Dictatorships and Double Standards

Robert L. Paquette

Two months ago, Eugene Genovese and his late wife Elizabeth-Fox Genovese, among the most influential and courageous historians of their generation, received the Jeane Kirkpatrick Academic Freedom Award in Washington D.C. at the annual meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). In addressing the gathering, which was enlivened considerably by the presence of newcomers from the Tea Party movement, Dr. Genovese began by referencing the state of the academy: under the onslaught of “progressive forces,” he declared,  the “decline of academic freedom has proceeded along with a breathtaking collapse of academic standards” and with it, “a respect for learning” as well. This collapse coincides, he noted, with a march at quickstep through the departments, particularly in the humanities, of activist faculty, parading under the banner of diversity and multiculturalism. (He neglected to mention “sustainability.”) En route, aided and abetted by craven administrators, faculty progressives abolished mandatory courses in American history and in Western civilization.

Once diversity establishes a majority faction in a department or a committee, democratic process facilitates the campaign of slash and burn.  In the history department at Hamilton College, for example, a numerical majority of one abolished mandatory survey courses in Western civilization many years ago. I can recall the central “argument” of King Numbers: God forbid that we “privilege” Western culture over any other. The reigning majority in my department now requires of history majors three courses in non-Western history but none in Western civilization and only one in American history, up from zero from last year. One result:  In 2007, one-third of all history majors [sic!] at Hamilton College graduated without one course in American history.

Commentators of various political stripes have related such developments to the absence of intellectual diversity on campus. They point to the dearth of a critical mass of professors especially at elite institutions who self-identify outside the left-liberal political continuum.  Recent stories in The Chronicle of Higher Education (by Mark Lilla) and in the New York Times (by Patricia Cohen) have conceded what many “progressive” college deans and presidents have persistently refused to concede—or to concede as a problem—that in today’s academy there is indeed an overpowering “liberal tilt” in the professoriate with serious educational consequences for undergraduates, and, one should add, for the future of this country.

Lilla admits that most leaders of colleges and universities demonstrate “not the slightest interest in intellectual diversity among faculty members,” despite spending staggering sums on administrators, programs, and scholarships designed to promote “diversity.”  Cohen references the recent research of two sociologists on why conservatives decide not to enter academe as a career.  The researchers acknowledge that a deterrent political culture exists on campus, although they engage in a kind of circular reasoning in explaining why.  Almost thirty years in the academy, the participation in dozens of searches for candidates in more than one department or program, experience as a departmental chairman, and the close observation of the practical operation of fashionable policies and programs imposed to enhance diversity by “progressive” administrators   with the blessing of compliant trustees permit me to speak with some authority on the subject.  In addressing the general problem, I can recite a particular case:  the standing example of my history department colleague Christopher Hill, a self-described libertarian. 

In 2006 Professor Hill arrived at Hamilton College to teach medieval history on a term appointment.  He came highly recommended but without Ph.D. in hand.  Senior members of the department counseled him at the start to concentrate on his teaching, to attract students to the classroom so as to enhance the department’s claims of need when the time came to lobby the administration to redefine the term position in medieval history into a tenure-track position.  Professor Hill, a white male, succeeded admirably.  Indeed, now in his fourth and final year of his term appointment, Professor Hill, having completed his dissertation while teaching a full load of courses, teaches more students than any other member of my department.  On several occasions as a senior professor, I had to evaluate for administrative purposes Professor Hill’s performance in the classroom.  I described for the record a versatile, inquisitive mind, willing to think outside the box, and compared his teaching ability to a departmental colleague who is widely acknowledged as one of the finest teachers at Hamilton College. Intrigued by what I saw, I invited Professor Hill to participate in a major conference on property rights that my independent Alexander Hamilton Institute had organized in April 2009.  In front of an audience of hundreds and on a panel with heavy-hitting lawyers and economists, Professor Hill more than held his own.

In 2009, Hamilton College’s administration redefined the term appointment in medieval history into a tenure-track position. A national search ensued to fill the position.  A majority faction, similar in composition and outlook, to the one responsible for the abolition of the Western civilization requirement, determined, despite the dissenting voices of four senior members of the department, that Professor Hill was largely unworthy of serious consideration for the tenure-track position. Indeed, because of King Numbers, he didn’t make it out of the blocks past the first lap of consideration.  To be sure, his vita in a buyers market lacked the publication record of some of the scholars short-listed, although he did have to his credit as a freshly-minted Ph.D. several book reviews for the Wall Street Journal, which, undoubtedly, to most progressive faculty, probably counted as strikes against him. Yet Professor Hill, as it turns out, had more in his haversack than a meager ration.  For, truth be told, in taking the lay of the land at Hamilton College shortly after his arrival, he felt compelled not only to closet his politics but the full gamut of his intellectual handiwork.  To understand the hidden irony, know that a few weeks ago, Hamilton College boasted on its website that one English professor had been nominated for the prestigious Pushcart Prize three times.  Well folks, as I announced to the campus in a public letter on 18 February, Professor Hill won the Pushcart Editor’s Book Award—as a graduate student—for a novel (Virtual Morality) that brilliantly satirizes political correctness.  Unlike for poems or short stories, the Pushcart selection committee awards only one book prize annually.  It ranks as one of the most prestigious of literary prizes.

I also learned weeks after the fact that Professor Hill had written President Joan Hinde Stewart and Dean of the Faculty Joseph Urgo a polite, thoughtful letter raising issues of double standards and discriminatory behavior.  Courtesy of me, Chairman of the Board A.G. Lafley also received a copy.  Other recent hires for entry-level, tenure-track positions, for example, seemed not to have faced the same standard for publications that were excluding Professor Hill from serious consideration. Moreover, Hamilton College over generations has prided itself on being a teaching institution.  According to Hamilton’s own faculty handbook, in evaluating professorial performance, “teaching is to be the most heavily weighted criterion.”  Both President Stewart and Dean Urgo have decried the loss of collegiality and civility on campus in the wake of a series of follies that have plagued Hamilton College.  Yet, to date, President Stewart has refused to acknowledge receipt of Professor Hill’s letter.  Dean Urgo only saw fit to meet with Professor Hill more than three months after receiving it when a flurry of student inquiries and the publication of my open letter in the student newspaper in effect called out the administration on the matter.

Could you imagine such behavior, the refusal to extend even a dollop of courtesy to Professor Hill after four years of distinguished service in the classroom, if he had identified as, say, a feminist lesbian, an African-American Marxist, an Al-Gore-style environmentalist, or a Muslim post-colonialist?  One could easily imagine that if he fitted into one of these categories he would have had the red carpet rolled out for a full-time or tenure-able position with the promise of an early decision, reduced teaching load, sabbatical, handsome salary, thousands of additional dollars in research money, and a full-time position for his wife. I’ve seen such largesse in action. Hamilton College, after all, now has thanks to President Stewart (a literature professor) and Dean Urgo (a literature professor) a “diversity ombudsman” (a literature professor) who acts as a diversity enforcer, someone who not only sees that job searches comply with criteria for minority outreach, but proudly seeks to insinuate himself into the marrow of departmental deliberations to change, as he once confessed to me, their “very chemistry.”  With the help of sympathetic allies who recoil at the very notion of holding a traditional liberal arts conviction, Hamilton’s diversity enforcer seems poised to insinuate himself into individual classrooms to test the climate to see if it is diversity friendly.  Dean Urgo touts this diversity ombudsman, a specialist in the narratives of “otherness,” along with his construction of a strategic plan that fervidly supports an open curriculum as the crowning accomplishments of his deanship, and indeed, they appear already to have paid regal dividends, for he will be assuming in the fall of 2010 the presidency of St. Mary’s College in Maryland after a left-wing insurgency there toppled the candidacy of former Democratic Congressman James Bacchus whose diversity, it appears, was contaminated by service on the World Trade Organization.

I have openly asked two of the most powerful members of Hamilton’s board of trustees, Chairman Lafley (Proctor & Gamble) and Kevin Kennedy (Goldman Sachs) whether they find it the least bit curious that prize-winning Professor Hill, in sniffing the atmosphere at Hamilton College, felt compelled to hide his considerable accomplishment for fear of antagonizing Hamilton’s left-of-center majority faction.  I expect no answer.  To raise pointed and embarrassing questions publicly about campus climate, to judge from past experience, marks you as “strident” or “mentally unstable” to the Putin-like powers that be.  Students, however, have rallied to Professor Hill’s cause with impassioned letters in the campus newspaper and by establishing a Facebook group that as of yesterday had about 200 members.

Professor Hill suspects that his occasional association with the independent Alexander Hamilton Institute helped make him tainted goods on the campus named after Alexander Hamilton. Perhaps. But Dr. Genovese in his speech to CPAC shed considerable light on the larger problem. Those who have lowered the temperature in a campus climate that has long been chilly for conservatives look nothing like your grandmother’s version of the New Deal Democrat, however much they pose like one at campus dinners when affluent trustees are in town.  Many of this new breed of professor lack real erudition but boast in their limited armament ever more exotic types of theory with which they “complicate” issues in the classroom. In reality, they grossly simplify, for the resulting confessions of nescience (the absence of knowledge) relieve the believing audience of the obligations and responsibilities that come with knowledge’s existence.  Deconstructing truth, honor, and standards also clears the way for the advance of situational or conditional truths that cloak the hard core of self-serving interests in the soft-soap language of altruism.  In such a world consistency of principle disappears.

Instead of trying to see the world better or more truly as it is by renouncing ideology, campus radicals claim that everyone has it, only theirs is superior to yours because it is enlisted in the service of the downtrodden. Ideologues, like ideologies, insulate themselves from testing. Try vigorously interrogating members of the diversity cartel in a departmental meeting as to why the standards by which they are judging a Professor Hill or some other poor chap appear not to have been applied in their own case or in previous cases involving ideological soul-mates.  Pointing out the inconsistencies yielded by the slipperiness of situational ethics might just get you frog-marched to the dean’s office to face demands for “personnel action.” Your conveniently sensitive colleagues, after all, having worked endlessly on committees and at faculty meetings to install the apparatus of intimidation, can now charge you with having created with a sharp retort or pointed criticism “a hostile environment.”  Self-censorship, let it be stressed, stretches on many college campuses from faculty, to staff, to students.  The best and brightest conservative students in thinking about viable career options don’t forget what they saw on campus or what they endured in classrooms as undergraduates.

Colleges, even elite private liberal arts colleges, exist by a social contract invested by public faith.  If the crises of our time worsen, the populist upsurge represented by the Tea Partiers may swell.  Well might they begin to fix a penetrating gaze on the state of this country’s institutions of higher education. I, for one, would welcome sanitizing light.

Robert L. Paquette is Publius Virgilius Rogers professor of American history at Hamilton College and co-founder of the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization.



Image: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain 

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