The Corner

Politics & Policy

Can Public Universities Get away with Ideological Discrimination?

That is the question posed in a case from the University of Iowa that began some ten years ago and has finally ended with the Supreme Court’s refusal to take it on appeal.

It arose when an applicant (and evidently the best qualified in a group) for a full-time position teaching legal writing at the University of Iowa College of Law, Teresa Wagner, was rejected for what seem to be blatantly ideological reasons. She was an outspoken social conservative favoring the right to life. Her philosophy so bothered many of the faculty (where she already had been teaching part-time) that they turned thumbs down on her to hire a much less qualified but raging leftist candidate.

So Wagner (now Manning) sued. The case bounced back and forth between the federal district court in Iowa and the Eighth Circuit, but in the end the appeals court upheld the lower court’s verdict against her. Despite a strong brief favoring her petition for certiorari written by former Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli, the Supreme Court decided not to take the case back in April.

I write about the issues in today’s Martin Center article.

While I find it regrettable that university faculties are so politicized that good candidates like Teresa Manning get rejected, I think it would be even worse to have some law or regulation against discrimination based on politics. Consider the case of Professor Steven Salaita, who almost had a position on the faculty at the University of Illinois, when his appallingly nasty tweets regarding Israel and the Palestinians came to light.

Illinois was able to exercise its freedom of contract and decline to finalize the deal with Salaita. I’m afraid that any law against ideological discrimination would more often work in favor of “progressive” hotheads than in favor of people like Teresa Manning.

Contractual freedom doesn’t always please everyone, but it is best, I believe, not to tamper with it.

George Leef is the director of research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

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