Rules for Counter-Radicals: The Universities
Does the “woke pendulum” swing back? Not without a fight.
“Wokeness has peaked! The pendulum is swinging back!”
I’ve been hearing things like this a lot over the last few months since October 7th, especially as it relates to universities. In some instances top leaders ignored the attacks or excused them; in others they discovered a sudden fidelity to free speech and institutional neutrality that had eluded them on other political topics.
In front of Congress, a number of those leaders embarrassed themselves and their institutions to such an extreme degree that left observers wondering how things couldn’t change. After that, something had to give — surely?
I am an optimist at heart, but also a realist. The fight for sanity in our institutions isn’t a pendulum that swings on its own; it’s a battlefield, and we’re the fighters. The lines don’t change unless we fight our opponents directly and move the lines.
The zeitgeist, for now, has turned against the most radical woke elements of the left. Western society’s suppressed common sense has reared its head — including from a number of prominent liberals and others on the moderate left, who have come around to what those on the right have been saying for years. But the ideologues haven’t gone away. The exits of disgraced presidents Liz Magill and Claudine Gay from Penn and Harvard may obscure that, because they were obvious victories for common sense. What we don’t want is for them to be merely cosmetic victories.
It’s true, of course, that any sound institution would fire its executive if it went through even a fraction of the needless humiliation caused by those two. But what we’ve seen since the Dec. 5 hearing is instructive: they weren’t sound institutions, and without immense public pressure would have continued on the basis that Magill and Gay were actually talented leaders, uniquely suited for the moment…
The two presidents were low hanging fruit — and maybe even distractions. If we want to win serious victories, we need to get serious about the depth of the problem. Feckless executives are just one relatively small layer in the deep hole that ideologues have spent decades digging on our campuses — the first circle in the woke inferno, if you will.
Venture down further and you’ll encounter a host of others…
Administrators. Most of them are unnecessary. They create paperwork and nightmares on campus. Their priorities are wrong — “shut down those parties!” — and their salaries are astronomical. They’ve grown faster than any other group on campus, sometimes outnumber students, and they’re even more left wing than the faculty. Good luck getting a “yes” on anything when multiple bureaucrats have input.
DEI offices. This particular flavor of bureaucracy is more opposed to merit than others, and it shows — the people in charge of teaching neo-racist bigotry to students are not often the sharpest tools in the shed. Case-in-point: Harvard’s DEI chief. These offices exist so that leaders can virtue signal, plain and simple. Read more from The Free Press on DEI.
Conquered departments. Entire fields of study have abandoned the pretense of scholarship in favor of radical activism, and they’ve used the tenure process to exclude anyone who isn’t on board with that agenda. The “Grievance Studies Hoax” exposed a number of these fields — where ridiculous parody passes with flying colors in the game of peer review. The conquered departments retain tenure authorities, so not only can none of them be fired — the unfireable radicals get to choose the other unfireable radicals!
Lawyers. They control and strongarm the president and trustees, creating a culture of fear and risk aversion among people that otherwise could act boldly. Instead, people act carefully when lawyers dominate a decision-making process. Who do you think cooked up the “context” answers for Gay, Magill, and Kornbluth (the one who didn’t get fired) before Congress?
Oblivious trustees. Sadly, most members of university boards of trustees seem to be chosen explicitly because they are risk-averse people who will believe what they are told by the lawyers and administrators, and not interfere too much. Sitting passively on these boards was once a mark of respect; today, it is a mark of shame, suggesting one is at least a coward, if not a misanthrope.
The types of things that happen in this captured ecosystem are hard to believe for people that were students in the 70s, 80s, 90s, and even 2000s. Many people have picked up on absurdities since October 7, but missed the decade of nonsense preceding it. For your benefit, here is a non-exhaustive catalog with a few of the most famous and/or jarring examples:
In the University of Chicago’s geophysics department, PhD students launched a campaign against Professor Dorian Abbot, who said that race should not be a factor in selecting new doctoral students: “let’s try as hard as we can to treat everyone who applies to our department equally, and judge applicants only on the basis of their promise as scientists.” One of Abbot’s fellow professors told the department: “If you are just hiring the best people, you are part of the problem.” MIT later canceled Professor Abbot’s invitation to give a lecture after backlash at that school.
At Yale, two prominent professors were driven out of their job as residential fellows after telling students concerned about “cultural appropriation” in Halloween costumes: “if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offense are the hallmarks of a free and open society.”
At Stanford, my alma mater, a law school DEI official encouraged a student mob to shut down a speech by a federal circuit judge, Kyle Duncan. As the mob screamed obscenities, DEI dean Tirien Steinbach lectured Judge Duncan on his conservative jurisprudence and usurped the event. The law school later apologized.
At Harvard and Stanford, DEI and “student life” bureaucrats have spent a decade shutting down fraternities, final clubs, themed housing, and other social institutions that make colleges fun and unique. In some cases, bureaucrats destroyed in one pen stroke traditions that go back decades and even centuries.
For my part, I am building a new university (apply here!) rather than spending millions of dollars and years of work climbing through the labyrinths at Harvard, Yale, Penn, Princeton, Columbia, et al. But as a patriot, I’m concerned about these institutions, too. They educated our founding fathers and generations of American leaders. They’re still educating young elites today — but without the sound structures which made them productive for our country in the first place. Their own dysfunction is causing further dysfunction in other areas. It would be wrong to totally ignore this metastasizing cancer, so it’s heartening that many people have at least begun to “wake up” in the last few months.
Those people deserve an honest assessment of what it actually requires to right the ship, because new committees and bureaucrats aren’t going to cut it. We need, to put a spin on a phrase from the 60s organizer Saul Alinsky, a set of Rules for Counter-Radicals.
Alinsky’s 1971 book Rules for Radicals became a cult classic for aspiring activists and the playbook for the long march through the institutions — which the far-left did not control in 1971 like they do now. He prefaces the rules:
What follows is for those who want to change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be. The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away. The first step in community organization is community disorganization.
1. Power is not only what you have but what the enemy thinks you have.
2. Never go outside the experience of your people.
3. Wherever possible go outside of the experience of the enemy.
4. Make the enemy live up to their own book of rules.
5. Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.
6. A good tactic is one that your people enjoy.
7. A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag.
8. Keep the pressure on.
9. The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.
10. The major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition.
11. If you push a negative hard and deep enough it will break through into its counterside.
12. The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.
13. Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.
What would Rules for Counterradicals look like — to recapture power from today’s radicals? The rules would need to take advantage of the public sentiment, of new media channels that didn’t exist before, and, where appropriate, of Alinsky’s rules themselves. There’s a hitch, though. In general, those with a conservative or centrist/moderate outlook won’t want to imitate the politics of personal destruction and vitriol pioneered by Alinsky; but we have to understand it.
For our first three, we’ll borrow from Alinsky’s #4, #5, and #6.
Make the enemy live up to their own book of rules
Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon
A good tactic is one your people enjoy
The Claudine Gay saga was a perfect example of Alinsky in action: Make the enemy live up to their own book of rules. As journalists and activists aptly pointed out, it was Harvard’s own unambiguous rules about plagiarism — or in Newspeak, “inadequate citation” — that made the situation so untenable.
Alinsky’s rule 13 says “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.” By tying the plagiarism scandal and other elements of Harvard’s poor governance to Gay in particular, activists and commenters gave Harvard a set of very bad choices: stick by Gay for personal reasons and make hollow the stated commitments to academic integrity and freedom of speech. Or, uphold the standards that were obviously threatened by Gay personally — and face the internal backlash. In the end, Harvard chose the worst of all options: stick by president Gay after the first shoe dropped without making a plan for the second, third, forth…
When the second wave of plagiarism reports came, the absurdity of the situation was clear to many, including on the Harvard campus. Rules 5 & 6 help explain why that was so successful: “Ridicule is a man’s most potent weapon” and “A good tactic is one that your people enjoy.” Take, for example, the beautiful sight of a “Community Note” pinned to a post on X by Harvard attempting to downplay what Gay said to Congress.
Users on the platform were able to effectively mock the president of the world’s most prestigious university, and crowdsource a fact-check of it. It was a moment that Alinsky himself might have relished — the powerless causing a headache for the powerful — if it weren’t for the fact that the ivy-covered walls now represented his flavor of leftist politics, and were being mocked by the political right.
Mockery and ridicule are scalable. But in the end, a key lesson is that Liz Magill was not actually in charge of Penn, and Claudine Gay was not actually in charge of Harvard. We don’t know what it would have looked like if they were allowed to answer questions in front of Congress without the influence of the aforementioned lawyers, administrators, and DEI officials. So our mockery, ridicule, and focus has to be trained on the people behind the scenes. Which brings us to the next rules:
A narrow focus on leaders is the wrong model to think about change when everything is captured.
Bureaucratic headcount is bloated by at least 2x — possibly 10x.
Removing a figurehead executive won’t change institutional culture. Under the president are hundreds of lawyers and administrators. Immune from the president are dozens of unaccountable departments with hundreds of professors that have been selected through tenure for maximum conformity. Ostensibly supervising the whole operation are trustees, kept in the dark about the true state of campuses.
Education bureaucracy has exploded in size over the last 50 years. At American universities from 1976 to 2018, full-time administrators grew by 164% and other non-faculty staff by 452%. In comparison, full-time faculty grew by 92% and students by just 78%. Administrators are, to the surprise of some, more polarized to the left than American professors. In 2017, when 12% of faculty nationwide identified as conservative, a mere 6% of administrators did.
In certain microcosms like the Ivy League, the growth is even more astonishing. At several points in the last few years, Yale University has had more administrators than students! Students with the Yale Daily News reported the numbers:
Over the last two decades, the number of managerial and professional staff that Yale employs has risen three times faster than the undergraduate student body…
In 2003, when 5,307 undergraduate students studied on campus, the University employed 3,500 administrators and managers. In 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic’s effects on student enrollment, only 600 more students were living and studying at Yale, yet the number of administrators had risen by more than 1,500 — a nearly 45 percent hike. In 2018, The Chronicle of Higher Education found that Yale had the highest manager-to-student ratio of any Ivy League university, and the fifth highest in the nation among four-year private colleges.
The General Counsel’s office grew from 13 to 50 employees in fifteen years. The number of “communications” professionals soared from 17 to 55. Remember: these are the people who prepare university presidents for Congressional hearings to avoid embarrassment — and then prepare the cleanup statements.
To even stand a chance at rebooting a university, administrators must be fired in massive quantities — as many as you can. And if you can’t, then the next rule is for you: If you can’t fire someone, you aren’t the boss; they are.
Every administrative leader should put their values on record, stating whether they agree with the principles of the leadership. The myth of politically disinterested bureaucrats is just that — a myth. So it’s important to figure out what they intend to do with their office. Remember Alinsky: “The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.” Most of these bureaucrats have never had any serious questions about what they do. Even asking the question is a significant step.
New committees won’t save you
In the aftermath of the Harvard fiasco, interim president Alan Garber appointed a “task force” on anti-Semitism (and another on Islamophobia) under pressure from alumni who wanted things to change. The New York Times reported on the awkward reception for those who had faith that a task force was a good idea:
A Harvard task force on antisemitism has gotten off to a rocky start, with complaints that the professor chosen to help lead the panel had signed a letter that was critical of Israel, describing it as “a regime of apartheid” for its treatment of Palestinians.
This point doesn’t need elaboration. New committees won’t save you. A “task force” is an entity one would create to make sure that the “task” doesn’t happen.
Your money is a weapon — for you, or for your enemy
“The capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them” is often attributed to Vladimir Lenin.
Some wealthy people develop a habit of giving money to efforts that are contrary to their values or interests, and the Bolsheviks and their scions count on that. Today in a few prominent cases, fellow Jews have realized their mistake publicly after having given tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to institutions like Penn and Harvard and then watched the fruits of those donations: anti-merit DEI programs that exclude Jews, widespread apologia for terrorism, etc.
David Horowitz, a former radical turned critic of Alinsky, put it well when speaking on a campus over a decade ago, saying that convincing those who already share our values to stop giving money to the radical left “...is a much easier sell than to convince these religious leftists to abandon their religion.”
Institutional recapture starts and ends with power and money; or to be more specific — taking power and money away from the bad actors. Because they neither share nor understand our values, appeals to values and principles can be futile. But checks are a language they understand.
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Goldstein, do you want to donate your own nooses to the hangman so that your name will be put on the building?
Wokeness is a surface problem caused by a lack of accountability and spirit
Though I’ve endorsed mocking and ridiculing certain aspects of the “woke left,” it’s also worth keeping one’s eye on the ball about the types of bureaucratic and political mechanisms that enable it. Last year I wrote,
The Woke Mind Virus is real, and it causes real problems. There’s no doubt about that. But focusing on it too much keeps us from seeing the bigger problem. The WMV is just one symptom of a deeper national sickness — a cancer, which is the loss of our Frontier.
It isn’t just geographic: there are layers and layers of lost Frontier. We lost the spirit of the Frontier. We lost the accountability of the Frontier. We lost the civilizational ethic of trying new things and figuring out what works. In so many areas where results have stagnated or collapsed, experimentation is no longer allowed, and the decline is masked and rationalized by increasingly bizarre, unsettling behavior.
But it is critical to understand that wokeness is a sideshow. The main event is our country’s long slide from being bold and adventurous to being dysfunctional and bureaucratic. When we see woke virtue signaling in institutions, we’re witnessing the aftermath of that decline.
Strong societies need not be conquered by such ideas. So when you see wokeness, think of what type of weakness underlies it. Being strong and creative yourself is an antidote.
The final rule is one that those who believe in the US and in the classical “liberal” order should remember: constitutions matter. In the case of our country, our Constitution is our constitution, and a source of strength — a common set of rules by which we get to set the debates over issues. Even constitutional systems are imperfect, but relative to societies without one, the benefits are obvious. In countries without functioning bills of rights — our civilizational brethren in the United Kingdom come to mind — the cause of liberty is in much greater peril.
So, could a university benefit from a constitution to enforce core values and put checks on different powers? At the University of Austin, we’ve written one: to set our values from the beginning and create mechanisms for the long-term preservation of those values. My UATX co-founder and principal drafter of the University Constitution, Niall Ferguson, wrote recently about that effort:
Since our initial announcement of the University of Austin in November 2021, I have often been asked: "How will you prevent your university from being 'captured' like all the others?" Yet our challenge is even more daunting: It is to build an institution that is not only insulated from the problems of the present, but also fortified against the (as yet unknown) problems of the future…
As the founders of our republic well understood, upholding freedom requires more than mere declarations of good intent; effective safeguards and remedies must also be embedded within a governing structure…
If successful, we hope that other institutions will adopt some, if not all, of our innovations. Nothing could be more beneficial to the spirit of intellectual life in America than such a revolution in university governance.
You can read Niall in full as he discusses the UATX Constitution, our “supreme court,” our outlook on tenure and free expression, and much more. And the good news for you, dear readers, is that if it feels too daunting to implement all these ideas at an institution that’s 300 years old and controlled by people who don’t share your values, you have an amazing opportunity to support people who are building anew.
Conclusion: The Rules for Counter-Radicals
We live in an age of radicalism.
Alinsky might be proud that fifty years after his death, those who learned from him really did take over many of the relevant institutions of the day: the NGOs, the universities, the bureaucracies, and even major corporations in some cases. But the long march has made this new establishment vulnerable to just the types of tactics that Alinsky advocated.
I like to think that many of the true believers of the 1960's — I know quite a few of them who evolved to hold liberal values — would abhor the anti-merit, incompetent mess that so many institutions find themselves collapsing into today. Not least because they are now being roundly mocked. More people than ever are seeing through the charade. The players are often fragile, fearful, and conformist. Their ideas have atrophied. Dissent is discouraged.
All that conformism presents a huge opportunity to the scrappy opposition — the rebels — to forge a new age of post-radicalism. It’s a counterrevolution, to quote. It’s David vs. Goliath. There may come a time when sensible patriotism, and a belief that merit and accountability can lead to progress for all, become the tired establishment, waiting to be replaced by something more energetic. But for now, those of us with those values are the insurgents. And it’s up to us to fight. We’ve got a country to save, and it’s not going to save itself; will you fight alongside us?
P.S. — last February I wrote on similar subjects in this note to Ben Sasse, the new president of the University of Florida, on how to be bold: