Scholar in Conservative Thought Appointed at CU Boulder - Wise or Wrong?

Ashley Thorne

*Photo credit: Mandy Huyler Art

Back in 2008, the University of Colorado at Boulder announced that it would create a chair in conservative thought and policy. At the time, then NAS president Stephen Balch called the idea a "misfire" and wrote that "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. [...] Pinning a chair with the preformulated phrase 'Conservative Thought and Policy' only fastens this mindset more securely."

Last week the university announced that it had appointed to the position Steven Hayward, an AEI scholar who directs the political economy honors program at Ashland University and writes frequently about environmental issues. He appeared alongside NAS president Peter Wood in an October 2012 Fox News segment on the sustainability movement.

The university created the position as an attempt to repair its image of being intellectually one-sided, especially in light of its history with radical professor, Ward Churchill, who was fired from CU Boulder on charges of plagiarism and academic misconduct. The president of the College Democrats at Boulder, Zach Silverman, told the Chronicle of Higher Education in February, "For CU, this breaks the mold of being a liberal college, a biased college. It shows we are interested in all opinions, left or right."

But does it really prove that? 

I wrote back in 2008 that "no amount of scale-adjusting will bring about true intellectual diversity," and I still believe that politically correct solutions won't solve the political correctness problem. Affirmative action, "inclusion," special "safe spaces," and "tolerance" campaigns are just as divisive when applied to conservatives as they are to other groups. What is needed, rather than an attempt to balance left and right politics, is a depoliticized academy in which scholars and students pursue the truth wherever it may lead.

On the occasion of Hayward's appointment, Minding the Campus has published a forum of opinions by leaders in higher education reform, responding to the University of Colorado's decision. These opinions are reprinted below with the permission of Minding the Campus.

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Steven Hayward has accepted a one-year appointment as Visiting Scholar in Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Hayward, who holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from Claremont Graduate School, is the author of several books, including volumes on Reagan and Churchill, and has held positions at the American Enterprise Institute, Pacific Research Institute, and the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University. Funding for three years comes from outside donors.

Is this a good idea, a breakthrough for conservatives at a public university, or a short-sighted  exercise in tokenism--the temporary founding of a one-man conservative ghetto?

We have asked ten people in higher education to comment. Here are Daphne Patai, Cary Nelson, Stephen Balch, Peter Lawler, Bruce Bawer, John K. Wilson, Jonathan B. Imber, Robert Paquette, Judah Bellin, Peter Skerry, and James Caesar:

Daphne Patai:

The many left-liberals who insist that "all education is political" should have no problem with Colorado's decision to hire a professor of "Conservative Thought and Policy." After all, many universities already have openly Marxist or generally leftist programs -- such as Social Thought and Political Economy at my university. All these politically "engaged" professors surely have no grounds on which to protest if and when conservative activists start claiming -- not equal time, since that would require the restructuring of huge numbers of humanities and social science programs throughout the country -- but even a little time, a small slot here and there. Still, I find it hard to celebrate Colorado's move, since I consider politicization a corruption of the very notion of education, as has been amply demonstrated worldwide throughout the past hundred years. Thus, although I recognize the appeal of tit-for-tat  hirings in universities, I deplore the practice. Far better would be the insistence of university programs that studying political ideologies and promoting them are quite different things. Thus, I would much rather see serious universities begin to question the very existence of all those little and big leftist programs rooted in identity politics, grievance collecting, and general grandstanding. Political passions should never drive university programs or faculty hiring.


Daphne Patai is a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.


Cary Nelson:

There is fundamental miscalculation in designing a conservative studies professorship as a voice for conservative views, rather than as a forum in which to study a historical phenomenon and a contemporary political movement. Both components of conservative philosophy and politics deserve to be studied and analyzed on their own merits. Conservatism can be analyzed from a variety of perspectives, some sympathetic and some critical. Indeed, since this appointment has been structured as a visiting professorship, it would be possible to use it to expose the campus to a variety of approaches over time. Unfortunately, the position appears to be designed to correct a perceived imbalance or right a pedagogical wrong. Worse still, that stance apparently mirrors donor political wishes, leaving the appointment vulnerable to outside political influence, a serious violation of the university's independence and its academic freedom. Neither outside ideological influence nor contractually mandated ideologically conformity are acceptable in academic appointments. Meanwhile, the right-wing conviction that students are only exposed to progressive views ignores the politics of agriculture, business, economics, engineering, or medical faculty, among others, who are often more conservative.


Cary Nelson served as president of the AAUP from 2006 to 2012.


Stephen H. Balch:

Good luck to Steven Hayward! I hope he brings some fresh breezes of thought to CU/Boulder. But American academe's deep, dysfunctional, intellectual pluralism problem won't be solved by one-shot, temporary, expedients. The academic monoculture will only be changed when the ideological roadblocks now entrenched in university hiring processes have been circumvented. This will require systemic reforms in higher education governance.       

Private on-line higher education follows corporate rather than guild governance models. This gives it much more freedom than most conventional universities possess to respond to pent-up consumer demand for a greater variety of intellectual products. While the growth of this sector is not ideologically driven, some increase in academic viewpoint diversity is likely to be one of its byproducts.

Making meaningful changes in the hiring process within traditional academe remains a daunting challenge - the fate of all sorts of deeply invested cultural projects hanging in the balance. Formally recognizing the academic propriety and positive intellectual value of rival schools of thought inhabiting, and interacting, within the same institution, each with a substantial degree of hiring autonomy, would be a giant step toward it.

The competitive pressures resulting from a possible bubble-like collapse of the higher education market might push some universities in this direction as a means of differentiating their appeal from those of rivals. Although it doesn't get near to being systemic institutional change, Boulder's hire of Dr. Hayward at least counts as a baby step down this path. 


Stephen H. Balch, former president of the National Association of Scholars, is director of the Institute for the Study of Western Civilization at Texas Tech University. 


Peter Lawler: 

Intentionally bringing a conservative in just because he's a conservative--a kind of affirmative action--begs the question of just what does it mean--from a scholarly or public-philosophical view--to be a conservative.  But it turns out that what it means to be a conservative is an intense bone of contention among conservative scholars and intellectuals.

What about the conservatives who don't think Steve's really a conservative?  The most famous attempt to "brand" American conservatism with definite philosophical and literary credentials was Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind.  But Steve's outstanding scholarly mentor, Harry Jaffa, spent a lot of his life trying to discredit Kirk's brand of conservatism as not really conservative and not really American.

Some Kirkians, meanwhile, call "Straussians" such as Jaffa and Hayward "Jacobins"--or French and revolutionary or the opposite of conservative.  Steve is quite comfortable with bragging that he's all about conserving the American, revolutionary, natural-rights tradition.  For the Kirkians, revolutionary tradition is an obvious oxymoron.

Some conservatives (including many Kirkians) have a very traditionalist concern for the primacy of devotion to a particular place over abstract principle.  That leads them to be pro-Agrarian and anti-industrial.

They often end up thinking that techno-America is a wasteland that grows, and so they become environmentalists. But Steve joins the libertarians in being quite skeptical of all "environmentalist" public-policy claims, and he has a corresponding faith in American technology as part of our proud tradition of devotion to individual rights and individual ingenuity.

But Steve doesn't hold a Randian belief that human beings should be evaluated only according to their creative productivity.  He's also big on the study of philosophy and the thought of the American Founders and all that for their own sake

So here are my great questions:  Does a professor of conservatism represent himself, or does he represent being a conservative in a more general sense?  Can he teach what he really thinks or believes, or does he have to represent all or some of the various and conflicting kinds of conservatism in America?  Is he the diversity, or is a representative of conservative diversity?
Peter Lawler is a professor of government at Berry College. This is a brief version of a piece from his blog Big Think.


Bruce Bawer:

Has it really come to this? If the donors thought this was a good idea, and if Hayward thinks he might do good - well, let's see what happens.'s depressing. I have questions, not answers. Is the solution to ideological lockstep a dissenters' ghetto? What's better: total banishment, or being corralled off in a corner of your own? And are those now the only options? When a university hires a scholar whose title indicates his expertise in ideas it considers heretical, is it taking a brave step toward intellectual diversity - or making a sneaky move that, by placing upon him what amounts to the mark of Cain, will only serve to reinforce the enshrinement of its orthodoxy? Will Western-civ teachers now feel even more justified in omitting certain texts from syllabi, on the grounds that students can read those materials, if they wish, in a "Conservative Studies" class? But how do you teach any ideas properly without bringing them together - examining them against one another? Could that be the real objective here - to provide an excuse to avoid readings and discussions, in "regular" humanities courses, that might disrupt the work of indoctrination?


Bruce Bawer is the author of several books, most recently The Victims' Revolution: The Rise of Identity Studies and the Closing of the Liberal Mind.


John K. Wilson:

There's nothing inherently wrong with the field of conservative studies, or professorships in it. As the author of two books about conservatives (Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh), I'd certainly be happy to see more jobs available to study conservative ideas. Unfortunately, this particular job appears to be nothing more than preferential hiring for right-wingers, and this kind of explicit political discrimination with little regard for academic values is wrong. Talk-show host Mike Rosen, a member of the hiring committee, told the Washington Times that no liberals or even independents would be allowed in the job (or, one presumes, the lecture series). This kind of suppression sends a message not only to applicants, but also to potential students who may feel silenced in the classroom if they fail to toe the conservative line. If, like me, conservatives believe that political discrimination is wrong in academia, then they must uphold this principle for all appointments. Just as Women's Studies must be open to men, and Black Studies must be open to non-blacks, conservative studies must be open to non-conservatives.


John K. Wilson is co-editor of Academe Blog and founder of College Freedom.


Jonathan B. Imber:      

Steven Hayward is exactly right in saying, ""I think a lot of people are watching this around the country," and he is clearly appreciative of what amounts to the question of donor intention as well: "Other possible donors want to see if this actually adds something serious that is missing from the intellectual spectrum."

Donor intention is a complicated matter.  The problem has always been that whatever the intentions may be, they are executed by someone else. On balance, I would say that the intentions are more often successfully executed, but not always fulfilled. This is because the evolution of fields, particularly in the humanities and social sciences address controversies over facts, values and interpretations.

Hayward's challenge will not be about what he teaches but rather about the intensity of focus on his delivery and its reception by students.  If he is in the seat of teaching authority for a mere year, then he might as well be a visiting MOOC.  My simple view is that if teaching matters, then it matters that students and teachers develop the potential for lifetime relationships.  Outside this framework is where all the business takes place, well and fine, but not the stuff of the vocation of teaching.


Jonathan B. Imber is Jean Glasscock Professor of Sociology at Wellesley and Editor-in-Chief of SOCIETY.


Robert L. Paquette:

The idea of "the Remnant," a recurrent theme in conservative writing, draws force from the Bible and the stories therein about what leadership must do to recover a disintegrated culture after surviving a catastrophe. For many of us, higher education, particularly in the social sciences and the humanities, has suffered through just such a catastrophe in the United States.  Steve Hayward's appointment to a term position in a pilot project in conservative studies at the University of Colorado offers a glimmer of hope at one place.  Steve, a fine intellectual and a good man, will have three years to polish any number of pebbles in preparation for their eventual dropping into the pond.  Yet restrain the applause.  Already the opposition--on and off campus--is gearing up to twist the Colorado experiment into a cause célèbre to ensure that this one vulnerable position at a public university becomes neither academic trend nor enduring edifice.  Thus, for the Remnant, the task remains to formulate a far more ambitious plan of recovery.  New technologies have opened the door to grand possibilities--perhaps something along the lines of a Liberal Arts University of America--if only we have the wit to see them and the imagination to seize them.


Robert L. Paquette is co-founder of the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization and Professor of History at Hamilton College.


Judah Bellin:

Steven Hayward's appointment should dishearten the champions of traditional liberal education for a number of reasons. For one, it signals the almost complete absence of ideological diversity in the fields in which such diversity matters most, namely, history, political philosophy and contemporary American politics. Apparently, conservative professors are so toxic there that they can only enter the university through a grant from wealthy donors.

More troublingly, the fact that Hayward's appointment is contingent on his conservative bona fides indicates that the politicization of the university is complete. The most sensible critics of academic bias are not concerned that leftists have taken over our universities, but rather that any political agenda has seeped into our classrooms.  A respectable liberal arts program need not have a partisan character, as neither conservatives nor liberals hold an exclusive claim on respectable instruction. To that end, we should strive not for ideological balance but for rigorous and fair-minded scholarship.  This is a daunting task, however, and the University of Colorado-Boulder clearly prefers to dabble in gimmicks rather than face it head-on. Thus, though we should only wish him well, Professor Hayward's appointment is a symptom of, rather than a remedy to, the failings of American higher-ed.


Judah Bellin is assistant editor of Minding the Campus.


Peter Skerry: 

Creating academic posts specifically designated for conservatives is a bad idea.  It sounds like  what might appeal to successful business people or entrepreneurs accustomed to buying what they believe they need or want.  But good teachers and researchers are not properly assessed by their political orientation.  

Indeed, I thought this was the substance of the charge against today's academy - that it is dominated by politically motivated criteria, invariably of a liberal or leftist orientation.  If that's the charge, then I agree with it.   

Accordingly, formally designating "conservative" faculty positions is not the way to address this problem.  The most important quality of a good academic is not his or her political views or conclusions, but their disposition and character.  I'm not talking here about how they treat their pets or their children.  I'm talking about how they frame questions and indeed what questions they ask - of themselves and of the world around them.  And how vigorously they assess the evidence - especially the counter-evidence - relevant to those questions.  In my experience, "objectivity" is not best understood as an end point or a destination, but as a process - as posture toward evidence and toward the world.  Academics for whom objectivity is not defined by where their research ends up but more by how they get there, in my experience, make the best colleagues and the best teachers.   This is admittedly a rare quality in academic life today, but it has probably always been in short supply.  But it won't be abetted or enhanced by committees looking to fill designated "conservative" posts.  


Peter Skerry is Professor of Political Science at Boston College. 


James Ceasar: 

The idea of a visiting professor of conservative thought is perfectly acceptable on academic grounds, just so long as the selection criteria do not include, formally or informally, any requirement that the appointee be conservative. That, at any rate, is how matters should function in an ideal academic world.  In the world we live in, however, the creation of this professorship had everything to do with hiring an individual who would teach conservative thought from a conservative perspective. To put it more bluntly, I suspect that everyone involved in this process knew that the person chosen must be a conservative. As objectionable as a professorship so defined may be in theory, under prevailing circumstances it is justified in practice. If the University of Colorado is like so many other top-tier universities, conservative voices and the conservative perspective are scarcely to be heard. This is no accident, but a result of discrimination that runs so deep that its proponents are usually unaware of their own prejudices. University faculties in the arts and humanities are liberal fiefdoms, pure and simple. This regrettable situation is not likely to change soon.

So forget the ideal world. With the appointment of Steven Hayward, students at the University of Colorado will be able to learn from one of the most engaging minds of our day. They will profit immensely from this opportunity, and who knows but that Professor Hayward's colleagues, if they admit him to their circle, may also learn a useful lesson in open-mindedness.


James Ceaser is Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia.

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