Hoover Daily Report

The Crisis Role of the University

Monday, September 16, 2002

Why, one wonders, are various conservatives and other voices of the political right seemingly driven to drawing up enemy lines?

In the late 1940s, they produced blacklists of men and women in Hollywood and the media whom the right charged with being Communists or sympathizers. In 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy came up with his famous (but nonexistent) list of 205 names "known to the secretary of state as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping the policy of the State Department." And President Nixon had his own enemies list.

Several months after the horrific events of September 11 came another list, compiled by the conservative American Council of Trustees and Alumni. Condemning what it called a "blame America first" reaction on college campuses, the list singled out certain professors as the "weak link" in America's response to the attacks of September 11 for pointing "accusatory fingers" at the United States instead of the terrorists.

Senator Joseph Lieberman called the council's report "unfair and inconsistent for an organization devoted to promoting academic freedom" and asked that it cease referring to him as a "cofounder."

It is not necessary to expand on the importance of the university as an institution of free speech (acknowledged by the council). What needs to be emphasized is that the current threats to academic freedom are significantly different from those that defined the McCarthy era.

Fifty years ago the government tried to tell the public what was permissible and impermissible speech. Today, as many observers have noted, it is public sentiment that often dictates behavior.

This is why a responsibility of the council should be to strengthen the resolve of trustees to protect the university from the intrusion of politics and the passions of an aroused off-campus public. In its zeal to expose "patriotic incorrectness," the council should not lose sight of a vital role of universities in a time of crisis.

Many professors (especially in the humanities and social sciences) are openly left-liberal in their political outlook. Some of them used the events of September 11 to express their enmity toward the United States in statements such as "We have ourselves to blame for the attacks."

A campus is where one expects to hear outrageous and offensive ideas and where one has the right to be outraged and offended. But it's also where one has been able to hear thoughtful and deliberative discussions of how to fight terrorism, discussions that go beyond choices of "right versus wrong" and the dictum "you are either with us or against us."

One may strongly support the goal of eradicating terrorism but still question whether our means and actions may sometimes be working against our best interests.

Conservatives should be among the first to insist that the unhindered and "robust exchange of ideas" our universities provide should not be reduced to easy or simplistic moral categories.