Yale is known as a pretty liberal place. One in four, maybe more. Legalize. Divest. Obama. Elizabeth Warren!
This idea — immortal, contagious, omnipresent — is not new. Scores of alumni hold this view, just as scores of alumni have for a century. Look back to the roaring twenties, to Vietnam, to integration, to coeducation, to affirmative action. Alumni have called Yale too liberal as long as anyone living can remember. Most recently, this idea has reared its head in response to last year’s protests of commencement speakers that President Salovey decried in his freshman address. These protests — from Smith to Rutgers to Haverford — were incidents “in which the freedom to express ideas has been threatened,” Salovey told the throngs of freshmen.
Critics across the country decried the so-called left’s involvement in this so-called censorship. Loudly. In their irate responses, they raised the specter of “free speech” again and again. The purportedly liberal Timothy Egan, in a widely lauded and bitterly sarcastic column in The New York Times, called the protesters “bigots” and “lefty thought police” whose “extremism […] is the worst enemy of free speech.” Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, attacking from the right flank, decried a trend of collegiate “liberals silenc[ing] […] individuals they deemed politically objectionable.” “Conservative faculty members,” he continued, “are at risk of becoming an endangered species.” In the weeks after the commencement cancellations, Bloomberg and others repeatedly pointed out that, in 2012, 96 percent of political donations from Ivy League faculty and staff went to Barack Obama.
Let’s disregard the fact that the students were protesting the honorary degrees, cash compensations and honorific nature of commencement invitations in general, not the sentiments the speakers might express. Instead, let’s dwell just on the assertion that colleges have become veritable bastions of liberalism.
Citing professors’ political proclivities and refusal to blindly follow the orthodoxies of the past, incensed critics on the right and self-righteous critics on the left have excoriated liberal arts institutions for years for being too liberal. The fact that Yale professors vote overwhelmingly Democratic, wrote John Masko ’14 in the News last year, “is a painful indication that this school’s ongoing quest for meaningful academic diversity has, so far, failed.” Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor at NYU, put it more bluntly: “Universities should institute affirmative action for conservative professors, so all the professors don’t think the way I do.”
I’ve long wondered what exactly these critics want. How far to the right should we go? Scientists who don’t believe in evolution teaching biology? Geologists who question global climate change teaching earth science? Psychologists teaching that homosexuality is a mental illness that can be cured by reparative therapy? Historians claiming that a desire for states’ rights and popular sovereignty — not, you know, slavery — led to the Civil War?
No, of course not. That would be absurd.
Critics on the right and in the center used to think Yale was too liberal because it wanted to admit Jews or blacks or women. They don’t complain about those things (openly) anymore.
I don’t mean to parody conservative thinkers. I mean to parody the platitudinous whiners on the left and center who seem to think that a center-left coalition at American universities is some sort of problem.
What these critics really want is someone who fits into their mold of an acceptable, sensible, intellectual conservative. They are just as discriminating as they accuse “liberal” colleges of being. They want someone debatable, respectable, but also palatable to their particular sensibilities. They want William F. Buckley Jr., minus the blatant racism, sexism and homophobia. They want David Brooks. And Yale already has David Brooks.
Maybe it’s my predictable, sheep-like liberal bias, but I don’t see Yale as that liberal a place. It’s worth noting the profusion of conservative thought even at a place like Yale — home to neoconservative professors teaching international relations and neoliberal professors teaching economics, home to the children of privilege proudly proclaiming their libertarianism and then heading off to Wall Street.
I think, to these critics, colleges seem “liberal” simply because we’ve defined liberal in such a weird way. The increasing open-mindedness of scholars who, unlike many in the past, demand evidence, question the societal status quo, and seek to go beyond the simple, patriarchal, Eurocentric view of the world is not a manifestation of lefty closed-mindedness. It’s the rejection of closed-mindedness.
But even if you disagree with that statement, I hope you’ll agree that those who want more acceptable, Buckley-esque, “intellectual” conservatives at colleges are not open-minded. They don’t want true, full ideological diversity. They only want conservatives who are just conservative enough to be acceptable to them.
Scott Stern is a senior in Branford College. His columns run on Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.