Hardly an academic semester goes by without a high-profile opportunity arising for the right to address pervasive, perennial anti-conservative animus on the American college campus. And hardly an academic semester goes by without the right, reflexively blinded by righteous indignation, blowing an opportunity to do so.
Too often, conservatives, in a rush to condemn their adversaries, dishonor their own principles, neglect the deeper issue of higher education’s authoritarian left-wing culture, and fail to appreciate the utility of an omnipresent throng of useful idiots. The latest example of this tendency is their impetuous response to Michigan State University creative writing professor William S. Penn and his lecture hall diatribe involving Ann Romney, taxation, voter suppression, and “old Republicans with the dead skin cells washing off them.”
This past Thursday, Penn was suspended by MSU administrators from teaching for the remainder of the calendar year. That is insufficient. He should be barred from the classroom—without pay—for one academic year, minimum. Yet he should not be axed—that is at least for the myopic reason supplied by the right: persecution of young conservatives.
Michigan Republican Party Chairman Bobby Schostak, who has appealed for Penn to resign, epitomizes the right’s sentiment when he argues that “young conservatives should not feel isolated or outcast simply because they are Republicans.” For Penn, he maintains, engaged in “bullying” and “intimidation.”
But what comprises political bullying and intimidation in the classroom? In the past, it was when a professor ridiculed students and marked them down for expressing certain views. Now, ostensibly, it is also when students merely get the impression that expressing certain views could potentially result in negative consequences. After all, Penn did not last long enough into the term to have the limits of his avowed tolerance tested. (“I absolutely don’t mean to offend you, even if you are a Republican, I don’t mean to offend you in this class—outside of class is a different matter.”)
The point is that conservatives could have effectively applied just as much—if not more—pressure on MSU by broadly insisting that Penn, by creating an environment inimical to personal and intellectual growth, discarded his ethical responsibilities as a tenured academic.
Judging by the incessant nervous laughter in the nine-minute YouTube clip, it seems that the whole lecture hall was unnerved by Penn’s invective, not just the right-leaning students in attendance. Perhaps—if Penn’s course had survived beyond one session—conservatives in the class would have hesitated or even completely refrained from articulating opinions. But perhaps liberals in the class would have also felt pressured to conform to Penn’s fringe views to avoid retribution. Students are far more often preoccupied with obtaining a decent grade and moving on than transforming themselves into virtuous political martyrs. And to complicate matters, Penn dismissed the notion that he is a “liberal democrat,” describing himself instead as “fairly conservative.”
A question that cuts to the heart of the American university: Would Penn have faced the identical degree of wrath from the right and received the same punishment if he were a professor of, say, political science, which inescapably encompasses politics? Is it also bullying or intimidation if a professor simply discloses his or her political party affiliation? Schostak asserts that Penn’s behavior was “inexcusable” precisely because MSU is a public institution and, thus, funded by taxpayers. Yet is it truly possible to achieve what historian Peter Novick sardonically dubbed “that noble dream,” pure, value-free objectivity in the humanities? Would it be beneficial to create such a sterile setting anyway? Is not one of the primary aims of college to endow young people with skills to manage opposition and dissimilarity? If conservatives are so sincerely concerned for their emotionally delicate successors, it would be more compassionate to advise them to avoid college altogether. The political penchant of academia is barely a mystery.
On the whole, conservatives, when tackling bias in the classroom, would be wise to be calmer and more attuned to their ideals and long-term objectives regarding the constitution of the university. Coming down hard and fast on left-leaning academics recurrently creates an entirely new set of thorny difficulties.
First, doing so paints the right in a hypocritical hue. Conservatives constantly beat academia, the “mainstream media,” and Hollywood over the head with the First Amendment. But then they cry foul the moment forums for free speech fail to work in their favor. Because Penn’s personal opinions were voiced only on the first day of class, conservatives have run the risk of making themselves out to be thought police who demand castigation and expulsion each and every time a professor veers off on a controversial tangent.
Additionally, conservatives overlook the tremendous usefulness of individuals like Penn, who baldly expose higher education in America for what it really is: a self-absorbed, bastion of left-wing insanity. Unfortunately, removing a Penn here and a Penn there will do nothing to amend the morally relativistic mission of a sprawling bureaucracy that seeks to convert teenagers and young adults to enlightened (i.e. tolerant) members of the diverse global community.
Bringing political balance to higher education is a complex, protracted endeavor that requires considerable deliberation and coordination, not blinkered, knee-jerk outbursts. Witch hunting makes the right appear as if it is more consumed with scoring political points and galvanizing its compatriots than genuinely addressing the very real predicament of a domineering liberal ethos in one of our country’s vital institutions.
Conservatives also rarely realize that the Penns of the Ivory Tower have served on occasion as unwitting recruiters for the right. In reality, firebrands who childishly and aimlessly rail about topics outside their realms of expertise do not transform students into militant brigades of Das Kapital-toting Marxists. Rather, conversion to liberalism is most frequently carried out by soft-spoken and amicable professors in political science, sociology, economics, history, and international relations who spend their lengthy careers floating quietly under the radar. They perform their art of manipulation through subtle omission as opposed to overt saturation. (When was the last time an undergraduate was directed to read Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, Friedrich Hayek, and Russell Kirk?)
Truth be told, one would be hard pressed to find better tools for planting seeds of doubt about the left than rabidly progressive, blathering, middle-aged professors of creative literature. Undeniably, college students are impressionable beings. But they are certainly not oblivious morons. In fact, I am willing to bet my copy of God & Man at Yale that, come winter break, Penn’s spectacle will have caused more MSU Spartans to question the sanctity of the left than Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Ann Coulter combined.
Conservatives must continue to draw attention to academics like Penn. But, at the same time, they ought to grasp that a habitual and superficial reaction to an enduring and intricate problem may elicit as many drawbacks as advantages.
Jonathan Bronitsky is a Michiganian and doctoral candidate in History at the University of Cambridge.