By Robert Weissberg
"..the one aspect of American culture and society most in need of improvement and investment--education--has been greeted by deafening silence on the part of all candidates."
Leon Botstein, president of Bard College in his "charge" to the Class of 2008. Leon forgets to mention that all of today's presidential candidates, including also-rans, offer detailed prescriptions for fixing education and US spending on education has for decades out-paced inflation and even government health care spending. In other words, class of 2008, when it comes to saving the world, just make it up. Why bother with inconvenient truths.
Universities, it would seem, are committed to uncovering truth. Exceptions occasionally occur, and a small contingent insists that there is no such thing as objective truth, but for the most part, professors who make up data or plagiarize are usually caught and punished. Recall that Ward Churchill was fired for research misconduct and fraud, not his loathsome views, and even fellow travelers could not justify deception. Professors may exaggerate a bit, disregard awkward findings or even tilt research towards pre-conceived outcomes, but it would be professional suicide to insist that 2+2=5.
Unfortunately, a major exception exists, and this might be called the "Grand Noble Lie" whose purpose is not to deceive (the usual aim of a lie) but to reassure listeners so as to advance a career. Whereas conventional liars seek to cover their tracks (e.g., what is "is"), the effectiveness of the Grand Noble Lie depends on its blatant, plain-to-see falseness. It is insufficient to claim that 2+2=5 or for the timid 2=2=4.01; rather 2+2=100. This is an incredibly upside down world whereby those saying 2+2=100 may go on to glory while Professor Joe Average dreads being humiliated for citing a book he never read. That Grand Liars are more likely to be distinguished university presidents, or at least Deans, not under-the-gun junior faculty concocting data to get published, only makes the phenomena even more remarkable.
What are these Grand Noble Lies? They have undoubtedly existed forever (recall Plato's Golden Lies) but today they overwhelmingly concern university policy regarding race or, more generally, diversity. Prudence dictates hypothetical examples but the reader will surely recognize our illustrations. The paradigmatic example would be a President of an elite university telling assembled students and faculty that university admission standards were color blind so blacks and Hispanics on campus were just as qualified as whites and Asians. This would then be followed with "these minorities strengthen intellectual life and enhance education for everyone." Though we are not mind readers, it is inconceivable that listeners believe this rhetoric. As Graucho Marx put it, "who are you going to believe---me or your eyes?" Listeners daily encounter struggling blacks and Hispanics, hear about the expensive remedial programs to keep them academically afloat, see them gravitate towards easy-to-pass "ethnic" classes (which they often skip) while their classroom utterances often exhibit embarrassing ignorance or are just ideological rants. Ironically, campus race/ethnic group leaders openly admit these deficiencies and argue that such students be admitted despite their deficits. These advocates, unlike the university's president, happily document that blacks average 200 points less than whites on the SAT or that without resource-draining support services they would never graduate. Here honesty is rational since cataloguing shortcomings is vital to securing assistance, including their own jobs.
Does our mendacious president believe that these barefaced mistruths can go undiscovered? Hardly. Not only does the twaddle contradict plain-to-see reality, but written records would instantly expose these lies. A little research would reveal test score or graduation rates sub-divided by race and ethnicity, and with a bit more effort, it may be possible to disclose race-based admissions procedures. A lawsuit or Freedom of Information request would bare it all. Nor can the lying president hide behind executive privilege, national security or personal privacy to shield awkward facts. In other words, the mendacity is an open invitation to being exposed as a liar, and since there is no compelling reason, legal or otherwise, to mouth this nonsense, a rational person must wonder why it is done. What smart person, in a setting ostensibly venerating truth, would take the risks?
The answer is that, at least for certain segments of the academy, a willingness to go out on a shaky limb for a noble cause, to risk public disgrace, to humiliate oneself before rapt audiences is the surest sign of true commitment, and in today's often vicious university wars, only the most deeply committed need apply. As Joseph Schumpeter put it in his History of Economic Analysis, "The first thing that a man will do for his ideals is lie" and few are more idealistic than university administrators. Imagine a contest to achieve the highest moral ground in a PC-infused setting. Everybody will reaffirm the usual ideological banalities, e.g., America must adapt to a fast-changing multicultural world. What, however, will separate true champions from the also-rans? The answer, we submit, is the bold-faced fabrication that everybody knows to be a lie. This gesture evidences the highest commitment to the PC agenda for it unequivocally demonstrates that a job candidate will do anything for "the cause." True idealism, as per Schumpeter. Others may merely reaffirm that diversity is wonderful but the zealot will announce "research conclusively shows diversity's value" when nearly everyone knows the findings demonstrate no such thing or just the opposite. If confronted with the disconcerting truth, just follow Groucho---me or your eyes?
Of the utmost importance, the obvious lie shows that the speaker can be trusted to pursue the politically correct agenda regardless of obstacles. No need to worry that this opportunist will go wobbly. As in the Soviet Union, eagerness to lie in public was prima facie evidence of political reliability since who could rely on a compulsive truth-teller? An honest person might, after all, publicly admit that Marxism has failed or Uncle Joe made a mistake. Translated into Newspeak, only chronic liars are trustworthy, and in the battle for the university's soul, a leader must be absolutely dependable.
The Big Noble Lie will soon become the party line for fellow careerists. The Associate Dean aspiring for the Provost position will appoint a committee to promote even greater academic excellence by recruiting scholars from previously "under-utilized" groups. Meanwhile, the current on-the-make Provost will announce that all new university recruitment short lists, including positions in astrophysics and mathematics, must include at least one minority scholar. That these diversification efforts have foundered for decades is irrelevant; one must "get with the program" and the program requires public lying. Even the university President might turn it up a notch in the hope of gaining a high Washington appointment by demanding that the school's publicity department doctor photographs to show greater student and faculty diversity though this will likely be exposed. This is Medal of Honor commitment.
Nevertheless, are job-seekers inclined to frankness that much at a disadvantage? Are liars akin to unstoppable rabbits in Australia? In principle no, but less so in practice. What ultimately gives the liar the career advantage is that he or she can rely on a vocal, energetic constituency that demands lies. These groups, notably feminists, those preaching identity politics, and assorted radical ideologues, many with a well-deserved reputation for mayhem, are typically obsessed with university governance, the "come early, stay late" crowd (a favorite Marxist formula for capturing groups). Rest assured, they will gain representation on university search committees ("diversity) and successfully require all job candidates to embrace the "progressive" agenda or be blackballed. What can the job-seeker say when asked by an irate feminist, "What have you recently done to recruit more women electrical engineers?" Or if asked by an Afro-centrist education professor, "What is your specific plan for increasing black males on campus?" Does he or she say "Recruit the best, and that's that"? More likely, especially if the candidate wants the job, he or she will adopt the Paris-is-worth-the-Mass strategy: "Such recruitment is a serious challenge, and rest assured, under my leadership State U will succeed in attracting those from under-utilized groups. I personally guarantee it!"
Note well, it is less important that this is actually believed, either by the candidate or the recruitment committee. What is vital is hiring somebody who is capable of shamelessly lying if the occasion warrants it. Recall Samuel Goldwyn's advice about acting: good acting requires sincerity, and if you can fake that, you have it made. The liar is "trustworthy" by today's standards, and thus perfect to lead a university committed to the truth.
Robert Weissberg is Professor of Political Science, Emeritus at The University of Illinois-Urbana, and occasionally teaches in the NYU Politics Department MA Program.