Blogs > Cliopatria > Conservatives in the Academy

Sep 21, 2004 7:33 pm

Conservatives in the Academy

Fascinating article in yesterday's Chronicle regarding the place of conservatives on campus. The piece was prompted by the fate of Robert Natelson, a professor at Montana's law school.

Natelson claimed that he was denied the opportunity to teach a course in constitutional law because he was a conservative; a mediator ruled that he was treated unfairly. His colleagues' justifications for Natelson's not being assigned to teach the course?"We put more of an emphasis on getting along," said one, and Natelson had a tendency to"rock the boat." Added another,"The problem lies in his ability to work and play well with others." One can just imagine what sort of students the school is producing if courses are assigned on the ability of professors to"work and play well with others." Could it just be possible that the other members of the University of Montana law faculty would have found Natelson more collegial if he agreed with their political views?

The article also discusses the case of John Yoo, a professor at Boalt Law School at Cal-Berkeley. (Yoo and I had the same undergraduate advisor, and I have admired his scholarship since the first article I read by him more than a decade ago.) One quarter of the graduating class last year at Berkeley demanded Yoo's resignation, to protest advisory opinions he had rendered while working in John Ashcroft's Justice Department. Berkeley's position (correctly, I think) is that students have a free speech right to take whatever position they want.

Imagine the opposite scenario, however: conservative students demanding the resignation of left-wing faculty members because of their opinions. Much more moderate reactions have already occurred recently in the academy, such as establishment of the website or the decision by College Republicans at the University of Texas to publicize the views of professors they considered excessively hostile to US foreign policy. Both moves had been denounced as a revival of"McCarthyism." I haven't seen any of those who leveled the charges in the Texas case or with defend Yoo. I wonder why?

The defenders of the status quo make arguments that strike me as, to put it mildly, less than persuasive. Carol Christ, president of Smith College and a 30-plus year veteran of academia, remarks that"There's much more diversity in the academy than the conservatives on the right represent there as being." Her evidence? She"knows professors who have a broad range of views on the economy, the Middle East, and the war in Iraq." So there is no problem if a college president with more than three decades of experience has met two or three professors in her career with differing views on the Middle East? According to Erwin Chemerinsky, a Duke Law professor,"At a time when the president is conservative, the Supreme Court is controlled by a conservative majority, when both houses of Congress are controlled by Republicans, it's hard to see this as a time of liberal dominance." No one, as far as I know, claims that a leftist dominance in the academy has anything to do with contemporary political trends.

The real problem, of course, is with the exclusion of professors or topics because of a perception that they are" conservative." Articles like the Chronicle one are a step in the right direction in terms of exposing the issue.

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Carl Patrick Burkart - 9/24/2004

I actually checked out I admit, my first response to hearing about the website was "McCarthyism," but having read some of the reviews, I'm not so sure. Most of the posts that I read (not a representative sample) were composed by people who seemed too sensitive to perceived political bias. For example, to think that a sociology course should give equal time to views held by Republicans is not necessarily a problem, particularly if those particular views are marginal in the discipline of sociology.

However, I read at least one rebutal(sic) from a professor accused of bias and result was a fairly illuminating dialogue. In fact, I am now convinced that this kind of public scrutiny is probably the solution to any problem of bias against conservatives that might exist in the classroom. As long as it doesn't come to "quotas for conservatives" I think that professors should welcome the interest, regardless of its motivation. In particular, I encourage anyone who teaches at a University to post a rebuttal to any claims of political bias.

Jonathan Dresner - 9/23/2004

Actually, I was only really commenting on the Nixon/felony discussion. I think straight quota systems, much like "pure" and "objective" merit systems (in your last paragraph you dismiss something as a "demonstrated predictor" without considering that, as far as I know, nobody has tried to correlate the data in such a way as to either support or refute the use of that measure, so at some point someone has to take a leap and try), are blunt instruments which need to be tempered with good judgement.

Richard Henry Morgan - 9/23/2004

I submit, Jon, that you have too much common sense to, if you were a member of a law faculty, vote to reserve slots on law review for gays. Does this rely on an argument that only gays who are out of the closet bring a disproportionately underrepresented gay perspective that is so valuable that it trumps the standard criteria of GPA (done, for the most part, by blind assessment) and legal writing (done by blind assessment)? It must, for how else would one determine that gays are somehow underrepresented on law review?. Isn't it possible that closeted gays have a similarly valuable perspective? And if so, who is to say that closeted gays weren't already disproportionately represented on law review?

Guess who complained about the change the most? Yep, gays amd other minorities so "benefited" since, when they present themselves at, say, White & Case with law review on their resumes, the immediate assumption is that they got it by preference. These protests, unlike others, of course fell on deaf ears at Columbia. There's something bizarre that happens when otherwise intelligent but pathologically well-meaning faculty congregate to make policy: camel is a horse designed by faculty committee.

The unintended effects of good intentions, poorly instantiated in policy, often enough swamp the intended effects. At Berkeley the president decided that high schools were spending too much time on studying material for the standard SAT. Just what was too much? Well the standard SAT was the single best predictor of college scholastic performance, and in underrepresented minorities, it was an even stronger predictor. You wouldn't think that the president of Berkeley had so little to do that he need make high school curricular reform the main purpose of his administration.

Of course, that wasn't the real purpose for dispensing with the general SAT, and substituting subject-specific SAT's -- it was to boost enrolment of underrepresented minorities. Unfortunately, Berkeley also instituted a change -- that the student could take the subject-specific tests in his native language (was this a demonstrated predictor of performance in an English language environment? No). The net effect was that Asian enrolment (Asians were already disproportionately represented) increased, and underrepresented minorities decreased. And this was a system designed by a president who was a cognitive psychologist? Un believable.

Jonathan Dresner - 9/23/2004

Actually, there's a pretty good case for having people from all sides of the law speak at law schools, though since the specific role of the graduation speaker is to honor both speaker and class, the case is weaker there. But I would not uniformly bar even convicted felons -- depending on circumstances -- from this role.

But then, I don't work at a law school.

Oscar Chamberlain - 9/23/2004

Richard has a point here. Unless there was a standing policy that would have prohibited Nixon, I think they should have invited him.

I doubt if Nixon was the only felon, probable or convicted, on that list.

Richard Henry Morgan - 9/23/2004

You mean as opposed to an impeached president or a "convicted" felon, since Nixon wasn't impeached (as Clinton was) nor convicted (as Webb Hubbell was)? If the ABA can invite a convicted felon like Hubbell, and an impeached president like Clinton, to address their national conference, then I would submit that Nixon wouldn't be out of line for commencement speaker at Columbia law. But let's not take the hypocritical left as our standard, shall we? Let's agree that Nixon wasn't an appropriate speaker. Don't you think that grownups ought to simply admit that the administration has a veto on speakers, rather than engaging in a kabuki dance of pretending to respond to feeble student protests by the usual suspects, ginned up by the administration?

My only remaining question is how were the law students to prove they qualified as homosexuals? Was that too to be left up to the satisfaction of the faculty?

Ralph E. Luker - 9/23/2004

Of course, you and I both agree that a prestigious law school ought to have a felon as its commencement speaker, right?

Richard Henry Morgan - 9/23/2004

I'm reminded of an episode in that long-running series I call "The Columbia Follies". Some years back, the law school there was looking for a commencement speaker. The established procedure was to have the each student vote by placing a name on a sheet of paper, and then rank-ordering the candidates by number of votes -- they would then be invited in rank-order until one accepted.

Trouble was, the first dozen or so candidates declined, and the next on the list was Nixon. At this point, the administration (of course) didn't invite Nixon to be the commencement speaker. Rather, they invited the law school student body to protest the very prospect of having Nixon as a speaker. Having ginned up the requisite dozen or so protesters, the administration then "bowed" to the "overwhelming" student demand, and instituted another vote.

Of course that's just one instance at the law school. At one point the law school administration decided that the procedure for determining law review (gpa's and blind assessment of writing samples) discriminated against minorities, including gays, so the law school set aside slots in law review exclusively for minorities and gays. You can't make this stuff up.

Ralph E. Luker - 9/22/2004

Jonathan, I haven't said that you can't trust any book that Buhle ever wrote. This is the third time that you have mischaracterized what I said in order to justify your rejection of what I actually did say.
Take my word for it: I am _really_ sure. If I weren't, I wouldn't publish the charges.
If you don't know how historians are to be held accountable, I'd suggest that you start trying to figure it out. We _do_ have a credibility problem because some of us have published fraudulent work, some of us have published very careless work, and the AHA has just said that it will no longer conduct any inqueries into complaints. They may have made the only reasonable decision, but some of us have been very critical of groups like the AMA for its enormous caution in sanctioning medical malpractice. I'm asking if we aren't now doing much the same thing.

Jonathan Rees - 9/22/2004


Even if we go with the idea that you can't trust any book Buhle ever wrote or simply that "Buhle's a liar", then these are still serious enough charges that I would want to look into them myself. Unforunately, I don't have enough time to do it either. I'm not giving anybody a pass, left or right. I'm witholding judgement.

I am familiar with your current debate with Cramer and I haven't the faintest idea how I'm allying myself with him. He thinks the vast majority of historians don't follow professional standards and I think you should be really sure before you accuse someone or endorse the idea that someone is violating them.

How do we hold historians accountable? Darned if I know. Do I have to have a solution in order to contribute to this discussion?


Ralph E. Luker - 9/22/2004

A) If you bothered to read what I said, I haven't said that Paul Buhle's "career" is a lie. I have said that his work from the Encyclopedia of the American Left [sic] forward shows deeply disturbing signs of carelessness and that he has refused to accept responsibility for correcting his own mistakes. The latter is _especially_ disturbing.
B) I have recent personal experience that Buhle lies in order to sustain his refusal of accountability. You can take my word for that. He lied when he said that editors at Cineaste privately regretted printing Brady's criticism of his work. If they regretted it, why did they repeat the criticism and say they wanted to encourage the discussion. Buhle's a liar.
C) If you followed my argument with someone like Clayton Cramer on the Right, you'd know that I've argued that you can't make gross indictments of "historians" -- that you can only hold individual historians accountable. Now, you come around, allying yourself with Cramer, and want to know why Bellesiles or Buhle get singled out for criticism. And, I'm telling you that we singled them out for _honors_, so it's perfectly legitimate to look more closely at whether the honors are justified. And, I'm further telling you that they're not.
D) I don't have time or resources to hold everybody accountable. I have a hard enough time holding myself accountable. But it is important to look at the work of historians _we've_ singled out as exemplary and, if it's not, it's important to say so. And, if that's a problem for you, then I want you to say here and now when, where, and how _are_ historians to be held accountable. Otherwise, I don't understand the difference between your position and Clayton Cramer's. He wants to indict all of us. You want to give all of us a pass -- or, at least, all of us on the Left.
E) That you may disagree with Peter Kirstein gives me no comfort whatsoever that Left-diversity is quite satisfactory, any more than Right-diversity would be satisfactory. Kirstein has at once identified himself with Horowitz on the hard Right, Buhle on the hard Left, and David Irving on the hard whatever. All you've said to me is that you want to be known as reasonably sane.

Jonathan Rees - 9/22/2004


There are two Buhle related issues from that other page and you're mixing the two. The first is consistency. If you are going to apply a particular set of scholarship standards you ought to do it to everybody regardless of their political affiliation. In fact, if you only single out people who are controversial I believe that will encourage people not to take chances and do dull work. I am not accusing you of selective persecution, but there is no question in my mind that if Michael Bellesiles didn't write a book about guns we never would have heard of him. [Incidentally, serious question: Has anybody ever given the Arming America treatment to his book on Vermont?] You want to cover everybody, but I think some of your sources in that article have other motives.

The second is the question of whether Paul Buhle can be trusted. The answer is that I don't know. As much as I respect you and enjoy your writing, Ralph, I am not willing to take your word for it. And assuming for a second that what your sources say about three of his books, that still leaves 17 or so that haven't been attacked yet, and I don't think that the nature of the attacks you chronicle necessarily taint his entire output. I also know that when I need to know who someone like A.S. Embree was (which I do from time to time), the Encyclopedia of American Radicalism will tell me. Although it is big enough to use as a doorstop, it will be staying on my shelf for some time to come.

And back to K.C.'s post, not all leftists are the same. They have plenty of serious knock down drag out fights to between themselves to keep a serious diversity of opinion going for a very long time. Professor Kirstein and I, for example, might vote the same way, but based on HNN postings I agree with you ( and K.C., for that matter) a lot more than he. David Horowitz's get-the-liberal-professors web site offers advice on how to look for your teacher's voter registration so you can attack them for bias more effectively. I am saying here that we are not who we vote for anymore than we are defined by our age or what we had for lunch yesterday.

Not everything is political. I'm not giving Buhle a free pass because of his politics. I just want to be sure before I endorse the idea that a man's career is a lie.


Ralph E. Luker - 9/22/2004

Jonathan, In all candor, your unwillingness to hold Paul Buhle accountable to higher standards of accuracy as a historian is one reason why the academy needs to have more conservative scholars in it. There is an inclination to ignore the shoddiness of scholarship as long as it is shoddy on _our_ side of the political divide. That is, frankly, one reason why we were so slow to recognize that Bellesiles's work was fraudulent -- because we didn't want to. There is just something terribly complacent about your response to what KC's posted here.

Jonathan Rees - 9/22/2004

Not every issue in the world breaks down into left or right. In fact, in most subjects left and right aren't even relevent to day-to-day classroom experiences. The terms left and right or liberal or conservative are really just labels designed to simplify matters that are usually quite complex. There is plenty of diversity of the academy if you aren't determined to politicize everything.


Adam Kotsko - 9/21/2004

One quarter of the graduating class last year at Berkeley demanded Yoo's resignation, to protest advisory opinions he had rendered while working in John Ashcroft's Justice Department.... I haven't seen any of those who leveled the charges in the Texas case or with defend Yoo. I wonder why?

Could not such "opinions" rightly be taken to bear more weight than, say, my personal opinion of the war in Iraq -- that is, could rendering said opinions, while in the employ of the government, not be regarded as concrete political actions -- in this case, aiding and abetting a widely reviled attorney general? Protesting against a professor's concrete political actions while on the government's payroll seems to me to be vastly different than taking thorough notes on whether a professor makes sarcastic asides about the Bush administration.

And is this really the best example to use, given that it was a (minority) vote of the students, rather than the action of a leftist academic apparatchik?

"There's much more diversity in the academy than the conservatives on the right represent there as being." Her evidence? She "knows professors who have a broad range of views on the economy, the Middle East, and the war in Iraq." So there is no problem if a college president with more than three decades of experience has met two or three professors in her career with differing views on the Middle East?

She said she knows "professors." She didn't specify a number, or even whether the number was large or small. Based on the information you present here, you are clearly reading your own bias into her statement.

The status quo may or may not be bad and unproductive, but all this talk of "bias against conservatives" in the academy seems to me to be definitely bad and unproductive.

Jonathan Dresner - 9/21/2004

I think part of the reason the "M-word" gets applied to critics of critics of officialdom is that there is a lingering fear of the confluence between official power and ideological/political limits which was so vividly present in the [loosely defined] McCarthy era (so pale in comparison to actual ideological totalitarianisms elsewhere, but so foreign to our view of ourselves).

I realize that conservatives probably feel the same way, on a lesser scale, facing the liberal powers within the academy, but there is a difference in scale and scope.