Unfashionable Ideas

Peter Wood

After 25 years in bucolic Princeton, the National Association of Scholars has packed up its stuff and moved to New York City. We brought our collection of yesteryear’s college catalogs, our backfiles of Academic Questions (Vol. 1, No. 1, Winter 1987 features Virginia Hyman on “Principles of Feminist Scholarship”), and our library of several thousand volumes. We left behind office furniture that was probably second-hand three or four owners past. The junk haulers rendered judgment by taking a crowbar to my old desk and carried it out in splinters. I did manage to hold on to my prized Shine-O-Mat, manufactured by the Uneeda Corporation in 1948.  It is a 150 pound gun-metal gray contraption for shining shoes, segregated into “Black Only” and “Brown Only,” and still produces a mean shine on your wing-tips.

Why New York? It’s a homecoming of sorts. NAS was founded here as the Campus Coalition for Democracy in the early 1980s—a gathering of mostly liberal academics alarmed by the rise of illiberal ideologies in their universities. Generally, they didn’t like racial preferences in admissions or hiring; they worried that the Modern Language Association was “abandoning” serious literature; and they were alarmed over the vociferous violations of academic freedom.


For example, that first issue of Academic Questions included a reprint of the decision by Arnold Weber, president of Northwestern University, answering the appeal of Barbara C. Foley, a faculty member who lost her bid for tenure. The Foley case has probably long receded from most people’s memory. It centered on her actions on April 13, 1985, when Foley, a member of the English Department, egged on an audience to “shout down” a talk by Adolfo Calero, a spokesman for the Nicaraguan contras. She got her way. Calero was prevented from speaking. Northwestern University responded by charging her with “grave professional misconduct.” She was found guilty by the faculty panel empowered to review the case and received a formal reprimand in her file. While this was going on, the English Department recommended that she be advanced to the rank of associate professor and receive tenure. Foley’s bid for tenure was approved up the line until it reached the provost, who rejected it, citing the “grave professional misconduct” finding.

Several of NAS’s founding members weighed in with comments. Edwin Delattre and Robert Royal called President Weber’s decision “a much-needed and courageous clarification by the Northwestern administration of academic freedom and educational purpose.” Peter Suedfeld wrote that he found it “sad” that “Professor Foley seems not to have realized the fact that her position is a shocking transgression of academic norms.” He drew particular attention to Foley’s declaration that “fascists ought not to have the right to speak.”

The NAS treatment of the Foley case is interesting in several ways but most striking is the emergence of a sober counterpoint to what was becoming the dominant tone—anger and indignation—on campus, fostered by academics who were profoundly unhappy with President Reagan’s policies. NAS crystallized the sense that the academy was at risk of going astray from its basic principles. Much of the Northwestern faculty in the Foley case was perfectly willing to countenance her efforts to silence the expression of views with which she disagreed. And they were willing to support an appeal that used the rhetoric of “academic freedom” to advance the cause of academic repression.

NAS, in this sense, was born in a moment of moral seriousness among faculty members who saw clearly what was happening and who believed that the university could be called back to its rightful role. Those founding members, however, were overly optimistic. And that’s one reason why I’ve moved NAS from Princeton to New York.


Professor Foley lost her bid to stay at Northwestern but her career certainly didn’t end.  She is now a “Professor II” of English and American Studies at Rutgers-Newark, teaching in the graduate program in American Studies and the program in Women’s and Gender Studies. Rutgers touts her as “a leading authority on twentieth-century writers of the Left.” She “serves on the steering committee of the Radical Caucus of the Modern Language Association.” A “professor II” in Rutgers-speak is a rank reserved for full professors “who have achieved scholarly eminence in their discipline and fields of inquiry,” and is higher than full professor.

The National Association of Scholars for many years stuck with its goal of calling on faculty members to live up to the ideals of the university and only slowly came to the realization that the tide was moving in the other direction: the “ideals” themselves were being redefined. Younger scholars who did not embrace the redefinitions of intellectual standards, equity, academic freedom, critical thinking, and disciplined inquiry were shuffled out of the deck. Would-be administrators unable to show a “proven commitment to diversity” and a heartfelt enthusiasm for the new crop of “studies” departments found few avenues of advancement. The advocates of a politically engaged university successfully spent the decades of the ‘80s and ‘90s institutionalizing their projects. Their goals got written into new mission statements; a “shadow university” (to use Alan Kors and Harvey Silverglate’s telling phrase) grew up consisting of myriads of administrators devoted to sharpening identity group grievances among students.

It was clear when I was appointed as NAS’s new executive director in 2007 that I was working for an organization that could not possibly replenish itself as the generation of scholars who founded it retired from academic life. NAS had already abandoned its early aggressive challenges to the rise of political correctness to pursue instead a policy of working quietly within universities to build centers for the study of Western civilization, free institutions, and the American founding. Perhaps the most telling moment came in September 2008 when the New York Times ran a front page story, “Conservatives Try New Tack on Campuses,” that highlighted the Program in Western Civilization and American Institutions at the University of Texas Austin. The immediate result was that the UT provost called in the tenured philosophy professor, Robert Koons, who directed  the center, and relieved him of his directorship. The center was promptly renamed “The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Study of Core Texts and Ideas” and put under the supervision of scholars happy to discard the parochial focus on Western civilization.

It was at that point that I saw clearly that NAS needed a new approach. Not that we should give up on the defense of Western civilization as providing the best and most coherent structure for an undergraduate curriculum. Rather, that we had to come to terms with the settled hostility within the academy. Any hope of reforming the university in the direction of restoring its core principles would depend on our building major support from the broader public.

And that is why we moved to New York. We need to be in the city, not in a self-contained college community. We need the kind of access to mass media, foundations, and a robust base of supporters that Princeton couldn’t provide.


These changes, of course, have been visible for some time. I’ve been writing on theChronicle’s Innovations blog for nearly two years and speaking plainly about the policy matters that NAS has taken up. We are still involved in academe’s intramural controversies—the grandchildren of the Professor Foley case—but we’ve shifted more and more to the larger canvas. Our recent reports focused on the half-century decline in teaching Western civilization history courses (The Vanishing West) and the politicization of the University of California (A Crisis of Competence). We are finishing a report on the transformation of liberal education (What Does Bowdoin Teach?) and another on how public universities in Texas teach American history. We are involved in the Fisher case challenging racial preferences in college admissions (on the side of the plaintiff) that will go before the U.S. Supreme Court this fall. We are the main, perhaps the only, higher-education organization concerned with the excesses of the campus sustainability movement. We devoted two issues of Academic Questions to the higher-education bubble. We were the first to call attention to the troubling implications of the Obama administration’s report, A Crucible Moment, calling for a new kind of civics education.

The broader agenda doesn’t much alter the perspective of those who dismiss NAS as “conservative” or “right-wing.” Those labels, however, don’t cut very deeply. Our membership and our board have varied political views, and NAS takes no stand on political issues outside the question of how best to promote high-quality scholarship and education.  It is just a measure of the politicization of the university that any group that dissents from the academic status quo is automatically labeled conservative. And that’s just a kinder, gentler version of Professor Foley’s dictum, “fascists ought not to have the right to speak.”

So that stuff rolls off. Meanwhile, New York offers some unexpected amenities. We ended up with an office on West 38th Street, two blocks from the New York Public Library and   its mid-Manhattan branch. The CUNY Graduate Center is a stone’s throw away. But these are the expected amenities. The unexpected ones are down the block, which lies at the edge of the old Garment District, now restyled the “Fashion District,” subdivided by specialty.  Fabric shops are a few blocks away.  We are in the embellishments section: ribbons, trimmings, buttons, beads, feathers, and notions—things you never knew you needed until you see them.

NAS has been accused of many things but seldom of frivolity.  Perhaps we have a chance to  change our image.

Our neighbors down the block include Trims de Carnival, which sells beaded and rhinestone “trim and fringe“, exhibited in the window on studded bras and tasseled boudoir wear; Hymen Hendler & Sons sells all kinds of ribbons, including vintage; andEskay Novelty that trades in all things feathery: boas, masks, marabou fans, and quills; Frederick’s of Hollywood has an office in our building, and presumably shops at Eskay to make its marabou slippersMayer Imports sells “imitation stones,” beads, and trimming; a store called “V” as best as I can make out,  sells sequin-covered dresses or maybe just the sequins; Pegah Fashions features ruffled evening gowns; JG Merchantsmerchandizes “hats, millenary supplies, trimmings, appliqués, flowers, buttons, feathers, and rhinestones.” But if you are especially interested in buttons, Lou Lou Buttons across the street is the better bet.  Just around the corner is M&J Trimmings, of which one “garmento” says, “This isn’t a store, it’s an event.” My favorite is Wander Resources, Inc. which sells beads and stone necklaces wholesale, but has a spectacular collection of geodes, pyrite, amethysts, and other mineral specimens on display.

This is a long way from Palmer Square in Princeton.  NAS always wanted to be an ornament to higher education.  Now the means is at hand.  And after 25 years of defying academic fashions, NAS is in an excellent position to add some fashion statements of its own. No, I won’t be following Jesse Ventura’s lead, although I now know where to find afeather boa. Rather we will aim to make NAS one of those things you never new you needed until it stood before you.

When NAS moved to its last Princeton address, I wrote an article about our new surroundings, at the edge of a park of a public park and across the street from an airstrip.  As it turned out, the land had belonged to a test pilot, Richard Young, who played a crucial—and for a long time highly classified—role in the U.S. space program. He invented and manufactured “spiralloy,” a layered glass and liquid resin material that replaced much heavier metal parts in the X241 rocket engine.

In Rocket Science I wrote that “coincidence often rewards attention,” and pointed out that NAS was born in the mid-1980s as the American university was in the full tide of “Cold War Revisionism”—the idea that the West in its feverish overreaction to communism was principally to blame for the world-wide hostilities of the preceding forty years. It was a snide historical trope that trivialized the lives and erased the accomplishments of men like Richard Young, and it was part of the growing turn of liberal education against itself, as professors launched whole careers devoted to debunking the West and dismissing the claims of civilization itself.

I am not sure that the glass-bead-and button-block of the Fashion District will lend itself so well to metaphoric inspection, but I’ll look for the right coincidences.

This article originally appeared on the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog on July 13, 2012.

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