The Yale student did not like what he heard. Sociologists derided religion and economists damned corporations. One professor pre-emptively rejected the suggestion that “workers on public relief be denied the franchise.” “I propose, simply, to expose,” wrote the young author in a booklong denunciation, one of “the most extraordinary incongruities of our time. Under the “protective label ‘academic freedom,'” the institution that derives its “moral and financial support from Christian individualists then addresses itself to the task of persuading the sons of these supporters to be atheistic socialists.”
For William F. Buckley Jr., author of the 1951 polemic God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of “Academic Freedom” and a founder of modern American conservatism, the solution to this scandal was straightforward: Fire the wanton professors. No freedom would be abridged. The socialist professor could “seek employment at a college that was interested in propagating socialism.” None around? No problem. The market has spoken. The good professor can retool or move on.
Buckley’s book can be situated as a salvo in the McCarthyite attack on the universities. Indeed, even as a Yale student, Buckley maintained cordial relationships with New Haven FBI agents, and at the time of the book’s publication he worked for the CIA. Buckley was neither the first nor the last to charge that teachers were misleading or corrupting students. At the birth of Western culture, a teacher called Socrates was executed for filling “young people’s heads with the wrong ideas.” In the twentieth century, clamor about subversive American professors has come in waves, cresting around World War I, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and today. The earlier assaults can be partially explained by the political situation. Authorities descended upon professors who questioned America’s entry into World War I, sympathized with the new Russian Revolution or inclined toward communism during the cold war.
Today the situation is different. The fear during the cold war, however trumped up, that professors served America’s enemies could claim a patina of plausibility insofar as some teachers identified themselves as communists or socialists. With communism dead, leftism moribund and liberalism wounded, the fear of international subversion no longer threatens. Even the most rabid critics do not accuse professors of being on the payroll of Al Qaeda or other Islamist extremists. Moreover, conservatives command the presidency, Congress, the courts, major news outlets and the majority of corporations; they appear to have the country comfortably in their pocket. What fuels their rage, then? What fuels the persistent charges that professors are misleading the young?
A few factors might be adduced, but none are completely convincing. One is the age-old anti-intellectualism of conservatives. Conservatives distrust unregulated intellectuals. Forty years ago McCarthyism spurred Richard Hofstadter to write his classic Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. In addition, a basic insecurity plagues conservatives today, a fear that their reign will be short or a gnawing doubt about their legitimacy. Dissenting voices cannot be tolerated, because they imply that a conservative future may not last forever. One Noam Chomsky is one too many. Angst besets the triumphant conservatives. Those who purge Darwin from America’s schools must yell in order to drown out their own misgivings, the inchoate realization that they are barking at the moon.
Today’s accusations against subversive professors differ from those of the past in several respects. In a sign of the times, the test for disloyalty has shifted far toward the center. Once an unreliable professor meant an anarchist or communist; now it includes Democrats. Soon it will be anyone to the left of Attila the Hun. Second, the charges do not (so far) come from government committees investigating un-American activities but from conservative commentators and their student minions. A series of groups such as Campus Watch, Academic Bias and Students for Academic Freedom enlist students to monitor and publicize professorial conduct. Third, the new charges are advanced not against but in the name of academic freedom or a variant of it; and, in the final twist, the new conservative critics seem driven by an ethos that they have adopted from liberalism: affirmative action and a sense of victimhood, which they officially detest.
Conservatives complain relentlessly that they do not get a fair shake in the university, and they want parity–that is, more conservatives on faculties. Conservatives are lonely on American campuses as well as beleaguered and misunderstood. News that tenured poets vote Democratic or that Kerry received far more money from professors than Bush pains them. They want America’s faculties to reflect America’s political composition. Of course, they do not address such imbalances in the police force, Pentagon, FBI, CIA and other government outfits where the stakes seem far higher and where, presumably, followers of Michael Moore are in short supply. If life were a big game of Monopoly, one might suggest a trade to these conservatives: You give us one Pentagon, one Department of State, Justice and Education, plus throw in the Supreme Court, and we will give you every damned English department you want.
Conservatives claim that studies show an outrageous number of liberals on university faculties and increasing political indoctrination or harassment of conservative students. In fact, only a very few studies have been made, and each is transparently limited or flawed. The most publicized investigations amateurishly correlate faculty departmental directories with local voter registration lists to show a heavy preponderance of Democrats. What this demonstrates about campus life and politics is unclear. Yet these findings are endlessly cited and cross-referenced as if by now they confirm a tiresome truth: leftist domination of the universities. A column by George Will affects a world-weariness in commenting on a recent report. “The great secret is out: Liberals dominate campuses. Coming soon: ‘Moon Implicated in Tides, Studies Find.'”
The most careful study is “How Politically Diverse Are the Social Sciences and Humanities?” Conducted by California economist Daniel Klein and Swedish social scientist Charlotta Stern, it has been trumpeted by many conservatives as a corrective to the hit-and-miss efforts of previous inquiries by going directly to the source. The researchers sent out almost 5,500 questionnaires to professors in six disciplines in order to tabulate their political orientation. A whopping 70 percent of the recipients did what any normal person would do when receiving an unsolicited fourteen-page survey over the signature of an assistant dean at a small California business school: They tossed it. With just 17 percent of their initial pool remaining after the researchers made additional exclusions, some unastounding findings emerged. Thirty times as many anthropologists voted Democratic as voted Republican; for sociologists the ratio was almost the same. For economists, however, it sank to three to one. On average these professors voted Democratic over Republican fifteen to one.
What does it show that fifty-four philosophy professors admitted to voting Democratic regularly and only four to voting Republican? Does a Democratic vote reveal a dangerous philosophical or campus leftism? Are Democrats more likely to deceive students? Proselytize them? Harass them? Steal library books? Must they be neutralized by Republican professors, who are free of these vices? This study opens by quoting the conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks on the loneliness of campus conservatives and closes by bemoaning the “one-party system” of faculties. Nonleftist voices are “muffled and fearful,” the researchers say. They do not, however, present a scintilla of information to confirm this. It is not a minor point. No matter how well tuned, studies of professorial voting habits reveal nothing of campus policies or practices.
The notion that faculties should politically mirror the US population derives from an affirmative action argument about the underrepresentation of African-Americans, Latinos or women in certain areas. Conservatives now add political orientation, based on voting behavior, to the mix. “In the U.S. population in general, Left and Right are roughly equal (1 to 1),” Klein and Stern lecture us, but in social science and humanities faculties “clearly the non-Left points of view have been marginalized.” This is “clearly” not true, or at least it is not obvious what constitutes a “non-Left” point of view in art history or linguistics. In any event, why stop with left and right? Why not add religion to the underrepresentation violation? Perhaps Klein, the lead researcher, should explore Jewish and Christian affiliation among professors. A survey would probably show that Jews, 1.3 percent of the population, are seriously overrepresented in economics and sociology (as well as other fields). Isn’t it likely that Jews marginalize Christianity in their classes? Shouldn’t this be corrected? Shouldn’t 76 percent of American faculty be Christian?
The Klein study and others like it focus on the humanities and social sciences. Conservatives seem little interested in exploring the political orientation of engineering professors or biogeneticists. The more important the field, in terms of money, resources and political clout, the less conservatives seem exercised by it. At many universities the medical and science buildings, to say nothing of the business faculties or the sports complexes, tower over the humanities. I teach at UCLA. The history professors are housed in cramped quarters of a decaying Modernist structure. Our classiest facility is a conference room that could pass as generic space in any downtown motel. The English professors inhabit what appears to be an aging elementary school outfitted with minuscule offices. A hop away is a different world. The UCLA Anderson School of Management boasts its own spanking-new buildings, plush seminar rooms, spacious lecture halls with luxurious seats, an “executive dining room” and–gold in California–reserved parking facilities. Conservatives seem unconcerned about the political orientation of the business professors. Shouldn’t half be Democrats and at least a few be Trotskyists?
Another recent study heralded as proving leftist campus domination was sponsored by the conservative American Council of Trustees and Alumni; it sought to document not the political orientation of professors but, more decisively, the political intimidation of students by faculty. Claiming an “error rate of plus or minus four,” the sponsors assert that their study demonstrates widespread indoctrination, that almost 50 percent of students report that professors “use the classroom to present their personal political views.” According to the sponsor, “The ACTA survey clearly shows that faculty are injecting politics into the classroom in ways that students believe infringe upon their freedom to learn.”
Closer examination of the study reveals dubious methodology. Most questions were asked in a way that nearly dictated one answer. Students were asked if they “somewhat agree” that “some” professors did this or that. A key statement ran: “On my campus, some professors use the classroom to present their personal political views.” And the possible responses ran from “Strongly agree” and “Somewhat agree” to “Somewhat disagree” and “Strongly disagree.” Of the 658 students polled, 10 percent answered “Strongly agree” and 36 percent “Somewhat agree,” which yields the almost 50 percent figure that appeared in headlines claiming half of American students are subject to political indoctrination.
Yet the statement is too imprecise to negate. Asked whether “some” professors on campus–somewhere or sometime–interject extraneous politics, most students (36 percent) respond that they “Somewhat agree.” That is the intelligent and safe answer: “somewhat” agreeing that “some” professors misuse politics. To partially or even completely negate the statement would imply that no professors ever mishandled politics. Yet a vague assent to a vague assertion only yields twice as much vagueness. The statement does not so much inquire whether the student him- or herself directly experienced professors misusing politics, which might be more revealing. Yet these murky findings are heralded as proof of campus totalitarianism.
These scattered studies are only part of the story. A series of articles, books and organizations have taken up the cause of leftist campus domination. An outfit called Students for Academic Freedom, with the credo “You can’t get a good education if they’re only telling you half the story,” is sponsored by the conservative activist David Horowitz and boasts 150 campus chapters. It monitors slights, insults and occasionally more serious infractions that students suffer or believe they suffer. The organization provides an online “complaint” form, where disgruntled students check a category such as “Mocked national political or religious figures” (mocking local figures is presumably acceptable) or “Required readings or texts covering only one side of issues” and then provide details.
At the organization’s website the interested visitor can keep abreast of the latest outrages as well as troll through hundreds of complaints in the Academic Freedom Complaint Center. Most listings concern professors’ comments that supposedly malign patriotic or family values; for instance, under “Introduced Controversial Material” a student complained that in a lecture on Reconstruction the professor noted how much he disliked Bush and the Iraq War. A very few complaints raise more serious issues, and some of these are pursued by other Horowitz publications or are seized on by conservative columnists and sometimes by the national news services. A Kuwaiti student who defends the Iraq War recounts that he fell afoul of a leftist professor in a government class, who directed him to seek psychological counseling. “Apparently, if you are an Arab Muslim who loves America you must be deranged.” To his credit, Horowitz’s online journal also ran a story from the same college about a student who was penalized after he defended abortion in an ethics class conducted by a strident prolifer [for background on Horowitz, see Scott Sherman, “David Horowitz’s Long March,” July 3, 2000].
Virtually all “cases” reported to the Academic Freedom Abuse Center deal with leftist political comments or leftist assigned readings. To use the idiom of right-wing commentators, we see here the emergence of crybaby conservatives, who demand a judicial remedy, guaranteed safety and representation. Convinced that conservatives are mistreated on American campuses, Horowitz has championed a solution, a bill detailing “academic freedom” of students; the proposed law has already been introduced in several state legislatures. Until recently, if the notion of academic freedom for students had any currency, it referred to their right to profess and publish ideas on and off campus.
Horowitz takes the traditional academic freedom that insulated professors from political interference and extends it to students. As a former leftist, Horowitz has the gift of borrowing from the enemy. His “academic bill of rights” talks the language of diversity; it insists that students need to hear all sides and it refashions a “political correctness” for conservatives, who, it turns out, are at least as prickly as any other group when it comes to perceived slights. After years of decrying the “political correctness police,” thin-skinned conservatives have joined in; they want their own ideological wardens to enforce intellectual conformity.
While some propositions of the academic bill of rights are unimpeachable (for example, students should not be graded “on the basis of their political or religious beliefs”), academic freedom extended to students easily turns it into the end of freedom for teachers. In a rights society students have the right to hear all sides of all subjects all the time. “Curricula and reading lists,” says principle number four of Horowitz’s academic bill of rights, “should reflect the uncertainty and unsettled character of all human knowledge” and provide “students with dissenting sources and viewpoints where appropriate.”
“Where appropriate” is the kicker, but the consequences for teachers are clear enough from perusing the “abuses” that Students for Academic Freedom lists or that Horowitz plays up in his columns. For instance, Horowitz lambastes a course called Modern Industrial Societies, which uses as its sole text a 500-page leftist anthology, Modernity: An Introduction to Modern Societies. This is a benign book published by a mainstream press, yet under the academic bill of rights the professor could be hauled before authorities to explain such a flagrant violation. If not fired, he or she could be commanded to assign a 500-page anthology published by the Free Enterprise Institute. Another “abuse” occurred in an introductory class, Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution, where military approaches were derided. A student complained that “the only studying of conflict resolution that we did was to enforce the idea that non-violent means were the only legitimate sources of self-defense.” This was “indoctrination,” not education. Presumably the professor of “peace studies” should be ordered to give equal time to “war studies.” By this principle, should the United States Army War College be required to teach pacifism?
In the name of intellectual diversity and students’ rights, many courses could be challenged. A course on Freud would have to include anti-Freudians; a course on religion, atheists; a course on mysticism, the rationalists. The academic bill of rights seeks to impose some limits by restricting diversity to “significant scholarly viewpoints.” Yet this is a porous shield. Once the right to decide the content of courses is extended to students, the Holocaust deniers, creationists and conspiracy addicts will come knocking at the door–and indeed they already have.
The bill of rights for students and the allied conservative watchdog groups that monitor lectures and book assignments represent the reinvention of the old un-American activities committees in the age of diversity and rights. The witch hunt has become democratized. Students for Academic Freedom counsels its members that when they come across an “abuse” like “controversial material” in a course, they should “write down the date, class and name of the professor,” “accumulate a list of incidents or quotes,” obtain witnesses and lodge a complaint. Rights are supposed to preserve freedoms, but here the opposite would occur. Professors would become more claustrophobic and cautious. They would offer fewer “controversial” ideas. Assignments would become blander.
More leftists undoubtedly inhabit institutions of higher education than they do the FBI or the Pentagon or local police and fire departments, about which conservatives seem little concerned, but who or what says every corner of society should reflect the composition of the nation at large? Nothing has shown that higher education discriminates against conservatives, who probably apply in smaller numbers than liberals. Conservatives who pursue higher degrees may prefer to slog away as junior partners in law offices rather than as assistant professors in English departments. Does an “overrepresentation” of Democratic anthropologists mean Republican anthropologists have been shunted aside? Does an “overrepresentation” of Jewish lawyers and doctors mean non-Jews have been excluded?
Higher education in America is a vast enterprise boasting roughly a million professors. A certain portion of these teachers are incompetents and frauds; some are rabid patriots and fundamentalists–and some are ham-fisted leftists. All should be upbraided if they violate scholarly or teaching norms. At the same time, a certain portion of the 15 million students they teach are fanatics and crusaders. The effort, in the name of rights, to shift decisions about lectures and assignments from professors to students marks a backward step: the emergence of the thought police on skateboards. At its best, education is inherently controversial and tendentious. While this truth can serve as an excuse for gross violations, the remedy for unbalanced speech is not less speech but more. If college students can vote and go to war, they can also protest or drop courses without enlisting the new commissars of intellectual diversity.