Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC is a selective school with a faculty that has a considerable number of, to use Roger Kimball’s phrase, tenured radicals. Just about two hours to the east in Raleigh is Wake Tech Community College, a typically unpretentious school offering lots of “practical” education.
Recent events at the two schools shed some light on the difference between our prestigious four-year universities and utilitarian community colleges. The comparison is not flattering to the former.
The tale at Wake Forest begins with the hiring of Professor James Otteson as Executive Director of the BB&T Center for the Study of Capitalism. Otteson, a true scholar and proponent of classical liberalism had previously taught at Yeshiva, NYU, Georgetown, and the University of Alabama.
Aristotle’s word for ‘Flourishing’
Otteson’s interest in classical philosophy gave him the idea for a campus institute that would explore the idea of human happiness – what he’d eventually call the Eudaimonia Institute, borrowing Aristotle’s term for flourishing. The Institute would be interdisciplinary, drawing upon scholars in philosophy, economics, and political science to discuss the institutions that lead to human happiness.
No one raised the least objection to Otteson’s project until he announced that it had received a grant of $3.7 million from the Charles Koch Foundation. Suddenly, many faculty “progressives” who had seen nothing dangerous in the Eudaimonia Institute woke up to the terrible prospect of their lovely campus being polluted with money from the ‘evil’ Koch brothers. A faculty senate committee formed to “investigate” the donation promptly declared that the money must be rejected. As the Wall Street Journal reported, the committee insisted (yes, all in caps) that the university must “SEVER ALL CONNECTIONS TO THE CHARLES KOCH FOUNDATION.”
Another faculty senate committee then weighed in. It declared that if Wake Forest kept the Koch funds for the Eudaimonia Institute, its academic integrity, financial autonomy, and institutional governance would all be compromised. Petulantly, the committee wanted the administration to cancel a conference the Institute had already scheduled on campus. The anti-Koch rampage even went so far as to cause the business school to drop a course Otteson had taught for years as a requirement for graduation.
Wake Forest did not decide to reject the $3.7 million, but the faculty senate in its implacable hostility has managed to paralyze the funds. They can’t be used without its approval, which won’t be forthcoming.
During the turmoil at his home campus, Professor Otteson was invited to give a lecture at Wake Tech. He spoke on the morality of the free market, on income inequality, and on justice – topics central to classical liberalism. How was his talk received?
Wake Tech economics professor Kelly Markson writes about that in this piece published by the James G. Martin Center. She was there and writes, “At my school, Professor Otteson received a warmer response. That’s partly because most if not all of those in attendance were unaware that Otteson was being censured at WFU, and went in without any preconceived ideas. There were no protests nor rioting for this Koch-funded speaker. Students attended with an open mind. The result? Otteson hit a home run.”
The students all listened politely and those who lined up to engage with Otteson in the Q and A session, asked sensible questions – and received sensible answers. Obviously, Otteson succeeded in doing at Wake Tech the thing that is most central to higher education: He got people to think.
It’s interesting that a strong defender of free markets and opponent of big government like Jim Otteson can get a good reception at a college talk (notwithstanding the fact that Koch funds helped pay for it), while people with similar views get shouted down by students who are furious that such an individual is even allowed on campus. I think that Markson points at the explanation when she says the students went into his talk without any preconceived ideas.
At big, prestigious schools like Wake Forest, the left invests heavily in spreading preconceived ideas. In classes, many faculty members love to impart their notions about social justice, institutional racism, the evils of capitalism, and so on to their students. Moreover, the students learn that those who oppose “progressive” policies are not just mistaken, but malevolent. Therefore, whenever a wrong-thinking person is asked to speak, it is very easy for leftist groups to organize raucous, even violent protests. They’ve been conditioned to respond in anger when they hear names like Murray or Koch.
Getting People to Listen
The calm response to Jim Otteson’s talk at Wake Tech suggests that the default setting for American students is still, “I’m willing to listen.” The basically no-nonsense faculty and administration at Wake Tech have done little or nothing to implant in them the intolerant, “I’m not going to listen because I know you’re spewing hate speech” attitude.
That makes me slightly optimistic. Apparently, it isn’t the case that America’s students are becoming intolerant zealots. Only that those who get steeped in “progressivism” and its offshoots while in college become the kinds of rioters we’ve seen at Middlebury and Berkeley and Yale and Evergreen. That’s bad, but limited.
Or, to turn this around, it should worry all the leftist zealots that they seem to have gotten nowhere with students at an ordinary school like Wake Tech where the focus is on useful learning rather than political indoctrination.