Pariahs, Martyrs — and Fighters Back

October 24, 2005

At the start of the last school year, activists at DePaul University set up a pair of tables along a student thoroughfare and distributed literature to passers-by. They caught the eye of faculty member Thomas Klocek, who took one of their handouts and read about Israel’s “brutal and murderous occupation” of “Palestine” as well as its “apartheid violence” in the West Bank and Gaza. This was provocative stuff — but nothing out of the ordinary for the two groups behind it all, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and United Muslims Moving Ahead (UMMA).

Engaging the students in a discussion about their claims, “I reminded them that there were multiple perspectives involved here, including Christian ones,” Klocek says. “I also said that using the term ‘Palestinian’ is problematic because it was once a generic term referring to Jews, Muslims, and Christians who lived in the area rather than to a single ethnicity.” One of the students said that she was a Palestinian and that his remarks insulted her. “I told her it was nothing personal and that she could call herself whatever she wanted,” he says.

But by then there was no turning back. What might have remained a lively discussion grew into a heated argument. One student chimed in with a comparison that was as inevitable as it was irresponsible: The Israelis, he said, are treating the Palestinians the same way that Hitler treated the Jews. Ever the teacher, Klocek (who is Catholic) tried to suggest that there were important differences between these two cases. When he realized that he was battling not a reasoned opinion but an article of faith, Klocek decided to withdraw. Accounts differ as to what happened next: The students claim that Klocek threw his flier onto their table and made an obscene gesture; Klocek says he set down the material calmly and thumbed his chin, Italian-style, to indicate “I’m outta here!”

Since this encounter, which lasted about 15 minutes, Klocek’s world has turned upside down. He was suspended from his classroom duties and probably won’t ever teach at DePaul again. Today, he is over-educated and under-employed, struggling to make ends meet as he works at odd jobs, and wondering how he’ll earn his next paycheck. Unfortunately, his story is all too familiar to academics who dare to question the tenets of political correctness. Right-wingers aren’t the only ones affected: Klocek is a conservative Democrat who voted for John Kerry. Even outright liberals can come under fire: Just ask Harvard president Lawrence Summers, who recently sinned by speculating about why there aren’t more female scientists. Ever since, he has spent much of his time seeking absolution from fist-pumping feminists. At least Summers kept his job. But for many others who are found guilty of violating certain pieties, there is no such guarantee — they become an endangered species on campus, victims of the Left’s ruthless determination to hunt them into extinction.

AN IMPENETRABLE FORTRESS

It’s widely known by now that conservatives have a tough time winning jobs and earning promotions at colleges and universities. For all of the success conservatives have experienced in politics and culture over the last few decades, the academy remains an impenetrable fortress of liberalism. There have been more conservative American presidents in the last quarter century than there have been conservative Ivy League presidents. If anything, the problem has grown worse over time as tenured radicals have tightened their stranglehold, especially in the humanities. Nowadays, many young conservatives who might otherwise be drawn to a career in higher education don’t consider it an option. The hardy few who persevere “hope to get lucky,” says Harvey Mansfield, a Harvard political scientist who has seen many talented protégés fail to land academic positions for which they were eminently qualified. The ones who do get lucky, he says, often get lucky “at second-rate places.”

Klocek’s case is particularly striking because the DePaul administration has left a long paper trail that demonstrates its disdain for his ideas as well as its disregard for the principles of academic freedom. A little more than a week after his encounter with the anti-Israel activists, Klocek found himself summoned to the office of Susanne Dumbleton, a dean at DePaul (who refused to speak to National Review). According to Klocek, Dumbleton said she had received letters complaining about Klocek’s behavior. She wouldn’t show them to Klocek, but the students who wrote them evidently felt “hurt” by Klocek’s attempts to “impose” his views on them.

Dumbleton suspended Klocek with pay and urged him to stay off campus (where he had not only been teaching, but attending daily Mass for years). She did this without arranging the formal hearing that DePaul’s own employment guidelines would seem to require. She also told Klocek not to talk to the media — a prohibition that she did not apply to Klocek’s accusers, or even to herself. “We do not respect the unfair use of faculty power over students,” she said in an interview with the DePaulia, a student newspaper. A week later, with her gag order still silencing Klocek, Dumbleton wrote to the DePaulia: “The university must serve as a forum at which individuals are able to express contrary ideas, debate opposing positions, challenge assumptions, press areas of the unknown, and consider unimagined possibilities.” This was no defense of a besieged Klocek. Instead, Dumbleton was in the process of issuing one of several apologies to the SJP and UMMA students “for the insult and disrespect they had endured.”

The notion that perhaps Klocek deserved the benefit of the doubt against the charges of politically motivated students appears to be one of those “unimagined possibilities” that Dumbleton finds so fundamental to university life. DePaul certainly doesn’t second-guess the critics of Israel on its faculty, such as Norman G. Finkelstein, a controversial political scientist who is building an academic career by savaging the Israeli government and what he calls “the Holocaust industry.”

Finding himself on the wrong side of the Israel–Palestine divide, and with the administration refusing to show even a flicker of sympathy, Klocek didn’t know how to respond. He just wanted his job back. He had taught at DePaul for nearly 15 years as an adjunct member of the faculty, and never in this time, according to the school’s administration, had anybody complained about his behavior. But now Dumbleton was finding all kinds of reasons to label him persona non grata. In a November 10 letter, for example, she accused Klocek of being “occasionally disoriented or unfocused,” perhaps owing to a “changing regimen of medication.” (Dumbleton’s Ph.D. is in English, not psychiatry.) She indicated that Klocek could teach one more class, but only if it were monitored — a condition that an increasingly desperate Klocek was willing to accept. Some time later, however, Dumbleton seemed to discourage it. “She told me she couldn’t guarantee the behavior of the students,” says Klocek. “She was basically threatening me with protests.” He decided against returning to DePaul, and in June he filed a lawsuit against his former employers. “This is one of the most brazen violations of academic freedom that I’ve seen,” says David French of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a watchdog group.

Klocek may be gone from DePaul, but Ward Churchill — the professor who became infamous for condemning the World Trade Center victims as “little Eichmanns” — remains a professor at the University of Colorado. (And he’s still making news: At a speech in Portland, Ore., this summer, he said that U.S. military officers deserved a “fragging” from their subordinates.) The administration in Boulder is giving Churchill every privilege of due process as a committee investigates him for plagiarism and other forms of “academic misconduct.” If the university offers Churchill a buyout, as some have advised, it will almost certainly take the form of a golden parachute, as opposed to the cold shoulder Klocek received from DePaul.

A DEEPER PROBLEM

But the problem at DePaul — and throughout higher education — goes far deeper than the niceties of faculty due process. After all, if Klocek were summoned before a jury of his peers, he might find himself subjected to the same harsh treatment he has received from administrators. Three years ago, the American Enterprise magazine examined voter-registration rolls for the party affiliations of professors. They were overwhelmingly Democratic (or Green) — by a factor of 18 at Brown, nine at Stanford, eight at Berkeley, and so on. It defies belief to suggest that these political allegiances play no part in hiring and promotion. “I know someone who insisted that we couldn’t hire someone who clerked for Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court, simply because this person didn’t like Clarence Thomas,” says a law professor at a Midwestern university.

There’s hardly a dean in the land who doesn’t prattle on about the importance of diversity, or a school that refuses to bend over backward to recruit women and minorities. Yet few of them seem to believe that they should give more consideration to scholars who aren’t keen on holding candles at anti-war vigils. “Every time I apply for a better job at a different college, I get Googled,” says one professor who has written a handful of op-eds. “Nobody objects to my academic work, but they can’t stand a few things I’ve written about politics.” In 2002, Smith College economist James Miller was denied tenure, in part because he had contributed to National Review Online. Miller was savvy enough to stir up outrage among alumni and the public — he became a minor cause célèbre for Bill O’Reilly on Fox News — and the college finally granted him tenure last year. But his example is a stirring exception to the iron rule of left-wing exclusivity.

Those who do find jobs in the ivory tower can’t be too picky. In 1991, Diane Ravitch of the Teachers College at Columbia joined the Bush administration as an assistant secretary of education. She served for two years and then wrote a book on national standards for the Brookings Institution. With this project finished and her professional résumé sparkling, she assumed she would be welcomed back to her old school, where she had taught for 20 years. “I was told that my old colleagues didn’t want me back,” says Ravitch. She eventually wound up at New York University — not a horrible outcome, but also a case of a deserving scholar landing at a less prestigious school for committing a political offense. (Ravitch may not be a movement conservative, but as a school-choice supporter she falls well to the right of the education establishment.) Several universities have managed to poach talent by accepting conservatives rejected by more prestigious institutions. The law school at George Mason University, for example, has built an excellent faculty by spotting brainpower that others have overlooked.

But unhappy stories abound, even for those who gain the apparent comfort of tenure. On March 4, 2004, Hans-Hermann Hoppe, a German-born economics professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, was teaching a class on money and banking. He wanted his students to understand the concept of time preference. This is the idea that some people place more value on the present than on the future. In other words, certain folks prefer to spend money now and others would rather save it for later. In his lecture, Hoppe, who is a libertarian, suggested that children and seniors have a high time preference in that they’re more oriented to the here and now — because kids don’t know any better and old people realize they won’t live forever.

So far, so good. But then Hoppe provided a third illustration of his point — one that would cause him to clash with UNLV’s propriety police for almost a year. He said that gays also exhibit a high time-preference because they typically don’t have children, and therefore are less inclined to think about the next generation. He went on to note, mischievously, that John Maynard Keynes was homosexual and that perhaps this fact helped explain the legendary economist’s support for the short-term interventionist policies that are anathema to Hoppe’s private-sector approach.

A gay student in Hoppe’s class objected to this characterization. Rather than questioning his professor, either during the lecture or later on, he went straight to UNLV affirmative-action officer Sam Connolly and complained. His feelings had been hurt, and thus Hoppe had created a “hostile learning environment” — a vague and catch-all term that often serves as the excuse for cracking the heads of professors who violate the canons of political correctness. The school convened a grievance committee, which demanded that Hoppe produce academic research to back up his statement about gays and time preference. Hoppe complied, and included material from the conservative Family Research Council. To his inquisitors, this served as further evidence of his homophobia. Months went by as the first grievance committee — and then a second one — debated what to do with the errant economist. All the while, Hoppe was told not to discuss his plight publicly. It seems that nobody loves gag orders as much as do university administrators.

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT

Finally, last January, UNLV came up with what it believed to be a fitting punishment: A letter of reprimand would go into Hoppe’s file, and the professor would forfeit his next pay increase. Hoppe was expected to accept this humiliation. “There were hints that worse things, including termination, could be in the offing should I refuse to accept some sort of guilty verdict,” he says. Instead of surrendering, Hoppe contacted a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union (“though our political views are poles apart,” he notes) and began to fight back. Local reporters started following the story, as did an online community of libertarians who cheered for their comrade.

On February 9, UNLV provost Ray Alden sent what he called a “non-disciplinary letter of instruction” to Hoppe. It contained an order: “You are hereby instructed to cease mischaracterizing opinion as objective fact in the educational environment.” But by dropping the financial penalty, the school was backpedaling — and the bad publicity was pressuring it to reverse course entirely. That, in fact, is what happened a little more than a week later, when UNLV president Carol Harter yanked the letter from Hoppe’s file and declared that Hoppe had been within his rights to say what he did.

Hoppe, of course, wishes UNLV had not questioned his integrity in the first place. “I lost about a year of productive work,” he says. “My scholarly output was minimal as compared to normal years. In addition, the affair led to numerous doctor visits to treat anxiety, sleeplessness, and depression.” Was he persecuted for his political beliefs? “The severity of the threatened punishment definitely had to do with my widely known and outspoken libertarian and right-of-center views. The higher-ups in the administration could have put this down quickly, rather than letting it drag on for a year.”

Sometimes a right-of-center professor doesn’t have to say anything in particular to earn a thumping. In 1998, the theater department at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania staged Jesus Christ Superstar. Jesus was played by an actress, and “his” disciples were portrayed as NOW-style abortion advocates. Christ’s accusers wore Pat Robertson masks. During the flogging of Jesus, images of prominent conservatives, such as Rush Limbaugh, were projected onto an overhead screen. One of them was Wesley McDonald, an Elizabethtown political-science professor well known for his conservatism. (He studied under Russell Kirk and has written a book about his mentor.) McDonald was depicted wearing devil horns.

“I was bothered to see images of my own faith used against me,” says McDonald. The incident generated some attention in the local newspaper, the Lancaster New Era. But freedom of expression is what it is, and McDonald couldn’t do much more than express his irritation.

Two years ago, McDonald applied for a promotion to full professor. Although his teaching and scholarship were rated “high quality,” he was rejected — he had published, but now he would perish. “McDonald does not represent a model of collegiality, circumspection, or discretion,” said a memo from the panel judging him. “One reference stated that ‘Wes has attracted controversy.’” Getting caricatured as a demon tends to do that, of course, especially when one gripes about it. Fortunately for McDonald, a new dean arrived at Elizabethtown and last year he received his promotion. “I can’t believe it took a fight,” says McDonald.

For Klocek, formerly of DePaul, the fight’s still going on but there almost certainly won’t be a promotion. “If I went back there, they’d be waiting for me, looking for some small indiscretion so they could do me in all over again,” he says. “I never realized how fragile free speech is in our society, or on our campuses.”

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Schools: George Mason University New York University Smith College Columbia University Dartmouth College University of Nevada, Las Vegas DePaul University University of Colorado at Boulder Cases: DePaul University: Professor Suspended for Expression Without Due Process