If there were any lingering doubts about the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of American academia, the Dec. 5 congressional testimonies from the presidents of Harvard, MIT and the University of Pennsylvania laid them to rest. The same campuses that for decades had been ground zero for groupthink and cancel culture suddenly declared their unshakable fidelity to principles of free expression — provided that the expression called for the murder of Jews.

Now comes a once-in-a-century opportunity to change the face of American higher education — starting with the Jewish experience within it. The moment is ripe politically. Only 36% of Americans have confidence in higher education, Gallup reported in July 2023, down from 57% as recently as 2015. The moment is also ripe philanthropically: With leadership from people like Marc Rowan, Bill Ackman, Jon Huntsman and others, top donors are making it clear that they are keen to invest their money and energy elsewhere. 

Finally, the moment is ripe intellectually. We know precisely what ails universities: an obsession with equity over excellence; students who, from the moment they write their college applications, are encouraged to participate in the identitarian victimhood Olympics; boards of trustees and administrators that cower in the face of DEI consultants; and a social climate that demands that Jewish kids leave their Zionist values behind or denounce them outright as the price of acceptance.

How do we end this? There are three possible options, but only one of them can bring about effective change.

The first option is to use pressure — withhold donations, criticize (publicly and pointedly), take legal action — to seek comprehensive change at elite universities. This was sufficient to bring down University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill, and likely precipitated the scrutiny over (now former) Harvard President Claudine Gay’s plagiarism. 

Presumably this option will lead to efforts by other presidents and university administrators to try to placate angry Jewish donors, including partnering with Israeli universities, taking a harder line against abusive student demonstrators or bringing antisemitism training into existing DEI efforts; but those efforts will largely be cosmetic and face-saving. Leading private universities have large enough endowments that they can survive donor revolts and find new sources of funding. A few symbolic resignations or firings won’t change the fact that tenured faculty, who were long ago captured by neo-Marxism and critical theory, aren’t going anywhere. Adding Jews to the list of minorities supposedly represented and protected by DEI doesn’t solve a problem; it just compounds the problem that is DEI itself. 

These universities may eventually do themselves in, sinking under the weight of their creeping mediocrity, but that will take decades. The most we can hope to do is walk away from this burning building.

A second option is to create new colleges and universities, building them from the ground up.

This is the thinking behind the University of Austin, or UATX (not to be confused with the University of Texas at Austin). In just two years, UATX has raised an impressive $200 million and attracted a great deal of interest from would-be students and faculty. It promises a classically liberal education of the kind that used to be common in the U.S. but is now found only in a dwindling number of schools.

It’s a promising effort that deserves support, and I hope it succeeds. Even if it does, however, its impact on the broader educational landscape will be limited. The start-up costs are heavy, and many of the most talented prospective students may be turned off by the relative lack of infrastructure and pedigree, not to mention the uncertainty about its future. If it were to someday graduate 1,000 students a year, it will only serve a tiny fraction of Jewish students. In two or three decades, it might become an admired player in the world of higher education, but it won’t be a game-changer any time soon.

Which brings us to a third option: The Jewish community should identify a collegiate minyan, 10 small or midsized colleges with decent reputations but challenging financial prospects, and offer them a deal. 

In exchange for transformative financial gifts, these schools would show tangibly that they are willing to become welcoming centers for thriving Jewish life. They would invest in strong and uncorrupted Jewish and Israel studies departments and partner with Israeli universities for faculty- and student-exchange programs. They would have strong and well-staffed Hillels and Chabads. They would enforce Title VI regulations against discrimination while dismantling their existing Diversity, Equity, Inclusion (DEI) programs. Excellence would replace equity as the schools’ lodestar. There would be an unequivocal commitment to supporting free expression and viewpoint diversity – but zero tolerance for the bullying and harassing antics of Students for Justice in Palestine and their ilk, which clearly violate most schools’ behavior policies.

Beyond this, there is a higher moral purpose: to reinvent, and ultimately rescue, higher education in the United States. Great nations need great systems of higher education.

The key to making these changes would depend on gaining seats on trustee boards and appointing talented and determined presidents, some of them outsiders to academia. 

This could face some resistance. Existing boards would resent the intrusion of “big money” along with the demands for sweeping changes that go with it. Publications like the Chronicle of Higher Education would describe it as a right-wing takeover of these schools. Because of the pervasive leftward tilt of many of these colleges, some students will protest and some alumni will withdraw support.

At the same time, many of these schools — burdened by relatively small endowments, growing public skepticism about the value of a four-year college degree and a dwindling pool of prospective applicants (the result of the post-2008 financial crisis baby bust) — would jump at the proffered lifeline. Attracting the sorts of bright Jewish students who used to go to the Ivies but no longer can get in does wonders for a school’s academic environment, national reputation and long-term health, as schools such as Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., Tulane University in New Orleans or Washington University in St. Louis can attest. Having board members with deep pockets, broad experience in turning around floundering enterprises and few preconceptions about what a given college is supposed to represent can also help clear out a lot of cobwebs.

Beyond this, there is a higher moral purpose: to reinvent, and ultimately rescue, higher education in the United States. Great nations need great systems of higher education. America used to have one. It doesn’t now, and that sorry state of affairs threatens not only Jewish student life in this country, but the country’s future.

Jewish leaders should start a movement, beginning with a minyan.

First, a small task force, drawn from Jewish philanthropy, Jewish education, private equity, educational consultancy and academia, should be formed to identify and approach 30 or so potential collegiate partners with a view to selecting 10. Many of these will currently be in the second tier of nationally ranked liberal-arts colleges. Think of schools you’ve heard of — places with pretty campuses and storied histories but somewhat diminished reputations. This last point is essential. The more elite schools will feel no need to change. Only those that are acutely aware that carrying along as before is not a viable long-term option will be receptive to making the needed changes.

Once the right schools are identified, the next task is to identify and persuade the right donors. Each school should have at least one lead donor prepared to make a transformational gift in exchange for representation on the board and, when needed, selection of a new president. No donor should be expected to go it alone. This must be a collective effort by the Jewish community, including the involvement of Jewish day schools so that they might become advocates and feeder schools for these colleges.

But the most important piece is sustaining the effort. The point of this exercise isn’t simply to assure Jewish parents that there are a handful of colleges out there where their children can get a high-quality education without sacrificing their Jewish identity or Zionist values. It’s to make these schools models for what a first-rate liberal arts education can still be, once freed from the shackles of the progressive orthodoxies that create the soil in which blatant antisemitism breeds. This will require more than a single gift or a yearlong effort. It’s a multigenerational endeavor.

This article was originally published in eJewishPhilanthropy.