EXCLUSIVE: American universities are in a crisis.
Eight years ago, 57% of Americans said they were confident in higher education, according to Gallup. By last summer, that figure was down to 36% — after years of disputes about political correctness, cancel culture and ever-narrower definitions of permissible debate.
At the end of 2023, amid rising campus antisemitism and the Israel-Hamas war, prominent university presidents made a controversial appearance on Capitol Hill. After that, scrutiny on them and what’s been going on at their campuses skyrocketed. Within weeks, two of the presidents had resigned.
With trust in higher education likely to fall further, historian Niall Ferguson wrote in The Free Press, "The question is whether we … can do something about it?"
That something should start with returning universities to their missions to seek and speak the truth: veritas.
In returning to that ideal, universities can look to American history for not only wisdom, but also reminders of why that mission is so important for the liberal values they cherish and to the country that secures them.
If there’s one Founding Father who understood why universities matter to America, it’s Thomas Jefferson. The father of the University of Virginia chose to include that accomplishment on his tombstone — and not his two-term presidency, his vice presidency or his tenure as secretary of state.
Toward the end of his life, he said that opening the school's doors had become his "single anxiety," and had been for the 40 years since he wrote the Declaration of Independence.
That’s because, to Jefferson, 1776 and the University of Virginia, indeed the idea of universities themselves were linked. The truths articulated in one document would be pursued and advanced at a new kind of institution, where secular study of the arts and sciences readied the next generation to improve on the founding documents.
And if today’s college presidents think that the campus climates over which they preside are challenging, the academic environment in the early 1800s that Thomas Jefferson faced was even more difficult.
A mask-wearing mob of students had torn across the University of Virginia’s lawn, throwing bottles of urine through the windows of their instructors’ homes.
Jefferson was no stranger to campus politics, or to student protests.
On Oct. 4, 1825, the former president — at this point 82 years old — stood before the entire student body of the University of Virginia, wondering if the school would survive after a particularly challenging moment for the campus.
He was there because, for several days beforehand, a mask-wearing mob of students — hiding their identities like many of today’s protesters — had torn across the University of Virginia’s lawn, throwing bottles of urine through the windows of their instructors’ homes during their rampage across the school.
The riot was against their teachers — and all the while they’d chanted, "Down with European professors," a nativist chant attacking the very faculty that Jefferson had diligently recruited from across the Atlantic. One student even beat a professor with his own cane, leaving him bloody and humiliated.
The school needed to be restored to order, and it needed swift and stern discipline. The university’s administrators, Jefferson at their head, gathered, looking to discover which of the students had participated in the riot. But because the mob had covered their faces with masks, their identities were a mystery.
No one was talking. In a twisted show of Southern honor, the students wouldn’t give each other up to the disciplinary review panel.
The three Founding Fathers were disciplinarians scolding entitled students, and they took their roles seriously and had the students’ respect.
The university’s board had no other option. It called an all-school assembly to find out the "unworthy few who lurked among" the student body.
The board’s membership included not only Jefferson, but also James Madison and James Monroe, the latter having left the presidency seven months prior.
The three Founding Fathers and former presidents, living links to the revolutionary generation, may have been the most distinguished and intimidating undergraduate disciplinary review panel in American history. As young men, they’d rebelled against the king of England. Now they were disciplinarians scolding entitled students, and they took their roles seriously and had the students’ respect.
The three men looked down at 100 undergraduates, most not even 19 years old, who were gathered in the school’s not-yet-completed rotunda.
Jefferson was far too overcome with emotion and disappointment to speak. He burst into tears, so shaken that he had to sit down.
For the student body — including the rioters — Thomas Jefferson was more than a distant figure from history. He was their patron, and a part of their lives.
On Sundays, the former president would host small groups of students for dinner at Monticello. He went in alphabetical order, choosing his guests so as not to show favoritism. Over dinner, he’d tell them about the Revolution and ask them about their studies.
But none of Monticello’s warmth could be felt on that chilly October day. Jefferson was far too overcome with emotion and disappointment to speak. He burst into tears, so shaken that he had to sit down. This display was not in character. It caught the students, and the board, off guard.
A choked-up Jefferson asked if someone else might speak, and his friend James Madison obliged. But Madison didn’t have to say much. The students were shocked at the sight of Jefferson, a seemingly immortal man and a university leader whom they respected, now aged and in failing health, crying.
As tears flowed down the octogenarian’s face, the wall of silence collapsed, and the guilty confessed. It was over.
For Jefferson, there would be one final insult that hit even closer to home. The mob’s ringleader was Wilson Cary, his great-nephew. This betrayal made the former president’s cold tears boil. He wrote later that it seemed that the "last ten years of his life [building the University of Virginia] had been foiled by one of his own family."
Why had a student mob so disturbed Jefferson? Because, he believed, the mob threatened the future of the university, and with the founding generation dying out, the country needed its universities to succeed in order to pass the torch.
It was clear that he was worried about what the event meant for the future of the University of Virginia, of the next generation, and of the country they were to inherit when the Founding Fathers were gone.
With the school’s funding in doubt and its faculty up in arms, Jefferson took action. Three students were expelled, including young Mr. Cary. The board issued new rules of student conduct. From then on, masks were banned. Curfew was set for 9 p.m. Christmas break was canceled.
Why had a student mob so disturbed Jefferson? Because he believed the mob threatened the future of the university — and with the founding generation dying out, the country needed its universities to succeed in order to pass the torch.
As one of the school’s first students, Henry Tutwiler, later recalled, "[Jefferson] well knew that, without education, political and religious freedom would have no basis on which to rest."
Universities had long held a special place in Jefferson’s heart. He was born in the age of Enlightenment, after Newton, Galileo and Copernicus had devised new theories that challenged notions of how the natural world worked.
Jefferson wanted the school out of the business of indoctrination, and for it to teach students how to think, not what to think.
As a young student at William & Mary, he’d studied their works, and through his education came to believe that he, too, could challenge the political status quo.
He’d always wanted to build a university, believing that "if a nation expects to be both ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be."
That’s why he called the University of Virginia the "future bulwark of the human mind" in the Western Hemisphere, a force of strength for civilization at home and abroad against European imperialism.
Jefferson wanted the school out of the business of indoctrination, and for it to teach students how to think, not what to think. He refused to allow his university to be affiliated with any church.
In fact, the University of Virginia would be the future home of America’s first Jewish university professor, a mathematician named J. J. Sylvester, who came to Virginia as a refugee after being blackballed by antisemites at the University of Cambridge.
Jefferson designed much of the university’s curriculum, and students were to read the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers and Washington’s Farewell Address, as well as classical texts. He assembled the school’s library, buying 6,860 volumes and haggling with a Boston bookseller to reduce the price to $3.50 per book.
There would be a system of electives, and different faith traditions could be a part of and thrive through campus life, even if they were not formally endorsed by the school.
The school was flawed, but it was to be a place where leaders were educated and learned to recognize their faults, and thus drive progress.
He devoted himself to the work because the university had a purpose beyond campus.
In 1818, Jefferson and his fellow board members gathered at Rockfish Gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains to write the plan for the future University of Virginia. The group’s report said the school was to instill the "habits of reflection, and correct action, rendering [the students] examples of virtue to others & of happiness within themselves."
Indeed, the word "happiness" is used eight times in the Rockfish Gap report, mirroring the language that Jefferson put in the Declaration of Independence as a young man.
The school had high ideals, but like the country, it embodied many of the time’s contradictions. In 1817, 10 enslaved men leveled ground in Charlottesville with shovels and spades in order to lay the school’s cornerstone. Five members of the board of visitors, including Jefferson, held more than 100 slaves each.
When the school opened its doors, there were nearly 200 enslaved persons working on campus, a larger population than the student body.
The school was flawed, but it was to be a place where leaders were educated and learned to recognize their faults, and thus drive progress. Each generation would come closer to the truth than its ancestors, Jefferson believed — and future Americans would look back at his own time and say that parts of it were barbaric, just as his generation perceived the witch burners of the Middle Ages.
With that in mind, he might have anticipated many of today’s fiercest debates about the Founders, both what those debates get right, and what they get wrong. He would have hoped for a real competition of ideas, grounded in the pursuit of truth, and for that competition to take place at America’s great universities.
His hopes for the university were his hopes for his country — that it would be a place where individual free thought and expression would be protected, where different faiths would be practiced in peace, side by side, and where enlightened reason would drive progress. If the universities failed in that mission, they’d fail themselves and the country.
Higher education sets the United States apart from other countries, and the freedoms that make it possible attract the best and brightest.
Today, there’s reason to worry about the state of American higher education, and by extension, about America. Higher education sets the United States apart from other countries, and the freedoms that make it possible attract the best and brightest at home and from around the world.
When our historic institutions fall short of their missions, they’re not the only ones that suffer.
So, if the question today is whether we can do something about the state of American higher education, then the answer is yes, because we have before, and we need to do it again.
There are great new institutions being built today that are embarking on that mission, like the University of Austin, which will soon be accepting its first class of students, and the Hamilton Center at the University of Florida. There are centers of excellence in every school, public and private.
Today’s old universities were also once new, and they, too, can rediscover why they've long held their esteemed place in American life, and if they recommit to that truth-seeking mission they can earn their place again.
In his last public letter, written to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson was no doubt thinking about his hopes for America’s universities.
He remembered what good they could do for the country, at their best: "All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view. The palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of god."
Excerpted from "Life After Power: Seven Presidents and Their Search for Purpose Beyond the White House," © copyright Jared Cohen (Simon & Schuster, Feb. 2024), by special arrangement. All rights reserved.