Photos by  Liz Borda

John Leo doesn’t believe in Fat Studies. He knows they exist; as a keen observer of the trends in higher education, he’s followed the proliferation of special interest fields such as fat, disability, and transgender studies for the past twenty-five years. What bothers Leo is not that special interest studies exist, but that they’re considered scholarship.

“Why would you do Fat Studies?” he asks rhetorically. “That’s not a college education.” Furthermore, “Why is Disability Studies on campus? It sounds like something a do-good agency should be doing in Midtown.”

Leo, who just turned seventy-eight and describes himself as a “commenter on the culture,” edits Minding the Campus, a website devoted to opinion and commentary on the state of American higher education. Launched in 2007, Minding the Campus is run by the Center for the American University at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.

Based in offices opposite Grand Central Station, the Manhattan Institute is arguably the nation’s most influential libertarian-conservative think tank. Like an arrhythmia in the heart of liberal New York, Manhattan Institute has over the past thirty-five years championed public policy innovations, including the broken windows theory of crime prevention, welfare reform of the 1990s and school vouchers.

The Manhattan Institute for Policy Research serves as one of the nation’s most influential libertarian-conservative think tanks.
The Manhattan Institute for Policy Research serves as one of the nation’s most influential libertarian-conservative think tanks.

Manhattan Institute’s initiative regarding higher education is somewhat more modest than those sweeping policy reforms. Leo, who says he is not a ‘techie,’ observes the site’s analytics “with one eye.” “It’s a small site, we don’t have big numbers yet,” he says. “We like to think it’s influential even though the numbers aren’t large.” Leo commissions long essays from writers who are both insiders and outsiders to the American university system. Recent pieces range from Harvey Silvergate on the national campus speech code to Jim Piereson on the decline of the great state universities. A recent satirical essay by Benjamin Ginsburg parodying the trend toward online courses drew a response of more than 15,000 Facebook likes.

As editor, Leo says, “The job is to build a site that says something about the modern university: what’s right and what’s wrong about it.” He explains the site’s ideology as “essentially a conservative (non-partisan) site, but we reach out now and then to liberal Democrats who disagree.”

For people used to reading conservative opinion, the look and feel of the site will be familiar. The emphasis is on substance at the expense of style. There is a minimum of graphics on the site. It might look boring, but the material can be provocative, especially for those who have taken the idea of higher education for granted.

“We think that there’s a lot wrong with colleges, and it goes across the board,” says Leo. Elite private schools, state schools, small schools, religious schools—all come under fire. Several contributors interviewed praised Leo’s ability as an editor as well as his knack for breaking down big ideas into key concepts. For example, his views on affirmative action: “One of the aspects of affirmative action is to pretend that you aren’t doing it. You have to believe in ‘holistic admissions,’ which is really a dishonest term.” On the trend towards “cafeteria” curricula: “You can do whatever you want. Major in anything. You don’t have to take a history course if you don’t want to.” On the effect of the 2011 Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights Dear Colleague letter that has lowered the standard of proof in sexual misconduct hearings: “We just think it’s a scandal. I don’t hesitate to use that word. I think they [college administrators] are responding to pressure to get more convictions. But you can’t manufacture convictions where the evidence doesn’t warrant it.”

These trends in the college atmosphere come, in Leo’s estimation, partly out of a need to appeal to students as consumers, and partly out of disdain for the Western tradition. Leo sees diversity and sustainability as cults on campus, cults that extend into the bureaucratic system that is, in turn, driving up college costs. “Note that when they stress diversity and sustainability they’re not stressing intellect or achievement or knowledge,” he explains. “They’re segueing over to social principle rather than learning. I don’t know how many people get that. Colleges should not be in the social activism business. You can do that in your spare time.”

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For many on the political right, the perceived excesses of contemporary liberal arts education have become a well-worn but sad joke. Conservative writers riff on political science professors who mount Che Guevara posters in their offices and laud the benefits of the Cuban agricultural program. Parents might think it strange that courses like ‘Midwifery and Witchcraft’ can be used to fulfill elective requirements for a degree in business administration, but few are outraged. Research has shown that college athletes are held to lower academic standards. Try telling that to college sports fans. They don’t care.

A growing number of people are indeed advocating a career path that steers well clear of college. Books, newspaper and magazine articles with titles like “Is College Worth It?” are increasingly common. Financial considerations are key to these stories. So is the idea of success. Dale J. Stephens, a twenty-something self-described ‘unschooler’ and the author of Hacking Your Education, has spent his young life writing, traveling and teaching himself. Stephens will launch Uncollege.org this summer. His thesis: college is a waste of time and the talented student can “hack” her own education with a little moxie, the right internships and a library card.

So it’s easy to make fun of the American university or dismiss it as no longer necessary. Engaging with its problems, on the other hand, takes tenacity, conviction, and a resistance to cynicism. Most importantly, you have to believe the university offers something worth saving.

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Leo grew up in Teaneck, New Jersey, in a “mixed” household. His mother was an Italian liberal Democrat; his father an Irish conservative Republican. “They trudged to polls every November to cancel out each other’s vote,” Leo observes.

As a teenager, Leo commuted from New Jersey to Regis High School, the prestigious private Jesuit prep school in Manhattan. From there he went to the University of Toronto, where he studied philosophy and English and edited one of the school’s newspapers. He thought about going to graduate school but “rejected that” because he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. He was, however, attracted to reporting. “After graduation I just wandered into the local newspaper office in Hackensack, The Bergen Record, and said ‘You got any jobs?’” he recalls. “And they said ‘Sit down.’ They had me doing obits right away. That’s how I drifted into journalism.”

From The Bergen Record, Leo moved to Iowa to edit The Catholic Messenger, which led to a job at Commonweal, another liberal Catholic paper. From 1964 to 1967, he was a columnist at the National Catholic Reporter, the first totally independent Catholic newspaper in the United States. It was “not responsible to any bishop or any authority,” says Leo. He was cast as the liberal columnist opposite the then-conservative Gary Wills. (The two have since changed positions.) “We’d attack each other and then go out for a drink afterwards,” Leo jokes. “This was a lively time to be at a Catholic paper,” says Leo, “because it was the time of the [Second] Vatican Council.”

John Leo in his office at Manhattan Institute.
John Leo in his office at Manhattan Institute.

In 1967, Leo went to work at the New York Times, where he was the newspaper’s first reporter on intellectual life. He left journalism briefly to work for the New York City Environmental Protection Agency and returned to writing in 1973 as the Press Clips columnist at the Village Voice. In 1974, he started writing for Time, publishing his humorous “Ralph and Wanda” exchanges between a liberal feminist and her not-so-feminist husband. Leo is best known for his column at U.S. News and World Report, which ran for seventeen years and was syndicated nationally. He says he got the job “by accident.” Mort Zuckerman, the magazine’s owner, was in the Sag Harbor Softball Game, a regular Saturday pick-up game Leo helped organize. Although Leo jokes it was a case of “advanced cronyism” that got him the job, he concedes that Zuckerman was well aware of his published opinion and that “[US News] was a center right magazine. “That’s where I was, so it was sort of a natural hire for him,” he says. The column, “On Society,” ran from 1988 to 2005.

Explaining his evolving cultural views, Leo notes that, “I was conservative in high school and college, faded into a liberal Democrat and went back to conservatism out of disappointment with oppressive non-liberalism of the sort that runs the campuses now.”

Politics per se never interested Leo. Culture–everything from education to feminism to movies–did. So that’s what he wrote about. “No one was really writing about culture. I really paddled over, without even thinking about it, to the culture wars. Dinesh D’Souza and I were the only two people who were writing about those things from a conservative point of view. Drastic things were going on, and nobody really noticed it.”

One thing that seemed particularly drastic to Leo culminated in a rally in California. In the late 1980s, college curricula were criticized for being exclusionary and limited. Colleges began to consider adding texts by minority and women writers to their syllabi in order to round out the traditional Western canon—the canon whose detractors derogatorily call a reading list of Dead White Men. The most vocal protest against the Western canon happened at Stanford. Leo saw not reform but the tip of an iceberg. “When Jesse Jackson got up in 1987, [around the time] my column started, and led a march at Stanford saying ‘Hey hey, ho ho, Western culture’s gotta go,’ it didn’t take much analysis to see that something was going on there. Not a small-bore protest, but the whole of Western culture had to go.” Since that protest, in Leo’s opinion, Western culture mostly has gone. And he does not think that is a good thing.

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A still from the 2007 documentary film "Indoctrinate U." (Courtesy Evan Coyne Maloney)
A still from the 2007 documentary film "Indoctrinate U." (Courtesy Evan Coyne Maloney)

“When I was in high school I didn’t really have much of a sense that there was this whole thing called political correctness, but college certainly opened my eyes,” says Evan Coyne Maloney, a Brooklyn-based documentary filmmaker whose 2007 film, Indoctrinate U, chronicles the complaints many young conservative college students share–that the university policy of inclusivity doesn’t extend to them. Minding the Campus screened Maloney’s film in 2008.

Maloney is a libertarian conservative. Indoctrinate U was born of Maloney’s own experiences as an undergrad at Bucknell, where he edited The Sentinel, a conservative student paper. He had suspicions the paper was being sabotaged. “Within minutes of being placed the entire stack would be taken and we would later find them in garbage cans and dumpsters,” says Maloney. “So this was my first inkling that all the talk we heard in freshman orientation about tolerance and diversity was quite frankly BS. There was absolutely no tolerance for diversity of thought. And it was eye-opening. I wasn’t really sure whether or not this was something particular to Bucknell.”

Maloney says it was Leo’s writing that clued him into the fact that what he was experiencing at Bucknell was also happening on other American campuses.

In fact, it was happening around the same time to a student in Brooklyn. Glenn Nocera was the founder and President of the Brooklyn College Young Republicans Club. (He currently runs the Brooklyn Young Republican Club.) His group would distribute newspapers only to see them disappear suspiciously, too. Whereas Maloney described the hypocrisy of the university as a kind of “business fraud,” Nocera took the intolerance of conservative opinion in stride: “It’s Brooklyn. We’re outnumbered eight to one. It’s like the Alamo.”

These are examples of the kind of “non-liberalism” Leo says happens across campuses. It’s political correctness run amok, and in his view, it’s turned into a kind of tyranny.

Leo’s colleague Fred Siegel, a political historian, author, Manhattan Institute Scholar and self-described “anti-liberal,” has contributed to Minding the Campus on diverse subjects. He agrees that the university is on the brink of self-destruction, and says Leo doesn’t want to see that happen. “He doesn’t want to see them go through a political realignment so they have the correct percentages [of conservative professors and staff],” says Siegel. “What he wants is the universities to step back from the brink. The brink now is self-parody. What you need is the university to assert its core values.” For Siegel this means insisting on tolerance of ideas, speech and an emphasis on real intellectual accomplishment.

Signs at UC Berkeley during
protest against allowing military recruiters on campus. (Courtesy Evan Coyne Maloney)
Signs at UC Berkeley during protest against allowing military recruiters on campus. (Courtesy Evan Coyne Maloney)

Siegel attended Rutgers for both undergraduate and graduate studies. He says the campus in the late 1970s was “wide open. I mean the debate was rip-roaring.” He explains this wasn’t so much about conservative and liberal debate “in the conventional sense, but rather as in the discussion of Herbert Marcuse versus Sidney Hook, it was about the very nature of America. Was America, as Marcuse suggested, a soft totalitarianism or, as per Hook, a would-be social democracy waiting to achieve its full form?”

How many undergraduates on campuses today debate soft totalitarianism and social democracy? (How many have even heard of Marcuse and Hook?) Part of the argument at Minding the Campus is that political ideology in the form of race, sex and gender studies has captured the humanities and social sciences, and that as a consequence, American students spend their time practicing identity politics instead of learning history, philosophy and literature.

Indeed, Leo alleges that if the goal of college is “to train the mind or to create intellectuals,” then American colleges are failing. “It’s not that the people need to be conservative,” says Siegel, referring to faculty members. “It’s that they can’t be enthralled to these arbitrary categories [of race, class, and gender]. They have to be relatively independent, relatively thoughtful, relatively well-read, none of which is true.”

Leo believes that “universities have gotten less intellectual and more consumer-oriented.”

“When I went to college the assumption was the faculty was wiser than you were and they would tell you what you need to know,” Leo continues. “Nowadays it’s the consumer who’s king. The consumer will tell the administration what it wants to learn.” Siegel sees this attitude among the arts students at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, where he served as professor of history and humanities. Starting this fall, Cooper Union will for the first time in its history have to charge tuition. (The school borrowed $175 million to build a new engineering building in 2009, and now has mortgage obligations of $10 million a year.) Students have responded to the news that they will pay tuition by taking over the school president’s office and painting it black. The explanation for the tuition increase is fairly straightforward and has been reported at length. But, says Siegel, “You can’t tell this to the arts students.”

In the years since he began his own graduate studies, Siegel says the campus atmosphere has deteriorated, and he describes what colleges have become in the past twenty years as “academic backwaters.” I can’t tell you how awful it is to be on most campuses,” he says. “I stopped going. It was just horrific.”

KC Johnson, a Brooklyn College history professor who has been writing for Minding the Campus since the site’s inception, would agree.

“Whenever you get a kind of intellectual environment where just about everyone agrees—and those who don’t agree [know that disagreement can] have really serious affects on their jobs—there’s a disincentive for dissent. You create a kind of backwater,” says Johnson. “It’s a very troubling development. And my sense is that it’s a development that most people don’t know a lot about. What else would you spend $200,000 on if you’re a consumer, and not look into the product very much? And yet hardly any parent looks very closely at what sorts of courses are offered on college campuses or the nature of the faculty environment. Or issues like how does this school handle due process questions if my son or daughter winds up getting accused of something?”

Johnson began commenting on campus judicial procedures in 2006. He wrote Durham-in-Wonderland, a blog about the Duke lacrosse case that garnered considerable media attention, and went on to complete a book about the Duke case, Until Proven Innocent, published in 2007. Johnson writes about sixty posts a year for Minding the Campus, most of them on due process issues. “That material is very well read on our site," says Leo, “I think because parents are worried their kid will be accused of rape and get convicted.”

But Johnson is not a conservative. He is a registered Democrat and a two-time Obama donor; he’s never voted for a Republican. “I like Obama’s tuition and student aid policy, but I’m extremely disappointed in how they’ve handled due process questions on college campuses,” says Johnson. “I find in general that on issues of higher education, that conservatives tend to identify the problems much more accurately than do liberals. And as a liberal that’s something that I very, very much regret. I don’t see issues like promoting due process or promoting intellectual and pedagogical diversity in the academy to be liberal or conservative issues. They shouldn’t be.”

To the team behind Minding the Campus, the thing that bothers them most is not what’s happening on campus, but that no one seems to care. “The colleges have been totally compromised," says Leo. "They’ve gone way down the wrong path, and nobody seems to be bothered by this. What parents seem to want is to have their kids’ credentials so they can get a job, but they don’t notice or refuse to notice that they’re paying a fortune for a really inferior product which does not educate their kids at all. The reaction is so soporific that it really bothers me. They just blindly go on."

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Natalie Axton is a writer living in the lower Hudson Valley. She blogs at www.livingwithcriticism.com.

Liz Borda is a freelance photographer based in New York City. You can view her work at www.lizborda.com. Follow her on Facebook.

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