Purifying Our Institutions · 08 September 2003

Filed under: Press Coverage

By Ed Quillen--Denver Post, 09/09/03

Even though Colorado is about as Republican as the average country club, that's not enough to suit some people, among them our governor and his main shill in the legislature, state Sen. John Andrews of Centennial.
They seem concerned that there aren't enough Republicans on campus.

Last March, while on a radio talk show, Gov. Bill Owens complained that the vast majority of political-science professors in Colorado were Democrats. Then in June, he and some GOP legislators met in Denver with David Horowitz of Los Angeles.

Horowitz has been an agitator for a long time. Back in the 1960s, there was no more fervent defender of the Black Panthers, or more passionate opponent of the war in Vietnam. At some point during the past 35 years (a cynic might wonder if this transformation had any connection to where the money is), Horowitz became an outspoken right-thinker, and campuses are his current target.

It's likely true that most college professors are Democrats, for the simple reason of economic self-interest, something Republicans certainly should be able to understand.

For instance, if you're an officer of the Halliburton Corp., you're probably going to support the party whose candidate will hand out lucrative sweetheart no-bid contracts. That's in your economic interest.

And if you're a college professor, you might observe that Democrats generally support more funding for higher education than Republicans do. More funding might mean a pay raise, more support staff, a better research library or laboratory - all things that are in your economic and other interests. If Colorado Republicans decided that universities were as important as prisons or highways, we'd see GOP majorities in the faculty senates.

But our GOP leaders are not taking that simple, common- sense approach. Instead, they're meeting with Horowitz, who's now affiliated with something called "Students for Academic Freedom." I checked the website, where Sara Russo, national campus director, had "some exciting news to report from the frontlines of our campaign."

They took out an ad in the student newspaper at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to protest an assigned reading: "Nickel and Dimed" by Barbara Ehrenreich. The offending book "blames capitalism and corporations for the hardships suffered by the poor in America."

I've read it. It's a fine piece of first-hand reporting on what it's like to wait tables, clean houses and stock shelves at Wal-Mart. It made me want to be a capitalist, since it demonstrates that America has an immense pool of hard-working but low-paid labor whom I could exploit for my profit. So how's that an anti-capitalist manifesto?

The solution, according to Horowitz and our Colorado Republicans, is to use state funding to force colleges to adopt the "Academic Bill of Rights," which would protect students from "negative learning environments."

The SAF website provides an example. "If a professor remarks in no particular context that the president is a moron - as happens more often than one might expect - that sends a powerful message to students who belong to the president's party that they are unwelcome in this classroom. Such professorial behavior is unacceptable."

And if the professor remarked in no particular context that the president is a genius, would students of the other party feel unwelcome? Since when did conservatives become so solicitous of people's feelings? Are even the red-meat Republicans going all wimpy on us?

Assuming that Owens and his statehouse cronies can push this through the legislature next year, how will it be enforced?
Under current federal law, it is illegal to ask the political beliefs of a job candidate. They'd have to rely on students to monitor their instructors for potential contributions to a "negative learning environment."

Even if Colorado hires the right professors, there's always the chance that a tenured teacher could undergo a political conversion like Horowitz's, though in the opposite direction.

So the process of purifying our colleges is fraught with expense and risk, with no guarantee of success. But that's not what this is about. It must be a publicity stunt.

Our governor faces term limits, and he holds political ambitions. The coming controversy over this will produce national attention, and he'll gain stature in certain activist circles as the governor who boldly stood up against those pointy-headed campus liberal oppressors of right-thinking students. By next spring, he'll be a bigger star than Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore and his Ten Commandments.

Ed Quillen of Salida (ed@cozine.com) is a former newspaper editor whose column appears Tuesday and Sunday.