Intellectual Diversity Unwelcome at American Universities · 19 December 2006

By Roger Kimball


It's no secret that American universities, while trumpeting "diversity," are among the least diverse places in the Western world. When it comes to the sort of diversity that matters at educational institutions--intellectual diversity--they are more like one one-party states, bastions of what the literary critic Frederick Crews called "Left Eclecticism." At many institutions, you'll find 57 varieties of Marxist, feminist, post-colonial, deconstructionist, new-historicist animus, united by reader-proof prose and a thoroughgoing hostility to traditional American values. But you have to look long and hard to find more than token representation of conservative ideas.

The imbalance is so great that at some institutions, dissident--i.e., conservative--faculty members have created centers where students and faculty can encounter alternative points of view. The James Madison Center at Princeton is one conspicuous example, as is the Political Theory Project at Brown and the Center for Freedom and Western Civilization at Colgate. Such centers do not alter the fundamental chemistry on campus--nearly all colleges remain reliably left-of-center--but they do at least provide a smidgen of reality to all the rhetoric about diversity.

Apparently, though, even that small concession is too much for some of the tenured radicals who preside over most colleges and universities today. Noting the success of initiatives like the Madison Center, faculties and administrators are closing ranks to enforce ideological conformity on campus. At Amherst College, for example, the political philosopher Hadley Arkes wanted to start a center for the American Founding. He lined up a donor willing to invest $10 million to establish then Center. The administration turned down the money. Why? Good question. They had just accepted $13 million to establish a Center for Community Engagement, but that initiative did not threaten the ideological status quo at what many now call the People's Republic of Amherst.

Nor is Amherst alone. Faculty at other institutions have wised up to the fact that if they are to maintain their ideological stranglehold over the curriculum, they need to control not just a vast majority of the programs but virtually all of them.

A case in point is Hamilton College, an elite liberal arts college in Clinton, New York. Hamilton has been much in the news in recent years. It hasn't been good news. A few years ago Annie Sprinkle, the "post-porn" ex-prostitute-turned-performance-artist came to campus to instruct students in the use of sex-toys and other extracurricular arcana. Hamilton parents and alumni were not pleased.

Then there was the affair of Susan Rosenberg, a former member of the Weather Underground, one of the most violent of the radical anti-American groups of the 1960s. Rosenberg had served sixteen years of a fifty-eight-year prison term when Bill Clinton commuted her sentence shortly before leaving office. What better person to invite to Hamilton as an "artist- and activist-in-residence" to teach a seminar called "Resistance Memoirs: Writing, Identity and Change"?

Then of course there was the notorious case of Ward Churchill, the "ethnic studies" professor who had compared the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks to Nazi bureaucrats: who better to invite to Hamilton to address the students?

Associated with all of these essays in pedagogical irresponsibility was the Kirkland Project, a bastion of rancid left-wing activism at Hamilton. In the wake of the nation-wide scandal over Ward Churchill, the Kirkland Project finally reaped some of the obloquy it deserved. In response, the college, together with the protagonists of the Kirkland Project, engaged in some serious soul-searching. The result was a long-winded report and, in place of a change of heart, a change of name too--it is almost too good to be true, but it *is* true--the Diversity and Social Justice Project. So: slightly repackaged sclerotic anti-American leftism--that is to say, business as usual in academia these days.

Enter the Alexander Hamilton Center for the Study of Western Civilization. Announced in September, the new center, established with a $3.6 gift from Carl Menges, a Hamilton alumnus and board member, was to be dedicated to promoting "excellence in scholarship through the study of freedom, democracy, and capitalism as these ideas were developed and institutionalized in the United States and within the larger tradition of Western culture."

Note the past tense. No sooner had Hamilton announced the creation of the AHC than the faculty went to town, intimidating the pusillanimous Hamilton administration and demanding that the center be subject to faculty oversight. The founders of the AHC responded with a revised charter that underscored that the center's "its policies and operation comply with the resolutions of the Trustees of Hamilton College and their fiduciary responsibilities." That was not enough. Within weeks, Hamilton's President, Joan Stewart, capitulated to the very forces that had made Hamilton College last year's poster child for academic fatuousness. Her administration announced that that the AHC would not be established "at this time." Mr. Menges withdrew his gift and is reported to be considering leaving Hamilton's board.

The latest spectacle at Hamilton may seem like a parochial drama. What gives it a broader significance is the likelihood that faculties elsewhere will resort to similar tactics to enforce their ideological monopoly on campus. Faculties are everywhere jealous of their autonomy to teach and preach what they like--unless, it seems, some of their number presume to break ranks and offer students a genuine alternative to the "transgressive," anti-Western canon that has become the new orthodoxy on campus. What happened at Hamilton is likely to set a precedent, and become a model, for faculties bent on stifling intellectual freedom.

The irony is that, in the normal course of things, an institution like the AHC would not even require faculty approval at Hamilton. As the historian Robert Paquette, one of the 3 faculty organizers of the AHC noted, the center "did not seek to alter the curriculum of the college in any way, to create new courses arbitrarily, for example, or new faculty positions. . . . In effect, we were designing educational extras--awards, internships, colloquia, conferences--that would benefit both students and faculty as well as elevate, we thought, the scholarly reputation of the college. In a sense our initiative was comparable to that of a scientist who offers to create a new specialized laboratory on campus if he can score outside money from, say, the National Science Foundation. I know of no campus where such a scientist would accede to the faculty's demand to impose its choice of assistants on a proposed experiment."

Last year, the Hamilton faculty met to discuss the embarrassing affairs of Susan Rosenberg and Ward Churchill. According to one observer, Nancy Rabinowitz, then head of the Kirkland Project, stood to defend her program and ended by addressing President Stewart: "The Kirkland Project is Hamilton College." Many of the faculty gave her a standing ovation. Parents and alumni take note: The Kirkland Project may have changed its name, but its toxic spirit clearly lives on at Hamilton.

Roger Kimball is co-Editor and Publisher of The New Criterion and President and Publisher of Encounter Books.