A Prodigal Field

Peter Wood

Today’s quiz: Who or what are Samotlor, Tenggiz, Ghawar, Daqing, and Agbami

No, the answer is not words with consonantal clusters uncommon in English.

Need a hint? Tupi, Burgan, Prudhoe, Bolivar, and Cantarell could be added to the list. 

Give up? These are the names of some of the world’s great oil fields. Extra credit if you name the locations of all ten. Check your answers at the end. 


                I am thinking of oil fields today because I feel like one of those geologists realizing that an old well has plenty of ooze left to give. This year, we have returned repeatedly to the University of Massachusetts Amherst. UMass gave us stories about graduate degrees in social justice (A Degree in Agitprop, August 11); an undergraduate program that is flat-out radical indoctrination (Socialism for Sophomores, August 26); faculty job postings written to exclude scholars who haven’t passed a PC litmus test (see Activists Only, September 11); and the history department offering academic credit to students who volunteered to work in the Obama campaign (see College Credit for Campaign Volunteers, September 22; and About Face in Amherst, September 23). With so many other colleges and universities engaged in so much intellectual folly, UMass seems to be taking more than its fair share of NAS attention. The main reason why we keep returning to UMass Amherst is that our Argus volunteers there are particularly vigilant.

                So here we are again at that Ghawar oil field of intellectual folly, that Saudi Arabia of academic false pride—vast, empty, and yet somehow replete. 


Community Engaged

                We have two new items to add to the list. First, UMass Chancellor Robert Holub emailed everyone just before Christmas to spread the good news that “the University of Massachusetts Amherst has been selected by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching to be classified as a Community-Engaged University.”  The phrase “community-engaged university” may be a bit unfamiliar, let alone that the Carnegie Foundation selects colleges and universities for this. (This what? Is it a neutral classification? An honorific?) 

                Chancellor Holub explains, “The Carnegie Classification system provides a widely accepted framework for describing institutional diversity in higher education -- the Community Engagement classification was established in 2006 to evaluate curricular engagement, outreach and partnerships.”   So it is a classification? 

                No. Chancellor Holub further explains, “This is a significant honor for UMass Amherst, and for the many campus programs that have fostered strong relationships with external community partners to address many of the social, economic, environmental, educational and cultural needs and issues in our region, the Commonwealth, nationally and internationally.”   So it is an honor to be so classified.

               Well, sort of. Chancellor Holub still further explains:

            The Community-Engaged University designation follows a six-month application process led by dedicated faculty and staff from across the campus. Members of the Faculty Senate Outreach Council and Rules Committee, the Office of Community Service Learning, the Library, Research and Engagement, the Division of Outreach and other major campus outreach initiatives were involved. I also recognize and applaud Sharon Fross, Vice Provost for University Outreach, for leading this effort. The application, submitted on September 1, highlighted 15 exemplary community engagement initiatives. The committee reviewed over 70 possible campus engagement projects for consideration. Each of the projects highlighted teaching, scholarship and public service.

            So it is an honorary classification that is achieved through an application in which the institution shows it has successfully diverted significant resources away from teaching and research to support activities extrinsic to higher education. 

                The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching explains its term “Community Engagement” as an “elective classification,” (emphasis in the original). It is not described as an “honor.” And somewhat contrary to Chancellor Holub’s depiction of it, the designation does not represent an independent evaluation of the merit of the University’s programs. The Carnegie Foundation is at pains to explain that it is a descriptive term intended “to recognize important aspects of institutional mission and action that are not represented in the national data.” Moreover, the designations “do not represent a comprehensive national assessment.”   This year, Carnegie designated 119 colleges and universities as “community engaged.” 

                So Chancellor Holub was making something out of nearly nothing. No surprise there. But that isn’t the whole story.

                Virtually every college and university has to devote some positive effort to being a good neighbor. Some are more enthusiastic than others but some confuse this public duty with the primary mission of the university.   That confusion seems especially common among those college administrators who have only a weak sense of the cultural and intellectual mission of the university. They are often tempted by the utopian rhetoric on campus to think of the university as a tool for mobilizing time and talent of students and faculty members to achieve major improvements in American society. Typically, they see this as not only a direct benefit to the “community” on which they impose these corvée contributions from students, but also as an “educational” benefit: the students will learn the virtue of “volunteering”—or as my colleague Ashley Thorne calls it, voluntyranny.

                Earlier this year, John Egger, professor of economics at Towson University, wrote for us on the growing phenomenon of “service learning,” arguing that it “seeks to exploit young students’ natural sympathy for the less fortunate, relying on emotions to promote a socialist, communitarian philosophy.” (“No Service to Learning: ‘Service-Learning’ Reappraised,” Academic Questions, Vol. 21. No.2.).  NAS’s Tom Wood has also contributed a series of articles to this website in which he has traced the growing communitarian ethos in higher education (The Communitarian Res Life Movement, July 18; The Communitarian Res Life Movement, Part 2, August 18).   So we have begun to build up a carefully researched account of this movement from the outside.  Nearly everything else you can find out about it comes from its architects, enthusiasts, and partisans. 

                My advice to parents is that they should look for evidence of coercive volunteering and pay attention when a college or university puts its “commitment to the community” front and center in its admission pitches. These are warning signs that a university has misplaced priorities. The more it is interested in “transforming” its students into happy workers on typically trivial projects aimed at the symbolic transformation of society, the less it is interested in providing a worthwhile education. 

                It is handy, however, that so many of the voluntyrannists, outreachers, and resource grabbers have listed themselves in the new Carnegie classification. In some cases, this should be enough to strike them from the list of colleges that any intellectually serious student would consider attending. In other cases—Georgetown, the University of Michigan, Duke, Swarthmore—there may be sufficiently offsetting advantages, but a wise student should still weigh the communitarian element very carefully. There is no more oppressive environment in the United States than a college campus in love with its own idea of superior virtue.


Rap, Rap, Rapping

                Elsewhere in the UMass syncline, we learn that UMass has combined two of the worst contemporary innovations in higher education: ideological indoctrination in the dorms and pseudo-academic “social justice” programs. At UMass, the fusion of these two element is called “Social Justice RAP,” the later term evoking not (or not just) the gansta’ lifestyle, but the University’s Residential Academic Programs for first-year students. You can read about Social Justice RAP here. It describes itself as “an interdisciplinary program that encourages you to take classes in the following areas: Afro-American Studies, Labor Studies, Latin-American Studies, Women's Studies, Social Thought and Political Economy.   Social Thought and Political Economy (STPEC) is the program we described in “Socialism for Sophomores.” Nice to see it is integrated in the dorms too. UMass offers numerous RAPs besides Social Justice, many of them tied to particular majors: Celestial Observations RAP, Computer Science RAP, Nursing Majors RAP. Academically themed residence halls are commonplace on campuses, and in this sense, UMass is just following the logic of its own academic program. If you have undergraduate students majoring in intellectual thuggery, why not let them run a program in the freshman dorms on intellectual thuggery?

                As with the communitarian impulse manifest in the University’s seeking the Carnegie designation “Community Engaged” institution, the development of a program like Social Justice RAP testifies to the bewilderment of the responsible officials at the University.   It says they draw no practical distinction between indoctrinating students and educating them. It grossly violates the privacy of students by turning their residence halls into places where they can be hectored day and night by self-righteous bullies. It conflates job training with academic work by awarding academic credit for attending a “seminar that introduces you to programs and opportunities for leadership at UMass.”   It tendentiously treats Women’s Studies, Afro American Studies, and Labor Studies as constructive parts of “social justice,” and excludes philosophy, religion, economics, and numerous other subjects that might have some bearing on the topic.


              I suspect that UMass administrators would be hard put to close this program even if they wanted to. Having gone this far in granting an essentially anti-intellectual movement the status of an academic program and legitimated its aspirations to be a recognized part of campus life, UMass may be stuck with the consequences. What might those be?   Some students bamboozled out of their main opportunity for a college education—and bamboozled in that fine fashion in which they become not embarrassed victims but apprentice bamboozles. They may profess to be anti-capitalist, but at heart the social justice rappers are salesmen. The good citizens of Massachusetts who are underwriting this folly perhaps wouldn’t like if it came to their attention, but universities can usually rely on the sympathetic complicity of the press in keeping such programs no-profile. 

                That leaves the principle of the thing, which is after all the only reason why NAS is taking an interest. The integrity of the university, like oil beneath the sands, can be squandered without noticeably diminishing the prospects for more. Yet we might have the uneasy sense that it isn’t an unlimited resource.  

                In the last few weeks I have written about the College Board’s new report declaring that it is urgent for the United States to award 55 percent of young Americans college degrees by 2025—a step that would require doubling the total enrollment of our universities in the next decade at enormous public cost. Hardly had the College Board report arrived than the Carnegie Corporation ran a two-page newspaper ad in the New York Times gravely asking President-elect Obama to set aside $40-$45 billion in federal funds to invest in new infrastructure for college campuses—in part to pay for this projected doubling of enrollments. I have written about that too. 

                While the nation weighs these thrilling new proposals, it might want to consider the way the University of Massachusetts currently spends public money in a cash-strapped state. The real question raised by Chancellor Holub’s announcement and the Social Justice RAP is whether institutions like this can be trusted.  

                For the moment, I trust UMass Amherst with at least one thing. It will remain a deep reservoir of bad ideas, mismanagement, enthusiastic capitulation to ideologues, and inaudible explanations of its actions.



  1. Samotlor  Russia (Urals Federal District)
  2. Tenggiz Kazakhstan
  3. Ghawar Saudi Arabia
  4. Daqing China
  5. Agbami Nigeria
  6. Tupi Brazil
  7. Burgan Kuwait
  8. Prudhoe Alaska
  9. Bolivar Venezuela
  10. Cantarell Mexico
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