Is NAS Conservative? A Conversation

Peter Wood

  • Article
  • October 01, 2009

In response to our article noting the arrival of, a reader commented:

The recent article on has the following statement: "NAS is politically non-partisan. We do not take positions on issues such as health care, immigration, and foreign policy. And we believe that reason, civilization, intellectual freedom, civil debate, and the pursuit of the truth are principles that transcend the political lines that have traditionally divided most Americans. But we also believe that has a potentially vital role to play in helping the beleaguered partisans of American conservatism get a fair intellectual shake at our universities and colleges." I strongly agree with the first two sentences, above. However, I have been increasingly disturbed that the NAS has a reputation of being a politically conservative organization, and the tentative endorsement of will tend to strengthen this widespread belief . Further, statements like, "At each college subsite, students can also identify 'leftist faculty' and review 'biased textbooks,' while they may be appropriate to a conservative organization, are not appropriate to ours. I think this endorsement should be rewritten to make it clear that we are not endorsing a witch hunt of any kind and that our kind thoughts towards this organization has nothing to do with its conservatism, but only seeks to bring some balance into what has become a growing tendency to make liberalism an approved doctrine on college campuses. - John C. Wenger

I replied:

John C. Wenger’s comment raises some important points. NAS indeed has a reputation as a “conservative organization.” I’ve tried in numerous posts to address this, most conspicuously in an article titled, “Is NAS Conservative?” Plainly in the sense of the word used by most Americans when speaking of politics, NAS is not a conservative organization. We have been labeled “conservative” by opponents as a tactic aimed at de-legitimizing NAS in the eyes of fellow academics. The tactic itself displays the extraordinary level of bias in academe. Calling a person or a group “conservative” should on its face be neutral, but it is not. The matter is further complicated by the other, non-political meanings of the word “conservative.” NAS is not about to abandon its commitment to enduring principles, such as the foundational importance of the pursuit of truth in the university or the need for the university to find its place among free institutions, even if these principles are caricatured as dowdy and out-of-date by fashionable ideologues. So NAS is conservative in this larger civilizational sense. I disagree with John C. Wenger on the question of whether, to prove our purity, we ought to distance ourselves even further from groups such as We declined an invitation to participate in, just as we would decline to participate in any organization that defines its primary purpose as political., however, promises to bring a badly needed element of ideological balance to campus debates, and we welcome that prospect. NAS can stand on its own record on the question of “witch hunts.” We’ve been around for 22 years without ever engaging in behavior that could be credibly characterized that way. At the same time, I have no objection to an explicitly partisan group such as attempting to make its case by inviting students to identify “leftist faculty” and to review “biased textbooks.” The university left has made a central part of its activity over the last several decades the effort to identify (and often demean on spurious grounds) scholars who dissent from leftist positions, and fields such as women’s studies have long promoted the practice of combing textbooks for instances of “bias.” I don’t see a particularly good argument that these tactics should be allowable to the left but not to the right. They aren’t NAS’s tactics. Our ideal would be a de-politicized university. But the reality is that we now have a university that is overwhelmingly dominated by the political left, and with that in view, we welcome the challenge that poses to the status quo. Will this arm’s-length welcome deepen NAS’s reputation as a “conservative” organization? I doubt it. We are routinely mentioned in the Chronicle of Higher Education, The New York Times, and other publications as conservative. Nothing we say or do seems to shake this caricature. Not long ago, a liberal professor tried to involve us in a project to promote “civic literacy” on the terms that we would represent the “conservative” view of things. We declined on the grounds that we aren’t conservative and don’t speak for conservatives. He was incredulous, then angry. “Everybody knows…” Well, no everyone doesn’t. Distinctions need to be drawn. That is supposedly what scholars are good at. No fair-minded scholar looking at the facts would say that NAS is politically conservative. The label is inaccurate, but I am not going to form NAS policy in a deliberate—and no doubt futile—effort to disprove it. We will continue to make decisions on the basis of where we see the most benefit for the core principles of higher education. On that ground, looks to be, on balance, a wholesome organization, and we do indeed welcome it.

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