Higher Education

Ray Carter | October 26, 2022

Professor says OU groupthink undermines excellence

Ray Carter

The ideological groupthink and pressure tactics that prevail at many state-funded universities, including the University of Oklahoma, ultimately undermine the purpose of education and highlight the need for reform, according to a professor who has examined the problem.

“Academic freedom is prerequisite. It is vital,” said Jonathan Ashbach, an assistant professor of political science at Oklahoma Baptist University. “Teachers and students alike must be free to explore intellectual options with a great deal of freedom in their research and in class. The search for truth must not be crushed by the intimation that one viewpoint and one alone is permitted, and that to stray from that viewpoint is unacceptable.”

In a speech Wednesday before the Oklahoma Conservative Political Action Committee, Ashbach said the publicly posted material on the University of Oklahoma’s website, along with feedback gleaned from a student currently attending the university, suggests Oklahomans have reason to worry about the quality of education provided at one of the state’s flagship universities.

“You have a carefully crafted environment, fine-tuned to indoctrinate students to the perspective that left-wing views are the only intellectual option.”

“From the time a student matriculates at OU, trainings will convey that one partisan perspective really constitutes behaving in a friendly way. Curriculum will communicate that a student must aspire to think from only one partisan perspective if he or she is to join the race of the smart and moral elite. Teachers will convey to their students that one and only one partisan perspective is expected if they’re to remain in the good graces of authority, and school-sponsored propaganda will bombard them with the celebration of that same perspective on a weekly basis,” Ashbach said. “We have a problem here.”

Ashbach said the problem is not the loud presence of individuals representing one side of the political perspective on campus, but the absence of opposing mainstream views and the associated censorship that prevails, which ultimately negates the true mission of a university.

“Bluntly, the problem is that you don’t have real education happening at OU,” Ashbach said. “You have a carefully crafted environment, fine-tuned to indoctrinate students to the perspective that left-wing views are the only intellectual option, that they’re what all educated people believe, that no one smart or moral thinks anything different.”

He said a quality college education should expose students to a wide range of views, not limit them to one partisan outlook and combine that slanted instruction with pressure tactics to force students to either conform or keep silent.

“Education means being guided through the variety of perspectives that make up our vastly diverse world, being challenged to rethink your assumptions but being encouraged to push back,” Ashbach said. “It means growing and maturing by learning to understand even those with whom one vehemently disagrees to the extent possible as they understand themselves and taking their views seriously. It means being encouraged to voice dissenting opinions, rewarded for countering groupthink, and being welcomed to participate from one’s real perspective in moral and political discussion. It does not mean being pressured and being cajoled to espouse an orthodoxy dictated by authority or crushed into silence for dissent. That’s called indoctrination, proselytization, or just plain brainwashing—and it’s what you have at OU and many state universities today. That is a major problem.”

“We have a university system that on our watch is actively pressuring people away from the pursuit of excellence.”

Ashbach said policymakers have options to address such problems at Oklahoma’s public universities, including working to defund programs that exist primarily to promote political activism rather than convey education that leads to gainful employment and improved quality of life.

“The goal is not to suppress academic freedom, but precisely to regain it,” Ashbach said. “You do not have academic freedom when partisans of one ideological perspective guard the pathway to discussion and forbid entry to all who disagree.”

He also called on policymakers to legally place ideological discrimination “on the same footing as racial discrimination” in university hiring. Ashbach said the lack of ideological diversity among university professors “subverts the university’s very purpose for existence as a forum for the free exchange of ideas.”

“The institutionalization of groupthink in our state universities is not merely a partisan gripe,” Ashbach said.

Ashbach said policymakers should also ban universities from requiring students to express specific views or take political actions to pass a course, noting many university actions trample on basic free-speech rights, including things as simple as pressuring students to announce their “preferred pronouns.”

And Ashbach said policymakers should prohibit ideological preferences from being a factor in academic accreditation of any university or college.

As things stand today, he said the lack of diversity and open-mindedness on many college campuses is fueling a public backlash, in part because the impact universities often have is to steer students down a path that will harm them in the long run.

“On questions of sex and gender, moral education at the state universities is not just absent, it’s so far below the societal average that its backwardness is itself beginning to provoke backlash,” Ashbach said. “The belief that there is no higher meaning to our bodies, that we have the right to do with ourselves whatever we wish, that no transcendent standard of excellence defines our identities, or that we have a right to define ourselves at pleasure is the core of the university’s current message. People find fulfillment, we’re told, or the good life, by following their feelings and making other people respect those feelings, rather than by learning to embrace and find peace in who we actually are. What that means is that we have a university system that on our watch is actively pressuring people away from the pursuit of excellence, undermining their chance of a meaningful and complete life.”

[For more stories about higher education in Oklahoma, visit AimHigherOK.com.]

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Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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