Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a senior faculty fellow of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University. In this interview, Ferguson discusses his stunning essay “The Treason of the Intellectuals,” published in December 2023 in the Free Press. The essay delves deeply into the changes Ferguson has observed in his 30-year career as an academic, especially over the past 10 years. He describes in the opening of his essay: “I have . . . witnessed the willingness of trustees, donors, and alumni to tolerate the politicization of American universities by an illiberal coalition of ‘woke’ progressives, adherents of ‘critical race theory,’ and apologists for Islamist extremism.”
Ferguson also discusses the resignation of Harvard president Claudine Gay and what it means for all institutions of higher learning, as well as putting forth some solutions for addressing these issues.
To view the full transcript of this episode, read below:
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Peter Robinson: The suppression of free speech, the rigid imposition of a narrow ideology, and the rise of antisemitism, German universities between the wars and American universities today. Historian Neil Ferguson on "Uncommon Knowledge" now. Welcome to "Uncommon Knowledge." I'm Peter Robinson. A fellow at the Hoover Institution, Niall Ferguson received his undergraduate and doctoral degrees from Oxford. Before coming here to Stanford, he held posts at Oxford, Cambridge, NYU, Harvard, and the London School of Economics. Professor Ferguson is the author of more than a dozen major works of history, including "The Pity of War: Explaining World War I," and "Kissinger: the Idealist," the first volume of his projected two-volume biography of the late Henry Kissinger. Our topic today, the essay professor Ferguson published just last month, "The Treason of the Intellectuals." Niall, welcome.
Niall Ferguson: Good to be with you, Peter.
Peter Robinson: Niall Ferguson, in the "Free Press," December 10th quote, "For nearly 10 years, I have marveled at the treason of my fellow intellectuals. Throughout that period, friends have assured me that I was exaggerating. Who could possibly object to more diversity, equality, and inclusion on campus? Such arguments fell apart after October 7th," close quote. Let's take that bit by bit. The treason of your fellow intellectuals. You're, of course, playing on a famous essay by a Frenchman in 1920-something or other, "La Trahison des Clercs"-
Niall Ferguson: That's right.
Peter Robinson: But you use the word treason of your own experience of your fellow academics. What exactly are they betraying?
Niall Ferguson: When Benda wrote that book, which is usually translated as "Treason of the Intellectuals," in interwar France, he was talking about what seemed to him a great betrayal of academics and intellectuals by siding with the political right. And so when one uses the phrase today, the initial response is one of shock. People say, "But surely, today's academics are on the left. Why would you want to invoke the spirit of Benda and the interwar period?" And the answer is that it's a betrayal of your role as a professor, or for that matter, a public intellectual, if you pursue a specific political goal, pretending that you're engaged in an academic activity. Let me go even further back in time. Max Weber, perhaps the founder of sociology, a great German thinker, gave a memorable lecture more than 100 years ago in which he argued that there should be a clear distinction between Politik and Wissenschaft, between politics and science, or let's call it scholarship. And that is the betrayal, when you forget about that separation and use your privilege, which you have as a professor, to pursue a political agenda. And it doesn't matter whether you are leaning to the right in your politics or to the left, it's treason to the ideals of the university, to mottos like veritas or Die Luft der Freiheit weht, if you use your position to engage in political activism. And the generation of academics in America today are as guilty of that treason as the generation of academics between the wars, who aligned themselves with the far right.
Peter Robinson: You say this, "For nearly 10 years, I've marveled at the treason of my fellow intellectuals." You've been an academic. I'm very sorry to say that I actually spent a moment or two counting it up, Niall, but you got your doctorate more than three decades ago, and you've been a public intellectual at least since the moment that first book on the First World War became an international bestseller. That's a while ago. What happened 10 years ago?
Niall Ferguson: Well, it was almost 10 years ago that I think my wife and I, Aayan Hirsi Ali and I came into contact with cancel culture for the first time, and that was when she was invited to give a commencement address at Brandeis University, and then shortly before the event was told that she was disinvited because a strange coalition of progressive and Islamist elements-
Peter Robinson: At Brandeis?
Niall Ferguson: At Brandeis, had signed a petition demanding that she'd be disinvited. And it was at that stage that cancel culture began to be something of a recurrent phenomenon in universities in the United States. People were being disinvited. And I remember digging into it and trying to understand what was going on, and being kind of mystified by this unholy alliance between radical leftists, gay rights activists, and Islamists who thought that somebody like my wife should be publicly humiliated as, of course, she was, to be disinvited publicly in that way. And I think that's when I began to worry that something was going wrong, and I spotted it going wrong at that time at Harvard where I was a professor. And I began to talk about this curious illiberal turn that I was observing. And it is in the space of about 10 years that what you might call woke-ism has gone from being a fringe fashion to being the dominant ideology of the major universities, so dominant that it has led two appointments, like the now former president of Harvard, Claudine Gay, somebody who would never have been put in that position in the previous decades.
Peter Robinson: One last bit of that opening quotation, "Friends assured me that I was exaggerating. Such arguments," their arguments, the friends' arguments, "Fell apart after October 7th." You were talking about a phenomenon that you have been tracking for a decade, that you became very public about a number of years ago. Why was the response to October 7th different, why then?
Niall Ferguson: I think for many American Jews who had, perhaps, been at Harvard, or Stanford, or Yale, or Princeton, and had left many years ago and got on with their lives, whether it was in technology or finance in the real world, for them it was a tremendous shock to see more than 30 Harvard student groups issue a statement condoning Hamas' atrocious behavior, the violence, the rape, the atrocities of October 7th.
Peter Robinson: 1200 slaughtered.
Niall Ferguson: And that in the wake of those public statements, the university authorities at Harvard and elsewhere seemed unable to express anything beyond lame bromides. I think that was the moment that many American Jews realized that something had indeed gone terribly wrong. They found themselves marveling that 30 student groups, more than 30, should explicitly condone an act of terrorism, and then they realized that pro-Palestinian elements were so dominant in universities and amongst young people generally, that there was a new antisemitism that they hadn't realized was there, the antisemitism of the woke left, and this was a great shock to people who'd not been paying attention. And so the only good thing that came of October 7th, the only good thing was the made people in the United States and elsewhere, in Britain too, realize that the Anglosphere as a whole has a major problem with a new kind of antisemitism, and it is entrenched amongst young people, and it's entrenched because the universities have been teaching a particular brand of politics and history that depicts Israel as just the latest manifestation of settler colonialism and portrays the Palestinians as the latest victims of white supremacy, of which, somehow, the Jews have become the leading exponents, 'cause that's what's happened.
Peter Robinson: On to the heart of the essay, that remarkable essay you published on December 10th, that no one else, no one else, I was about to say in this country, in any country could have published because nobody else has the depth of historical knowledge and the intellectual audacity to draw the parallels. We'll come to all this, but let me quote, get onto the essay. I'm quoting the essay again. "It might be thought extraordinary that the most prestigious universities in the world should have become infected so rapidly with a politics imbued with antisemitism. Yet exactly the same thing has happened before. Academically educated Germans were unusually ready to prostrate themselves before a charismatic leader. Lawyers and doctors, all credentialed with the university degrees, were substantially overrepresented within the Nazi party, as were university students," close quote. So if you were looking for characteristics that predicted membership in the Nazi Party, you would've looked at educational attainment.
Niall Ferguson: That is correct.
Peter Robinson: How can that have been?
Niall Ferguson: Well, first, let's go back to the German universities 100 years ago. It's 1924, and the greatest universities in the world are not Harvard and Stanford and Yale, the greatest universities are Heidelberg and Marburg, Tuebingen, Konigsberg, the great German universities. They were really dominant in almost every field 100 years ago. By comparison, the American universities were country clubs. The Nobel Prizes were won by German professors. If you were an ambitious scientist or classicist, and you had your first degree from Oxford, Cambridge, you had to get your PhD from Germany if you wanted to be taken seriously, so that's the context.
Peter Robinson: We see that in the movie, the "Oppenheimer" movie, where there's the interlude in which he feels compelled to go to Germany to study up on the latest in the field.
Niall Ferguson: Because physics was really being done at the cutting edge there. Think of all the great names of physics at that time, the majority, in fact, had some kind of a background in German or East, Central European universities. That's the context. Now, what is fascinating if you look at these institutions is that they were already right-leaning, even before World War I. Now, we tend to assume universities were always liberal, but that's not right. It's just that historically universities tend to have a leaning, and the leaning in Germany prior to 1914 was conservative. And perhaps that shouldn't surprise us because it was the social elite that went to university. It was a much narrower section of society than today. The trauma of defeat in 1918 led to a tremendous backlash, a backlash not only against the Weimar Republic, the successor to the imperial regime, but I think broadly, a backlash against many other things associated with defeat, a backlash against the Anglo-Saxon powers that had won the war. And it was in this context that many students and professors were highly attracted by an exciting, new demagogic figure, Adolf Hitler, and his National Socialist German Workers Party. Now, the word workers is an interesting term here because, in fact, it wasn't especially attractive to workers. Workers in the 1920s gravitated towards either the Social Democrats or the Communists. And so the NSDAP, the Nazi Party, in its early phase, as it grew in the 1920s and broke through electorally in 1932 and '33, was a party that was very attractive to people with university degrees. And we can find that in the social life of, let's say, Marburg, which is one of the typical universities which we've got a very good study of, the way in which the radical right penetrated the student body and the professorship, and antisemitism became institutionalized. So that for example, in Marburg, the student association for Jewish students was effectively prescribed long before Hitler came to power.
Peter Robinson: All right, again from your essay, "A critical factor in the decline and fall of the German universities," Jews begin leaving. Albert Einstein is the most famous, but many Jews leave. "And the fall of the German universities was precisely that so many senior academics were Jews. For some, Hitler's antisemitism was therefore," and you set this off parenthetically, "not like woke intersectionality in our own time. Hitler's antisemitism was therefore a career opportunity." Explain that.
Niall Ferguson: Well, if you think about why an ideology spreads, there are two driving forces, typically, the obvious one, that people are just persuaded by it. They think, "Gosh, we really do need to have more diversity and equity and inclusion, and I should really try and work towards that." But the other reason that ideologies spread is that there are people who gain from them. "Who, whom?" is always the good question. Lenin wasn't wrong about that. And in the case of Germany in the 1930s, who whom was that the gentile professors could screw over the Jewish ones. The Jewish professors were removed from their jobs 'cause professors were civil servants, in effect, in the German system, they were kicked out of their jobs. That's one of the earliest things that the Nazis actually do when they come to power is to purge the civil service of Jews. That's a terrific career opportunity if you're not Jewish and you can avoid the purge. And so you see the self-interest that motivated certain people to become Nazis. There's the expression, the Fallen of March, the Märzgefallenen, the people who became Nazis once it was clear that the Nazis really were in power, the massive increase in Nazi party membership after Hitler is very clearly establishing a dictatorship. I find this a very interesting moment in German history because it's the moment when the opportunists join the convinced. It was risky to be a Nazi before 1933. You were part of an oppositional movement and you were quite likely to be involved in violence because street fighting was part of the name of the game in late Weimar Germany. But after Hitler's clearly established a dictatorship and the Nazis have won, the opportunists flock. Now, you might think that this is an analogy too far, but I don't think it is because what's fascinating about academic life in America in the last 10 years is that the ideology of diversity, equity, and inclusion, let's call it wokeism for short, it's been a great career opportunity for some people, and it's also been a terrific opportunity to kick anybody suspected of conservatism out of academia. So the systematic discrimination that has been going on, and it's quite overt in most universities now, against people who are ideologically to the right, has, of course, been a career opportunity for others. That's a good way to think about how institutions get captured. It's the combination of believers and opportunists.
Peter Robinson: And opportunists. Once again from your essay, and here I wanna make sure that I understand whether you're making a strong or weak version of the argument.
Niall Ferguson: I tend to make strong versions.
Peter Robinson: You do tend to, Niall, I do know that. I'm quoting you, "The lesson of German history for American academia should now be clear. In Germany, to use the legalistic language of 2023, 'speech crossed into conduct.' The 'final solution of the Jewish question' began as speech. To be precise, it began as lectures and monographs and scholarly articles," close quote. All right, German universities failed to stop Hitler. That much is clear. But are you making the much stronger argument that the universities helped to produce the Holocaust? In the words of the late Milton Himmelfarb, "No Hitler, no Holocaust." Are you arguing no universities, no Holocaust?
Niall Ferguson: Well, Hitler was not a tremendously sophisticated thinker. What's in "Mein Kampf" is a rag bag of ideas about race, about living space, borrowed from various quarters, including the United States. A lot of Hitler's ideas about race actually come from the United States. Same goes for the Nazis' embrace of eugenics. There's not a very clear path in "Mein Kampf" to a solution of, quote, unquote, "The Jewish question." In order to achieve the merger of roughly 6 million Jews, you need some people to articulate the mechanisms. And what is very striking to me about German academia in the 1920s and 1930s, before the outbreak of World War II, before the Holocaust, in fact, begins, is the amount of research that's produced to, for example, explain why you would want to annihilate the mentally ill, to explain why you would want to drive Jews and Slavs out of Eastern Europe to create a new German living space. And this production of the details of what we have come to call the Holocaust is not the work of Goebbels' propaganda ministry. Much of it is the work of people working in departments in German universities. There are even doctoral theses on how to make use of the fillings, the gold fillings in Jewish skulls. So I think it's a very important feature of Nazism that is not well enough understood, perhaps because we don't teach the history of the Third Reich at universities the way we used to, that what makes the Third Reich distinctive, makes it different from the Soviet Union is the extreme sophistication with which a program of mass systematic murder is carried out. It is a very much more sophisticated operation than any other genocide, or democide, if you want to use that term, in history, and that's because it had at its disposal the most sophisticated technocratic elite that the world then had, and that was the the German technocratic elite.
Peter Robinson: Now, by now, I feel certain some of our listeners will be agreeing with your friends. They'll be saying, "This is all fascinating as a matter of history, but there Niall Ferguson goes again, exaggerating away. What happened there could not happen here because the cases are virtually opposite. The German universities glorify the German state, and the dominant ethnic group, the so-called Arian race. American universities don't glorify America. They're very happy to have the borders erased. They're one-worlders, they're internationalists. They're not committed to glorifying the dominant WASP, the old WASP ascendancy. On the contrary, they're committed to humiliating it on behalf of other ethnic groups. So the cases are not just different, but almost opposite to each other." Why is that wrong?
Niall Ferguson: Well, if it becomes the conventional wisdom on campus that "From the river to the sea Palestine shall be free" and Israel should be wiped from the map, and that Hamas is a legitimate, is engaged in a legitimate insurrection against the settler colonists, then, at the very least, you have a significant proportion of educated America endorsing a second Holocaust, 'cause that's what Hamas had in mind. That's what we saw a trailer for on October 7th. We should have no doubts in our minds about the intentions of Iran and its proxies in the Middle East. They wish to wipe Israel from the map, and they're explicit about that and they're setting about achieving that objective. Anybody, Jew or non-Jew, in the Western world, who is willing to accept that outcome is willing to accept a second Holocaust, and I think your skeptical listeners should pause for a moment and ask themselves if they wish to live to see that happen after the horrific events of the early 1940s and the repeated avowals of Western leaders that that should never happen again. We glimpsed on October 7th, we glimpsed in the sadistic violence that was perpetrated against Israeli civilians, the spirit of a second Holocaust. And I shudder when I see opinion polling on both sides of the Atlantic showing clearly that young Americans and young Britons disproportionately overwhelmingly side with the Palestinians against Israel, and they're even willing to contemplate that outcome, the wiping of Israel from the map. Don't be under any illusions about what that means in practice because it's precisely illusions about what it means in practice that persisted through the 1930s into the 1940s, and led many people to disbelieve that the Holocaust was being committed, even as the death camps went about their hideous work.
Peter Robinson: In recent weeks, you mentioned people who were shocked by what had happened at their alma maters. Bill Ackman has become famous. I have to say, three weeks ago, I didn't know who he was. Today I'm tempted to write him in for president. He's been investigating the prevailing ethic at his alma mater, Harvard, where he was not only an undergraduate, but to which he's given some $50 million. Here's from one of his posts on Twitter, now known as X. And Ackman is wonderfully articulate, almost sweetly naive. He's writing about it as he's working it out. I'm quoting him, "The E for equity in DEI," DEI, as you said, stands for diversity, equity and inclusion, "E for equity is about equality of outcome," Ackman writes, "Not equality of opportunity. Under DEI, one's degree of oppression is determined based on where one resides in a so-called intersectional pyramid of oppression where whites, Jews, and Asians are deemed oppressors. DEI is racist because reverse racism is racism even if it is against white people, and it is remarkable that I even need to point this out," close quote. That strikes me as I think it strikes you, possibly belated recognition. He wouldn't have had to wait until just a couple of weeks ago if he'd been reading you all these years, but a pretty accurate summation of what DEI is. Here's my next question, we can understand, this is not to excuse it, but we can understand where antisemitism came from in Germany. Germany had been defeated in the First World War. You have an entire nation that's looking for a scapegoat. "What?" "Ah, it was the Jews that did it." It didn't quite make sense, but you can see how it filled a psychological craving. The United States represents the most powerful nation in the world. Academics now holding tenure came to their positions during a quarter of a century of unparalleled prosperity and relative peace. How do you explain the emergence of DEI in American universities?
Niall Ferguson: Well, Bill Ackman was well known to me long before you came across him, as one of the world's most successful activist hedge fund managers. And he just turned his activism away from corporations that were being badly run to the Harvard Corporation and Harvard University, and I just wish he'd done it sooner. I also share your admiration for his recent writings, which were models of lucidity, but I think I could put it more brutally, because diversity, equity, and inclusion is a kind of newspeak in Orwell's sense. It actually means the exact opposite of what it says. The diversity they aspire to is uniformity, uniformity of ideological outlook. Equity is actually entirely absent 'cause there's no due process when the DEI bureaucracy goes into action. And as for inclusion, the real objective is exclusion of those who are not conforming to the ideology of the progressive left. So that's the reality. Where did it come from? That's quite easy, I think, to explain.
Peter Robinson: Is it? All right.
Niall Ferguson: Well, the universities in the 1960s already lent liberal. You mentioned the late Henry Kissinger. He was already unusual in the 1960s, to be a conservative, Republican professor. The problem in the 1970s and '80s was that the liberals had a tendency to hire Marxists over other liberals. And then in due course, the Marxists would hire cultural Marxists, the post-1989 version of Marxism, which switched economics out in favor of identity politics. When you lost the class war, as the left did spectacularly in the 1980s, and you lost the Cold War too, what was left? Well, it turned out that the answer was identity politics, and identity politics is designed to be hostile to individual liberty by insisting that nobody is an individual. Everybody belongs to some category or other of identity, ethnic, sexual, or gender, racial, religious, you name it. And once you've identified the identity category to which an individual belongs, they can then be ranked according to their level of victimhood. And if you are a white male, and I'm afraid we are both nearly dead white males, we're right at the bottom of the rankings. And if we were women of color who'd consistently voted Democrat, and perhaps if we were also of a certain sexual orientation, we'd be near the top, and that's roughly how it works. It's a very insidious ideology because it's so divisive, and at the same time, it simply abstracts the individual's identity and replaces it with some group identity. What I think many Jewish liberals hadn't noticed was their dissent down the rankings from the oppressed, and you would be hard pressed to say that anybody in the 1940s was more oppressed than the Jews. But strangely, the Jews were demoted to the very bottom of the table, and they became part of the oppressor groups. Now, why did that happen? Two things, and this is really important, one, this had always been a part of the leftist propaganda of the late Cold War. Anti-Zionism was part of what the Soviets did when they found that they were really badly losing in the Middle East and were gradually being squeezed out. Hostility to Israel, support for Arab nationalists was part and parcel of Soviet strategy, hence anti-Zionism was a part of the left's propaganda when I was a student in the 1980s. But what you added on top of that more recently was something with a quite different intellectual origin, Islamism, the political Islam that has become better and better represented in universities. And in a fascinating way, the different elements of the ‘wokist’ movement coalesced despite their obvious differences. Why on earth would you have Queers for Palestine? To give just one example of the strange phenomena we've seen since October 7th, how long would a group of young gay men last in Gaza if they proclaim their sexual orientation? Not long, because that's not really Hamas' bag. But in the weird parallel world of the American campus, Queers for Palestine makes perfect sense. And so we have a great realignment on campus, and it was only really after October 7th that people like Bill Ackman realized that in that great realignment, their people, their group, Jews, had been major losers.
Peter Robinson: All right, the case of Claudine Gay, you were at Harvard for not quite a decade, as I recall.
Niall Ferguson: Longer, 12 years.
Peter Robinson: Oh, you were there for a dozen years. All right, so you know this institution well. It's also the oldest institution in this country, and by any measure, the most prestigious, also the richest in endowment of going on $50 billion. Here is Claudine Gay, then president of Harvard, under questioning from Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, herself a graduate of Harvard, on December 5th, 2023.
- Well, let me ask you this, will admissions offers be rescinded or any disciplinary action be taken against students or applicants who say, "From the river to the sea," or "Intifada," advocating for the murder of Jews?
- As I've said, that type of hateful, reckless, offensive speech is personally abhorrent to me.
- And today, that no action will be taken, what action will be taken?
- When speech crosses into conduct that violates our policies, including policies against bullying, harassment, or intimidation, we take action, and we have robust disciplinary processes that allow us to hold individuals accountable.
Peter Robinson: All right, there's then President Gay drawing a distinction between speech, mere words on one hand, and action on the other. What was wrong with that answer?
Niall Ferguson: Well, the only thing wrong with it was that that had not been her position prior to those hearings. And we know this because in her time as dean of the faculty of arts and sciences, Claudine Gay was quite active in going after those who spoke in ways that were considered by her and other progressive academic administrators to be unacceptable. What's funny about the hearings that we just saw a clip from was the speed with which she and the other university presidents who were testifying mugged up on the First Amendment, which they'd clearly been briefed about before the hearings. That was the whole point about the when speech crosses into conduct piece, 'cause actually, the United States offers really quite terrific protections, at least from the state's interference in speech. You are allowed to see really obnoxious things in this country. That's the nature of freedom. But if you were to start acting on the basis of your hateful statements, engaging in violence against minorities, or explicitly threatening to do violent acts, then you would've actually come out from under the protection of the First Amendment. And there's a very clear body of law in the United States that goes back many decades, that clarifies what free speech means here. The trouble is that was not how things were on the Harvard campus in recent years. On the contrary, numerous professors, including at least two African American professors that I can think of, had gotten on the wrong side of the university administration for things they said, not for conduct, but for things that were said, and that's really what made her testimony infuriating. It was this belated discovery that there really ought to be First Amendment rights on the Harvard campus. There hadn't been for years.
Peter Robinson: All right, Claudine Gay resigned as president of Harvard on January 2nd. According to press accounts, the Harvard Corporation, the body that holds ultimate authority at Harvard, the Harvard Corporation stood behind Gay after her testimony before Congress that we just heard, withdrawing its support for her only after charges of plagiarism emerged. So plagiarism, there are two questions here. The first obvious question, we've all looked at the, here's what she said, here's where she got it. Those pictures have been all over the internet. The first question is was it genuine plagiarism, or as they tried to maintain for a number of days, just sloppy paraphrasing, forgetting to put in quotation marks, mere inadvertences? Do you have a view on that?
Niall Ferguson: I do, it was serial plagiarism and the things that Claudine Gay did were things that Harvard students were severely disciplined for during the time that I was at Harvard.
Peter Robinson: And any professional academic knew it at a glance. Isn't that right?
Niall Ferguson: Yes.
Peter Robinson: All right.
Niall Ferguson: This was not controversial, and it was, of course, bizarre that anybody should have tried to rationalize what was clearly very extreme and obvious and repeated plagiarism, plagiarism even of the acknowledgement section, which I'd never seen before, quite remarkable.
Peter Robinson: All right, and, of course, the second question is whether the Harvard Corporation was right that her testimony was something they could have ridden out, but it was the plagiarism that finally made her position untenable. Just on the politics, first of all, are those the kinds of calculations that the Harvard Corporation or any body of trustees at one of these great institutions ought to be making? And were they reasonable? Were they correct in that sort of calculation?
Niall Ferguson: The Harvard Corporation should never have appointed Claudine Gay president in the first place, and everything predictably followed from that decision. If all that happens at Harvard is that there's a new president chosen by the same corporation, nothing fundamentally will change. And one must understand, Peter, and I don't wanna make this all about Harvard, this is a problem for all universities. It's a problem also for Stanford. It's a problem for Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Princeton. It's a problem for much less well-known institutions 'cause one must realize that these problems are pervasive. Look at the Heterodox Academy surveys of student sentiment across the country. Around 60% of students across the country say they feel uncomfortable speaking their minds in class because of the consequences that might follow. This is even true at Chicago, which prides itself on its free speech culture. So I think we mustn't make this all about Harvard. There's a problem throughout American academia. It's a problem of ideological capture, of politicization, of the perversion of the institution, it's deviation from the pursuit of truth and the pursuit of thinking that is truly free. In order to fix this, we need more than a new Harvard president. We need a fundamental change in the nature of university governance from top to bottom.
Peter Robinson: Okay, so two quotations, both posts from Twitter. Quotation number one from a post by Konstantin Kisin, if I'm pronouncing his name correctly. Quote, "One of the biggest benefits of Bill Ackman's successful campaign to dismantle discriminatory practices at elite colleges is that it proves something that many of us have been saying for a long time: all it takes is for a few people with power, money, and influence to start standing up to this crap and it'll be over." Quotation two, Jordan Peterson, "Bill Ackman, for all his good work, appears to have no real idea how far down the rabbit hole the universities have gone. Plagiarism might not be the least of their problems, but it's a long way down the list." Niall, who's right?
Niall Ferguson: Well, in a way, they're both right. A lot has been achieved in a relatively short time.
Peter Robinson: Since October 7th.
Niall Ferguson: Since October 7th, and not only because of Bill Ackman. There have been many other people who have either publicly or privately expressed their horror at the way that things have been going at the major universities. That's good and it can only, I think, begin the process of change, and that's where Jordan Peterson is right. There's a lot more here that's wrong than just plagiarism. I think there's a lot of plagiarism. I suspect that we'll spend 2024 reading on a more or less weekly basis about the plagiarists because part of the problem is that when you set aside academic standards to pursue diversity, equity, and inclusion, in other words, you start making appointments not on the basis of ability and performance and achievement, but on the basis of other criteria-
Peter Robinson: Wokeness and plagiarism, that is not random, that's not just a correlation.
Niall Ferguson: Well, of course, because you are essentially going to start giving promotion and performance to inferior scholars. And how do inferior scholars get by? Plagiarism is one of the ways that people get by who are not really up to it. So that's part of it. But Jordan Peterson is right that the problems are profound, and as I said, it's not just that the wrong people have been appointed to senior positions, it's not just that there's a lot of plagiarism, there certainly is. By the way, it's not just that there's a crisis of replication in the natural and social sciences, 'cause let's not forget there are problems there too. Otherwise, Stanford, presumably, would still have a president. There are all kinds of problems in the academy that need to be addressed, but they won't be addressed simply by replacing presidents or even boards of trustees. They have to be addressed by changing the way that universities are run. And one of the recommendations that I have made in the last month on behalf of the new university that we are founding in Austin, Texas, is that there should be proper constitutional protection within a university's governance system of free speech, of academic freedom, and it needs to be enforced. It's all very well having the Chicago principles, and they sound grand, but if they're not enforced, if undergraduates don't feel free to speak because there may be consequences, then what use are they? So the University of Austin will be quite unique in that it will model a new kind of academic governance in which the freedom of students and professors alike will be protected, and that freedom will be enforced.
Peter Robinson: All right, so you've just mentioned, well, I wanna give you a moment to expand on that, but if the question is what is to be done over the longer term, here's what occurs to this layman's mind. On the one hand we have a tax code which has favored universities for decades, permitting a Harvard to accumulate an endowment of 50 billion, which is by far, actually not by that, Harvard, Yale, and Stanford are all in the multiple of tens of billions of dollars, Princeton is not far behind. These are rich institutions. You can change the tax code, you can point out that during the Cold War is when federal funding of research at these institutions began to become routine, but this is in the 1950s when the institutions were making common cause with the rest of the nation, and now the institutions are entirely in a world of their own intellectual world, this woke DEI world, so cut off the funding, Republicans in Congress. And then the third alternative is just say, "All right, Harvard may date to the early 17th century, but to hell with the place. We're gonna found an entirely new set of institutions such as the University of Austin," which I believe is what, formally speaking, it's about two years old now and the first students will be admitted next autumn, I believe.
Niall Ferguson: That's right.
Peter Robinson: Okay, so how do you rank those, what does the rest of the country do to say, "Stop this nonsense, we're gonna make you stop it."
Niall Ferguson: Well, I think the philanthropic culture of the United States is one of its glories. The fact that the universities are not public institutions, as they were in Germany, but are, in substantial measure, private institutions is a good thing, and we should be wary of breaking that unique model, which really doesn't have a counterpart elsewhere. So I'm wary of the argument that this is a problem for Congress that must be solved by new taxes. I would say that the solution to the problem of the excessive wealth of Harvard is for donors to stop giving it money that it clearly doesn't need and wastes. I would rather they gave the money to a new institution that would make much better use of it, and that's why I prefer an authentically American solution to this problem, which is that these universities don't work very well. Let's create some new ones. That was the spirit that produced the University of Chicago and the university that we are sitting in today at Stanford. And so the American solution shouldn't be, "Government needs to fix this." The American solution should be, "Let's stop giving money to these institutions. They're not fit for purpose. Let's give the money to new institutions," and those new institutions will ideally flourish without federal funds, particularly if the federal funds come with Title IX and other obligations-
Peter Robinson: Endless obligations.
Niall Ferguson: Because remember, part of the problem here, Peter, is that the government got too involved in the universities, it got too involved in their finances, and then it started getting involved in their governance. And Title IX's a good example of the problem. There are almost as many Title IX officers, I would guess, at this university as DEI officers, and they're all part of the problem. These universities are rich. Because they're rich, they were allowed to have, they're allowed to grow these enormous bureaucracies of non-academics, people not engaged in research or in teaching, purely engaged in administration. They're a huge part of the problem. And I think the only solution, because it's very hard to get rid of these bureaucracies once they exist, is to start over. And if we succeed in Austin, if we can create a new model of university that doesn't work like the old ones, but actually believes what it says about pursuing truth, then, ideally, we'll force these older institutions to change their ways. The simplest way to win this fight is to create a better institution that attracts the smartest people as students, and the smartest people as professors. Once you start attracting those people, the money follows, and pretty quickly, people have to shape up and they have to change their ways. This has happened before. Oxford and Cambridge didn't worry about doctorates until the German universities started to, and in many ways, the American universities were modeled off the German universities in their heyday. Nothing stays the same. Oddly enough, academia, for all that it appears unworldly, is a very competitive place, and there really is still, in the end, a market for genius and a market for new ideas, and the trouble is that the market's moving. It's leaving Harvard, and oddly enough, it's heading for Austin, Texas. See you there.
Peter Robinson: All right, last question, Niall, one final time from your December essay, "The Treason of the Intellectuals." Quote, "Only if the once great American universities can reestablish, throughout their fabric, the separation of Wissenschaft from Politik," Wissenschaft, you've already said, is the science or academia-
Niall Ferguson: Scholarship, yeah.
Peter Robinson: Scholarship. Let's call it scholarship, from Politik, politics, "Only then can they be sure of avoiding the fate of the German universities," close quote. You published that essay just six weeks ago. Are you more optimistic today than you were the day you published it?
Niall Ferguson: Well, I'm habitually not optimistic, as you know, Peter.
Peter Robinson: You're a dour Scot.
Niall Ferguson: Having grown up in Scotland. But I'm a little bit more optimistic because I think it's been brought home forcibly to trustees all across the country, not just at Harvard, that they have to change the way they go about things, that they can no longer allow the ideologues, the progressives to call the shots, and that has to be a step in the right direction. You and I are fellows at the Hoover Institution. The Hoover Institution is a rather unique institution in that it's a semi-autonomous republic within Stanford University. Why is there no Hoover Institution at Harvard, ever wondered, or at Yale? Well, they could use a Hoover Institution, those places. One of the reasons that I believe passionately in what we do here at Hoover is that we are the counterculture to DEI, and if we can continue to show that it's possible to engage in scholarship in a way that is not politicized, if we can be an institution that shows that liberals and conservatives can work together on academic problems, leaving politics at the threshold, then we'll also be acting as role models. So I'm kind of hopeful, just a little bit hopeful, Peter, that the probability of there being Hoover Institutions at other universities just went up from 0% to, I don't know, maybe five.
Peter Robinson: Maybe 5%. And the University of Austin, we have people who will be listening to this, who will be hearing about the University of Austin for the first time, UATX.edu.
Niall Ferguson: UAustin.org is the website.
Peter Robinson: Uaustin.org.
Niall Ferguson: UATX is the abbreviation. We only became accredited, because you now have to go through bureaucratic hoops, even in Texas, just last year. Our first students will be admitted, we'll start studying in the fall of 2024, and I think it's the classic American solution to a problem. Don't leave it to the government, do it yourself, build something new.
Peter Robinson: Niall Ferguson, thank you.
Niall Ferguson: Thanks, Peter.
Peter Robinson: For "Uncommon Knowledge," the Hoover Institution and Fox Nation, I'm Peter Robinson.