Issues & Insights

What’s Wrong With The Intellectual Elites? (Spoiler Alert: Plenty)

Little that goes on at America’s elite, “progressive” universities surprises us any longer, but every so often something so perfectly cockeyed, so wrong, commands our attention. The recent remarks of a Harvard dean are an example.

As described by Heather Mac Donald in a superb Wall Street Journal op-ed, Dean of Students Rakesh Khurana took the opportunity at graduation (“Class Day”) to make assertions that are uninspiring, callow, and, worst of all, wrong. This passage from Ms. Mac Donald’s article is illustrative:

“The ‘capitalist ethos,’ according to Mr. Khurana, tells us that ‘we deserve to win because of our skill, our hard work, and our contributions.’ Mr. Khurana — who is also a professor of business and of sociology — claimed to be mystified by that belief.

Well, we are also mystified — by Mr. Khurana, who went on to rail about “structural inequities” such as “inherited privilege,” the supposed myth of the self-made person, and the meaninglessness of “deserving.” This sophomoric claptrap from a professor of business at Harvard?

Could Mr. Khurana possibly be unaware that people such as Jeff Bezos, Marc Zuckerberg, Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Sergei Brin, Ben Carson, Herman Cain, Larry Page, Barack Obama, and innumerable others, inherited little and yet have been wildly successful? Privilege played little part in their success compared to their accomplishments. What has become of the famous dictum of Francis Bacon that “chiefly the mould of a man’s fortune is in his own hands?” (Oh, we forgot — old white guys like him are passé at Harvard.)

Short of yelling “FIRE!” in the auditorium, Mr. Khurana certainly had the right to say whatever he wished. Much has been written about free speech being under attack, especially at universities and colleges. Speakers with conservative viewpoints are routinely banished from important venues, denied attendance, picketed, or subjected to the “hecklers’ veto.” At the University of California, Berkeley and other campuses where conservative speech has been met with disorder, activists have justified it because “speech is violence.” Gone is adherence to the maxim of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, “If there be time to … avert the evil by the process of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.” (Another old white guy.)

Speakers must be held accountable for their words, but sometimes “accountability” is ideological and unfair. Former Harvard President Lawrence Summers found this out when, at an academic conference, he speculated about the preponderance of men among professors of mathematics and physical sciences at elite universities. Although he acknowledged that women confronted barriers such as discrimination and disproportionate family responsibilities, he hypothesized that there might be other factors, such as men’s superior performance in tests measuring mathematical ability. Summers was vilified and ridiculed, and eventually resigned.

Another, more recent example of allowing the mob to rule at Harvard was the university’s stripping law professor Ronald Sullivan of his position as faculty dean of a college residence hall. The reason? Some students felt “unsafe” because Sullivan represented Harvey Weinstein against charges of sexual misconduct. As Sullivan put it, at Harvard, “Unchecked emotion has replaced thoughtful reasoning on campus. Feelings are no longer subjected to evidence, analysis or empirical defense. Angry demands, rather than rigorous arguments, now appear to guide university policy.”

Harvard is not alone. In 2015, Erika Christakis, a highly regarded Yale University lecturer in early childhood education and an administrator at a student residence, was hounded into leaving the faculty for having the temerity to suggest that there could be negative implications if students were to cede “implied control” over Halloween costumes to “institutional forces.” She was responding to a directive from the Intercultural Affairs Committee at Yale that warned students it would be insensitive to wear costumes that could imply cultural appropriation, such as feathered headdresses, turbans, war paint, blackface or redface, or costumes that poked fun at certain people. In that response, she in effect predicted her own destiny:

“American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition.”

While Khurana credits chance with the lion’s share of “real” success, he completely misses the reality: The primary luck we all have is where and to which parents we are born, the level of brainpower we are gifted with at birth, the culture in which we are immersed from early childhood — and, to some degree, also our race and ethnicity. Much as Khurana (and many other progressives) might want to believe it, we do not all benefit equally from the genetic lottery. “Nurture” can overcome some limitations and stifle some abilities, but our core selves and parentage cannot be changed. The question is, what do we do with what we have, which is the essence of personal responsibility and free choice.

Different places in this world respond differently to the accident of birth. To this day, India remains partially mired in the caste system. In other countries, those unlucky enough to be born to disfavored minority ethnic groups may face death or permanent relegation to deprived circumstances. In America, we are always striving to eliminate disadvantages of geography, race, religion, gender, and culture, sometimes to a fault. That is “who we are.” That is why we are the Land of Opportunity.

As Ms. Mac Donald points out in her article, the family unit seems to be highly influential in the nurture process. Asian families tend to be very close-knit, and as we see in the United States, their offspring tend to be high achievers. Out-of-wedlock births among black Americans number almost three out of four, and many of those children seem to require more than the typical public-school education to thrive and replace some of what is missing on the family side. It is not “privilege” to have a constructive family culture; it is the luck of who your parents are. To this extent, “chance” sets us up for a greater or lesser probability of future success.

However, the great leveling factors in our society — skill, ambition, hard work, and achievement — are precisely those dismissed by Khurana. Not everyone has every skill, though many can be taught within the inherent limitation of their intellectual capacity. Not everyone has a personality suited to every opportunity. It is the opportunities afforded in American society for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, to coin a phrase, that remove many, though not all, of the constraints that might limit us.

Khurana’s views are antithetical to the opportunity to succeed, because his conception of “chance” seems to constrain and define us. Why strive for anything when the roll of the dice might be more important? Thomas Jefferson had it right:

“I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.”

That’s the note on which Mr. Khurana should have ended his remarks.

Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, was a clinical fellow in medicine at Harvard’s Beth Israel Hospital. Andrew I. Fillat spent his career in technology venture capital and information technology companies. He is also the co-inventor of relational databases and holds an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School. Both were undergraduates downriver from Harvard, at M.I.T.

Note to Readers: Issues & Insights is a new site launched by the seasoned journalists behind the legendary IBD Editorials page. Our mission is to use our decades of experience to provide timely, fact-based reporting and deeply informed analysis on the news of the day.

We’re doing this on a voluntary basis because we think our approach to commentary is sorely lacking both in today’s mainstream media and on the internet. If you like what you see, feel free to click the Tip Jar over on the right sidebar. And be sure to tell your friends!

We Could Use Your Help

Issues & Insights was founded by seasoned journalists of the IBD Editorials page. Our mission is to provide timely, fact-based reporting and deeply informed analysis on the news of the day -- without fear or favor.

We’re doing this on a voluntary basis because we believe in a free press, and because we aren't afraid to tell the truth, even if it means being targeted by the left. Revenue from ads on the site help, but your support will truly make a difference in keeping our mission going. If you like what you see, feel free to visit our Donations Page by clicking here. And be sure to tell your friends!

You can also subscribe to I&I: It's free!

Just enter your email address below to get started.



  • I truly despair of conservative’s ideas when I read articles like this. Do you really think Bill Gates is smarter than you because he’s richer? Bill Gates was good at computers and by the luck of the draw was in the right place at the right time. Read anything he’s written and you will see he’s a complete idiot about everything else. Wealth, success and fame are not measures of human greatness. The best rewards of courageous risk-taking, and hard and honest work should be self-sufficiency, wisdom and happiness.

    • Is it possible that Bill Gates is not “a complete idiot about everything else” outside of computers and that you do not agree with what he has written? Care to share what he has written that has led use to call him a complete idiot?

    • One of the best examples of this argument is Albert Einstein. His political views were positively juvenile.

      • Really? Which political views of Albert Einstein do you consider juvenile? Sweeping statements w/o evidence are not very convincing IMO. Not sure just because you or Marcy disagree with someone’s political views/writings that makes that person a complete idiot or juvenile.

  • Lady Luck knocks on everybody’s door however who ever ready to receive is the one who gets lucky

About Issues & Insights

Issues & Insights is run by the seasoned journalists behind the legendary IBD Editorials page. Our goal is to bring our decades of combined journalism experience to help readers understand the top issues of the day. We’re doing this on a voluntary basis, because we believe the nation needs the kind of cogent, rational, data-driven, fact-based commentary that we can provide. 

We Could Use Your Help

Help us fight for honesty in journalism and against the tyranny of the left. Issues & Insights is published by the editors of what once was Investor's Business Daily's award-winning opinion pages. If you like what you see, leave a donation by clicking on donate button above. You can also set up regular donations if you like. Ad revenue helps, but your support will truly make a difference. (Please note that we are not set up as a charitable organization, so donations aren't tax deductible.) Thank you!
%d bloggers like this: