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Sunday, August 29, 2010

Crypto Conservatives?

Do conservative faculty on liberal campuses have an obligation to fight the campus left? I have always been extremely vocal in matters of departmental policy, but as noted in a comment on one of my posts, I have, at times, held back in matters concerning the larger university. Is restraint judicious or cowardly?

The argument against restraint is simple. If conservatives do not speak out on campus, the left wins every argument; at the university, the left is both numerous and outspoken.

The reasons for restraint are numerous and range from the selfish to the practical. Most of the conservatives I know in the sciences put their energy into their work - not into political battles. Not everyone is willing to devote time and resources to political battles that do not affect them directly. In the sciences, I doubt that outspoken conservative politics affects promotion and tenure, but I can sympathize with the cautious junior faculty member who prefers to keep his head low before tenure.

My primary calculation when I consider addressing a worthwhile issue is: will my public position on this issue make me less effective in dealing with future issues of greater importance? This is a tricky calculation, which leaves room for never ending postponement and avoidance. To illuminate components of the calculation, I recall a formative period from my early faculty days. In the late '80's, the National Association of Scholars (NAS) appeared on many campuses. At that time the NAS was opposed to trivialized curricula, restrictive speech codes, post-modernist humanities scholarship, and similar anti-intellectual university trends. Not long after the NAS appeared, prominent humanities professors at major universities demanded that their university administrations adopt policies prohibiting members of the NAS from serving on any university governing committee. I never heard of any university publicly adopting such a policy, but the threat was clear: publicly endorse conservative positions and be branded a whacko unfit for positions of responsibility.

My response to this threat has been twofold. Sometimes I simply chose not to fight a battle that I had no hope of winning. I don't stand in front of a train. When I choose to fight, I fight on narrow grounds rather than in the context of broader conservative vs. leftist ideological battles. For example, recently, my university surreptitiously changed the selection criteria for one of our primary merit scholarships, reducing the emphasis on raw academic talent in favor of greater attention to community service and similar drivel. The justification was the standard social engineering blather. I (with allies) successfully argued for the reversal of this sacrifice of academic standards. We did not argue on ideological grounds but instead argued in terms of the negative effects on the recruitment of potential undergraduate stars for our science program. Opposition on such practical (and self interested) grounds does not generate the heat that ideological opposition does, and is therefore more successful.

The preceding paragraphs may suggest that the conservative faculty member frequently faces ideological battles on campus, but I have not found this to be the case. For those of us not frequently involved in broader university governance (and with our heads in our books), these issues arise infrequently. None the less, I assume that all conservative faculty face them occasionally and are then faced with the choice: fight today or postpone the fight for the future.

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