July 12, 2008

If CU Needs a Chair of Conservative Thought, Show Me The Data!

When I read that George "Bud" Peterson, new (and republican) Chancellor of the University of Colorado, announced the creation of an endowed chair of conservative thought, I was floored. See my Daily Camera letter on that here.

He says he doesn't necessarily want a political conservative—only an academic specializing in "classical conservative" thinkers. If that's the case, where's the evidence that such thought is not already taught regularly and widely on campus? I myself have a B.A. in philosophy from CU-Boulder, and I can assure him that I did indeed learn about the great so-called rightists such as Plato, Locke, Hobbes, Smith, and Nozick during my undergraduate years.

I now teach required business ethics courses at CU's Leeds College of Business. where I cover several of these thinkers including Nobel Economics Prize-Winner Milton Friedman, for good measure. I also covered many of these when I taught in CU's philosophy department, as did many other faculty. So I have no idea what data Peterson is referring to when he claims there is a dearth of these ideas in CU classrooms. Perhaps it's simply the ravings of O'Reilly, Hannity, and Limbaugh.

According to the news coverage on this story, only 23 professors at CU-Boulder are registered Republicans. Assuming this is correct, and that most of the rest are registered Democratic, the conclusion seems to be that there must be bias in the classrooms.

This is a hasty generalization. Many may in fact be independent and not registered at all. Furthermore, the majority of instructors at CU don't hold the title of "professor" and thus are left out of those statistics. But regardless, if it's not necessarily a political conservative who is sought, why not appoint someone like Stanley Fish, who has just expressed an interest in the position via his recent New York Times blog, (twice) and is an illustrious Ivy-League expert on classical social-political thought, previously Dean of Liberal Arts at the prestigious University of Illinois-Chicago?

Of course that's a rhetorical question. As the Chancellor has admitted, the position will be funded by private donors who tend to be right of center politically. So I assume they would never tolerate the appointment of a known leftist with their own funds. So Peterson is obviously being disingenuous when he claims not to be seeking a political conservative.

All I ask is to see the evidence for why this chair is needed. It's important to remember that no such position in conservative (or progressive) thought has ever been created anywhere in the country. And that's mostly because it's not even clear how we might label such classical authors. Only 20th Century authors fit neaty into those boxes. On the right, there's basically Nozick, Friedman, and perhaps Ayn Rand. So that's not much to work with. And on the left there are certainly more in recent history, but beyond that, the only truly great one is Marx. Is Plato, for example, really conservative because he advocated a republic? He also argued that democracy was the lowest form of government, preferring a strong central statism led by a philosopher king appointed for life. I'm assuming that's not exactly what most conservatives would want. Similar nuances abound in most all great thinkers. That's part of what makes them great. They defy facile (and contemporary) political categorization.

Of course there are no empirical data to support the need for this high-profile chair. Peterson and CU's even newer (also republican)President, Bruce Benson, seem to think that since there's a market demand, namely, people willing to fund the job—then it must be met. No further evidence needed.

Thus and not surprisingly, given their own conspicuous lack of higher education, Benson and Peterson frankly don't seem to understand the essential mission of a university, which is not to respond to any and every well-funded notion of what curriculum colleges should include (would they support an endowed chair of progressive thought?) but rather to lead society through the protection and promulgation of truth and wisdom via genuine expertise. And until there is convincing data showing real evidence of some lack of canonical thought taught at CU, there can be no rational justification for this proposed chair. The mere suggestion utterly embarrasses us all.