Of all the displays of political myopia and intolerance in the American academy over the past several years, this story may be the most astonishing: Students and faculty at Northwestern University have forced Karl Eikenberry—a retired three-star general and fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies—to withdraw his appointment as head of a new global affairs institute on the Evanston campus on the grounds that he is a “career military officer.”
“An ex-U.S. general will likely think about international politics in terms of war and from the perspective of the U.S.’s interests, and the research agenda will be negatively skewed as a result,” wrote Charles Clarke, a Northwestern graduate student and one of the petition’s backers. “Instead, why not appoint someone who will encourage research that is less belligerent and tainted by U.S. bias?”
The petitions condemning the selection of the general display a barely-concealed antagonism toward people who serve the United States in uniform (as Eikenberry told the Post, “This is the worst stereotyping I can imagine and an affront to any veteran”), as well as a snide arrogance toward intellectuals who stray from the academic path. Eikenberry has two master’s degrees, unparalleled experience in leadership and public service, a host of publications, and years of academic experience at Stanford and elsewhere. But to the self-righteous signatories to one of the petitions, Eikenberry (who also served as Ambassador to Afghanistan) “lacks the intellectual and policy credentials” to lead Northwestern University’s Buffett Institute for Global Studies, because much of his experience comes from outside of the Ivory Tower, and he never earned a PhD.
The torpedoing of Eikenberry’s appointment seems to have been motivated in large part by standard academic-left contempt for the U.S. military. But faculty also seem to have felt threatened by Eikenberry’s view that the humanities shouldn’t just be the purview of academic scribblers—that they should enrich our society more broadly and even help inform America’s role in the world. “Karl Eikenberry believes that the humanities belong at the center of American foreign policy,” the faculty signatories noted, disdainfully (quoting one of the general’s 2014 speeches). They also took issue with his agenda for expanding the appeal of humanistic inquiry: “Sitting in one’s arts and humanities classroom, worrying about declining enrollments, cursing the STEM god, might be good grist for Shakespearean tragedy, but it does little to help the cause,” he is quoted as saying. “You have to get outside of the box, and you have to compete for market share.” This sentiment apparently did not sit well with the Art Theory and Latin American Studies professors, who cannot imagine that they bear any of the responsibility for the withering of the humanities at Northwestern and other universities across the country.
Frustration with elite universities—fueled by the sense that they are increasingly insular, elitist, arrogant, and illiberal—is growing across the political spectrum. The Eikenberry-Northwestern debacle is a clear illustration of why. Faculty banded together to reverse the appointment of an eminently qualified figure with valuable experience, new ideas, and an unimpeachable record of public service, all while expressing an open contempt for one of America’s most treasured institutions and a stunning sense of self-superiority. Voters will not keep subsidizing this kind of conduct forever.