“Taking the Right Seriously”: What a Notion!

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At The Chronicle Review, Mark Lilla writes about the University of California at Berkeley’s new Center for the Comparative Study of Right-Wing Movements. Admittedly, studying conservatism at Berkeley seems to rank among the ultimate oxymorons. And seeing as it is housed in the Institute for the Study of Social Change (which is dedicated to placing “issues of race, gender, and class at the center of the agenda”), the Center appears to study conservatives the same way medical researchers study lab rats, as curious but vastly inferior creatures.  Even the Center’s name has a pejorative ring, lumping American conservatives in with every other global “right-wing” movement, which even Dr. Lilla notes is unfair and inaccurate. 

Whatever the Center’s merits may be, Dr. Lilla’s article highlights the overwhelmingly and pervasively leftist environment that is modern academia.  Recent studies show that leftists outnumber conservatives by at least eight to one in most departments, and Dr. Lilla confirms this “embarassingly accurate” picture, noting that it is “foolish to deny what we all see before us”:

Over the past decade, our universities have made serious efforts to increase racial and ethnic diversity on the campus. . . .  Well-paid deans work exclusively on the problem.  But universities show not the slightest interest in intellectual diversity among faculty members.  That wouldn’t matter if teachers could be counted on to introduce students to their adversaries’ books and views, but we know how rarely that happens.  That’s why political diversity on the faculty does matter.  As it stands, there is a far greater proportion of conservatives in the student body of typical colleges than on the faculty.  A few leading thinkers on the right do teach at our top universities–but at some, like Columbia University, where I teach, not a single prominent conservative is to be found.

And he underscores this picture with some personal vignettes, showing how most academics view conservatism and conservatives as topics unfit for polite conversation.

Dr. Lilla continues by noting that “the blackballing of conservatives and conservative ideas is by now instinctive and habitual rather than self-conscious, reflecting intellectual provincialism more than ideological fervor.”  As bad as intentional discrimination is, this subconscious discrimination is even worse because it means that ideological litmus tests for professors seeking employment, tenure, and promotion are so widespread, so well-entrenched, and so universally accepted that universities do not even recognize that a problem might exist.  Indeed, as an “ex-conservative,” Dr. Lilla observes that even he was “lucky” to have landed an academic position and received tenure.

But after diagnosing the ills of modern academia, Dr. Lilla stumbles a bit when prescribing a cure.  At first, he takes pot shots at people like David Horowitz, who merely highlight the same systemic disease that he does.  Later he endorses special courses in conservative thought, where students read selections from some of the greatest conservative authors in recent history and debate their ideas.  While he cannot resist caricaturizing conservatives as uncivil acolytes of the Horowitz bogeyman who spout nothing but cliched Fox News talking points, he ends up endorsing a novel vision for universities–the marketplace of ideas, where a wide variety of perspectives are debated vigorously and freely.  Indeed, this almost sounds like the Supreme Court’s Keyishian decision, which said:  “This Nation’s future depends upon leaders trained through wide exposure to that robust exchange of ideas which discovers truth out of a multitude of tongues, rather than through any kind of authoritative selection.”

But Dr. Lilla largely overlooks the obvious and long-term solution to the ideological imbalance on campus:  treat conservative and Christian scholars just like everyone else.  He tries to resolve a personnel-based, personnel-created problem with a program-based solution.  Yet this approach ignores his previous admission that “political diversity on the faculty does matter.”  If universities are to have this unfettered, uninhibited exchange of ideas on campus, they will have to hire, tenure, and promote conservative scholars without regard to their political, ideological, or religious beliefs.   As Keyishian noted, the First Amendment “does not tolerate laws that cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom.”  Nor does it tolerate university litmus tests–whether acknowledged or not–that produce and perpetuate the gross ideological imbalance in what is supposed to be the marketplace of ideas.

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