Grievance School

(Illustration: Roman Genn)
From the February 23, 2015, issue of NR

Of all the college towns fixed in the American mind as bastions of elite leftism, a Big Four stand out: Cambridge, Madison, Berkeley, and Boulder. It was no wonder, then, that the University of Colorado at Boulder received national attention, and raised many eyebrows, when it announced a couple of years back that it wanted to hire an identified conservative as a visiting faculty member — the beginning of a privately funded pilot program to bring conservative perspectives to its storied campus. I ended up being the guinea pig for this unorthodox experiment.

The University of Colorado at Boulder is probably no more liberal (and perhaps somewhat less so) than many of its peers, such as the University of Michigan, Ohio State, and UCLA. There are even a handful of excellent conservatives and libertarians scattered throughout its academic departments, though they still amount to well under 1 percent of the faculty. Colorado’s flagship university, like the University of California at Berkeley, suffers more from the reputation of its crunchy host town than from its own academic profile.

Boulder is a magnet for the vegan-hippie/affluent-leftist demographic, a place where the city council debates whether we should call our dogs and cats “animal companions” rather than “pets,” and a special “climate change” levy appears on electricity bills. It was not unusual to encounter clouds of pot smoke during my early-morning jogs through the downtown Pearl Street mall, even before Colorado legalized the recreational use of marijuana in a referendum. The town has more bicycles than cars, and there were street protests against the opening of a Walmart. Boulder has a rigidly protected greenbelt surrounding it, pushed by anti-growth, “quality of life” environmentalists back in the 1970s, and I loved to tell liberal audiences that conservatives wholly approve of the Boulder greenbelt because it makes the quarantine so much easier to enforce: Liberals trying to escape can be more readily rounded up by the tea-party pickets on the perimeter and sent back downtown with a fresh package of fair-trade organic kale.

But Boulder did have the spectacular Ward Churchill train wreck a decade ago. Despite his glaring mediocrity, Churchill had somehow become a tenured professor and the chairman of the ethnic-studies department. There he might have soldiered on in relative obscurity but for his comment that the victims of the 9/11 attacks deserved their fate, as “little Eichmanns” of the oppressive white patriarchy. A controversy flared up in 2005 when another college invited him to be a visiting professor, and after a protracted process involving several lawsuits, Churchill was stripped of his tenure and fired — not for his extremist views, but for shoddy, plagiarized scholarship, which no one had bothered to scrutinize before he brought unwanted attention to the university. Although the proposal to bring an explicitly conservative presence to Colorado’s flagship campus had been under active discussion for a long time, the Churchill affair proved to be a tipping point.

It is a dubious idea, admittedly, to address the dearth of conservatives in academia with a deliberately politicized hiring process. The best remedy to leftward drift or narrow academic bias in the academy surely isn’t the introduction of self-conscious conservative counter-programming, which would remain on the margins in any case. But it is tempting to paraphrase the axiom of that other Churchill (Winston) about democracy: that it’s the worst idea imaginable — except for all of the others that have ever been tried. So, with ever-accumulating evidence of bias against conservatives in academic hiring and advancement, perhaps an effort to introduce a conservative perspective in a high-profile way is an experiment that should be tried.

I insisted on one condition in accepting the appointment: that I be hosted by a regular academic department and teach departmental courses out of the catalogue, rather than be an ornament for an ad hoc or free-floating “conservative studies” program. Setting up a “conservative studies” program would ironically ratify the intellectual rot of the various “studies” departments that have sprung up over the years to appease the most radical, grievance-minded factions in academia. “Conservatism” is not a discrete subject, like biology or English literature; as with liberalism, it is a point of view or disposition that informs nearly all the traditional disciplines. And in any case, even a conservative professor who feels like a Soviet dissident on today’s campuses ought to uphold the traditional model of teaching by presenting a full spectrum of views in the classroom, rather than engage in counter-indoctrination.

The political-science department and the environmental-studies program proved to be gracious and willing hosts, and for a common reason. Political science tends to be among the least politicized of the social sciences on account of the disparate methodological approaches in the field, though this is not to deny that most departments are dominated by liberals. (Several students told me of professors who began courses with statements such as, “If you’re a Republican, you won’t like my class.”) As Allan Bloom pointed out years ago, “political science is the only discipline in the university (with the possible exception of the philosophy department) that has a philosophic branch,” and three recent presidents of the American Political Science Association (APSA) held doctorates in other fields. Radical leftists often complain that political science is “too conservative.”

But the horizons of political science are slowly narrowing, as my own experience demonstrated. Boulder’s political-science department, with nearly 40 full-time tenured or tenure-track faculty, was delighted to have me teach the full-year course sequence on constitutional law because, as the department chairman told me, “no one in the department teaches it any more.” And therein lies a broader tale.

At almost all major research universities, courses on the Constitution, and public law generally, have fallen out of fashion in political-science departments because these areas are an unpromising, backward-looking subfield for scholars understandably concerned with tenure and advancement. In fact, the APSA held a hand-wringing panel about this trend at its most recent annual meeting. Narrowly quantitative modeling exercises are dominating political science more and more. (In a happy postscript, positive student feedback about my con-law class has led one of the regular political-science faculty members to take up the course this year.)

The environmental-studies program, through which I taught an upper-division course called Free-Market Environmentalism, was similarly hospitable, which may come as a surprise to conservatives who rightly find most environmentalism an undrained swamp (er, wetland) of apocalyptic and anti-capitalist extremism. To be sure, Boulder’s environmental-studies program leans to the left, and I had a few sharp but civil arguments (the most heated being over the issue of animal rights). But for the most part, its faculty and curriculum were not politicized or single-mindedly obsessed with climate change, and I was consistently impressed with the seriousness and academic rectitude of the department in the faculty meetings I attended and the classes I visited. One day the program chairman brought up a request for the campus Public Interest Research Group to come to each class for ten minutes to register voters ahead of a special election that included several local environmental initiatives. The faculty not only rejected the idea vehemently, but one professor said, “I don’t care if it’s to save the planet — they’re not getting ten minutes of my classroom!”

The program is shorthanded for the number of students it attracts, which is one reason it welcomed me. In addition, the “free-market environmentalist” perspective of my course, which emphasizes the role of property rights, markets, and incentives, is both well known and respected in Boulder’s environmental-studies program, and there were other indications of a widening gulf between the academic community and environmental-advocacy groups. Several faculty members expressed frustration with the movement’s simple-minded opposition to genetically modified organisms, and one finalist for a faculty position made the telling remark in her hiring presentation, “This chart is from Greenpeace, but it’s actually pretty good.”

This openness to conservative views is part of a pattern. The silliest campus incidents usually don’t originate from faculty in traditional or science-based fields. Instead, they come disproportionately from explicitly politicized “studies” disciplines, activist-oriented “centers,” or disciplines with less rigorous intellectual content, such as creative writing and communications. (The most recent example of this is the professor of communications at the University of Michigan who wrote the now-famous “It’s OK to Hate Republicans” article for In These Times.) Boulder has a women-and-gender-studies program that proudly advertised its rough equivalent of Ward Churchill, an “activist-in-residence” who is a community organizer without academic credentials of any kind. She is essentially a Naomi Klein clone, fixated on the evils of “neoliberalism.” Not even the sociology department, which leans far to the left, would make such an openly politicized non-academic appointment.

These microcosms of anti-academic radicalism become a macrocosm in several ways. It is ironic that an ideology that marks out colonialism as a preeminent sin of Western racism and oppression does not perceive its own academic imperialism. The spirit of militant leftism is not content to reside in the various “studies” fields, but has infiltrated and colonized most of the other departments in the social sciences and humanities. The grievance Left’s insatiable will to power over other academic departments was seen in a demonstration last year at Dartmouth, when the identity-politics faction occupied the president’s office, demanding that there be a queer-studies course in every department, including, presumably, physics and chemistry.

In most departments of political science, history, English, anthropology, psychology, philosophy, and sociology, you will find several professors whose main focus is the holy trinity of race, class, and gender, along with their close correlates, post-colonialist, postmodern, and post-structural analysis. (If “holy trinity” seems like an infelicitous metaphor, you could go with the Four Horsemen of the Leftist Apocalypse instead: patriarchy, colonialism, privilege, and Israel.) At Boulder, the telltale markers show up for about one-third of the history, English, sociology, anthropology, and geography faculty members (geography seems to have been an early target of opportunity for politicized scholarship just about everywhere) but are much less common in political science and philosophy. About the only Boulder departments in social sciences or humanities where you don’t find the holy trinity are economics and classics. I am tempted to propose the theorem that the presence of politically correct radicalism exists in inverse proportion to the emphasis on regression modeling or the serious study of ancient languages. (Though perhaps not for long; the campus Left, taking note of its lack of infiltration in economics, sent protesters and hecklers to the latest annual meeting of the American Economics Association, demanding that the discipline include perspectives on gender and class.)

This encroachment of PC doctrine proceeds because it encounters no serious opposition. For one thing, the typical academic liberal, even in the hard sciences, sympathizes with the basic historical grievances of the Left about racism and sexism. But even those faculty members who think the race, class, and gender workhorses are badly worn out have better things to do than make feeble gestures of resistance and tend to regard the beachheads in their own departments with benign neglect. I suspect that most professors of the race-class-gender catechism can sense that many of their colleagues don’t take them very seriously, which only serves to further fuel their righteous indignation, self-imposed sense of oppression, and mob mentality.

As you might imagine, the spillover of these radical obsessions leads to a surfeit of courses emphasizing the holy trinity. During the run-up to the registration period for the spring semester, the bulletin boards in the hallways at Boulder were festooned with flyers for new courses: Gender and Global Justice, Gender Politics and Global Activism, Transgender Studies, Gender and U.S. Politics: Protest, Polls, and Policy, and so on. I’d estimate that flyers for holy-trinity courses accounted for 75 percent of the total flyers on display. Clearly the identity-politics course offerings are chasing after a limited number of interested students. When I brought this overrepresentation to the attention of one administrator, I was curtly told that “they need to do this, because students are set in their ways.” (It is no coincidence that courses featuring the holy trinity’s oppression/privilege narrative are disproportionately represented in the university’s smorgasbord of a “core curriculum.”)

Woe unto any department that doesn’t satisfy or genuflect fully to the braying mob. The special target at Boulder last year was the philosophy department, which leans predominantly to the left or far left, but which had only four women among its 25-member faculty. This is typical of philosophy departments everywhere; as with physics and mathematics, women constitute only about 25 percent of current philosophy graduate students. (Larry Summers was unavailable for comment.) It didn’t help that one or two male professors in the department had a genuine problem with sexual harassment and deserved dismissal. This became a wedge for the American Philosophical Association’s Committee on the Status of Women to file a report with the Boulder administration condemning the entire department for creating a “hostile environment” — after a “site visit” to the campus that lasted only 18 hours. It was a shoddy report that the university’s administration should have returned to the APA as unacceptable. Instead, the administration, facing a Colorado Open Records Act query, released the report and publicly endorsed it.

That was when the fun really started. The administration had told the philosophy faculty to refrain from public comment about the matter, so I decided to defend the department in an article in the Daily Camera, Boulder’s town paper, and on a Colorado Public Radio broadcast. Why go in for micro-aggression when you can offer full-tilt-boogie macro-aggression? “Inviting outside review by the American Philosophical Association’s (APA) Committee on the Status of Women,” I wrote, “was guaranteed to produce a finding as predictable as the Salem Committee to Investigate Witchcraft in 1691. . . . Barring more transparency, I think the presumption should be reversed: The Philosophy Department is the victim of the increasingly Star-Chamber atmosphere of campus political correctness.”

In other words, I was spoiling for a fight. And I didn’t have to wait long.

First came a column from an aggrieved pair of students in the student paper that, to borrow a line from C. S. Lewis, was “full of the cocksureness which flattery breeds on ignorance, and quick to snarl or whimper at the first hint of criticism.” It charged me with “bigotry” for failing to understand that “oppression is overrepresented on this campus,” a criticism bolstered with every cliché of grievance leftism, including that “1 in 5 women are raped” and that “women earn only 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man.” The writers of course invoked the favored term of the moment, “privilege.” Some students, they went on, would “feel uncomfortable or unsafe in [Hayward’s] classroom.” But my biggest sin was having mocked the labeling scheme of gender and sexual identity — in a blog post from six months earlier, in which I had wondered about the alphabet soup of “what goes by the LGBTQRSTUW (or whatever letters have been added lately) ‘community.’” Is this really such a risible comment? While Boulder generally employed the relatively compact LGBTQ, I learned on a visit to colleges in Maine that Bowdoin uses LGBTQIA, while down the road at Bates College it is LGBTIQQ. How long before The Daily Show offers LGBTQMST3K?

The point is, the two students had to go to some trouble to find a source of offense by scouring my off-campus writing, since there were zero complaints about any content in my classrooms. When your grievances against the world run so wide and deep, you can always find something. But the matter didn’t die there. The chairman of the Faculty Assembly, Professor Paul Chinowsky, decided to make the matter official, saying my off-campus remarks “bordered on hate speech” and suggesting that a formal censure from the Assembly, or suspension of my teaching duties, was in order.

The story quickly spread beyond the campus. The Denver Post editorialized that Chinowsky was overreacting, and followed up with an online poll of readers, who overwhelmingly agreed. The matter was quietly dropped after, I was reliably informed, several administrators told Chinowsky that he risked making an ass of himself and the Faculty Assembly if he pressed the matter. More interesting was the number of private communications I received from faculty members I had never met, whose politics, they assured me, were to the left or far left, but who expressed outrage at the ridiculousness of the whole affair.

Gradually coming into focus is the plain fact that today we have two universities — the traditional university, which, while mostly left-liberal, still resides on Planet Earth, and the grievance university, mired in the morass of postmodern obsession with oppression and privilege. You can still get a decent education, even from very liberal professors — I had several excellent ones as both an undergraduate and a graduate student — if they teach the subject matter reasonably, and I came to respect several far-left professors at Boulder who plainly held to traditional views about the importance of reason, objectivity, and truth. But these traditional hallmarks of the university — one might call them the original holy trinity of higher education — are fighting words to the postmodern Left, which openly rejects reason, objectivity, and truth as tools of oppression.

Bit by bit, the traditional university is losing ground to the politically correct university by an academic version of Gresham’s Law: Politicized scholarship drives out old-fashioned objective scholarship. The self-refuting character of postmodern ideology — isn’t the statement that “reason, objectivity, truth, and language are ‘socially constructed’” itself “socially constructed”? — might provide hope that it will go the way of previous academic fads. Will we look back 40 years from now on gender studies as a quaint and embarrassing misadventure like the Freudian obsession of the 1950s, which burst the bounds of psychology and cut a wide swath through many academic disciplines before fading of its own dead weight?

Probably not, for two reasons. First, the grievance industry has achieved critical mass, institutionalizing itself at the administrative level, especially in the domain of feminist “gender equity,” with a strong assist from the federal government’s tendentious application of Title IX and a copious flow of federal grants for “research” into politicized topics. The radical temper is typically knitted tightly together through a variety of campus “centers” and interdisciplinary programs. It’s hard to count all of the leftist programs at Boulder; examples include CLASP (the program in Culture, Language and Social Practice), the Gender Justice League, the Women’s Resource Center, the GLBTQ Resource Center, the Program in Peace and Conflict Studies (in the communications department?), as well as a student group whose sole purpose is making sure The Vagina Monologues stays in regular production in Boulder.

Second and more important, the Freudianism and Marxism of a generation ago were at least based on purported scientific theories, grounded in ideas about nature, however defective. You could argue with a Marxist. Today’s ruling campus leftist ideology is indistinguishable from nihilism and rejects any consideration of nature as the ground of anything. In fact, invoking human nature is one of the surest ways of calling down ferocious denunciation from the campus Left.

The irony of today’s campus Left is the real privilege of identity politics, whose practitioners shout down anyone who dares question their premises. The current temper of the campus Left is way beyond social utopianism; it demands ritual conformism worthy of the Soviet purge trials or Maoist struggle sessions. When the campus Left cries out “Privilege!” it means “Shut up and conform.”

Perhaps the most revealing recent episode involved University of Iowa president Sally Mason, who felt compelled to issue an apology after she improvidently used the term “human nature” in connection with a discussion of campus sexual-assault policy last year. As the Associated Press reported:

President Sally Mason said she was dismayed by the reports of sexual assaults. She said “the goal would be to end that, to never have another sexual assault. That’s probably not a realistic goal just given human nature, and that’s unfortunate. . . . ” Criticism erupted over the phrase that includes “human nature.” Mason said she’s been told by several people in the campus community that her remark was hurtful. She said she was “very, very sorry for any pain that my words might have caused.”

Between the stifling political correctness of the radical narrative, the increasingly esoteric hyperspecialization that renders boring much of the social sciences and humanities, and the out-of-control cost of higher education, it is doubtful that the university in its current form will survive. The number of students majoring in the social sciences (excluding economics) and the humanities has fallen by two-thirds over the last generation. At this rate, eventually many of our leading research universities will bifurcate into a marginal fever swamp of radicalism, whose majors will be unfit for employment at Starbucks, and a larger campus dedicated to science and technology.

As Horace put it, you can expel nature with a pitchfork, but it always comes back. There have been a few hopeful signs of resistance recently, including Harvard evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker’s public criticism of a demand for Harvard to discontinue use of soda machines made by an Israeli company, and the American Historical Association’s rejection of several anti-Israel resolutions at its latest annual meeting. Add to this the block of Harvard Law School professors protesting the erosion of due-process rights by the federal government’s Title IX demands on universities, along with the unraveling of the campus “rape culture” narrative following Rolling Stone’s debacle of an article about the University of Virginia. And a group of prominent social scientists led by Jonathan Haidt and Phil Tetlock recently published a widely noted paper decrying the absence of conservative perspectives in social science.

Which brings me back to the starting point — Boulder’s deliberate attempt to broaden its ideological spectrum. While the idea of a “visiting scholar in conservative thought and policy” can be criticized on a number of grounds, the administration deserves credit for persevering with it. There aren’t many other major research universities openly attempting to broaden their intellectual diversity. A century ago, the Cambridge classicist F. M. Cornford wrote that the first rule of faculty governance is “Nothing should ever be done for the first time” (an early version of the environmental “precautionary principle”!), and the University of California’s Clark Kerr observed that “few institutions are so conservative as the universities about their own affairs while their members are so liberal about the affairs of others.” So Boulder’s administration deserves great credit for embracing this initiative with genuine enthusiasm, and for being unfailingly supportive of me throughout my year in residence.

Beyond this initiative, Boulder’s administration shows other signs of recognition that academia’s reputation deserves some repair. There was no support there for the idea, popular on some campuses, that “trigger warnings” should be included in course syllabi. The administration closed down the campus on April 20 last year to prevent a mass marijuana smoke-in, as had occurred on that date in the past, despite recreational pot’s now being legal in Colorado. No one disturbed the 3,000 American flags that the College Republicans placed on the main quad lawn on September 11.

But these glimmers of reform are insufficient to the scale of the decay. Universities won’t begin to turn away from the intellectual corruption of radicalism until some kind of serious, organized opposition arises. A few isolated or token conservatives scattered in various departments, or visiting in a high-profile way, as I did at Boulder, won’t make much of a mark. To speak out alone against the relentless and insatiable demands of grievance leftism is to risk losing out on promotion and advancement, even if you already have tenure. Academic conservatives — along with disaffected moderates and liberals — need to emulate the campus Left and organize effective counter-programming, with their own centers and topical curricula, to contest the intellectual ground on campus. The thin ranks of academic conservatives need a campus rallying point, and a guerrilla mentality to match the determination of the Left. As Hemingway said of writers, conservative faculty ought to stick together like a pack of wolves.


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