Colleges Pervert the Word ‘Political’

July 29, 2004

In my first column for Townhall.com, I described Ralph Nader’s recent commencement address at Bucknell University, an unabashedly political screed calling for universal health care, taxes on gambling, transforming the tax system, and the like.  That was problematic, I argued, since Nader had signed an agreement that his speech would not be “political in tone or content.”

Afterward, I received an email from reader Jason Browning declaring that, “The tone of [my article] seemed obviously to be more concerned with the fact that Nader was voicing issues that are not popular amongst conservatives.  Quibbling about whether or not the speech was political in nature was just a side show.”  Browning’s accusation is completely off base, but it serves to illuminate one of the most disgusting facets of contemporary university life.

To understand why, let’s engage in a little thought experiment.  Imagine a university that does the following:

  • Pays repeat-loser presidential candidate Pat Buchanan $13,000 to give a commencement address on “Making a difference” (a speech about the importance of abolishing the IRS, closing the borders, and cutting foreign aid to Israel)


  • Funds a Women’s Resource Center that sponsors bus trips to pro-life rallies in Washington – but not pro-choice ones


  • Funds a Student Lectureship Committee that denies funding for a lecture by liberal actor Al Franken on the grounds that he is “too political”


  • Hires six times more conservative professors than liberal professors


  • Requires all Economics majors to take a course taught from the perspective that Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco misunderstood what fascism is all about and that it is really a compassionate economic system


  • Enacts a “speech code” that is used to punish students who offend the sensibilities of Republicans (who were oppressed in the post-Civil War South) and Christians (who have been oppressed around the world for millennia)

 Such an institution would be roundly denounced as incredibly political – an intellectual gulag, even.  And rightly so.

But here’s the problem: take each bullet point above and turn it around so it disadvantages conservatives instead of liberals, and you have exactly what most universities do today.  In fact, every fake example I cited above is something I have seen on my own campus, except backwards.  (I don’t have space here to describe each incident, but interested readers should consult www.bucknellconservatives.org.)

Somehow or another, universities like mine, despite all their rank partisanship, aren’t seen as political – but those who criticize their political bias are.  The Bucknell Conservatives Club has been called “McCarthyite” for doing a study that proved there are six times more Democrats on the faculty than Republicans.  The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education is routinely and falsely labeled “conservative” for pointing out campus speech codes and the way they are enforced only against expression that offends leftist sensibilities.  (Notably, Bucknell’s speech codewas not enforced when conservatives were called Nazis.)  And David Horowitz’s Academic Bill of Rights  is accused of politicizing the academy for trying to eliminate its current politicization!

See the pattern?  Ideas that dissent from the prevailing orthodoxy are immediately branded “political,” but liberal ideas never are.  I don’t claim to be a brain surgeon, but I think I know why that is.  It’s sheer intellectual laziness.

Think about it.  As a campus conservative, my ideas are routinely challenged – when I go to class, when I walk through the Student Union, when I go to a lecture, you name it.  But that does not happen to the lefties.  Conservatives on campus are so rare – and even when they exist, they are so often “in the closet” – that liberal ideas such as universal health care are seldom challenged.  People forget that such ideas are subject to informed debate, rather than something all civilized beings accept as truth – which is just another way of saying they’re political.

And you know what?  That’s a lot worse for my friends on the left than it is for me.  College ought to be a place where everyone’s beliefs are questioned on a regular basis – that’s how we figure out if we really believe something and if so, why.  Having to constantly second-guess myself has made me stronger.  And I pity all the tree huggers, pacifists, and PETA-loving hamburger haters who have never had to do the same.

That – despite Jason Browning’s assumption to the contrary – is my problem with today’s ivory tower and, in the case of Nader, why I remain upset about this year’s scam of a commencement address.  A university, by definition, ought not be political – no matter which side of the spectrum it favors.

The idea of a “conservative university” is just as repugnant as the current rampant liberal bias.  Both are inimical to what higher education ought to be about: the dispassionate pursuit of truth.  And no one should be more upset about it than the liberals, as intellectual laziness makes their ideas increasingly boring and brittle – kind of like Ralph Nader.

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Schools: Bucknell University