By Harvey Silverglate
As engines of creativity and innovation, colleges are always pushing the envelope on scholarship. While this is usually good – since it broadens our culture’s collective knowledge – occasionally you see some really idiotic proposals and research agendas coming out of the American academy. And each time you think you’ve seen the last truly dumb idea – at least for a while – emerge from a college campus, along comes an even dumber one to challenge your grasp on reality.
The Chancellor of the University of Colorado at Boulder, G. P. “Bud” Peterson, has proposed a new endowed chair in “Conservative Thought and Policy” that would (not necessarily, but most likely) be held by a politically conservative professor. The announcement comes as Peterson is seeking to raise the funds necessary to create the professorship. Peterson is a rare Republican at the helm of an American public university – especially one of national prominence like Colorado’s. Indeed, the picture is the same at most private universities, though less so at private religious institutions and the service academies. With this kind of background, it’s understandable that he would notice the grip that the academic left has on higher education.
It’s important to note that the academic left is not coterminous with traditional liberalism. Quite the opposite is true. I’m referring to the whackjob sociological, political, literary and other such theories and authoritarian tendencies of critical theorists and others in dubious academic disciplines. Alan Charles Kors and I dealt with this phenomenon – I hope – in our 1998 book, The Shadow University.
Despite Peterson’s political leanings – and his presumptively good-faith desire to develop more ideological diversity in higher education – if the problem is higher education’s intolerance for views outside the left’s agenda du jour, the solution of hiring a token conservative professor would exacerbate rather than cure the problem.
For one thing, the problem on campuses isn’t a perceived schism between “liberals” and “conservatives.” The idea that campuses are “liberal” is a myth. As I said earlier, the academic left differs markedly from those who fit the mold of traditional liberalism, with its focus on, for example, free speech. Though the litany of censorship cases on American campuses is legion, it’s not that “liberals” and “conservatives” are suppressing student and faculty speech. Instead, that’s the job of campus totalitarians on the far right and the far left alike. (That today there are far more totalitarians of the far left than of the far right on college campuses is not a comment on the relative merits of one over the other. It is just that the crazy left happens to have the upper hand right now in academia.)
For another, the notion that only a conservative is qualified to hold a chair in “Conservative Thought and Policy” is a parody on affirmative action. Should universities require that endowed chairs in Judaic Studies, for example, be held by a Jew? (So far it’s not clear that Peterson’s proposal would limit the position to conservatives, but the implication is that the school would be looking for a scholar/true-believer to fill the spot.) Is it the academic discipline – the study of conservative thought – that Chancellor Peterson wishes to bring to Colorado, or just a conservative? It doesn’t seem like a well-thought-out plan. (And besides, what does it say for the general conservative distaste for affirmative action programs when they drop their presumptively principled opposition when the policy instead benefits a group they do happen to like – namely, themselves?)
The fundamental problem with the proposal is that it does not deal with the underlying outrage that besets higher education today: the fact that our university campuses are among the least free institutions in our society. Ideally, campuses should be among the most free since academic freedom is, at least in theory, central to the pursuit of knowledge and the practice of higher education. Until we solve this central problem, one has to give conservative polemicist George Will some credit for his response to the Wall Street Journal's query: “Like Margaret Mead among the Samoans, they’re planning to study conservatives. That’s hilarious.” By the way, Will’s name has been bandied around as a possible candidate to fill the new chair, but it looks like they’ll have to find another specimen – perhaps one less sensitive about being treated like the subject of an anthropological study.