurturing students are really not all that rare. The trouble is, however, that Profland isn’t really a community built on shared values and assumptions. It is, rather, a loose assemblage of Anchorites, most of them dedicated in their own way, but each functioning in isolation from the others, apart from such affinities as might exist among scholars in the same sub-specialty of the same discipline.

If, by some strange chance, a student should honestly inquire what a university is really supposed to represent, what its core values are, what it offers him by way of a mode of thought and life, what it requires of him beyond classroom routine, there is no place for him to seek an answer. All he ever gets is an ‘orientation’ at the beginning of freshman year, which tells him where the library is, what the penalty for plagiarism is, and why he should be thrilled to be part of such a diverse community. There is no authority who can go beyond clichés to point to actual practice or to other evidence of a genuinely shared ethos.

The worst of it is that this deficiency is not a matter of institutional structure, nor of misplaced priorities, nor of temporary inattention. It arises from the hollowing out of Western culture as a whole. This a sententious, even grandiose, way of putting it, perhaps, but if we avoid thinking about the malaise of our larger society, across decades rather than years, I doubt we’ll be able to plumb the morass into which American higher education – and, probably, the community of scholars throughout the world – has fallen.

We not only lack guidelines and precepts to conduct us through the life of the mind, we lack the sense that such principles are even possible. The needed vocabulary hasn’t vanished from our language, but it is sodden with irony, rotten from years of coarse abuse. Consider words like ‘justice’, ‘objectivity’, ‘beauty’, ‘integrity’, ‘nobility’, ‘progress’, ‘honour’, ‘virtue’, ‘fairness’ and ‘righteousness’: it’s not only the postmodernists among us who reflexively snicker at these terms; all of us do so, automatically.

To be asked to respond to any of them with a straight face as denoting an actual realm of human experience is like being touched up for a loan. You feel like you’ve been placed in the awkward position of having to play the sucker if you’re to comply. The cultural demons lodged in all our psyches tell us that these words are the well-worn tools of an ancient con-game, that they are names of phantoms, weapons that the cynical wield to dominate the gullible. If ever we try to use them without a sneer, shame washes over us.

This kind of resigned cynicism is not just a casual attribute of our culture. It is ingrained in the zeitgeist of our wounded and distempered civilisation. We have experienced a century marked not only by butchery on an inconceivable scale but by the chilling fact that a good deal of that butchery emerged from the triumphs of what first looked to be forces of redemption. There are words we can’t use without sneer quotes because their degradation is our way of burying the dead hopes they once reflected.

Therefore, if I tell you that a university is, above all, an institution for the preservation and extension of learning and for its dissemination to the emerging generation, for the winnowing of truth from falsehood and imposture, for the conservation of the highest values our civilisation can conceive, for the emulation, insofar as we are capable, of the finest and deepest minds our civilisation has produced, for the hoarding and protection of what must survive of our civilisation even after all the dross has fallen away; if I tell you all this without satiric intent, and with the purpose of describing an ideal that is at least approximable if not perfectly realisable, then I will have committed an enormous gaffe, by the standards that our culture inflicts on us all. I will have tried to sell you a bill of goods, swamp real-estate, pump-and-dump stock, the Brooklyn Bridge.

We cannot deal with the concept I have just formulated as if it really meant something because the cultural confidence to do so has utterly atrophied. We live in an era of enforced diffidence which makes it positively painful to assert that there are better ideas and worse, better minds and worse, superior and inferior ways of knowing, differences between the enduring and the ephemeral, ways of viewing the world worth preserving and along with those worth discarding.

We have been conditioned to believe that to credit such distinctions, or at least to claim special value for particular ideas, minds and ways of knowing, is hopelessly parochial, culturally arrogant, and ultimately oppressive. There is good reason to remain aware of the dangers of cultural chauvinism, but the point is to cleanse our standards of judgment of narrow and local prejudices, not to abandon the very notion of standards of judgment.

Nobody can sincerely propound a vision of what a university is supposed to be, of what actual universities should strive to be, because it is so hard to assemble that vision, or even to contemplate its components, without blushing at one’s lapse into unsophistication. Neither pride nor aspiration can really hold a university community together because our culture instructs us to reject the kind of solidarity that enables collective pride and aspiration. We are content to let the university define itself in terms of the aggregation of functions the larger community and the economy wish it to perform: babysitting our youth in their protracted adolescence, staging gladiatorial exhibitions for TV, conducting product research for chip makers and drug makers, sending forth a reliable supply of doctors and lawyers, trying to ameliorate America’s racial mess (albeit in a half-assed way), and delving into arcane knowledge here and there just in case the stuff is ever really needed.

The task of forging a definition based on deep respect for verities, wisdom and genius (hear how strangely those words ring!), promulgating it, assembling a consensus around it, and functioning in accordance with its values – that’s something for which we utterly lack the confidence, the sense of a painful but deservedly abiding past, of an uncertain but still hopeful future.

And so our American institutions of higher learning drift along, fat, dumb and happy, or lean, dumb and anxious, according to the size of their endowment. ‘Total Depravity’, as the sociologist Thorstein Veblen labeled it a century ago – but he didn’t know the half. It is foreordained that episodes of extreme silliness shall burst forth therein from time to time. The cult of ‘cultural competence’ is now beginning to afflict universities because they lack the immune system necessary to suppress such inane crap before it gets a foothold. It is distinctly possible that the even more inane crap called Intelligent Design theory might also afflict them before too long, especially if the power of the PC Mafia starts to slip while that of the Dark Side waxes. Recurrent inanity, in one form or another, seems to be the fate of universities as now constituted.

At the risk of sounding nostalgic for what never was, I say that it needn’t have been thus. But avoiding this abyss would have required prescience and courage that is quite rare in individuals, let alone in institutions.

Norman Levitt is Professor of Mathematics at Rutgers University. He is the co-author (with PR Gross) of Higher Superstition (buy this book from Amazon UK or Amazon USA); and the author of Prometheus Bedeviled (buy this book from Amazon UK or Amazon USA).

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