Punishment For Ideas · 20 September 2004

By Jennifer Jacobson
Chronicle of Higher Education | September 21, 2004

Robert G. Natelson, a full professor at the University of Montana's law school, wants to teach constitutional law.

Four times he applied to teach the course when there was a vacancy. Four times he was denied. Next spring he will get to teach the course on a temporary basis, but only because of recommendations from an outside mediator.

Mr. Natelson says the university's reluctance has nothing to do with his scholarship and teaching -- and everything to do with his conservative political views.

"The law school apparently views this course as politically sensitive and has kept it in liberal hands for over 20 years," he wrote in appealing the latest rejection.

"They're striking right at the heart of my career," he says, "and I have to fight for it."

The university denies that charge, but whatever the final outcome he could not have chosen a more fitting time for this battle. In this election year, when the only thing a polarized American public seems to agree on is that the divide between right and left is greater than ever, some conservatives are waging a war over what they see as the lack of professors like them in the academy. Liberal dominance of higher education has gone on far too long, they say, and has curtailed the free exchange of ideas that colleges should foster.

David Horowitz, president of the California-based Center for the Study of Popular Culture, has led the charge to make academe less politically one-sided. He has urged Congress and state legislatures to adopt his "Academic Bill of Rights," a set of principles that he says colleges should follow to create intellectual diversity on their campuses.

To the dismay of his many critics, Mr. Horowitz's national campaign has experienced some success: Legislation to enact his proposal is moving forward in 19 states, and last spring public universities in Colorado promised to do more to follow the spirit of the document.

"If liberals and leftists were excluded from faculties to anything like the degree conservatives are, there would be a national howling going on," says Mr. Horowitz, the son of high-school teachers who lost their jobs during the McCarthy era because of their membership in the Communist Party.

Many educators who describe themselves as liberal, or even moderate, take issue with that assessment.

"There's much more diversity in the academy than the conservatives on the right represent there as being," says Carol T. Christ, president of Smith College. Reflecting on her own experience (before Smith, she spent 30 years at the University of California at Berkeley), she says she knows professors who have a broad range of views on the economy, the Middle East, and the war in Iraq.

The numbers of conservatives and liberals in academe are hard to come by. But a survey conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles provides some insight. Of more than 55,000 faculty members and administrators in 2001-2, 48 percent identified themselves as either liberal or far left; 34 percent as middle of the road, and only 18 percent as conservative or far right.

The result of that disparity, conservative professors say, is a skewed education for many students, and an uncomfortable workplace for themselves.

Self-described conservative academics -- like Mr. Natelson; Berkeley's John C. Yoo; and James D. Miller of Smith -- and those who have been pigeonholed by others as right of center -- such as John H. McWhorter of the Manhattan Institute, and Carol M. Swain of Vanderbilt -- say they face unique challenges among a sea of hostile liberals. They lament the professional opportunities they have missed and the social ostracism they face. The perception that they are "evil" by virtue of being conservative ranks high on their list of grievances.

As Mr. McWhorter, a former Berkeley linguistics professor turned pundit, says, "There's nothing I'd like better than if most people who gave me that label didn't mean asshole."

A Public Stand

When Montana hired Mr. Natelson in 1987 to teach property law, his colleagues were not aware of his politics. That all changed in 1993, when he publicly opposed a state tax increase and went on to run unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for governor in 1996 and 2000.

Last fall, after again being denied the constitutional-law teaching assignment, the free-market conservative, who has published nine scholarly articles on constitutional law, was convinced that political discrimination was to blame.

"There's a uniform history of allowing faculty members to move from the courses they're teaching into vacant courses," says Mr. Natelson, who taught courses in property law, real-estate transactions, and legal history last year. "And the only time that has been broken is when I've applied to teach constitutional law."

Last month a Montana lawyer that the university hired to mediate the case agreed, recommending that the professor be allowed to teach constitutional law next spring on a temporary basis. The university's president accepted the recommendation. But several members of the law faculty have continued to protest the decision.

"The problem is, our law school has a culture where it's not receptive to an exchange of views," says Scott J. Burnham, a Montana law professor who describes himself as an independent. He disagrees with Mr. Natelson's politics but supports his attempts to teach constitutional law. "We put more of an emphasis on getting along," Mr. Burnham says. "We're a small faculty, so I think Rob is perceived as rocking the boat."

But it is not always clear that politics is the cause of professional discord -- and such is the case with Mr. Natelson. The hearing officer did not consider whether the professor had been discriminated against on the basis of his politics, finding only that Mr. Natelson had been treated unfairly. So the university's president, George M. Dennison, directed E. Edwin Eck, dean of the law school, to establish an independent committee to evaluate Mr. Natelson's teaching, scholarship, and service in deciding whether to assign him to the constitutional-law course permanently.

Mr. Eck, who calls himself a conservative Republican, says he was disappointed, but only because he felt that the ruling would hamper his ability to consider teaching evaluations in assigning professors to teach courses. Some evaluations, he says, had criticized Mr. Natelson for a lack of collegiality with both students and professors.

Gregory S. Munro, a professor at the law school, says he doesn't believe that his colleague is being discriminated against. "The problem lies in his ability to work and play well with others," he says.

Mr. Munro, who says he votes for Democrats, notes that the faculty voted 15 to 1 to conduct a national search for the constitutional-law position. "Professor Natelson can apply along with everyone else," he says.

Students Protest

John C. Yoo is, like Mr. Natelson, a law professor. But the challenges he faces as a conservative at Berkeley involve not his colleagues but some of his students.

Formerly a lawyer in the U.S. Department of Justice, Mr. Yoo co-wrote a memo in January 2002 arguing that the United States did not have to comply with the Geneva Convention in its treatment of captured Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters.

Mr. Yoo's role in that memo became public last spring. During the law school's commencement, in May, about a quarter of the graduates wore red armbands to protest his views and called for his resignation.

"Berkeley students love to protest," says Mr. Yoo, who did not attend the commencement. He says he has no problem with the students' expressing their views, but finds them "extremely confused" about what free speech is if they would go so far as to call on him to quit simply for expressing conservative opinions about the law.

Mr. Yoo says he is the lone conservative on Berkeley's law faculty. He also says a number of his colleagues have told him that while they disagree with him politically, they were disappointed in the students' behavior.

But students, he says, "will criticize the things I say because they think they're too conservative." He says that on course evaluations they will write comments like "I don't like taking a course from a conservative professor" or "I don't think a conservative professor should be teaching us constitutional law."

Pamela Bachilla, president of the Cal Berkeley Democrats, says students are free to voice such displeasure. "If students don't agree with what he's teaching or don't agree with what he thinks, it's their right not to," she says.

Still, says Mr. Yoo, conservative professors at the university have to work harder to get a fair shake from students and "be as neutral as possible" in the classroom because students are always ready to accuse them of indoctrination. Liberal professors, he contends, don't face such suspicions.

Nonetheless, some observers note that conservative professors get plenty of support from increasingly powerful conservative student groups. About a dozen national organizations -- among the largest are Young America's Foundation, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, and the Leadership Institute -- spend some $38-million annually pushing their agendas by bringing speakers to colleges and financing conservative student publications, says Ben Hubbard, campus-programs director for the Center for American Progress. The center is a liberal think tank in Washington led by John D. Podesta, who was White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton.

"The student organizations, because they're so well-funded and so well-organized, are able to assert a very loud voice on campus and really set the agenda," says Mr. Hubbard. "By doing that, they're able to come to the aid of conservative professors" and serve as a "built-in megaphone" for whatever grievances they may have.

A Tenure Case

Like Mr. Natelson, James D. Miller, an economics professor at Smith, had a conflict with his colleagues. His concerned tenure.

Hired as an assistant professor in 1996, Mr. Miller was reappointed in April 2000. Over the next couple of years he published five academic articles and a book, Game Theory at Work (McGraw-Hill, 2003). But he also wrote about a dozen conservative editorials in mainstream publications. Those opinion articles, he asserts, set other professors in his department against him. When he came up for tenure, in 2002, they voted against him.

The senior professors in the department who voted on Mr. Miller's tenure also wrote letters to Smith's president explaining their votes, a common practice at the college. One wrote that Mr. Miller had publicly criticized academe in his book. Another, he says, wrote that she was "disturbed" by the views he expressed in a National Review Online article about why college professors are unpatriotic.

Professors at Smith were "so used to trashing conservatives, they didn't at all censor themselves," says Mr. Miller, who appealed the decision.

The college's grievance committee ruled in his favor, finding that the two economics professors, whom Mr. Miller declines to name, had violated his academic freedom. The committee allowed him to come up for tenure again. His department then voted against him a second time. But last May the campuswide tenure-and-promotion committee overruled the department and recommended to the Board of Trustees that Mr. Miller be granted tenure. The board agreed, and he is now an associate professor.

Although he won his tenure fight, Mr. Miller must still face other, smaller battles over his views. He points to the empty space on a bulletin board near his office where he had posted a conservative political cartoon alongside liberal ones. After someone kept tearing it down, he tacked up a sign: "My name is Jim Miller and whoever keeps tearing this down is a coward."

The cartoon stayed up. Having made his point, he took it down a month later.

Social Outcasts

While tenure provides job security, it does not necessarily bestow a sense of belonging. Stephen H. Balch, president of the National Association of Scholars, a conservative group, attributes the growing feeling among conservative professors that they are unwelcome on campuses to changes in the humanities and social sciences, which he says have become more touchy-feely and less scholarly.

Professors who teach in those disciplines, he says, believe "that America is a society in need of systematic overhaul" -- and that it is their job to change it. That creates a climate where people who disagree are not just different but morally suspect, he says. If your colleagues knew what you believed, he says, they "would see you as a moral pariah."

As a result, says Mr. Balch, many conservatives who want to feel free to express their political opinions simply bypass academe and pursue careers in law, business, or journalism.

Those who do enter the professoriate have to watch what they say and whom they associate with, particularly before getting tenure, says Mr. Balch, who adds that professors often ask that mail from his association be sent to their homes rather than their offices. In the academy, "a lot of people who are conservative feel they live something of a double life," he says.

They also feel lonely. Mr. Natelson says professors at some law schools tell him that they have fewer problems where there are several faculty members who don't agree with the majority. But at Montana's law school "I'm alone, and that is a very bad situation," he says. "They can just decide it's open season on that one person. That's why it's so important that you have a balanced faculty."

Mr. Miller faces far less hostility at Smith. That is partly because members of academic departments there do not share offices in the same building. So economics professors don't see each other every day.

To celebrate his getting tenure, Mr. Miller's department chairman brought champagne and pâté to a faculty meeting. But the professor has avoided any contact with his two colleagues who wrote the critical letters.

Mr. Miller, who is running as a Republican for a State Senate seat in Massachusetts this fall, wants to make a larger point -- that the shortage of conservative professors shortchanges students.

"It's sort of as if the students are taught in an obscure language" and "not really exposed to views outside of a radical-leftist perspective," he says. "They've never heard an argument for why free trade might be good for poor people in Africa. They think the only reason people oppose affirmative action is because they don't like black people. They have no idea that there are other views out there. So much of the left is based on feeling, not reason."

At the University of Montana, Mr. Natelson says, conservative students have complained to him over the years that there is a lack of balance in the teaching of constitutional law there. One student, he says, told him that there was no discussion of the Second Amendment, which lays out the right to keep and bear arms.

The predominance of liberal professors "means that most students will not get the kind of education their parents would hope they get and will not be exposed to different sides of an issue," says Ms. Swain, a professor of law and political science at Vanderbilt University.

If she is teaching a course on affirmative action, for example, she says she tries to balance the readings with liberal and conservative views. Many liberal professors, she asserts, assign only the readings of those who agree with them or invite only like-minded speakers to class.

While Ms. Swain tells students her opinion on the issue, "they don't have to accept my position to be evaluated fairly," she says.

The leftist tilt in academe, says Mr. McWhorter, dates to the 1960s, when a wave of scholar-activists began entering the professoriate. Since then, identifying with the left has come to represent not just a political persuasion but also "the mark of enlightenment," says the senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank in New York. "It's assumed that if you're conservative you don't know your facts."

The Race Card

The stigma of being identified as conservative on campus is even greater for those who are black, some professors say.

"Once that label is leveled against an African-American or anyone who's a minority, it's very crippling," says Ms. Swain. "When people are hiring a white professor, for the most part there's a focus on scholarship, not what other constituent groups on campus will think." But when a university hires a black professor, she says, "it's how you're perceived."

Ms. Swain and Mr. McWhorter, both of whom are African-American, say that although they don't identify themselves as conservative, they are perceived as such because they hold conservative views on a few key issues. The inaccurate description has worked to Mr. McWhorter's advantage, he says, while Ms. Swain says it has hindered her career.

A former associate professor of linguistics at Berkeley who resigned last spring to pursue a career in political writing, Mr. McWhorter has enjoyed a measure of celebrity because he argued against the use of Ebonics -- an African-American variant of standard English -- in the classroom and because of his book, Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America (Free Press, 2000), in which he argues against the use of racial preferences in college admissions.

"I'm news because it's considered so unusual for a black scholar in particular to have views that depart at all from the leftist orthodoxy," says Mr. McWhorter, a self-described independent whose positions on abortion rights (he supports it) and welfare (he says it should have a time limit) are less well known. "So the idea that you are a black professor who does not agree that black people who grow up affluent should be let into universities with low grades and test scores is considered big news."

Despite his professional success, he says, many black professors see him as a traitor, and tell their students he is a "handy object lesson in how not to think."

Such opprobrium has come from students as well. Mr. McWhorter remembers the time a few years ago when he walked through Berkeley's student center on his way to class and a young black man yelled out, "There goes the black man who doesn't like black people!"

Other students, though, would tell him they found it refreshing to hear a professor who was not repeating the same old mantra about racism at every turn or how all black people are poor.

'A Truth Seeker'

Ms. Swain believes that her political views have directly affected her academic career. When her first book, Black Faces, Black Interests: The Representation of African Americans in Congress (Harvard University Press) was published, in 1993, many African-Americans called her a sellout. She had questioned the wisdom of the drawing of black-majority Congressional districts, challenging the notion that only African-American lawmakers can best represent black people's interests.

Over the years she has taken positions against racial preferences and, like Mr. McWhorter, believes that affirmative action should be based on socioeconomic class, a view that has caused others to put her in the conservative camp even though she has never embraced that label. "I actually call myself a truth seeker," Ms. Swain says. "I call it the way I see it."

The way she sees it, government ought to do more for the poor, and a community-college education should be free. Those views, she says, do not make her conservative.

Even so, since being labeled as such, Ms. Swain says, she has found it more difficult to get grants and fellowships. On one occasion, she says, a member of a grant committee told her that another member had blocked her award because of her conservative views on affirmative action.

And when she applied for a job at an elite California college in the early 1990s, she says, black students and liberal white professors organized against her appointment. The institution, which Ms. Swain declines to name, had never had a tenured black professor, she says: "I was told that one of the black students said they couldn't afford for the first one to be me."

The Long View

Conservative professors won't meet with approval anytime soon, says Mr. McWhorter. "What you need," he says, "is a shift in the culture, when the conventional wisdom of the U.S. shifts back to what was called liberal in 1960 as opposed to what is called liberal today. Then academic culture will change."

Shifts in some professional fields have already begun, he says. Look at journalism. "Notice some of the people writing on the New York Times op-ed page," he says, such as David Brooks, a senior editor at The Weekly Standard who is conservative. And The Atlantic Monthly now leans toward the center and often runs articles by the conservative humorist P.J. O'Rourke.

"Conservative voices are getting out there and showing that they're not crazy," Mr. McWhorter says.

Still, he expects higher education to be the last bastion of liberalism. Academe "is the most resistant of anybody in America in thinking in new ways because academics tend to suppose that they have learning on their side," he says.

Mr. Balch agrees. "There probably has to be more external effort made than is presently being made to keep intellectuals honest, to preserve more genuine intellectual pluralism in academic life," he says. Those efforts, he adds, should come from officials like presidents, provosts, and boards of trustees.

But some longtime administrators, who do acknowledge a shortage of conservative professors, express no sense of urgency to fix it. "I don't think it's a huge problem," says Alan Brinkley, provost of Columbia University, who says he is very much a liberal. "I don't think we should be aspiring to 50-50, but I think it would be better for the academy if there were a greater representation of conservative views."

While it is fine for people to exhort colleges to hire more conservatives, he says, "the idea of creating formal policies to effect this is a very dangerous idea. Academic freedom really depends on the ability of academics to govern their own institutions."

Erwin Chemerinsky, a liberal law professor at Duke University, says: "At a time when the president is conservative, the Supreme Court is controlled by a conservative majority, when both houses of Congress are controlled by Republicans, it's hard to see this as a time of liberal dominance."

Conservative professors "make themselves seem like an embattled minority," Mr. Chemerinsky says, "but it's not the case." They do so "because we're all more sympathetic for the underdog."

Conservative professors say they want equal treatment, not sympathy. And although he won his tenure case, Mr. Miller contends that his conservative colleagues in the humanities and social sciences won't get it anytime soon.

He advises conservative graduate students in those disciplines to think twice before pursuing an academic career. "If you're going to be a college professor and you want to write conservative articles," he says, "there's a very good chance, no matter how good you are, that you'll have to leave academia."

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3 ON THE RIGHT

Robert G. Natelson
Age: 56
Professor of law, University of Montana
Education: Lafayette College, B.A. (history) 1970; Cornell University Law School, J.D. 1973
Why conservative: "Too much of our economy is controlled by government," he says. He supports school choice, opposes abortion, and says he "has a strong attraction for human freedom."

James D. Miller
Age: 37
Associate professor of economics, Smith College
Education: Wesleyan University, B.A. (economics and government) 1988; Yale University, M.A. (economics) 1989; Stanford Law School, J.D. 1992; University of Chicago, Ph.D. (economics) 1997
Why conservative: "The more I learned about markets, the more I learned they're better at running things," he says. He supports the war in Iraq and says President Bush has not taken it far enough. "We should have invaded Iran a long time ago."

John C. Yoo
Age: 37
Professor of law, University of California at Berkeley
Education: Harvard University, B.A. (American history) 1989; Yale Law School, J.D. 1992
Why conservative: "I'm a big believer in decentralized government," he says. He opposes affirmative action because he thinks it is unconstitutional, and he believes that government should not use considerations of race for any reason.