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Does right wing mean left out?

Byline: Greg Bolt The Register-Guard

On a campus occasionally derided as the "Berkeley of the North," University of Oregon math professor Chris Phillips is something of an anomaly: a conservative faculty member.

He describes his politics as closer to Libertarian than Republican but acknowledges that most people on campus who know his views probably lump him into the conservative category. Thanks to tenure, he doesn't feel he has to hide his opinions and in fact has been outspoken on some issues, most recently a proposed diversity plan and its undefined standard of "cultural competency" as a factor in hiring, promotion and tenure.

Phillips doesn't claim that such stands have hurt his career. On the other hand, he said, they don't come without a price.

"I certainly worry about possible vandalism or other things directed at me for my opposition to this diversity requirement," he said. "I don't want to say exactly what, but I take a few measures to try to keep the chances down. I shouldn't have to do this, but this is stuff that I've done for years."

On a campus long seen as a bastion of the left, conservatives are a distinct minority. And in spite of the university's role as a place where freedom of thought and intellectual openness are considered traditional and bedrock values, people whose politics fall to the right of center say they too often find themselves on the short end of a double standard.

It often comes down to a choice: Keep your mouth shut, or speak your mind and risk the academic cold shoulder.

"If you're a quiet sort of conservative ... and you don't ever talk about political or social things with people, then it might never come up at all. On the other hand, if you do, it can be a pretty cold environment," said chemistry professor Michael Kellman, an unabashed conservative.

"Depending on how thick a skin you have, it can not bother you or you may find it unpleasant," he said. "I've been told that some people on campus don't want to talk to me anymore, and I guess that's their business. I can't force people to want to talk to me."

Closed-minded fortresses?

The academic environment, at least at research universities such as the UO, has always had a certain rough-and-tumble quality. The clash of ideas, lively debate and intellectual challenges are what make campuses the caldrons of discovery and progress that they are, or should be.

But an increasing number of people, mainly on the right, have begun to criticize the nation's campuses as closed-minded fortresses of liberal thought increasingly out of touch with mainstream society. Those critics say universities have become hostile to students and faculty who hew even to the center of the political spectrum, much less to the right.

As a result, some states have begun debating an "academic bill of rights" in an effort to ensure that students are not deprived of the full spectrum of social and political thought. That effort has aroused stiff opposition among organizations representing universities and faculty and even among professors who consider themselves conservative and who view such efforts as a threat to academic freedom.

That effort has found little support at the UO or, so far, in Oregon. But conservative faculty - at least, those who feel able to discuss the issue - say they're worried that the imbalance undercuts the university's mission.

"The fact that conservative ideas and social thought are not represented in the faculties I think makes it almost impossible to give the students an even exposure to important ideas that are in the mainstream of the larger culture," Kellman said. "I think it's a very unhealthy situation educationally and intellectually."

It's hard to say how many UO faculty members are right of center, although most agree the number is small. For those who are, the concern is that liberal ideas simply become the accepted norm and not only face little in the way of rigorous challenge but also quickly drown out those who bring a different viewpoint to campus.

"Things get labeled right wing or racist or something or other and this silences almost all of the opposition," Phillips said. "Students won't be challenged unless they come to campus with conservative or moderate views."

Not surprisingly, that's a view that gets little traction among faculty who are left of center or among administrators.

Patricia Southwell, associate dean of social sciences, said when one looks across the whole of the university - its professional schools, its different colleges and departments - students have no trouble finding classes that expose them to a variety of viewpoints. It may be true that in sociology or other disciplines in the humanities the faculty are mostly left of center, but she said that's not necessarily the case in other areas, such as economics, business or math.

"I think in the end the student is exposed to a lot of different points of view," she said. "Does it all come out in the wash? Does the university have the exact same number of liberals as conservatives? I don't know that, and I don't think we should even want that."

A political litmus test?

Conservatives say they no more support an affirmative action plan to boost political diversity than they do a plan to boost ethnic diversity. But they wonder if the current campus makeup isn't the result of some not-so-subtle self-screening.

Two recent developments have left campus conservatives more convinced than ever that the deck is stacked against them. One is the diversity plan, which was met with stiff opposition when it was released last spring and is now being revised, and the other is language that was being used in many academic job postings asking for candidates "who share our commitment to diversity," which also has now been revised.

Both, some say, amount to a political litmus test that effectively tells conservative faculty and job seekers who disagree with affirmative action that they are not welcome at the university.

"One of the things that it's saying in plain language is if you oppose racial preferences in hiring and admissions, you need not apply," Phillips said.

Others contend that the apparent lopsidedness of the liberal/conservative mix is proof that some form of filtering is taking place on college campuses. Surveys have estimated an average 7-to-1 ratio of liberal faculty to conservative on American campuses, with ratios as high as 23-to-1 and 47-to-1 in some humanities disciplines.

Those surveys have been challenged based on low response rates and small sample sizes, but conservatives say they still point to a heavy tilt to the left that has become stronger in recent years. Alexander Kleshchev, another UO math professor, said it is curious that people who vocally support ethnic diversity seem unconcerned about political diversity.

`These same people turn around and explain away a 23-to-1 ratio with a couple of silly remarks, like `Republicans are just stupid,' ' said Kleshchev, a Russian immigrant who calls himself a political independent. "This is intellectually dishonest, to put it mildly."

Kleshchev was one of 25 professors, from both the left and right, who signed a letter last year calling on the UO to withdraw the diversity plan, calling it draconian and Orwellian in scope. He likened it to tactics used in his native country.

"I come from the Soviet Union, and I know what I am talking about," he said. "The methods by which this thing is being imposed are similar."

UO Provost John Moseley said the administration's willingness to make changes in diversity language shows that it is receptive to faculty concerns and said the university's diversity goals include all forms, not just ethnic.

"When we talk about seeking diversity, we're talking about that in all of its dimensions," he said. "That would include political thought. We are not interested in being one-dimensional."

Moseley said the university would not discriminate against a politically conservative candidate who objects to affirmative action as poor social policy as long as that person understood the university policy supporting it and demonstrated the ability to carry that policy out.

"It's not university policy to make hiring decisions based on anything other than the person's qualifications for the position," Moseley said. "At the same time, anybody who comes into this institution should understand that as an institution we are committed to being a diverse community."

Conservatives remain unconvinced, but the lack of overt discrimination and the complex web of internal political and social connections on campus make it hard to know when someone is being judged on his beliefs, they say.

"There are all kinds of places where things can go wrong for you, and it's rare that you will know that you're being penalized for your political or other controversial views," Kellman said. "People are afraid that it will happen, I can tell you that for sure, but they don't want to talk about it."

Intimidation or timidity?

Still, opinions vary even among conservatives on how liberal campus is and how right-of-center faculty members are treated. Frances Cogan, a professor of literature in the Clark Honors College, said she hasn't sensed an overwhelming bias on campus.

Cogan is a military veteran who considers herself a "modified Libertarian." Last year she wrote an article, "My Life With the Academic Left," for the conservative Web site FrontPageMagazine.com, in which she described her experiences as a UO graduate student in the late 1960s and as a faculty member now.

Even though Cogan didn't pull any punches in her description of the liberal-leaning campus, she said she felt little fallout afterward.

"Even after that roaring FrontPage article there was some cooling with some personal relations but nothing horrible," she said. "I'm not saying it doesn't happen; I'm only saying I haven't seen it myself."

Cogan also said she thinks that despite its liberal majority, the UO makes a reasonable effort to respect other viewpoints.

"I haven't had any trouble, and if anybody should have had trouble, an ex-military veteran with Libertarian or conservative views should have had a lot," Cogan said. "I think the university is more liberal than conservative, but I think they try to be fair. Perhaps they don't achieve it all the time, but I'm proof that they try."

Tom Givon, an emeritus professor of linguistics now living in Colorado, said he doesn't think faculty members have any reason not to speak their minds. Givon spoke out in 2002-03 during a long-running debate over whether the university should take a stand on the impending war in Iraq, and he was among those who argued it should not.

"I never had any problem expressing myself," said Givon, who describes himself as neither liberal nor conservative but "eclectic." "I think it's really a question of more the timidity of the faculty than actual intimidation."

At the time, though, Givon had the benefit of tenure, a status that grants a certain amount of job security and may allow professors to speak more freely. Whether conservative faculty without that protection believe they can participate in campus debates or express concerns about a liberal majority remains an open question: Only one of the 25 who signed the letter protesting the diversity policy did not have tenure.

"I'll tell you this: I wouldn't be speaking with you on the record if I didn't have tenure," Kellman told a reporter. "Rightly or wrongly, I know of people here who don't have tenure who would like to be speaking out but they are fearful of doing so."

If that's the case, judging the extent of the problem or even determining whether one exists becomes problematic. Few would argue that the University of Oregon is a liberal campus. And while the discomfort felt by those who lean the other direction is easily understood, the university's image as a marketplace of ideas takes a hit if dissenters fear to speak.

But perhaps more important is how the perceived lack of balance is seen off campus in a nation that is almost evenly divided between left and right.

Public universities have faced sharp cuts in funding in recent years - and for more reasons than a backlash over the domination of liberal views - but conservative faculty say universities ignore the possible connection at their peril.

"I'm afraid that universities may be alienating themselves from at least a large portion of the American public," Kellman said. "And when the universities are all on one side, I just fear for their future."
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Title Annotation:Higher Education; At the UO, some conservative faculty members fear that their views are shortchanged
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Dec 4, 2005
Words:2077
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