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Pick Your Poison

Academic Bias Is Ubiquitous, but Choosing the Right College Can Minimize the Damage

by Les Sillars and John Basie

Article originally appeared in
Salvo 5

We wish we could say, without reservation, that these are the "Ten Best Colleges" and the "Ten Worst Colleges" in the country, but that wouldn't be fair. What would we mean, exactly, by "best" and "worst"? These things are difficult to quantify, and even though we deplore relativism as a philosophy, the "best" college for a given student depends largely on his needs and circumstances. Not everybody should go to Princeton.

We also suspect that somewhere in the country lurk obscure little schools with more promiscuous campus atmospheres than that at Oberlin College or more oppressive student-life indoctrination programs than the University of Delaware's recently abandoned debacle, but it's hard to know. It's hard even to imagine such things, but they're possible.

We offer instead "Ten Decent Colleges" and explain briefly what makes them relatively safe. Such a list begs for a counterpart, so we included "Ten Deplorable Colleges" as well, along with our reasons for recommending that they be avoided. We hope that readers find our lists useful, not merely in a "thumbs-up/thumbs-down" sort of way, but as a guide to factors to consider when assessing a recruiting video, promotional pamphlet, or fundraising phone call.

We'll add that even outstanding colleges have some professors and programs that stink. Similarly, on even the most stiflingly politically-correct campuses, there may be professors who are rays of hope, enlightened learning, and common sense. Our choice for "Worst Elite College"—Amherst—is the perfect example. Among its faculty is political-philosophy professor Hadley P. Arkes, an eloquent pro-life advocate, scholar, and leading observer of how the interplay of law, media, and presidential leadership can change a culture. Likewise, there are, we're sure, many devout Catholics at the College of the Holy Cross, our choice for "Least Faithful to Religious Heritage."

Here's our list of the qualities of a great college: academically rigorous, intellectually stimulating, philosophically coherent, respectful of the Western tradition, pro-liberal arts, and sane in terms of campus atmosphere (not rife with drugs, sex, bizarre lifestyles, and the like). We also value genuine intellectual diversity, bounded by rational limits and community standards; for example, a religious college, by its very nature, can and should hire faculty who support the institution's statements of faith and mission. Further, we value highly a campus ethos that encourages the free exchange of ideas. Feel free to disagree.


10 Decent Colleges


Best Elite College
Princeton University
Princeton, NJ (www.princeton.edu)

Founded in 1746 by New Jersey Presbyterians, Princeton has regularly taken the top spot (or close to it) in US News and World Report for years. It is now an elite research university (PhD-producing) that takes care to nurture the quality undergraduate education that defined it from its founding. It has a tiny 5:1 student/faculty ratio, and 72 percent of all Princeton classes have twenty or fewer students. Real learning can and does happen in these classes, unlike the "pack 'em in," movie-theatre-style seminars at many institutions. Princeton has no required core curriculum, but there is a respectable set of distribution requirements that ensures a broad education, including a rigorous freshman writing seminar. Recent grade-deflation policies at the university have made students anxious (departments are permitted to give only a certain number of As), but at least grade inflation is under control. Well over 90 percent of Princeton students still graduate. The faculty is intellectually diverse, with infanticide advocate and animal-rights defender Peter Singer on the one hand and conservative Christian political philosopher Robert George on the other, but professors generally avoid politicizing the classroom. The ability to defend ideas outweighs politics. With its sterling academic reputation, a nearly $13.5 billion endowment, and ten times more applications than admissions, Princeton has enough going for it to keep it on track for a while.


Most Faithful to Religious Heritage
Biola University
La Mirada, CA (www.biola.edu)

Faced with a choice between a theologically sound faculty candidate with a lackluster degree and a candidate from Yale with uncertain theology, most religious schools for the past century went for academic respectability. The newcomers, as they rose through the ranks, tended to hire more professors like themselves and, eventually, the college's religious identity became history.

Biola University (founded as the Bible Institute of Los Angeles in 1908) has declined to make that trade-off, due to a rigorous faculty-screening process that assesses spiritual as well as academic qualifications. This hasn't hurt Biola's academic programs. US News & World Report recognizes it as a "national university," the only member of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities to earn that rank. Its Torrey Honors Institute combines a Great Books approach with a distinctive classical, Protestant ethos. All graduates complete 30 credits of Bible, theology, and church history (the equivalent of a major in Bible) in addition to the requirements of their majors. More importantly, they "believe that there is truth," according to Biola's statement of values, and that "it is knowable and revealed in God's inerrant Word. As a result we can live with unshakeable confidence and hope knowing that the Bible and God's truth have direct application to our lives, our work, our relationships and the culture around us." •


Best Non-traditional Student Work Program
College of the Ozarks
Point Lookout, MO (www.cofo.edu)

Among the handful of work-study colleges in the U.S., College of the Ozarks stands out. Founded in 1906 as a high school for students "without sufficient means," the school still caters to students from low-income backgrounds in the hard-scrabble hills of southern Missouri and nearby states. Students pay no tuition out of pocket, instead working fifteen hours per week at the school's farm, radio station, lodge, restaurant, Child Development Center, Ralph Foster Museum, McDonald Hospital, or dozens of other placements. But graduating debt-free is no advantage if you don't learn anything. The school offers 30 majors in traditional liberal-arts disciplines, as well as several related to campus businesses, such as agriculture, graphic arts, and accounting. "Hand in hand with an excellent liberal arts education," says the Intercollegiate Studies Institute's (ISI) All-American Colleges, "students learn lessons about the worth and dignity of work, personal responsibility, and free enterprise at this impressive, blue-collar academy." •


Best Value
Grove City College
Grove City, PA (www.gcc.edu)

Grove City College accepts no federal funding, has a great humanities core curriculum, provides each student with a laptop and a color printer, offers a sane student-life environment, and has earned a national reputation for strong academic programs. It provides all this to students (tuition, room, and board) for about $17,600 per year. Most elite private colleges cost well over $35,000, and some run into the mid-$40,000 range. US News & World Report has named Grove City the "#1 Best Value" college for five years running; ISI includes it in its list of 50 All-American Colleges; and The Princeton Review includes it on its list of "America's Best Value Colleges." Prospective students should be aware, however, that setting tuition rates is a bit of a marketing game. In a practice known as "tuition discounting," most colleges set tuition rates fairly high and then offer substantial aid packages based either on need or merit to the majority of their students. Others, such as Grove City, attract applicants with a low sticker price and then provide limited financial help; only 33 percent of Grove City's students receive financial aid. Still, given Grove City's academic quality, a student is far better served paying the full price at Grove City than accepting a flattering $20,000 scholarship that comes with a bill for another $15,000. •


Best Math/Sciences/Engineering College
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Cambridge, MA (www.mit.edu)

MIT places relatively little emphasis on the liberal arts—the school's mission statement makes no mention of the humanities—but its humanities requirements are stronger than those at many liberal-arts colleges. US News & World Report has named MIT the top engineering school in the country for both undergraduate and graduate education every year since 1988. The course load is infamously demanding, the faculty boasts seven Nobel Prize winners among its current faculty, and MIT is famous for an undergraduate/faculty-collaboration research program that has students working on everything from curing cancer to developing alternative energy sources. The campus atmosphere leans moderate, but it is open to many viewpoints, and classrooms are not generally politicized. The campus is also home to about 250 student organizations, some quite energetic. The Boston Globe Magazine reported a few years ago that there are 30 religious groups active on campus, including fifteen for Evangelicals alone. "When I came to MIT, I was expecting it to be full of nerds—people who don't really put together science and religion," said one senior member of the Evangelical group Chi Alpha. "I was really surprised—and still am—by the volume of Christian fellowship here." •


Best Research University
University of Chicago
Chicago, IL (www.beta.uchicago.edu

While not immune to the radical politics and multicultural dogma that's ubiquitous elsewhere, Chicago has managed to preserve, mostly, its famously rigorous and comprehensive liberal-arts core curriculum, widely considered the best in the world. Chicago counts among faculty and graduates 81 Nobel laureates (seven are current faculty), 44 Rhodes scholars (six in the last three years), and 14 National Medal of Science recipients. Chicago scholars have, among other things, discovered black holes, proved that cancer is a genetic disease, and revolutionized the way economists analyze policy. Students committed to the extremely intense academic environment may take classes with professors doing cutting-edge research, who are, by research-university standards, unusually accessible. In 2007, The Princeton Review's "Best 361 Colleges" named it the "Best Overall Academic Experience for Undergraduates." Perhaps best of all, while the faculty leans liberal, Chicago's ethos is generally committed to free inquiry. "Sharply politicized classrooms are essentially nonexistent at Chicago," asserts Choosing the Right College, "and while the expression of political or ideological bias in interpretation is to some degree unavoidable, it does not stifle or shut out competing views." •


Best Learning Environment
Hampden-Sydney College
Hampden-Sydney, VA (www.hsc.edu)

It's not just that Hampden-Sydney is one of three male-only colleges left in the U.S.; rather, a single-sex campus reduces distractions, and Hampden-Sydney makes the most of its students' attention. The institution was founded during the American Revolution and has maintained its men-only admissions policy ever since. Happily, since 1775, it has kept a character-building honor code, a rigorous core, and a solid liberal-arts focus in the curriculum. Its founding mission is still the same today, which is to "form good men and good citizens in an atmosphere of sound learning." Hampden-Sydney's teaching faculty gets the lion's share of the credit. The 10:1 student to faculty ratio and small student body of 1,100 allows for individualized attention, and most students quickly figure out that the professors don't let them get away with hiding in the back of the classroom. We found plenty of evidence of quality teaching and mentoring through student comments and scores posted at ratemyprofessors.com, and the school has made The Princeton Review's top-twenty list for highest-rated professors. •


Best Core Curriculum
Thomas Aquinas College
Santa Paula, CA  (www.thomasaquinas.edu)

There aren't many institutions left whose DNA is truly liberal arts, but Thomas Aquinas (TAC) is one of them. The whole TAC curriculum is "core" in the sense that there are no majors, minors, or electives. All students take the same four-year course of study, which includes theology, philosophy, natural science, mathematics, Latin, and music. Each semester, students read and dialogue socratically over works by Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, Plutarch, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, and Pascal. TAC employs a tried and true Great Books program on the assumption that an education in key classics is better than one based on trendy scholarship and ideas that are shelved ten years after they make the headlines. With a student to faculty ratio of 10:1 and all classes having fewer than twenty students, there is lots of opportunity for individualized attention from professors. The absence of a "Greek" life provides a relatively distraction-free study environment. •


Best for Civic Education
Hillsdale College
Hillsdale, MI  (www.hillsdale.edu)

Founded in 1844, Hillsdale College's educational mission rests on two principles: academic excellence and institutional independence. The college accepts no federal or state subsidies of any kind. The mission statement reads: "The College considers itself a trustee of modern man's intellectual and spiritual inheritance from the Judeo-Christian faith and Greco-Roman culture, a heritage finding its clearest expression in the American experiment of self-government under law." Of the learning environment, Hillsdale political-science professor Nathan Schlueter told Salvo, "I don't know of a place which has a higher percentage of talented and dedicated teachers and of bright students who are eager to learn. The atmosphere is solidly conservative and Christian, but also more diverse than most other places. This makes it an exciting place to be. One regularly hears students engaging in heated discussions of the relative merits of libertarianism versus traditionalism, Protestantism versus Catholicism, and so on." What's the payoff? Being an active and virtuous citizen, for one thing. "Many of our students go into public service after graduation," Schlueter said. Graduates regularly find employment in the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department, the US Department of Education, the Foundation for Independent Higher Education, Americans for Prosperity, and the Federalist Society. •


Best Integration of Sports and Academics
Wheaton College
Wheaton, IL (www.wheaton.edu)

As a NCAA division III school in the CCIW conference (College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin), Wheaton offers no athletic scholarships. Students are students first, then athletes. Men's teams include basketball, cross country, football, golf, soccer, swimming, tennis, track and field, and wrestling. Women's teams include basketball, cross country, golf, soccer, softball, swimming, tennis, track and field, volleyball, and water polo. Over the last ten years, Wheaton athletic teams have won 64 conference championships, several national team championships, and numerous All-American awards, reports Wheaton athletic director Tony Ladd. He adds, however, that winning is not the ultimate goal. The development of faith, character, and leadership is. Ladd also points out that the "profile of student athletes matches that of the student body as a whole—in admissions criteria, grade-point average, and graduation rates." Comparing Wheaton athletics to an NCAA-I school such as the University of Illinois, which offers full-rides to athletes, is comparing apples with oranges. For one thing, you probably won't find this kind of parity in admissions criteria or high GPAs on the Fighting Illini. But if you're looking for hardworking, character-building teams with a tradition of winning—where athletes take academics and leadership development seriously—Wheaton College is a fine choice. •


10 Deplorable Colleges


Worst Speech Code
Tufts University
Medford, MA (www.tufts.edu)

Founded in 1852, Tufts prides itself on having helped to establish the nation's first community-health clinic, the football "huddle," and the Reach toothbrush, but its willingness to abridge basic First Amendment freedoms is no innovation to be proud of. Its speech code prohibits, for example, "using demeaning or derogatory slurs relating to group identity," "responding to behavior or situations differently because of the race, gender, or sexual identity of the participants," "making jokes about others' backgrounds," "imitating stereotypical speech or mannerisms," and "attributing objections to any of the above to the 'hypersensitivity' of others who feel hurt." Seriously. Last year, the Tufts administration was criticized for micromanaging a conservative student paper based on complaints from minority groups that were offended by an anonymous satirical piece. The free-speech watchdog group Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) gives Tufts a "red light." •


Worst Core
Brown University
Providence, RI (www.brown.edu)

It most universities today, the idea of a core curriculum is a myth from a bygone era. Still, Brown stands out. Coming from a rich Baptist tradition and a history of excellence in educating citizens for the common good, the Ivy League school now has the "you-are-the-captain-of-your-own-ship" type of curriculum that encourages an unfettered commitment to individualism. Put simply, Brown has no core curriculum or even any distribution requirements. Not to fret, because students do have approximately 2,000 courses and at least 100 standard areas of concentration from which to choose. The slide away from a core curriculum began back in 1850, when president Francis Wayland argued that every student should be able to "study what he chose, all that he chose, and nothing but what he chose." Brown founded "The New Curriculum," a 1969 innovation that, according to the Brown website, "gave students the right to choose, the right to fail, and above all the freedom to direct their own education." Silly us; we imagined it was the professors' job to direct their students' education. The mantras of "freedom" and "choice" have become such well-worn grooves with many students that they blasted Dean of the College Katherine Bergeron for merely trying to assess the curriculum's effectiveness. With regard to the Task Force on Undergraduate Education, one writer for The Brown Daily Herald accused Bergeron of restructuring the college's administration in a way that cut "against the free-form spirit of the New Curriculum . . . any departures from [Brown's unique educational] philosophy stand to leave the student body feeling betrayed and alienated." No doubt he's right. •


Worst Elite College
Amherst College
Amherst, MA (www.amherst.edu)

Of all the top-tier American institutions, this one really takes the cake. Amherst has no core or distribution requirements—a fact that plays in its favor in this age of careerism and unrestrained "choice" at the educational smorgasbord. Its faculty and staff are notoriously left-leaning, undermining genuine intellectual diversity. One of us (Basie) visited Amherst some years ago to recruit conservative religious students to a Washington, D.C. internship program and was all but escorted off campus by faculty and staff. As one professor told Choosing the Right College, the intellectual firepower of the professors and students is impressive, but "the most disappointing things about Amherst are its cultural degeneration (as shown by its 'Orgasm Workshops'), arrogance, elitism, and stifling political correctness." The student Democratic club is alive and well, while the College Republicans are scarcely visible. Student life at Amherst is marked by Division-III sports, permissive dorm culture, drinking, drinking, and more drinking, not to mention at least 100 student organizations, such as QUAC, a "lesbian and bi women discussion group," which "meet[s] once a week to discuss fun topics and serious topics involving being a queer woman." •


Least Faithful to Religious Heritage
College of the Holy Cross
Worcester, MA (www.holycross.edu)

The classic examples of colleges that abandoned their religious heritage are Harvard and Yale, founded in 1636 and 1701, respectively, as training schools for Protestant ministers. But Harvard and Yale dropped any pretence of faithfulness long ago; Holy Cross still presents itself as a Jesuit college that educates "men and women for others," with a focus on service. Translated, this means that while Holy Cross wants to market itself as genuinely Catholic, it declines to submit to the historic standards of the Society of Jesus. In practice, this means that it never requires students to take a course on Catholicism or even Christianity, while it has sanctioned student chapters of two pro-gay groups (making Holy Cross "the only Jesuit University [that we know of, at least] to have both an ABiGaLe [Association of Bisexuals, Gays, and Lesbians] and an Allies group," bubbles the AbiGaLe website), and last fall, for the sixth consecutive year, it rented out a ballroom for a teen-pregnancy conference that featured contraception and abortion pushers Planned Parenthood and NARAL (Pro-Choice America). President Fr. Michael McFarland insisted to the student newspaper that renting the facilities did not imply endorsement of the presenters, and that the college "fully affirms and promotes Catholic teaching on abortion and the sanctity of all human life." Perhaps, but if the NAACP rented out its front lawn to the Klan for a cross-burning every summer, one might wonder how committed it really was to its founding principles. •


Worst for Civic Education
Johns Hopkins University
Baltimore, MD (www.jhu.edu)

To find out whether American universities prepare students to become informed and engaged citizens (on the premise that, as the Founders understood, citizens cannot be both ignorant and free), the Intercollegiate Studies Institute surveyed 14,000 freshmen and seniors at 50 colleges for their knowledge of American government, history, and economics. The results were dismal. Not only did the students as a whole produce failing scores, but seniors from sixteen colleges knew less about basic American civics than freshmen at the same colleges. At the very bottom was Johns Hopkins. Its seniors scored 7.3 percent worse than its freshmen. Negative learning, anyone? Johns Hopkins students unquestionably learn a lot; it is widely recognized as one of the world's premier research universities. At many other American colleges, we suspect, many students learn neither civics nor much of anything else. However, this focus on research fosters an atmosphere that places scientific and empirical ways of knowing above the ideas that make democracy possible. At some point, a democratic society will pay a steep price for ignoring basic questions. Johns Hopkins isn't helping. •


Most Radicalized Faculty
Columbia University
New York, NY (www.columbia.edu)

Professors committed to radical Marxism, socialist feminism, and other such constructions tend to congregate as they move up the academic hierarchy. At the top of the food chain sits Columbia University. Harvard University's faculty, who forced out former president Lawrence Summers in 2005 for suggesting that men and women might have different "aptitudes" for science, would have been a good choice for this category. Similarly, the 88 Duke faculty members who put a full-page ad in the Chronicle of Higher Education last year praising campus protestors who hurled death threats at and otherwise harassed white lacrosse players accused (wrongly, it turned out—so much for due process) of sexually assaulting an African-American stripper also merited serious consideration. However, Columbia earns the award for having nine faculty members named in David Horowitz's 2006 book The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America. No other school had more than four. Horowitz emphasized that his book was not intended to be a "blacklist" of radical Marxists and feminists; rather, it was meant to identify professors who had "supplanted scholarly interests with political agendas, and corrupted intellectual discourse in the process." Judging from the backlash, this distinction was apparently lost on his subjects. The list of Columbia—uh—"honorees" includes several anti-Israel activists, such as Professor of Middle East studies Joseph Massad, who in 2002 said during a speech at Oxford that "the Jews are not a nation. . . . The Jewish state is a racist state that does not have a right to exist." Professor Nicholas De Genova, who once said that "US patriotism is inseparable from imperial warfare and white supremacy," epitomizes the radical anti-American sentiment at Columbia. •


Most Sexualized Campus
Oberlin College
Oberlin, OH (www.oberlin.edu)

The field was crowded, but we went with the college that embraces licentiousness with pride. In 2005, Oberlin's student newspaper described the annual "Safer Sex Night" as "one of the highlights of the Oberlin experience. Here's the hook—hundreds of sweaty, mostly naked people get together and party. . . . You'll almost definitely see someone you vaguely know from class in a candy thong with condoms taped over their nipples. . . . The demos, the porn, the free condoms, it's all educational." Other sources describe staff members demonstrating contraceptive devices and sex "education" videos showing on overhead monitors. The college's student-run Sexual Information Center, whose cartoon mascot is a cheerful-looking set of male genitals holding a used condom, offers "safer sex supplies and other sexual health products to the community at no mark-up," as well as "referrals and rides to low cost sexual health and family planning clinics"—that is, abortion providers. Oberlin has no single-sex dorms, but rather, as Choosing the Right College explains, at the start of the year each hall votes on whether to make the bathroom "females only," "males only," "everyone," "just me," "just females (/males)," female- (/male-) bodied persons," or "female- (/male-) identifying persons." Confused? It's all educational. •


Most Oppressive Student-Life Indoctrination Program
University of Delaware
Newark, DE (www.udel.edu)

The University of Delaware's (UD) president, Patrick Harker, suspended the school's ResLife program after the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) outed it last fall, but it was so bad that we had to mention it. According to FIRE, about "7,000 students living in dorms were required to attend training sessions, floor meetings, and even one-on-one sessions with student Resident Assistants (RAs) where they were pressured to comply with university-approved views on issues such as politics, sexuality, and moral philosophy. UD's program tried to erase the personal viewpoints held by individual students—those that make a student body truly diverse—and replace them with what the university deemed a 'correct' ideology." University training materials referred to these one-on-one sessions as "treatments," and they involved such questions as "When did you discover your sexual identity?" RAs also had to attend "diversity facilitation meetings," where they were taught university-sanctioned views, including, "[a] racist is one who is privileged and socialized on the basis of race by a white supremacist (racist) system. The term applies to all white people (i.e., people of European descent) living in the United States, regardless of class, gender, religion, culture or sexuality." In plain language, all white people are racist. Harker "terminated" the program but never repudiated it, nor has there been word that the people who designed and implemented it have been dismissed. Hmmm. Tom Wood of the National Association of Scholars suggests on the NAS website that such programs have become increasingly common in the last few decades as student-life departments, intent on shaping the campus community, have exploded in size, influence, and ambition. •


Worst Sports Debacle
University of Colorado at Boulder
Boulder, CO (www.colorado.edu)

In December, the University of Colorado (CU) shelled out over $3 million to settle a sexual harassment case that had been pending since 2001. Two women—allegedly exotic dancers who had been hired for a party—claimed they had been gang-raped by members of the CU football team, and argued further that officials knew that coeds were at risk of sexual harassment by football players but turned a blind eye to the problem. The university settled the case with its pocketbook. We picked CU because we had to pick somebody, but the reality is that at hundreds of institutions, the tail (athletics) wags the dog (academics). The proper question for prospective students and alumni donors is not "Do the teams win?" but "What is the role of sports at this institution?" If you can find a major-college sports program that doesn't routinely subordinate its athletes' academic well-being to the school's win-loss record, let us know. •


Worst Learning Environment
University of Florida
Gainesville, FL (www.ufl.edu)

Hundreds of schools deserve a mention, but the University of Florida (UF) makes the list of "Top Ten Party Schools" in The Princeton Review year after year. Students who really want to learn must navigate their way through a morass of trivial and politicized courses (such as "Ecofeminism" and "Seminar in Gay and Lesbian Literature") and, most of all, the parties, which go far beyond tailgating during the Gators' football season. UF has fought being perceived as a "party school" for some time, but "weekends at the University of Florida unofficially [still] begin on Wednesdays," says USA Today. One last thing: At least one UF student discovered last year that the learning experience on campus sometimes requires a taser flack jacket. As captured in a now infamous YouTube video, this individual learned the hard way that the interrogation of Democratic senators can result in quite painful consequences. "Don't tase me, bro!" •




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