Misfire in Boulder

Steve Balch

Several days ago, University of Colorado Chancellor G.P. “Bud” Peterson unveiled plans for a chair in “Conservative Thought and Policy.”  It seems to us a major misfire – though not one without some potential for good.

By lumping together – we can see this coming – thinkers as disparate as Edmund Burke and Ayn Rand, and putting them all within the province of a single chair, the proposal does an injustice to both thought and discourse. As a rubric which, on most campuses, means little more than “dead white male” (pardon me, Ms. Rand), “conservative” has become an utterly sterile designation, closing, not opening minds. And a single professorship, rising as a lonely island in a great sea of sameness, will hardly trouble much water. Instead of representing the first move along a broad front toward intellectual pluralism, Peterson’s initiative more resembles an end game hoping to put paid to a seriously underestimated debt.

Far better would be an approach that comprehends the full institutional magnitude of the problem. It is not, after all, that CU, or almost any other American university of stature, lacks a scattering of conservatives. It is rather the parochialism that renders their ideas nearly invisible, which sees the current left-liberal consensus as embodying the entire universe of respectable thought, and which leads so much of academic discourse into the self-referential cul de sac that has become its trademark.  Pinning a chair with the preformulated phrase “Conservative Thought and Policy” only fastens this mindset more securely.

What is really needed is an ambitious departure which recognizes that intellectual pluralism is, as the American Council on Education not long ago put it, a “central principle” of American higher education, and thus not to be trifled with through half-hearted (or half-baked) measures. To be successful, such a departure must also recognize that enduring pluralism, in academe as elsewhere, requires both structural support and critical mass: the first shaping organizational arrangements that can check the self-perpetuation of intellectual monopolies, the second providing dissidents with that sense of colleagueship necessary to stiffen spines.

Achieving these ends demands far more than a solitary chair and fundraising campaign. It demands a significant reimagining of academic form and function in those areas of humane scholarship that need intellectual refreshment. Chancellor Peterson’s proposal has at least had the merit of squarely raising the question of what should be done. Let that question’s deeper consideration now begin. 

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October 6, 2020

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