BOULDER, Colo. | Coming soon to the University of Colorado at Boulder, what many had assumed was an extinct or at least endangered species: the conservative professor.
The famously left-wing university is on the cusp of selecting a “visiting scholar in conservative thought and policy,” a first-of-its-kind post aimed at embedding a prominent right-wing intellectual on campus as a conservative-in-residence for one or two years.
The idea is to increase intellectual diversity on campus, but the reaction from both sides of the political spectrum has been mixed. While liberals grumble about the wisdom of playing ideological favorites, conservatives worry that the program treats conservative scholars as some sort of exotic “freak show,” said Jon Caldara, president of the free-market Independence Institute in Golden, Colo.
“It’s distressing that a free-market conservative has to become a freak sideshow act at a college,” said Mr. Caldara, a CU graduate who lives in Boulder. “What this says is that it’s so difficult to find real intellectual diversity on a college campus that we have to go out and hunt somebody down.”
Other conservatives argue that the program — a kind of ideological affirmative-action program — is better than nothing. Relying on the administration or faculty to bring in more conservatives through the hiring process has been a colossal failure, said Mike Rosen, a conservative columnist and talk-show host on KOA-AM in Denver.
“Some conservatives have raised these objections, but what’s the alternative?” said Mr. Rosen, who serves on the 10-member selection committee. “This is at least an effort to mitigate some of that problem. If there’s going to be any progress at all, it’s going to have to be done in stages.”
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He said that there are a few conservative professors on campus, but they tend to teach apolitical subjects like mathematics, and thus lack the megaphone that the visiting scholar will have. A 2008 survey by CU professor emeritus Edward Rozek found that of 825 faculty members, only 23 — 2.7 percent — were registered Republicans.
The university named three finalists last week, each of whom must spend a day on campus meeting with university officials, teaching a class and conducting a public forum. Going first was Steven F. Hayward, a well-known writer and think-tank denizen who spoke Friday on conservatives and environmentalism.
He said he received some double-takes when telling people about the CU program. “One of my own friends emailed me this week and said, ‘This whole Colorado thing is just a gag for The Onion, isn’t it?’” said Mr. Hayward, referring to the satire publication.
Mr. Hayward spoke and took questions for about an hour, and even received applause from the audience of several dozen students and faculty. Asked why he thought the visiting scholar position was being created, he said, “It’s a reaction to the Ward Churchill train wreck,” referring to the former ethnic-studies professor who was fired in 2007 for comparing victims of the 9/11 terrorist attack to Nazi bureaucrats.
That same year, former CU Chancellor Bud Peterson broached the idea of creating a conservative professorship with an endowment of $6 million to $9 million. The plan was shelved after the 2008 financial crisis, but supporters of the concept raised $1 million from about 20 private donors to launch the visiting scholar pilot program.
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The next finalist to speak will be Linda Chavez, former director of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and a CU graduate, who is slated to arrive Monday. Ron Haskins, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is scheduled to speak Tuesday.
Mr. Rosen noted that the program includes funding for guest speakers, meaning that the conservative scholar won’t be the only voice that students hear from the right.
In an editorial Sunday in the Colorado Daily, the student newspaper, graduate student Matthew Aitken argued that conservatism should rise and fall on its own merits, without a subsidized assist from the administration.
“That an esteemed institution like the University of Colorado would give credence to this specious notion of conservative victimhood is disappointing, at best,” said Mr. Aitken.
Keith Maskus, associate dean of social services and professor of economics, said most professors he’s spoken to are “quite positive about it,” although “there have certainly been a few faculty members concerned about the idea, and they’ve made their concerns known.”
The committee’s search yielded 60 applicants, about a third of whom were serious candidates, meaning that they had a “demonstrated track record — not only were they able to write well, but they were involved in the public debate,” said Mr. Markus.
“[We] felt it was time we brought on campus someone who could articulate those arguments,” said Mr. Maskus. “The students were asking for it, the students were looking for it, and at a time when the world and the nation are looking for policy solutions, someone who can put the case forward is going to be highly valuable.”
During the search, Mr. Rosen said, a university official asked whether the scholar could be an academic with knowledge of conservatism but not necessarily a conservative.
“Somebody speaking for the university at one point said, ‘This scholar doesn’t even have to be a conservative,’” said Mr. Rosen. “Wrong. We don’t want to have conservatism being dissected by some philosophical entomologist.”
The committee is hoping to have the visiting conservative scholar start in the fall. Mr. Caldara predicted the scholar would receive a less-than-warm welcome on his or her first day.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if the National Guard has to escort that person into the building,” he said.