How to Save Higher Education | Interview with Dr. Michael Poliakoff

How to Save Higher Education | Interview with Dr. Michael Poliakoff

We met with Dr. Michael Poliakoff to discuss the emergence of a new “woke” culture in universities, the power of university donors, the need to allow for diverse perspectives, and much more. Enjoy!

Michael Poliakoff discusses how a new “woke” culture has caused a dramatic change in ethics, especially in higher education. He shows the valuable aspects and the flaws of this new way of thinking. As a professor of the classics and the president of ACTA, he believes that wise donors who set specific conditions for their donations rather than a “blank check” hold the power to save our system of higher education. His website serves to grade the education given by major universities—very few of which receive an “A.” Follow along as American academic and President of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, Dr. Michael Poliakoff talks with Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of and professor of physics at Wake Forest University.

What kindness could you ever expect from another generation that could not see your contributions because of things that you got wrong?” – Dr. Michael Poliakoff

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Interview with ACTA President Dr. Michael Poliakoff

Interview Transcript

(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)


Jed Macosko: Hi, this is Dr. Jed Macosko at Wake Forest University and AcademicInfluence. Today we have Michael Poliakoff, who is the founder of ACTA, which is an organization that keeps track of how universities are doing. And Michael is also a professor, former professor, and still does some teaching work in the classics area. So it’s really a pleasure to get to see you today and to talk to somebody that’s well outside of my own field of physics about issues that are facing our university that ACTA really addresses. So I’d love to start back at the beginning. You went to Yale University.

Would you recommend Yale to students now who can get in?

Because I noticed that they didn’t score as well on your website that ranks universities in terms of their core programs. So talk a little bit about your experience at Yale and maybe how things have changed since then.

Michael: It causes me some pain to say that I would have great reservations about recommending my alma mater, which I loved when I graduated in 1975.

1975 was a remarkable year. That was when the C. Vann Woodward Committee report was issued that argued eloquently and vehemently for the primary importance of freedom of speech on campus, and for a while, it looked like Yale was going to combine its academic power both in teaching and research with that really important commitment to the unfettered exploration of ideas, however unpleasant they might be.

I’m trying to remember now the language of C. Vann Woodward: "To think the unthinkable, to mention the unmentionable." In other words, to have that intellectual fearlessness, which is the life blood of any place of learning or research.

After the appalling incident in which Erika and Nicholas Christakis in, I think... I can’t remember what year now... 2011, were treated with such disrespect because Erika Christakis had suggested that students could pick out their own Halloween costumes, and the campus exploded, and the administration handled it very poorly, never showing the kind of leadership that is necessary at such a time, I began to recognize that my school had shifted so strongly to a very kind of lazy way of thinking, a lazy sort of capitulation to the political winds of the day. That causes me great sadness.

Jed: Well, what about things like becoming a Rhodes scholar or something like that?

In this day and age, are people selected based on criteria that you think are not as important, or do you think that they’ve held the line on... I know you were a Rhodes scholar yourself, and a wrestler. They definitely like people that are well-rounded like that…

but have they changed since back in the late ’70s when you were going through that?

Michael: I hope not. I haven’t been on a... Sat on a selection committee in some time, but I earnestly hope that they have held on fast to the insistence on three things: On academic excellence, and service, and physical vigor. They don’t necessarily require somebody to be on a varsity team, but to have the vigor that can see a person through to achieving those important objectives.

It is very touching to me to go into the Rhodes House, and of course, Cecil Rhodes was a character that had many sins, but to see that now there’s a whole wing of it devoted to Nelson Mandela and to recognize that it’s possible to embrace the new ethics and the new wisdom without utterly wiping out the history, as mixed as that history might be.

0:05:01.1New way of thinking

Jed: Well, that right there is the crux of what I want to talk to you about, so why don’t we just cut to the chase. [chuckle]

Michael: Okay.

Jed: There’s obviously been a huge land change, a sea change of ways people think about things from let’s say the 1950s to here we are in the 2020s, just total change, and like you said, a different way of ethics, and what was okay in the ’50s is not okay now.

What can we embrace about this sea change, and what do we need to sort of pick out, the dross, of this new way of thinking about things?

A lot of people refer to it as being woke, and I’d say some people like that term and embrace it, other people use it in a derogatory, like, "You’re so woke. This is terrible." So what... You’ve been around the block. You were very prescient about it in the 1990s in starting ACTA.

How can we think about all these things?

Michael: I should add, I could not claim that I founded ACTA. I came into ACTA in 2010, and its two founders, Jerry Martin, a former professor of philosophy and Anne Neal, a First Amendment attorney, are people that I revere, so I would never want to in any way diminish what they did in founding this great organization.

…there are things in the past that we've moved on from, we have to move on from.” – Dr. Michael Poliakoff

As I say to them, "You built the house. I’ve just been putting some furniture in for the past 11 years." But to answer your question, I actually pull upon a hymn that I remember from my childhood, "New occasions teach new duties. Time makes ancient good uncouth," which is a reminder to us that there are things in the past that we’ve moved on from, we have to move on from.

But I also ask the woke generation, what withering light of history will be turned on you at some point in the future in your rejection of Mahatma Gandhi, of George Washington, of Abraham Lincoln? What kindness could you ever expect from another generation that could not see your contributions because of things that you got wrong?

Now, there’s certainly people in the past who got things very wrong. I have some real misgivings about setting up statues to Confederate generals whose only achievement was that they rebelled against the United States.

But on the other hand, the virtue signaling that’s going on now, that doesn’t take into account any of the positives in the people or ideas that they’re trying to eliminate. That’s appalling. In my own field, in classics, I have seen such things in the Chronicle of Higher Education as, "If classics won’t change, let it burn." And I thought to myself, for a professor at an Ivy League university, to use that term?

I recall I was in Germany for a lot of my research and it was the University of Freiburg where I came upon a little black stone plaque that read, "Wo Bücher verbrennt, wird man auch am Ende Menschen verbrennen." I may have that a little mixed up. From Heinrich Heine, "Where people burn books, they will also eventually burn people."

And that was on the square where the Nazis had burned books from the library of the University of Freiburg. And now we’ve got woke professors in their virtue signaling saying that until we turn classical studies into some kind of new vehicle for our sociopolitical agenda, it’s something that doesn’t deserve to continue.

How small-minded, how outrageous. Andrew Sullivan had a wonderful article in which he started by looking at a hand-written syllabus of Martin Luther King, which had classical authors for his students to read, and of course that quote from W. E. B. Du Bois that’s so moving, "I summon Aristotle and Aurelius, they don’t scorn me." In other words, we’re throwing out something of enormous importance.

I’ll even add one more, which I put in front of my students now. I have to remind them who Robert Kennedy was. And Robert Kennedy, actually, on getting the news of Martin Luther King’s assassination, was just about to give a speech in Indianapolis, and from memory, he quoted Aeschylus from the Agamemnon. Would you like it in Greek? I think I can pull it out of my head. This is talking about Zeus, [0:10:39.5] ____.

He called on Aeschylus, who’s reminding us that we’ve been set on the road to understanding knowing that learning comes through suffering, and even in sleep, the labor of remembered pain comes to us, but even the unwilling will eventually learn prudent moderation. Prudent moderation, how we need that in modern life.

And so I always take my students through the Oresteia, and I tell them at the beginning of the term, if you are the same people at the end of this semester, I will have failed you as a teacher. You are not here to get three credits in literature, you’re here to change your hearts and your souls.

And then I ask them, "How many of you have ever really wanted to hurt somebody who had done you wrong to get revenge?" And a few hands tentatively go up, and then I’ll tell them, "Look, you’re either so much nicer than I am or you’re all lying." So look into your hearts and souls, and learn from this trilogy about the cycles of violence that don’t stop until we respect due process and persuasion and try to live a little better.

So this is the heritage that these people want to throw out? Where else do we find the beginnings of democracy than in ancient Greece? Something that is a world heritage.

The Greeks were not any better than us because of some genetics, much as they might have wanted to say that. They achieved breakthroughs because of the way they governed their lives, and that’s a common human heritage.

We suffer so much from identity politics that we don't see past a person's ethnicity or race or religion.” – Dr. Michael Poliakoff

We suffer so much from identity politics that we don’t see past a person’s ethnicity or race or religion. We no longer want to look at those things that bind us together as human beings, and until we recover that, we don’t have the future that we should have, and so that’s why I feel so adamant about pushing back against the easy, glib, lazy thinking in wokeness and to come back to the hard thinking about what is human flourishing. I’m sorry, Jed, I just rambled on there.

0:13:28.2Saving higher education

Jed: That’s exactly what I wanted to hear. I wanted to hear from you, what you see as the good and the bad, what can be saved from this new way of thinking about things, and what needs to be fought against in your opinion, but I still feel like there’s a little bit more. Like people might hear this interview and say, "Well, what can be done?" It seems like looking at your list, all of the elite schools have all gone in a different direction. Universities that I recognized at the top of your list were Baylor, University of Georgia. That’s pretty much all of the sort of top schools, and they’re not even considered top by the really, really elite schools.

So is higher education in the United States beyond saving or something, in your opinion?

Michael: I would never go down that road, but it does need to be pulled back to basic principles, and one of which is intellectual diversity and the free exchange of ideas.

…that we have to learn to listen to things that we may find jarring, we may find wrong-headed, but we listen, and we respond.” – Dr. Michael Poliakoff

There are, at last count, I believe, 81 schools that have adopted the Chicago Principles of Freedom of Expression, only 81. And it’s the fact that that number is so small that troubles me.

We’ve been working hard to convince every board of trustees at every university around the country to take that leadership role, that we have to learn to listen to things that we may find jarring, we may find wrong-headed, but we listen, and we respond.

By giving somebody else freedom of speech, we don't deny ourselves freedom of speech, but we will not put them to silence, we will not punish them for expressing their viewpoints.” – Dr. Michael Poliakoff

By giving somebody else freedom of speech, we don’t deny ourselves freedom of speech, but we will not put them to silence, we will not punish them for expressing their viewpoints. And until we get back to that, which is of course something that the woke will not accept, to their detriment, then we really are in a very, very bad position.

And some of this goes all the way back to Herbert Marcuse , who tried to argue that tolerance should be denied for ideas that are not going to be moving society forward in the way that he thought were appropriate.

That is repression, and it has no place in society at large, it has no place on a university campus. I am optimistic that sensible people will come to their senses, that at some point... Let me channel TS Eliot, "Virtue will be thrust upon us by our impudent crimes."

Because once one lets loose the beast of repression of free speech and repression of freedom of ideas, it bites everybody. It doesn’t just bite the people that are seen as the enemies, but it bites everybody.

And I’m hoping that we’re beginning to see the signs everywhere of people recognizing that. We have no choice but to move forward. We would lose too much if we abandoned the fight, if we abandoned our universities.

0:17:04.3ACTA then and now

Jed: Yes, we would. We really have something precious and amazing in our higher education system. I remember I used to work for a university in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and the Director of the University had gone and visited the United States after the country was opened up and she was allowed to travel, and she said, "I thought your elementary and high school system was okay, high school was okay, but when I got in and saw your places of higher learning, I was blown away."

Really, compared to what she had experienced in the former Soviet Union, our places of higher education really are amazing, so we cannot lose those, and I think that’s what ACTA is really trying to do, trying to hold on to what is good at that level. I’m glad you’re optimistic.

What are the reasons for your optimism? What signs do you see that things are maybe changing compared to when ACTA was first started?

Michael: In 1995, people could still use that phrase of American higher education, "the envy of the world." And when we look at the list of top universities, America is very heavily represented. A lot of that has to do with our scientific prowess and muscle, and that’s something we need to remember. Where did the great medical breakthroughs come from? Where did the great technological breakthroughs come from? And I immediately say, and you would know much more about this, Jed, science and math are not insulated from this danger either.

They have for a long time felt that because of the rigor of their thinking, that they are to some degree above the fray. That’s not true anymore.

When I go back to that infamous Nobel conference, when Sheldon Glashow responded to Sandra Harding, it was a pretty strong reminder that science is in the cross-hairs of those who have a social agenda rather than a scientific agenda.

And that wonderful phrase of Max and Helga Born, "the indefatigable pursuit of truth that separates the scientist from the charlatan," is not beyond reach. The humanities and the social sciences have suffered most.

But to answer your question, I go back to an article that The Economist of London published a few years back, that the great strength of the American system of higher education is that it is not a system, that it has a great diversity of institutions, and even now, there is that element of choice that I think can be redemptive.

That’s of course, one of the things that ACTA is working on, getting people to recognize that reputation is a pretty evanescent thing. Preparation for the world is a far more durable phenomenon.

And also we’re working to get donors to recognize that they should not be writing blank checks, but that they should be agents of change, not in a heavy-handed way, but perfectly reasonable for them to say, "Well, why haven’t you adopted the Chicago Principles of Freedom of Expression?"

We have one of our wonderful members of our ACTA Board of Directors who has a small family foundation, put that in his by-laws that no college or university will receive funding unless it adopts the Chicago Principles of Freedom of Expression. How wonderful. Because adopting the Chicago Principles of Freedom of Expression is about as radical as making sure that all the undergraduates can get a glass of milk with their dinner in the dining hall.

It's the air we breathe in any decent place of learning…” – Dr. Michael Poliakoff

It’s the air we breathe in any decent place of learning, and why shouldn’t donors say, "I love higher education, I want to support higher education, but I want to make sure that it’s staying on the right paths and the right parameters."

And that’s something that we have certainly been advancing because it’s an important, important element in the restoration of the values we need. And as I was talking with your daughter Karina about, who by the way, is a most eloquent interviewer, what’s so unreasonable for donors, or in some cases, state legislatures, as has happened, to say, "We’re not going to interfere in the classroom. This is not an intrusion into academic freedom, but we insist that when public money is at issue, that every school have a requirement for the study of the federal and the state constitution and the associated documents."

We’ve been seeing more of these things emerge, and ACTA has taken a very active role in helping legislators to craft that language.

Our history is not a history of perfection. Lord save us, this nation has many sins and has had many flaws, and all that is part of the American story, but not to know that story, for an institution not to teach that story objectively and fairly, is malfeasance, and those who are in a position to give that nudge need to do it.

Jed: Yeah. Well, you mentioned the storming of the Capitol as an outgrowth of when you don’t teach about our story. I wouldn’t say a whole lot of those people that were storming the Capitol went to a university that did or didn’t teach that story, so obviously some of this has to happen at the high school level maybe, or whatnot. But I definitely agree with you.

But it sounds like what you’re saying in terms of the signs of hope are people in business who’ve made money giving their money to universities with the qualification that they have to respect academic freedom. And that is one of the things that I could hear from all the things you were saying that was truly a ray of hope.

Is that the biggest ray of hope, or did I catch that wrong?

Michael: I think that is a very, very powerful influence, especially now when, because of the pandemic, there have been such exigencies, and this should be seen as conditions of love for the institution.

Just as we love our children, we don’t necessarily say that anything goes. Woe unto the parent that does that. And that’s not to say that ever should a donor show disrespect for the expertise and the independence of the professoriate. That’s been, again, one of the great engines of progress, but there are guidelines and parameters, and core curriculum, freedom of expression, these are simply signs of quality, and it makes perfect sense for the generous donor to put those things into the conditions of funding, just as state legislatures can make reasonable demands.

Teach those documents of our freedom, teach them fairly, talk about all of the times that they have misfired and miscarried, but teach them. And we have to remember as well that colleges produce the teachers who will be the trainers of our children from K-12, and if they are not imbued with the skills and knowledge and force of character that they need, they’re in a poor position to help the nation.

But liberty is not the same as license, and we've got to remember what we owe to one another, and what we in higher education, as educators, owe to our students.” – Dr. Michael Poliakoff

So these are all things that are reasonable, they’re done and they should be done in a way that is respectful of the processes and the principles of our freedom. But liberty is not the same as license, and we’ve got to remember what we owe to one another, and what we in higher education, as educators, owe to our students.


Jed: I agree. Well, it sounds like the money that is coming from private sector into the universities with that loving approach of liberty but not license, is what you see as the ray of hope.

One thing to ask about that, we interviewed Marshall Sahlins , the famous anthropologist, I’m sure you’re aware of him, he went to bat for young people during Vietnam War, he now is going to bat for young people to protect them from indoctrination by outside money that forms these sort of pro-China institutes at different campuses. I don’t know if you’re aware that he has been fighting those off. So sometimes money could be pouring in from places like China that would actually do the reverse of what you’re talking about.

How do we distinguish between donors that give money to the university, and they have their strings attached that are for bad reasons compared to the ones that you were saying that were a ray of hope? How do we know which way it goes?

Michael: It’s been one of ACTA’s principal points of focus from its very start that trustees are fiduciaries. They’re not cheerleaders, they’re not check writers, although they’re often very generous to their institutions, they’re not potted plants.

In fact, I have occasionally addressed groups of trustees and said, "You’re all incredibly handsome, but you’re not cheerleaders. You are the people that have to ask the hard questions to provide the oversight. You need to be well-informed and highly engaged, and you have to make sure that your administration is giving you the data that you need."

We’ve actually now developed a website called How Colleges Spend Money, and in a few key strokes, anyone can see the ratio of expenditure on instruction versus the expenditure on administration, and we’re going to add in student services.

Just so that they’ve got the information available from the federal databases in a usable form. This is what a trustee has to do, but the obligation goes far beyond the fiscal. It really has to drill down into the main product of a university, which is teaching, learning and research. They’ve got to be engaged in that.

They’ve got to be engaged in campus culture, whether it’s understanding what problem there might be with substance abuse or whether there’s an acceptable level of intellectual diversity. These are all issues for the board.

So to answer your question, perfectly reasonable for the board to insist, we want to see. We want to see what the conditions might be before we sign off on accepting money that may lock us into something that is quite divergent from our principles.

0:29:44.7Sign off

Jed: Yeah, well, this has been so fascinating. I feel like I’ve learned a lot. I’ve been a part of the university since the day was born, born into a professor household, but I haven’t really seen it through your eyes like this in all 49 of my years, so I appreciate you taking time to explain it to me. I think it’ll be a really useful interview, not just for young people, but also other professors and administrators, so I appreciate you taking the time today. Thank you so much, Michael.

Michael: Jed, this has been a real pleasure to get to know you. I hope, with the end of this pandemic in sight, that our paths will cross at some point.

Jed: I hope, likewise. Thank you

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