Chair of Conservative Studies

In Monday’s Philly Inquirer, Crispin Sartwell published a column arguing that Colorado-Boulder’s push to establish an Endowed Chair for Conservative Studies is a good decision (see his article at <http://www.philly.com/inquirer/opinion/20080602_Conservative_profs__It_s_the_right_thing.html&gt;).

In response, I wrote a letter the Inquirer published this morning (see my letter at <http://www.philly.com/inquirer/opinion/20080603_Letters_to_the_Editor.html&gt;).

My letter is a much truncated version of what I really wanted to say–like most newspapers, the Inquirer imposes length limits on letters to the editor in order to maximize participation. Here’s the more elaborated version of the argument:

There are at least three major problems with Sartwell’s claim that CU-Boulder should endow this position–

1. Although Sartwell isn’t arguing from the traditional conservative position that liberal faculty use our positions as bully-pulpits, he’s making a soft version of that claim. He’s right that it’s virtually impossible to exclude personal politics from pedagogy (I’ve made that argument on this blog in much stronger form than he does). However, he doesn’t (and can’t) support the claim that conservatives need another bully pulpit from which to propagate conservative values; they already have the media, the schools, many religious institutions, the whole neo-liberal pro-corporate cultural matrix, etc from which to sell their version of the story.

2. Like many proponents of “conservative affirmative action,” Sartwell mistakes party affiliation for political platform. As I acknowledge in my letter, he’s right that the large majority of college faculty across the US identify as Democrats or liberals, depending on which survey you read. It’s important to note something we all know perfectly well, though, which is that “Democrat” and “liberal” are NOT interchangeable terms. Of course they overlap some–there are more liberal Democrats than liberal Republicans, for example–but there are plenty of Democrats who aren’t particularly liberal at all, especially when it comes to large-scale social critiques of dominant expressions of power (corporate capitalism, militarism, etc). Or put more simply, from my point of view, aside from his stance on the environment, John Kerry is nearly as Republican as George W. Bush. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton aren’t especially liberal. Michael Moore, in one of the few moments where I really appreciate him, refers to mainstream political affiliations these days as “Republicrat.” All that’s to say that Sartwell’s citation of the party affiliation survey at Boulder doesn’t serve as very solid ground from which to argue that the “other side” deserves equal time.

3. Along similar lines to (2), if that survey did reveal something about faculty’s macro-politics, and if those macro-politics find their ways into classrooms (which they do), then appointing an “opposition” view doesn’t solve the problem of bias; it simply multiplies it. What would Sartwell expect from the faculty member who occupies the Chair of Conservative Studies? Rigorous academic critique of conservatism? Yeah, right.

This morning, at the coffeeshop, my friend Steve suggested that establishing this endowed chair position might be a good idea because it would put a specific person in the position of having to live up to the standards that urged his/her appointment in the first place. That is, if the reason to appoint a Chair of Conservative Studies is that too many liberal faculty abuse our authority, then the CCS couldn’t abuse his/her authority either. Right? And wouldn’t it be interesting to see how that person might try to dance his/her way through that problem? As soon as he/she advocated a conservative position on a seemingly “neutral” issue, would David Horowitz, or Lynn Cheney, or the College Republicans show up on his/her doorstep calling for his/her head? I think we know the answer to that already, but it would be fascinating to hear them try to explain why one of their own is right to abuse the bully pulpit but their opponents aren’t.

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