Foolish Defense of the Politicized University

Political observers might have noticed that hostility to
higher education has formed a sub-theme of the Republican presidential race.
Mitt Romney has criticized Barack Obama for embracing
the ideals
of the “Harvard faculty lounge.” Rick
Santorum
, more recently, has faulted Obama for encouraging all students to
attend college, which the former Pennsylvania senator has termed
“indoctrination mills.”

These specific lines of criticism are weak. Obama taught at
the University of Chicago Law School, not at Harvard; the two institutions have
quite different academic cultures. And Santorum’s comment–which effectively
criticizes science, economics, philosophy, and classics departments for the
failures of many humanities and (some) social sciences departments–misses the
key problem (a lack of pedagogical and intellectual diversity) to level the
more explosive and weakly-sourced allegations of “indoctrination.”

That said, both candidates are tapping into a broader concern:
in the “diversity”-obsessed contemporary academy, hostility to Republican or
conservative views is pervasive. If I were a Republican legislator (and, for
the record, I am neither), this issue would seem like a political winner: if
public universities have entire departments that have become so politicized
that they do little more than preach to an anti-GOP base, why should taxpayer dollars (at least from conservative
districts) finance them?

Of course, far-sighted college or university administrators
might have acted long before now to head off such a disastrous outcome–in part
by taking symbolic actions to encourage dissenting views on campus, in part by
standing up to the professoriate to ensure that faculty positions in a wide
array of pedagogical perspectives, rather than overwhelming doses of the
race/class/gender trinity, are offered in the humanities and social sciences.
Such moves, of course, require more than courageous presidents; as Larry
Summers, who made some efforts on these grounds, discovered, given the
intensity of faculty opposition, no president can ensure a more intellectually
and pedagogically diverse campus without a supportive board of trustees.

At least Summers tried. At Macalester College, President
Brian Rosenberg has taken a quite different approach on the matter. In his
school’s home state presidential caucuses, Rick Santorum swept to victory;
Romney finished a disappointing third. In the aftermath of the caucus,
Rosenberg took to the pages of the Huffington
Post
to ask, “What To Do About Rick Santorum?” The post identified him as Macalester’s
president, and a link to the column appeared on the president’s official website.

Asking “under what circumstances and to what extent
should a college or university president speak directly to political issues and
even speak publicly on particular political candidacies,” Rosenberg concluded,
correctly, that “the rule of thumb has for quite some time been that on such
matters presidents had best remain silent. One of the chief jobs of a college
leader is to raise money from alumni and other constituencies, the political
views of those groups are likely to be diverse, and silence is therefore
preferable to the risk of alienating or aggravating any significant group of
potential donors. Fiduciary responsibility requires political restraint.” In
addition, Rosenberg recognized that “a president who takes a public stand on
too many of these issues risks stifling debate among those in his or her
community,” thereby undermining academic freedom.

Having noted that respecting academic freedom and
upholding his fiduciary responsibilities dictate his silence, and that “a
politicized presidency risks creating an unhealthily politicized college,”
Rosenberg nonetheless took to the pages of the HuffPost. Why? In a comment that unintentionally bolsters
Santorum’s anti-elitist campaign, Rosenberg remarked that he suspected
Santorum’s rise has produced “more than a few nightmares . . . among those who–let us say–think.”

He then cited two specific Santorum statements that “appalled”
him: the “indoctrination mills” remark; and a Santorum statement in Ohio
denouncing as “phony” the science behind climate change studies.

Rosenberg didn’t even bother to provide any basis for
challenging Santorum’s first statement. Unfortunately, there’s no way for an
enterprising student activist or group at Macalester to take up the president’s
implicit challenge and look into partisan registration figures among the
faculty, to determine whether there would even be grounds for an allegation of
indoctrination, since Minnesota doesn’t register voters by party.

On the latter question: a good case can be made that
Republican attacks on climate change science are bad for both the party (which
would be much better served making the argument that the policy changes desired
by environmentalists are either too expensive or unlikely to work) and for the
academy (given that scientists–with their pursuit of the truth based on
evidence and data–should be the model, not the target of criticism). Yet
Rosenberg, who was a professor of English and author of Mary Lee Settle’s Beulah Quintet: The Price of Freedom, has
no academic training upon which to base his criticism of Santorum. Without
providing any evidence of his own to counter the former senator, the president
nonetheless asked, “Could there be any more direct threat than this to the very
foundations of education: the ability to formulate arguments based on evidence,
to use language with precision, to think critically and analytically?”

I’d say that Rosenberg was quite right to be concerned
that “a president who takes a public stand on too many of these issues risks
stifling debate among those in his or her community.”

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.

4 thoughts on “Foolish Defense of the Politicized University

  1. What makes it political is that we are looking at it. If it was a really genuine from the heart communication from a father to his kids, we wouldn’t be reading it on the internet. It bummed me out that he did this. Seemed to cheapen him a bit. However, I am still an Obama fan, just no a fan of exploiting your kids keepsakes for political purposes. Hope the Obama’s can live up to their promise to keep their children grounded must be hard with all the celebs around .

  2. I agree. Some of the scientists are even worse than the sociologists.
    Many universities are best described as “indoctrination centers.” Certainly they are no longer institutions of higher learning.

  3. I suspect that the political views of the alumni at many selective colleges are not as diverse as suggested and that breaking the political silence may be one way to animate those donations.

  4. “given that scientists–with their pursuit of the truth based on evidence and data–should be the model, not the target of criticism”
    Hate to tell you but the scientists are just as political as any other faculty. Besides, it doesn’t now work the way you describe it. If it ever did.

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