Free market of ideas closed

Question of the Day

Is it still considered bad form to talk politics during a social gathering?

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When the Supreme Court last term declared racial and certain ethnic affirmative action at colleges constitutional, the majority decision invoking the need for diversity omitted diversity of ideas. As The Chronicle of Higher Education (Sept. 24) reports in “Conservatives in a Liberal Landscape,” at “left-leaning campuses around the country, professors on the right feel disenfranchised.”

Yet, Sen. John Kerry — as quoted in the Sept. 17-19 New York Sun — dismisses “the idea that there is an ideological bias on college and university faculties” as a fantasy of “conservative talk-show hosts.”

But professor Robert Brandon, chairman of the philosophy department at Duke University, presumably unaware of Mr. Kerry’s dictum, says: “We try to hire the best, smartest people available. If, as John Stuart Mill said, stupid people are generally conservative, then there are lots of conservatives we will never hire.”

If I still had children filling out college applications, I would be hard-pressed to advise them on where they had a chance to learn from a faculty that would enable them to think for themselves.

Consider this survey by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles: “Of more than 55,000 faculty members and administrators in 2001-2,” reports the Chronicle of Higher Education, “48 percent identified themselves as either liberal or far-left; 34 percent as middle-of-the-road, and only 18 percent as conservative or far-right.”

Occasionally when I teach, I give each student a pocket copy of the U.S. Constitution on the first day of class because I have found that the history and content of that document — essential to the education of an American on free speech and free inquiry — is only sketchily and quickly taught in too many secondary schools.

But, in the New York Sun, Robert David Johnson, a brilliant, nationally respected scholar and persistently independent history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center, writes: “Brooklyn College president Christoph Kimmich recently installed on the history personnel committee, which controls future staffing decisions, a senior professor who had informed him that studying about the history of American political institutions is useful only for a ‘certain type of student, almost always a young white male.’ ”

Mr. Johnson asks: “Imagine the outcry if a college president [said] that African-American history classes are appropriate only for ‘a certain type of student, almost always a young black female.’ ” Mr. Johnson waged a hard-fought battle to get tenure at Brooklyn College, and you can see why. He is, in Duke Ellington’s phrase, “beyond category.”

When complaints are raised with college presidents, provosts and trustees about what amounts to widespread faculty inculcation of their ideologies in their teaching, the customary response from on high is a vigorous invocation of “sacred academic freedom.”

But what of the right of students in so-called higher education to exercise free inquiry in the essence of lifelong education and of citizenship? When I was an undergraduate long ago at working-class Northeastern University in Boston, Professor Elmer Cutts taught me the excitement of researching American and world history. I never knew what his politics were, but his passionate delight in the continuous act of learning was infectious. He did not follow an ideological party line.

Currently, at the University of Montana’s law school, full professor Robert Natelson has experienced the party-line barriers on campuses. He wants to teach constitutional law, but despite his scholarly publications on the subject, he was rejected for a vacancy in that course four times. When an outside mediator got the university to let Mr. Natelson teach the course next spring on a temporary basis, a fellow law professor there, Scott Burnham, told the Chronicle of Higher Education: “The problem is our law school has a culture where it’s not receptive to an exchange of views.”

Mr. Burnham disagrees with Mr. Natelson’s free-market conservatism, but believes he should be able to teach constitutional law. In that university enclave of heavily weighted intellectual bias, shouldn’t the students have the right to an exchange of views on the faculty?

Doesn’t their tuition cover their right to have that diversity?

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