The Conundrums of the University’s Ideological Battlegrounds

By Stephen J. Nelson

The lively experiment that is the college and university in America is characterized by sustained struggles and tempered triumphs that have both undergirded and challenged the fundamental foundation of the academy. The economist and philosopher Kenneth Minogue conveyed in his book, The Concept of the University that the university can and should allow ideologies to be debated within its gates. However, ideologies cannot be permitted to gain a foothold of control. Those with political agendas, desires for social reform or other civic interests—no matter how principled or valuable to society—cannot be allowed to shape the university in that image and to those ends. If that happens, the university is no longer the university, but rather a wholly different institution—more a political party, a social action agency or a public policy think tank.

Large questions shape the framework of the academy in America. These include: ideological and political correctness, the degree to which there should be restrictions and if so what kind on speech and behavior, curricular debates and the expression and treatment of political views, whether exercised by presidents in the bully pulpit, by faculty and students, or by those given the platform to speak on campus.

All in all, the contemporary college and university environment is at least as politicized and ideologically driven as at any time in its history, if not more so. The big question is how the college or university is able to maintain the fundamental identity at the foundation of its heritage in the face of ideologies that would pull it willy-nilly in one direction or the other, and bend it to the expediency of their competing and mutually exclusive points of view.

The college and university is a complex entity, in many ways an organism with interlocking, related but independent parts. Many within its gates, and certainly many critics on the outside, do not fully comprehend and appreciate how fragile the academy is. Though reductionist regarding the political winds and sways in today’s academy, the forces on today’s neo-conservative Right seek preservation, maintenance of the traditions and traditional curriculum and culture of the academy. Those on the Progressive Left seek the transformation of society, the use of the college and university for egalitarian, social justice and minority-advancement ends.

Political correctness critics on the Right believe that there exists a lock exerted by the Left in all aspects of campus and student life, and a dangerous domination of the Left’s political agenda in both administrative and faculty appointments and ranks. These critics are certain that colleges and universities are shot through with litmus tests, and are bound and determined unalterably to stamp their political leanings and convictions not only within campuses, but infiltrating society and the nation as well.

In the face of these charges, the Left has pushed back using their own contending tropes. They deny these accusations. The Left is not monolithic. It features many slices and shades of individual differences. The criticisms of the Left are unfair, often ad hominem (which in many cases they are). As one example, when the Dartmouth Review ran its headline in the early days of the tenure of James Freedman, religiously a Jew, “Ein Reich, Ein Volk, Ein Freedman with the allegation that he and Dartmouth were rounding up conservatives on campus and putting them on trains in White River Junction, Vermont.

However, these dueling perspectives and allegations prompt crucial questions. What if the roles of Left and Right were reversed and the shoe was on the other foot? In going about their business and using their leverage to shape the culture of the academy, is the liberal, progressive Left ignoring the legacy that their influence will surely leave behind?

In other words, if the Left in the academy is indeed dominant and able to get their way, what would happen if they were on the outside looking in? What if they were consigned to the minority position with little power? What ammunition would they in turn use in the uphill climb to reclaim territory? Wouldn’t they likely throw at their enemies on the Right what the Right now throws at them?

Playing willy-nilly with the core principles and values—a commitment to unfettered inquiry, free speech and expression of idea, a journey to be as objective as possible, and judgments made about ideas, not on the basis of political axes to grind—of the university is an extremely dangerous game. Its effect erodes the foundations of the academy and creates the prospect that what is wrought can come back to bite you.

This is “the shoe is on the other foot” conundrum. Surveying this scene, the late philosopher Ron Dworkin used “an old liberal warning. But it is a warning that cannot be repeated often enough.” That warning and the fear about the damage it does to academic freedom is that “Censorship will always prove a traitor to justice.” The late cultural critic Edward Said, a colleague of Dworkin, claimed the antidote to foundational principles of the university being sacrificed on the scaffold of dueling political parties parading ideological points of view is located in Cardinal Newman’s idea that “intellectual culture” constitutes the foundation of the university.

Over the past four decades, a number of critical issues and events have shaped the college and university. What have we come to today?

Donald Downs, a University of Wisconsin historian and observer experienced in the academy, notes that when the “right not to be offended” is exploited and trumps everything else in the arena of free speech and academic freedom, a double whammy results. This is precisely the problem that critics of political correctness decry: that the actions of colleges and universities become overwrought in an effort to placate the complaints of the minority. The result: The creed of the academy is eroded and the interests of the majority of its constituents are thwarted and suppressed.

Downs is concerned that we can never lose our commitment in the academy to free and open debate. Among other things, this means academicians and university leaders must exert enormous care as they assess what should be considered “in” versus what is considered “out” in curriculum, in the courses professors teach, in who is invited and permitted to speak on campus, and in how the university ensures free discussion and dialogue in all its affairs.

In the environment of the academy over the past five or more decades (certainly traceable to the aftermath of World War II and the McCarthy era), critical thinking challenged and criticized longstanding premises, and what were presumed to be established mores, ethical assumptions and beliefs. For many, this critique of society and culture created a vacuum of morality and values. Into that breach came those demanding moral replacements, often pressing the cause by sheer demagoguery. For example, curricular battles often were reduced to whether American and Western ideals were being supplanted by a less meaningful and less fitting set of cultural norms that were designed to undermine and erode the political philosophies and governing assumptions of the tested Western traditions. Both sides of the political correctness divide have made careers out of presenting themselves as the saviors to fill this vacuum, and to fix a society and academy that is in disarray and lacks moral fiber and moral compass.

The mores, debates and controversies, particularly in the 1960s and early 1970s, jumpstarted and stirred up ideological thinking. Social and political culture provided new grist for the mills of advocates for competing positions and to the coining of the term political correctness. The danger to the university became ever more clear: When the university caves to political correctness and tilts to being a social, political and cultural institution of change, it loses its identity as the university.

Maintaining rational dialogue in the academy across these divides is not a simple task and never has been. As the great thinker and experienced denizen of the Ivory Tower, Isaiah Berlin commented: “Unless we are able to escape from the ideological prisons of class or nation or doctrine, we shall not be able to avoid seeing alien institutions or customs as either too strange to make any sense to us, or as issues of error, lying inventions of unscrupulous priests. …”

The escape route for the academy in America from the confines and bondage of extreme forms of political correctness on one side—and the politically motivated critics of those progressive, leftist agendas on the other—is only through reliance on its foundation: the college and university qua the college and university. In the battleground between warring political factions of Left and Right, the university has to be a balance wheel, it has to navigate in the middle, refusing to take sides and welcoming all comers. That is after all what it means for the university to be the university. The crucial balancing act is between the tyrannies of both the majority and the minority. Both sides in the political correctness debates would claim the wish to avoid becoming a tyranny of the minority or of the majority. However, both sides shamelessly seek and are more than willing to use this leverage when it is to their advantage and suits their purposes.

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) warned in its 1915 “Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure” about the “’tyranny of public opinion.’” The AAUP added to that admonition declaring in its 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure: “Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole. The common good depends on the free search for truth and its free exposition.”

A major question for the college and university at present and as a prospect for the future is: Is the tyranny of public opinion worsening or is it simply a longstanding threat that each generation, in and outside the gates, must regularly confront in a democracy?

The college or university always faces the challenge to navigate successfully the choices between tradition and change, and between what can and should be dearly held, and what may need to be jettisoned in light of present and coming demands. Change is inevitable and should not be feared. Historian Jacques Barzun’s counsel provides context: We should “ask why that same phenomenon [that things are getting worse] recurs; in other words, the historical-minded should look into the meaning and cause of the undying conviction of decline. One cause, one meaning, is surely that in every era some things are in fact dying out and the elderly are good witness to this demise.”

The formation of the academy in America is a distinctive saga, unique to the American Republic and how it has been shaped and formed since its very beginnings and Colonial college roots. This saga demands continual reexamination and revisiting in every generation and in every era. It is a saga that endures. It is a history that only when we are able to get our arms around it and to gather a firmer grasp of it, are we able to have a more enlightened and nuanced sense for the story of the shape and shaping of the college and university in America.

Stephen J. Nelson is professor of educational leadership at Bridgewater State University and Senior Scholar with the Leadership Alliance at Brown University. His most recent book, “College Presidents Reflect: Life in and out of the Ivory Tower,” was released in 2013. His forthcoming book, “The Shape and Shaping of the College and University in America: A Lively Experiment” (Rowman and Littlefield, Lexington Books) will be released in the middle of March 2016. This commentary is adapted from that work.

NEJHE has published Nelson’s thoughts on previous occasions: Reflecting: Perspectives on the College Presidency; Tales from the Presidency: The Dartmouth and NYU Chapters; Presidential Chaos; Success and Failure in the College Presidency; and Balance Wheel: Presidents Should Use Their Moral Authority to Protect Academe.


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