An Academic(?) Conference to Combat the Right

Last Friday, a 6-hour conference at the City University of New York (CUNY) graduate center examined “rightist efforts, from fiscally or socially conservative movements to hate groups.” It apparently raised no eyebrows, though if the meeting had set out to examine “leftist efforts, from fiscally and socially liberal movements to the Unabomber and animal rights terrorists,” people might have wondered if it was a legitimate academic meeting or a highly partisan event posing as just another academic seminar.

No need to wonder. The title of the conference reveals the all-out partisanship: “The Right in These Times: Understanding and Combating Contemporary Shifts to the Right.” So does the cast of characters. They include David Harvey, a Marxist geographer at CUNY; Columbia University assistant professor of anthropology Nicholas DeGenova (notorious for wanting to see “a million Mogadishus,” i.e., the slaughter of tens of millions of U.S. troops); Attorney Eunice C. Lee, a fellow at the ACLU working on immigrant issues; and Ellen Gertzog, listed as “affiliate security,” whatever that might be, at Planned Parenthood. Apparently no one on the right, or even the center, was on the program.

Also attending was Lawrence Rosenthal, executive director of the Center for the Comparative Study of Right-Wing Movements at Berkeley, the subject of a long and glowing news article six weeks ago in the New York Times. The article stressed that the center was a purely academic one, quoting one professor as saying, “we really like to think of ourselves as scholars in the academy,” working on evaluating these groups without any agendas. “We’re not a political organization.” Yet here was the Lawrence, the executive director, lending a hand to a meeting that clearly had a political agenda.

Another troubling factor is that three of the five sponsors of the conference were departments of CUNY, a public institution that presumably shouldn’t be pursuing partisan “combat” on or off its own premises. The CUNY sponsors, joined by Planned Parenthood and People for the American way, were the CUNY graduate center Ph.D program in anthropology, the CUNY Center for the Humanities and the CUNY Center for Place, Culture and Politics.

After learning about the conference today on a tip from Gail Heriot at Right Coast, who had been informed by, I immediately sent the program to Harvey Silverglate, a lawyer specializing in First Amendment and academic freedom law and co-founder (with Alan Kors) and current Board chairman of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). Harvey emailed back, noting that he was speaking for himself as a lawyer very familiar with academic issues but not in his official FIRE capacity: “First of all this is the most blatantly partisan conference I can remember seeing a public (or private for that matter) university… Second, it is unclear to me whether this is run and sponsored by the university, or whether it is a group within the university that has been given university facilities for the conference. If it’s the former, it’s very troubling, and I would bet, unlawful. If the latter, I think it’s allowed, but the university would have to make the same accommodation to a competing political group if requested… I think the ACLU, of which I am a member, is within its rights sending a representative to participate in this or any conference, but I would find it VERY disturbing if the non-partisan ACLU, of which I am a member, joins what is essentially a rally against the political right.” Of course, it’s possible that Ms. Lee didn’t attend as an official representative of the ACLU and merely supplied the ACLU connection for identification purposes.

Will Creeley, director of legal and public advocacy at FIRE, has just weighed in with this opinion: “It’s my understanding that university departments are allowed to sponsor conferences like this even when the conferences explore partisan politics from a partisan angle. The bottom line for me here is that while this conference may be cited as evidence of the partisan leanings of CUNY’s graduate departments, it’s not illegal or unconstitutional.”


  • John Leo

    John Leo is the editor of Minding the Campus, dedicated to chronicling imbalances within higher education and restoring intellectual pluralism to our American universities. His popular column, "On Society," ran in U.S.News & World Report for 17 years.

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One thought on “An Academic(?) Conference to Combat the Right”

  1. I’m very disturbed that John Leo and Harvey Silverglate seem to think that it’s “unlawful” to have a conference with speakers they don’t like. If you don’t like a conference, complain or organize your own events. But don’t demand that some Big Brother on campus decide what speakers will and will not be permitted at a conference based on someone’s idea of what should be balanced.

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