Obama And The Campus Left

Apart from Barack Obama’s call for students who perform national service to receive a college tuition credit, issues related to higher education received scant attention in the 2008 campaign. Yet for those interested in meaningful reform on the nation’s college campuses, the election provides some intriguing possibilities—provided that Republicans move beyond the perspectives offered in the campaign and return to the higher education agenda articulated by conservatives and libertarians over the past 15 years.
On issues relevant to higher education policy, Obama was clearly the most centrist of the three major contenders for this year’s Democratic nomination. John Edwards, who hitched himself to the far left of the party, surely would have been a paragon of political correctness. And before her reinvention as a tribune of the white working class, Hillary Clinton employed an often crude, gender-based identity politics.
A January New York Times op-ed typified how the Clinton campaign and its supporters reflected the excesses of 1970s feminism. Gloria Steinem (erroneously) rejoiced that “women over 50 and 60, who disproportionately supported Senator Clinton, proved once again that women are the one group that grows more radical with age.”

Obama, on the other hand, sported an academic background without embracing the groupthink that dominates many quarters of the contemporary academy. As editor of the Harvard Law Review, he reached out to conservatives as well as liberals. During his stint on the University of Chicago law faculty, he likewise received praise from all sides of the ideological spectrum. And in his campaign, he mostly avoided race-based or identity politics appeals—even when he trailed Clinton among African-Americans and some called him not “black enough.”
In 2007, on two causes celebres of the academic left, Obama elevated due process over political correctness—an unusual course for a national Democrat. In the Duke lacrosse case, the Illinois senator was the only presidential candidate, from either party, to demand that the Department of Justice investigate former Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong. This move came at a time when Clinton refused all comment on the case and Edwards’ chief blogger mockingly wrote that “the poor dear lacrosse players at Duke are being persecuted just because they held someone down and fucked her against her will—not rape, of course, because the charges have been thrown out.” A few months later, Obama resisted pressure from Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton to make the “Jena Six” case a central element of his campaign—a decision vindicated as more facts emerged in what Charlotte Allen termed “the amazing disappearing hate crime.”
Finally, an Obama presidency might revisit the race-based affirmative action upon which so much of the current academic establishment rests. (Politico’s Ben Smith recently explored this issue in some detail.) In his endorsement of Obama, London’s Tory mayor, Boris Johnson, astutely hypothesized that with an Obama victory, “we could even see the beginning of the end of race-based politics, with all the grievance-culture and special interest groups and political correctness that come with it.”
It’s an open question whether Obama as President will stand up to the diversity mantra. An early indication: will Obama ignore the complaints of Larry Summers’ detractors and nominate the former Harvard president as treasury secretary?
I’m a Democrat who donated to Obama’s campaign in both the primary and general election. But only the most closed-minded ideologue would deny that conservatives have dominated the recent battle of ideas in higher education. No politician can publicly defend the current situation of professors operating in a groupthink atmosphere, to the detriment of the students they teach. While liberals have mostly ignored the problem, conservatives have helped expose the alarming decline in intellectual pluralism on today’s college campuses. They’ve also fought to uphold free speech on campus, advocated restoring merit and quality as the basic instruments for academic evaluation, and challenged the idea that diversity should form the preeminent goal in university personnel or admissions processes.
Over the past eight years, the Bush administration and congressional Republicans too rarely translated these ideas into policy. But when they did act, they had a positive impact—as in seeking to improve government oversight of Title VI programs, increasing funds for the teaching of U.S. history, upholding the rights of religious students on campus, or pressuring NCATE to drop its requirement that Education schools evaluate all prospective public school teachers for a “disposition to promote social justice.”
Alas, positions taken by John McCain’s campaign frequently, if unintentionally, undermined the higher education arguments offered by conservative over the past two decades. The clearest example, of course, came when McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate. As Heather MacDonald wrote at the time, the move caused Republicans to lose “any standing to criticize Democrats for playing the race and gender cards.” MacDonald observed with horror how “the diversity epidemic had spread rapidly in the Republican political machinery,” ignoring that “race and gender are almost never a valid job qualification . . . This tendency must be fought, not capitulated to.” Kathleen Parker and David Brooks, among others, expressed similar concerns.
The Palin pick previewed a campaign environment that too often bordered on outright anti-intellectualism and damaged the GOP’s position as a party of ideas. In the Wall Street Journal, Mark Lilla described the atmosphere as a “populist chic,” characterized by some conservative intellectuals and publications defending a candidate best known for her “ignorance, provinciality and populist demagoguery.”
Palin’s beliefs and rhetoric also could cause long-term damage for those of us interested in higher education reform. Science professors are natural allies in the battle against campus groupthink—but they also have expressed concerns that the issue might serve as a stalking horse for creationism. Palin’s support for teaching “intelligent design” in public schools will do nothing to soothe scientists’ concerns about conservatives’ long-term goals.
And the campaign’s attacks on Rashid Khalidi (who Palin erroneously termed “Khaladi”) seemed more like a scattershot indictment of intellectuals than a specific critique of Khalidi’s troubling ideas. McCain and Palin so overstated their case (chiefly by comparing Khalidi to a neo-Nazi) that they managed to generate a sympathetic backlash in favor of a man who had justified anti-Israel instruction in Columbia’s Middle East Studies department on the absurd grounds that Arab-American students “know that the ideas [on Middle Eastern affairs] spouted by the major newspapers, television stations, and politicians are completely at odds with everything they know to be true.”
The campaign’s low point came on October 31, when Palin suggested that media criticism threatened her First Amendment rights. The statement drew mockery from liberals and attracted few defenders among conservatives.
But Palin’s claim undoubtedly sounded familiar to former Columbia provost Jonathan Cole, who had defended his campus’ anti-Israel faculty by implying that off-campus criticism violated academic freedom. The governor’s argument surely resonated with Duke professor Wahneema Lubiano, who had claimed that those who challenged her rush to judgment in the Duke lacrosse case wanted to have her “shut up.” In fact, the Palin thesis could have come from any spurious defense of unconstitutional campus speech codes.
To see the GOP’s vice-presidential nominee articulate a view on freedom of speech that would have earned a “red light” from FIRE’s rating system was depressing indeed.
Barack Obama burst onto the national scene with his 2004 keynote address, entitled, “Out of Many, One.” His vision of a unified American people was probably the most popular element of his campaign stump speech. This vision also strikes at the heart of the academic establishment’s preference for denying individualism and instead herding students and faculty into groups based on racial or ethnic identity.
Obama has repeatedly said that he desires a post-partisan Washington, focused on pragmatic solutions. Those interested in creating a more open, pedagogically and intellectually diverse environment on campus should take him at his word, and seek to prioritize the issue—all the while encouraging Republican politicians to abandon their flirtation with Palinism and reestablish the GOP as a party of ideas.


  • KC Johnson

    KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

5 thoughts on “Obama And The Campus Left

  1. Yet another brilliant offering from a man whose encyclopedic knowledge of history along with an ability to provocatively weave various elements into a rich analysis excites the senses.
    KC Johnson never disappoints.

  2. I’ve already left a different comment about this article on KC Johnson’s website . Here, I — as a holder of a journalism degree and eight years of newspaper experience — want to point out to the professor the importance of careful reading, especially when it comes to MSM-style “journalism”.
    Johnson says, “McCain and Palin so overstated their case (chiefly by comparing Khalidi to a neo-Nazi) that they managed to generate a sympathetic backlash in favor of a man who had justified anti-Israel instruction”. First, it was McCain not Palin who made the subject statement; Johnson’s obsession over Palin is briefly discussed in the comment I left at his blog. Second, McCain did not “compare Khalidi to a neo-Nazi”. Johnson erred in trusting and uncritically reading his source, the Los Angeles Times.
    The key is in skipping the first sentence, where the reporter spins a yarn to suit his own political view. Even the second sentence is an eye-popper: “‘What if there was a tape with John McCain with a neo-Nazi outfit being held by some media outlet?’ McCain asked in an interview with a Cuban radio station Wednesday morning.” One wonders, “A Cuban radio station? Does Castro know??” Of course, it turns out that the radio station was an American one, but a Los Angeles Times reporter apparently cannot be expected to know that Miami is in the United States.
    It is then obvious that the reporter displayed blatant political partisanship to say that McCain “compared” a college professor with “a neo-Nazi outfit”. Clearly McCain was comparing the media’s treatment of an event that Obama attended with a hypothetical event that McCain might have attended. Careful reading is important to any hope of sifting truth from fiction in the MSM.
    (I notice that the reporter also states, “Khalidi has denied having been a spokesman for the PLO.” This is the equivalent of writing, “Johnson has denied having been a book author” without — as with the allegation about Khalidi being a PLO spokesman — providing any sources of evidence for why the reality-based community might believe otherwise.)
    Surprisingly, Johnson cites the selection of Palin and her views on teaching “intelligent design” as a cause for concerns among academics. Since Palin — like a regular conservative — supports academic freedom, including freedom to teach “intelligent design”, I can understand why most modern academics would be distressed. Many issues, like traditional teachings of evolution, are considered so sacrosanct by today’s “intellectuals” that questioning of them on campus is prohibited. While I can understand why some of Johnson’s contemporaries would be worried by a champion of academic freedom, it is a surprising disappointment to see Johnson himself pandering to this point of view.
    P.S. Apparently to further endear himself to those who will always hate him, Johnson even mocks Palin’s pronunciation of Khalidi’s name, sneeringly noting that she pronounced it as “Khaladi”. So long as the Johnson is using this alleged mispronunciation as some proof of Palin’s cognitive deficiencies, he should help to educate her and the others of us among the unlettered herds west of the Hudson: Which is it, professor, “Kha-lid-eye”, “Kha-leed-eye”, “Kha-ly-die”, “Kha-leed-eee”, “Kha-lay-dee”?

  3. ?In the Duke lacrosse case, the Illinois senator was the only presidential candidate, from either party, to demand that the Department of Justice investigate former Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong.?
    As much as I respect KC Johnson?s incredible work on the Duke lacrosse rape hoax, his statement above is absolutely false at worse and nothing but hyperbole at best. Barack Obama never once ?demanded? that the Department of Justice investigate former Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong.
    Barack Obama could have written to the DOJ and demanded such an investigation, but he did nothing of the sort. He could have joined in with four elected representatives; Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., and Rep. Tom Feeney, R-Fla. who all wrote to the DOJ and made such a demand, but he did not. At any time during the campaign during his hundreds of speeches, Obama could have publicly voiced support for a DOJ investigation into Nifong?s wrongs, but he never once did that ? not ever.
    Barack Obama?s sole effort regarding the Duke rape hoax was to write a private reply to a letter from a constituent wherein he reiterated the constituent?s assertion that ?Congressman Walter Jones has asked Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to initiate a federal inquiry into Mr. Nifong’s prosecution ?? and then Obama wrote that ?This independent inquiry is needed, and I will be following its progress closely.?
    But, this very private reply to a constituent was posted on the Liestopper?s Board and then magically spun into something far more significant than it ever was by ABC news that termed Obama?s private reply as ?Another voice has joined the call for a federal investigation into the handling of the Duke Lacrosse case.? and by KC Johnson?s numerous postings on this subject.
    Obama never ?joined in the call for any federal investigation? nor did he ?demand? any DOJ investigation, ever — he simply replied very privately to a constituent that an ?independent inquiry is needed.? In short, he ?voted present? on the Duke lacrosse rape hoax.
    And, in addition to never having publicly commented on the call for an investigation, there is no evidence whatsoever that Obama has ever ?been following its progress closely? as he asserted. When it was announced in the New York Times on December 6, 2007 that the Department of Justice would ?not investigate Michael B. Nifong, the former Durham County district attorney, for his handling of the Duke University rape case? not one comment from Obama was ever heard or written.
    Yet the idea that Obama ?demanded? such an investigation or ?joined the call for a federal investigation? continues to be a spurious ?article of faith? among Obama supporters and readers of KC Johnson?s very outstanding Durham in Wonderland Blog.
    I, and many others, believed that such an investigation was needed. If, after Obama assumes office he directs the Department of Justice to initiate an investigation into Nifong?s actions and the violations of the civil rights of the lacrosse players by Nifong; Duke University and a number of its professors; The City of Durham, NC; and the Durham chapter of the NAACP, I will rejoice and be the first to commend Obama.
    Until that happens, please spare us the hyperbole in describing Obama?s efforts in this matter.

  4. Speaking as a conservative, I am grateful to Professor Johnson for having the courage to suggest that “conservatives have dominated the recent battle of ideas in higher education.” But I am not nearly so hopeful as he that the election of Barack Obama will mean any change whatever on American campuses.
    I have tried to explain why at some length here:
    Continued thanks to Minding the Campus for carrying the fight to the academic left.

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