The Long Shadow Of The Sixties

In every discussion of left-wing bias on college campuses, a good portion of faculty defenders come to the table with a blunt contention. There is NO bias, they insist. Sure, most humanities and social science faculty register Democrat, but it doesn’t much affect teaching, and besides, campuses have their fair share of conservatism and libertarianism in the business school and upper-administration. Indeed, some add, the charge is but a concoction of fevered or cynical rightists, a weapon to dominate the classroom in the same way conservatives have AM talk radio. So, professors approach the issue not as a proposition to be examined, but an agenda to defeat.

It’s a frustrating reaction, but campus critics shouldn’t always chalk it up to faculty tactics and turf anxieties. Most professors who deny leftist bias believe what they say, and in fact maintain that the university has drifted well rightward in recent years. The notion certainly ticks off conservatives, who sense opposition down to the very first premises of several disciplines, but it’s still worth taking seriously. And one of the best ways of doing so is to go back in time to key moments that signify in the eyes of the most defensive professors just how liberal the college campus used to be—and is no more.

I came across one of them awhile back while perusing old issues of the San Francisco Chronicle. The year was 1968, and the town across the bay was a battle zone. On August 31, a riot on the Berkeley campus left one police officer with a gunshot wound and 13 protesters in jail. Three days later, a story in the Chronicle bore the title, “A ‘State of Emergency’ in Berkeley.” Youths lived under a curfew, and the city instituted a ban on public assemblies (largely ignored). A few miles to the south a trial had begun, flamboyant Black Panther leader Huey Newton facing charges of murdering a cop.

As witnesses testified and jurors deliberated, Newton’s lieutenant Eldridge Cleaver, the Panthers’ Minister of Information, speechified daily about the System, American genocide, and Huey. At a meeting of the Barrister’s Club of San Francisco, he declared that lawyers are “involved in the systematic extermination of people.” At one point, after Cleaver said he would like to receive a couple of machine guns from the audience, an attorney queried, “What can white people do for you except give you guns?” His reply: “Kill some other white people.”

In another speech, talking about the trial, Cleaver asserted that people abroad consider Newton a hero precisely because “he has been given credit by the power structure for killing an Oakland policeman… people think that’s just beautiful.”

The trial ended on September 8th with a “guilty” verdict, but Cleaver wasn’t long out of the headlines. Four days later an extraordinary announcement appeared on the front page. UC-Berkeley had added a new course to the roster on “problems of racism, poverty and justice,” Social Analysis 1391X. It was to be taught by four social science professors leading small groups and by one visitor delivering the main lecture each week—yes, Eldridge Cleaver. The course had been approved by a section of the Faculty Senate, and it would accommodate 100 students. Cleaver had no scholarly credentials, he peppered his orations with four- and twelve-letter words, and the following week his trial with four other Panthers for charges stemming from a shootout with Oakland police was due to start. But, affirmed a Berkeley psychology professor who backed the hiring, Cleaver would “bring qualifications well beyond those of any faculty member.”

With the announcement came a barrage of calls to the administration, which assured that no university funds would go to the effort. Governor Ronald Reagan, “astounded” at the appointment, demanded more and asked that it be rescinded. Cleaver answered Reagan a month later with a colorful speech at Stanford University:

America is the oppressor of humanity… America the torturer, America the ugly, the successor of Nazi Germany.

I challenge Ronald Reagan to a duel because Reagan is a punk, a sissy and a coward..

He can fight me with a gun, a knife, or a baseball bat. I’ll beat him to death with a marshmallow.

At this distance, the episode makes no sense on rational grounds. That the Berkeley faculty should welcome a voluble and vicious provocateur into the classroom for ten weeks—the other team teachers promised to make Cleaver’s thought a central focus of the class—bespeaks an investment of complex psychic import. That is why it helps to remember such moments when facing professors who grow indignant and disbelieving at the allegation of bias. In the minds of many professors, the days of protest, sit-in, “experimental” courses (as Social Analysis 1391X was termed), and marginalized voices brought to the quad signify a breakthrough, an ascent of campus life into a splendid moral meaning. People who remember them set the drawbacks of Cleaver-in-the-classroom against, say, the fact that the 1968 Berkeley faculty was 98% white, a disgrace that eclipses Cleaver’s profanity.

So, when conservatives deplore the one-sided list of campus speakers, or when they uncover ideological litmus tests in certification programs, and so on, they may intend only a revision of policy, for instance, a couple of right-wing voices on the schedule or the removal of pledges of diversity in job descriptions. But people who crafted those policies hear a different challenge. They extend the specific criticism into a general assault on the moral mission of higher education, and counter-attack accordingly. They recall a time when the campus was really liberal-ized, that is, open to pressing social issues, no longer hung up on credentials, ready to hear the disenfranchised, and willing to defy the Reagans of the world.

How far the campus has fallen, they muse. Careerist students and on-the-make colleagues. Corporate administrations, endowment growth, and rankings frenzy. And still, professors exclaim, conservatives won’t leave them alone. This regret and remembrance lies near the heart of the liberal bias denier. If conservatives wish to understand them, they should go back 40 years and read the papers. They will find much to deplore in full bloom, and they should study those tempests well.


  • Mark Bauerlein

    Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

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