Cary Nelson: Stealth Conservative?

Peter Wood

Cary Nelson, president of the AAUP, published an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education’s “Review” section this week that includes unfavorable mention of the National Association of Scholars. Nelson’s “The AAUP: A View from the Top” (subscription required) ranges over several topics: the AAUP’s attempts to arouse faculty concern about the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2006 decision in Garcetti v. Ceballos; Nelson’s  new book, No University is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom; and his battles within the AAUP over the future of that organization. 

Nelson, who once labeled himself in the title of a book, Manifesto of a Tenured Radical, is a generally affable man. Though he is perfectly at ease with leftist domination of higher education, he has taken care in the last few years to avoid strident rhetoric and to distance himself from the burn-the-bridges brigades of those academics who seem to find existential meaning in defending the indefensible.  For example, he put himself at some distance from the defenders of Ward Churchill.  He also came to the NAS conference in Washington last January and debated me over the meaning of academic freedom.   

And it is in the context of academic freedom that he mentions the NAS in his Chronicle essay.  “Political pressures” he says, “are undermining academic freedom.”  These pressures include “the continuing conservative assault on professorial political speech both within and without the classroom.”  The AAUP, Nelson reminds us, two years ago issued a report, Freedom in the Classroom, which “responded to arguments raised by activists like David Horowitz and conservative groups like the National Association of Scholars.” 

Steve Balch and I published a very detailed response to Freedom in the Classroom, and I wrote a more succinct refutation on Inside Higher Ed.  Nelson doesn’t mention either one in his essay, but promises that his new book, No University Is an Island, “rebuts [our] criticisms.”  We haven’t yet received the book, and there is nothing in the Chronicle essay to suggest how he goes about this rebuttal. My guess is that he revisits the arguments he made last January. 

I have three brief comments.  First, I have enough experience with the academic left to be a little alarmed when someone declares in a wide-circulation journal print that he has rebutted an argument elsewhere in a not-so-wide circulation vehicle. This sort of rhetorical gesture invites at least some reader to sigh contently, “Oh good.  Don’t have to bother with what Horowitz or the NAS had to say.  Cary has answered them.”  The groupthink of the Left is often such that the gesture is enough to close ranks.  The meme becomes: Nelson answered your arguments. He refuted your points. You lost. It is a pretty good trick if you can get away with it.

Second, the National Association of Scholars is not a “conservative group.”   We are an organization that supports the principles of reasoned scholarship, academic freedom, transparency in higher education, high intellectual standards, and free institutions.  We’ve never defined ourselves as “conservative,” and our membership includes a preponderance of people who classify themselves as liberal, moderate, libertarian, or a-political.  It is hard for us to shake the label, which is assigned mostly by opponents on the progressive left, who take the view that anyone who doesn’t share their ideology is, by definition, “conservative.”  

NAS does have conservative members and I personally identify myself as a participant in the conservative intellectual tradition.  But NAS itself has never taken positions on domestic political issues outside higher education, or foreign policy issues. Labeling NAS as “conservative” may be convenient but it is just factually wrong.

Third, there is some important common ground between the AAUP under Cary Nelson and the NAS.  I have unassailable proof that I intend to publish elsewhere at some point that Nelson is, rightly understood, a political and cultural conservative, who under the artful cover of “tenured radical” has done a remarkable service for conservatives by bringing the AAUP around to sound principles.  His alarm over the transformation of faculty employment practices to diminish the role of full-time and tenured faculty members in favor of a high percentage of adjuncts or “contingent” faculty members is something I fully share.  His understanding that “unionization” won’t solve this problem is spot on.  His sense that “shared governance” is in decline in American colleges and universities couldn’t be more accurate.  Fine old traditions are eroding under the pressures of mass marketing, economies of scale, commodification of college degrees, and demoralization of faculty members. 

Yes, Cary makes some feints in the direction of his old radical politics, but surely he is best understood as someone who seeks to preserve the tried and true ways against the ungoverned and intemperate impulses of those who were further the disintegration of the academy.  He worries about higher education devolving into mere “job training as its core mission.”  He sees the deep need to “help students to be thoughtful participants in a democracy.”

Sorry to put you on the spot, Cary, but it is time to come in from the cold.  You are one of us.  Welcome home! 

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