Stop Obsessing over Campus Academic Freedom

This was originally written in 2005.

David Horowitz and a state senator in Ohio have pushed hard for an academic bill of rights for students who feel ideologically oppressed by faculty. And they are correct that universities are overrun with lefty faculty.

But I don’t really have the sense that there is an intellectual repression occurring. I know this is an article of faith on the right, but I am a conservative in my (unnamed) department. If there was some conspiracy, I think I would be on the receiving end of it. I just don’t see any evidence of what Horowitz is saying. He writes "The abuse of students and university classrooms for political purposes is widespread both in Ohio and nationally." Widespread? Nationally? I can’t speak for Ohio, but nationally too? Come on. I just don’t see anything to substantiate that.
But I will go one step further and sound openly naive to the right-wing blogosphere-types. I think lefty academics care pretty passionately about freedom of speech. Yes, they may think their rural students are benighted, or that the market is exploitative, or that W is an imperialist. And they are wrong on all 3 counts. But they are liberals mostly, not stalinists. They are more committed to pluralism than indoctrination. You sorta have to be a liberal – skeptical, intellectually open, critical of the status-quo – to be an academic. Conservatives hate that kinda talk. Smart conservatives are also open and self-critical – I try to be one of them – but that is not the general ethos of conservatism, with its trust in established social matrices and institutions.

The real answers to the ideological diversity in academia that conservatives want are:

1. Find a way to make academia more attractive to conservatives as a profession. The problem is not the persecution of conservatives on campus, but their poor interest in academia. I have never felt persecuted for my views, but I do notice how few other ‘righties’ there are around among the grad students and faculty. But when conservatives do come and they are serious, they can be comfortable. Look at the University of Chicago. Strauss and Hayek have lots of disciples there who are respected. The real problem is that conservatives go into the market and make money. They don’t come to campus to research. If I had to guess why, I would say it is the low esteem accorded college professors in the US. The right seems to think we are eggheads; Democrats have been far more welcoming of the professoriate and social science in general.

2. Crack down on politically protected departments/agencies/centers/etc. The snap between Cornel West and Larry Summers is an excellent example of this. I think there is a deep sense among academics that politically correct or ideologically preferred scholarship is protected/assisted/rewarded. Multiculturalism is ensconced in academia more than anywhere else in America, and I think it drives away conservatives who see it, correctly, as soft and politicized. If state legislatures really want to do something useful for America’s universities, they should look at ethnic and women’s studies departments’ scholarship, and the racial re-balkanization of student bodies. The post-modern departments too should deploy method and rigor, produce politically neutral investigations, and be measured by their ability to publish in serious, peer-reviewed journals. Normative ‘calls to justice’ or ‘expressions of rage’ are not what we are to produce. That’s for advocates and interest groups. Scholarship means data collection and dispassionate analysis, not poetry or homilies.

Unfortunately, partisan conservatives, like Horowtiz, and the GOP broadly speaking, loathe experts and social scientists. George Will has been saying for decades that we just dress up out lefty predilections in the language of objectivity. So I imagine there is little interest in my suggestions. O’Reilly would presumably scoff when I say that academic liberals are more committed to professionalism than ideology. But many years of experience with colleagues who reject my opinions say otherwise. And without a rigorous empirical study to demonstrate ‘nationwide’ oppression, I am hesitant to hand students another tool to make my life difficult. It’s already hard enough to get them to come, take the material seriously, be polite to me and each other, accept poor grades without seeing dislike or ill-will, etc. Now we are telling them that I am an ideologue too.

I think the right has won so much within government that they are starting to turn on other institutions where the left is still dominant – universities and public TV.

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