When College Presidents Mistake Lib-splaining for Conservative Outreach

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Ideological condescension is not actually a ‘faith-rebuilding’ strategy.

From the provost’s office, conservative college students can appear a curious, benighted infestation, gadflies to be marveled at and handled with gardening gloves. Despite constant assurances that campus bias is a figment of the right-wing imagination, nothing better illuminates where things stand than the awkward efforts of big-hearted college presidents to connect with their resident ideological aliens.

Witness the recent puff piece by an industry paper, Inside Higher Education, which fawningly profiled two college presidents’ outreach to conservative students. Eager to deter “mistrusting” right-wing students from “inviting inflammatory speakers” to campus, these leaders have mounted a preemptive “faith-rebuilding” strategy of face-to-face interaction. Remarkably enough, sitting down with conservative students is such a novel approach that it merits media attention.

Even more telling is how these bridge-building efforts have unfolded. Consider the profile’s introduction to Occidental College president Jonathan Veitch, regarding his outreach to the campus’s College Republicans chapter: “Veitch said he taught the right-wing group the concept of conservatism.” As the reporter tells it:

When Veitch sat down with the members in fall 2016, at a meeting he brokered, and listened to some of their views, he interpreted that they favored a libertarian approach with more of a stress on a free market than true conservatism, based in tradition with individualism being a minor point.

So he gave them some required reading.

Just imagine, if you will, a college president orchestrating a meeting with a campus Black Lives Matter or LGBTQ group, listening briefly, deciding they don’t really understand the issue that animates them, and assigning them homework.

The book that Veitch assigned the Occidental College Republicans was Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot, which, the reporter explains, “would walk them through the work of some of the most recognizable conservative figures, including John Henry Newman and William F. Buckley Jr.” It’s worth noting here that The Conservative Mind, while seminal, is also a ponderous, orotund volume first published in 1953 and spanning more than 500 pages; even a thoughtful college student might not regard it as a particularly enjoyable extracurricular read. According to the reporter, “Veitch would read the book alongside them and then they would talk it over, which he said did generate some goodwill among the group.” (Oddly enough, the students who received Veitch’s ministrations “did not respond to multiple requests for comment.”)

Even presupposing that conservative students do indeed appreciate being tutored in their beliefs and values by a university president who doesn’t share them, one is tempted to wonder whether Veitch feels similarly obliged to school other politically oriented student groups on campus. Has he chatted with students from Occidental’s United for Black Liberation group to check whether they require supplementary tutoring in critical race theory? Has he instructed the Occidental College Democrats to bone up on their John Stuart Mill or William Jennings Bryan? We’d surely be intrigued to see the reading he chose to assign the Occidental College Students for Justice in Palestine.

Alas, we’ll never know the answers to those questions, because Veitch confined his lecturing to conservative students. In his remedial salons, the article continues,

Veitch would question ask [sic], why would you want to bring to campus the Ann Coulters of the world, whom he considers “not very smart, and intolerant to boot,” when they could track down an expert on health care, someone who could start a real debate on something that truly matters?”

“My impulse is to work with conservative students and find really smart conservatives to come to campus,” Veitch said. [Emphasis added.]

Now, some readers may rightly ask, “Isn’t it good that a college president is taking the time to teach students?” In a general sense, sure it is. Yet, there’s a marked difference between earnest intellectual mentoring and ideologically loaded paternalism. If a college president elects to teach a serious course in conservatism, offer a tutorial on political philosophy, or conduct salons with all politically engaged student groups, terrific. But Veitch is something else entirely: another in a long line of non-conservatives presuming to define what constitutes “acceptable” conservatism. He has taken it upon himself to decide for conservative students which conservative books are worthwhile, what debates “truly matter,” and who the “really smart conservatives” are.

This isn’t outreach; it’s ideological regulation. And as long as it remains the academy’s idea of courting conservative students, the intellectual climate on campus will only continue to get worse.

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