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The myth of the liberal campus.

For some time now, we have been asked to believe that higher education is being devalued by the "politically correct" tyrannies of feminists, African Ameri can nationalists, gays, lesbians, and Marxists. The truth is something else. In fact, most college professors and students are drearily conventional in their ideological proclivities. And the system of rule within the average university or college, be it private or public, owes more to Sparta than to Athens. The university is a chartered corporation ruled, like any other corporation, by a self appointed, self perpetuating board of trustees, composed overwhelm ingly of affluent and conservative businesspeople.

Trustees retain final say over all mat ters of capital funding, investment, bud get, academic curriculum, scholarships, tuition, and the hiring, firing, and pro motion of administration and faculty personnel. At no time do they have to deal with anything that might be called democracy. They face no free and inde pendent campus press, no elections, no opposing political slates, and no ac countability regarding policy and per formance. Conservative critics who rant about "politically correct" coercions ap pear to be perfectly untroubled by this oligarchic rule.

On these same campuses can be found faculty members who do "risk analysis" to help private corporations make safe investments in the Third World, or who work on marketing tech niques and union busting, or who devise new methods for controlling rebellious peoples at home and abroad and new weapons systems and technologies for surveillance and counterinsurgency. (Napalm was invented at Harvard.) For handsome fees, these faculty offer bright and often ruthless ideas on how to make the world safe for those who own it.

On these same campuses, one can find recruiters from various corporations, the armed forces, and the intelligence agencies. In 1993, an advertise ment appeared in campus newspapers promoting "student programs and career opportunities" with the CIA. Students "could be eligible for a CIA internship and tuition assistance" and would get "hands on experience" working with CIA "professionals" while attending school. (The ad did not explain how full time students could get experience as undercover agents. Would it be by reporting on professors and fellow students who voiced iconoclastic views?)

Without any apparent sense of irony, many of the faculty engaged in these worldly activities argue that a university should be a place apart from immediate worldly interests. In reality, many universities have direct investments in corporate America in the form of substantial stock portfolios. By purchase and persuasion, our institutions of higher learning are wedded to institutions of higher earning.


Ideological repression in academia is as old as the nation itself. Through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, most colleges were controlled by reli giously devout trustees who believed it their duty to ensure faculty acceptance of the prevailing theological preach meets. In the early 1800s, trustees at northern colleges prohibited their faculties from engaging in critical discussions of slavery; abolitionism was a taboo subject. At colleges in the South, faculty actively devoted much of their intellectual energies to justifying slavery and injecting white supremacist notions into the overall curriculum.

In the 1870s and 1880s, Darwinism was the great bugaboo. Presidents of nine prominent eastern colleges went on record as prohibiting the teaching of evolutionary theory. What is called "creationism" today was the only acceptable viewpoint on most of the nation's campuses.

By the 1880s, rich businessmen came to dominate the boards of trustees of most institutions of learning. They seldom hesitated to impose ideological controls. They fired faculty members who expressed heretical ideas on and off campus and who attended Populist Party conventions, championed antimonopoly views, supported free silver, opposed U.S. imperialism in the Philip pines, or defended the rights of labor leaders and socialists.

During World War I, university officials such as Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia University, explicitly forbade faculty from criticizing the war, arguing that in times of war such heresy was seditious. A leading historian, Charles Beard, was grilled by the Columbia trustees, who were concerned that his views might "inculcate disrespect for American institutions" In disgust, Beard resigned from his teaching position, declaring that the trustees and Nicholas Murray Butler sought "to drive out or humilate or terrorize every man who held progressive, liberal, or unconventional views on political matters."

Academia never has been receptive to persons of anti capitalist persuasion. Even during the radical days of the 1930s, there were relatively few com' munists on college teaching staffs. Repression reached a heightened inten sity with the McCarthyite witchhunts of the late 1940s and early 1950s. The rooting out of communists and assorted radicals was done by congressional and state legislative committees and, in many instances, university administra tions. Administrators across the land developed an impressively coherent set of practices to carry out their purge.

Almost any criticism of the existing politico economic order invited suspi cion that one might be harboring "com munist tendencies" The relatively few academics who denounced the anti' communist witchhunts did so from an anti-communist premise, arguing that "innocent" (that is, noncommunist) people were being hounded out of their jobs and silenced in their professions. The implication was that the inquisition was not wrong, just overdone, that it was quite all right to deny Americans their constitutional rights if they were really "guilty" of harboring communist beliefs.

THE OPEN AND Closed University

The campus uprisings of the Vietnam era presented an entirely new threat to campus orthodoxy. University authorities responded with a combination of liberalizing and repressive measures. They dropped course-distribution requirements and abolished parietal rules and other paternalistic restrictions on student dormitory life. Courses in black studies and women's studies were set up, along with a number of other experimental programs that attempted to deal with contemporary and commu nity oriented issues.

Along with these grudging conces signs, university authorities launched a repressive counteroffensive. Student activists were disciplined, expelled, drafted into a war they opposed, and--at places like Kent State and Jackson State--shot and killed. Radicalized faculty lost their jobs and some, including myself, were attacked and badly beaten by police during campus demonstrations.

The repression continued throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Angela Davis, a communist, was let go at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Marlene Dixon, a Marxist feminist sociolo gist, was fired from the University of Chicago and then from McGill University for her political activism. Bruce Franklin, a tenured associate professor at Stanford, author of 11 books and 100 articles and an outstanding teacher, was fired for "inciting" students to demonstrate. Franklin later received an offer from the University of Colorado that was quashed by its board of regents, who based their decision on a packet of information supplied by the FBI. The packet included false rumors, bogus letters, and unfavorable news articles.

During the 1970s, eight of nine anti-war professors who tried to democratize the philosophy department at the University of Vermont were denied contract renewals in swift succession. Within a three year period in the early 1970s at Dartmouth College, all but one of a dozen progressive faculty members (who used to lunch together) were dismissed. In 1987, four professors at the New England School of Law were fired, despite solid endorsements by their colleagues. All four were involved in the Critical Legal Studies movement, a left oriented group that viewed the law as largely an instrument of the corporate rich and powerful.

One could add hundreds of cases in volving political scientists, economists, historians, sociologists, and psycholo gists. Whole departments and even schools and colleges have been eradi cased for taking the road less traveled. At Berkeley, the entire school of criminology was abolished because many of its faculty had developed a class analysis of crime and criminal law enforcement. Those among them who taught a more orthodox, mainstream criminology were given appointments in other depart meets. Only the radicals were let go.

One prominent Communist Party member, Herbert Aptheker, a stimulating teacher and productive scholar, was unable to get a regular academic appointment for over 50 years. In 1976, he was invited to teach a course at Yale University for one semester, but the administration refused to honor the appointment. Only after 18 months of protests by students and faculty did the Yale oligarchs give in. Even then, pre cautions were taken to ensure that Aptheker did not subvert too many Yalies. His course was limited to 15 students and was situated in the attic of a dingy building at a remote end of the campus. Aptheker had to travel from New York City to New Haven, Connecticut, for his once a week appear ance; he was given no travel funds and was paid the grand sum of $2,000 for the entire semester. Yale survived the presence of a bona fide communist-but not without institutional officials trem bring a bit. They were not afraid that Aptheker by himself would undermine the university, but that his appointment might be the first step in an opening to anti capitalist viewpoints.


The purging of dissidence within the universities continues to this day. More frequent but less visible than the firings are the nonhirings. Highly qualified social scientists who are also known progressives have applied for positions at places too numerous to mention, only to be turned down in favor of candidates who--as measured by their training, publications, and teaching experience--are far less qualified.

Scholars of a dissident bent are regu larly discriminated against in the dis tribution of research grants and scholar ships. After writing The Power Elite, C. Wright Mills was abruptly cut off from foundation funding. To this day, radical academics are rarely considered for appointments within their profes signal associations and are regularly passed over for prestigious lecture in vitations and appointments to editorial boards of the more influential profes signal journals.

Faculty usually think twice about introducing a controversial politico economic perspective into their class rooms. On some campuses, administra tion officials have monitored classes, questioned the political content of books and films, and screened the lists of cam pus guest speakers. While turning down leftist speakers, trustees and adminis trators have paid out huge sums for guest lectures by such right wing ideo rogues as William F. Buckley and George Will, warmongers Henry Kissinger and Alexander Haig, and convicted felons G. Gordon Liddy and Oliver North.


The guardians of academic orthodoxy try to find seemingly professional and apolitical grounds for the exercise of their political repression. They will say the candidate has not published enough articles. Or if enough, the articles are not in conventionally acceptable academic journals. Or if in acceptable journals, they are still wanting in quality and originality or show too narrow or too diffuse a development.

Seemingly objective criteria can be applied in endlessly subjective ways. In an article in the January 1, 1983, Wash ington Post, John Womack, one of the very few Marxists ever to obtain tenure at an elite university, and who went on to become chair of the history depart ment of Harvard, ascribes his survival to the fact that he was dealing with relatively obscure topics:

Had I been a bright young

student in Russian history and

taken posi tions perpendicular to

American policy . . . I think my

[academic] elders would have

thought that I had a second rate

mind. Which is what you say

when you disagree with

somebody. You can't say, "I

disagree with the person politically"

You say, "It's clear he has

a second rate mind"

Politically orthodox academics main tain that only their brand of teaching and research qualifies as scholarship. They seem unaware that this view might itself be an ideological one, a manifestation of their own self serving, unexamined political biases. Having judged Marxist or feminist scholars as incapable of disinterested or detached scholarship, the guardians of orthodoxy can refuse to hire them under the guise of protecting rather than violating academic standards.

In fact, much of the best scholarship comes from politically committed inves tigators. Thus it was female and Afri can American researchers who, in their partisan urgency, have produced new and rich critiques of the unexamined sexist and racist presumptions of con ventional research. They have ventured into fruitful areas that most of their white male colleagues never imagined were fit subjects for study.

Likewise, it is leftist intellectuals who have produced the challenging scholarship about popular struggles and often the only revealing work on political economy and class power--subjects remaining largely untouched by "objective" centrists and conservatives. In sum, partisan concerns and a dissenting ideology can actually free us from long established blind spots and awaken us to things overlooked by the prevailing orthodoxy.

Orthodox ideological strictures are applied not only to scholarship but to a teacher's outside political activity. At the University of Wisconsin at Milwau kee, an instructor of political science, Ted Hayes, an anti capitalist, was denied reappointment because he was judged to have "outside political commitments" that made it impossible for him to be an objective, unbiased teacher. Two of the senior faculty who voted against him were state committee members of the Republican Party in Wisconsin. There was no question as to whether their outside political commit meets interfered with their objectivity as teachers or with the judgments they made about colleagues.

In a speech delivered in Washing ton, D.C., Evron Kirkpatrick, who served as director of the American Politic 25 years, proudly enumerated the many political scientists who occupied public office, worked in electoral campaigns, or in other ways served official dom in various capacities. His remarks evoked no outcry from his mainstream colleagues on behalf of scientific detach meet. It seemed that there was nothing wrong with political activism as long as one played a "sound role in government" (Kirkpatrick's words) rather than a dissensing role against it. Establishment academics like Kirkpatrick never explain how they supposedly avoid injecting politics into their science while so assiduously injecting their science into politics.

How neutral in their writings and teachings were academics such as Zbigniew Brzezinski, Henry Kissinger, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan? Despite being blatant proponents of American military industrial policies at home and abroad--or because of it--they enjoyed meteoric academic careers and subsequently were selected to serve as prominent acolytes to the circles of power. Outspoken political advocacy is not a hindrance to one's career as long as one advocates the right things.

THE MYTH OF THE Radical Campus

To repeat, at the average university or college, the opportunities to study, ex press, and support (or reject) icono-clastic, anti-establishment views are severely limited. Conservatives, how ever, believe otherwise. They see acedemia as permeated with leftism. They brand campus protests against racism, sexism, and U.S. interventionism abroad as "politically correct McCarthyism" Thus the attempts to fight reactionism are themselves labeled reactionary and the roles of oppressor and oppressed are reversed. So is fostered the myth of a university dominated by feminists, gays, Marxists, and black militants.

In dozens of TV opinion shows and numerous large circulation publications across the nation, scores of conservative writers complain, without any sense of irony, of being silenced by the "politically correct" Their diatribes usually are little more than attacks upon socio political views they find intolerable and want eradicated from college curricula. Through all this, one never actually hears from the "politically correct" people who supposedly dominate the universe of discourse.

Today, a national network of well financed, right wing campus groups coordinates most conservative activities at schools around the nation and funds over 100 conservative campus publications, reaching more than a million students. These undertakings receive millions of dollars from the Sciafe Foundation, the Olin Foundation, and other wealthy donors. The nearly complete lack of alternative funding for progressive campus groups belies the charge that political communication in acedemia is dominated by left wingers.

Accusations of partisanship are leveled against those who challenge--but rarely against those who reinforce--the prevailing orthodoxies. By implicitly accepting the existing power structure on its own terms, then denying its existence and all the difficult questions it raises, many academics believe they have achieved a scholarly detachment from the turmoil of reality. And in a way, they have.

Michael Parenti is the author of Land of Idols: Political Mythology in America. This article has been adapted from his soon-to-be-published book Against Empire (San Francisco: City Lights Books).
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Author:Parenti, Michael
Publication:The Humanist
Date:Sep 1, 1995
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