Horowitz and the myth of the radical university

By Robert Jensen

Published in Common Dreams · March, 2001

posted on Common Dreams, March 24, 2001.

Thanks to conservative author David Horowitz’s lecture at the University of Texas (Wednesday, March 21), I have new hope for radical political organizing on campus.

Many of us on the faculty with left/progressive values have felt rather isolated on what we all thought was a conservative campus. But it turns out that all this time we’ve been working in a nest of left-wing radicals who have over-run the place, leaving conservatives cowering in silence.

At least that’s Horowitz’s analysis. University faculties around the country, including UT, are “skewed far to the left” as a result of conservative professors being “systematically purged,” according to Horowitz, a one-time leftist turned right-winger.

My colleagues and I are hoping Horowitz will help us find where all these radicals are hiding; more company would be nice.

In the decade I’ve been at UT, a handful of faculty members have been willing to get involved in left/progressive causes. Events and actions that address racism, sexism, militarism or corporate domination usually involve the same small group of committed folks.

If the “left-wingers run the universities” claim were coming only from Horowitz, it wouldn’t be cause for much concern. The political analysis that comes out of his “Center for the Study of Popular Culture” is so consistently loopy that he’s hard to take seriously.

But this assertion about left-wing dominance of universities is repeated so often throughout the culture that it has become widely accepted. The fact, however, is that the typical American university is dominated by centrist to moderately conservative faculty members and administrators, with steady movement to the right in the past two decades.

At UT, for example, there are some professors — mostly scattered throughout the liberal arts and social sciences — who might reasonably be called left or progressive, a few even radical. But in my experience the majority of faculty members run from liberal Democrats to conservative Republicans.

In some places on campus — the well-funded McCombs School for Business comes to mind — it would be silly to argue that the ideology of professors is skewed even mildly to the left; they are bastions of conservatism where no critique of the basic nature of corporate capitalism is voiced.

More and more, universities are influenced by the wealthy donors and corporations that exercise increasing power as public funding for higher education shrinks. Professors, no matter what the nature of their research, are being told that attracting outside funding is increasingly a requirement for tenure and promotion.

That means that people doing work that critiques the fundamental assumptions of powerful institutions in this culture (one reasonable definition of a “leftist”) are becoming even more marginalized. Not “systematically purged,” as happened during the McCarthy era, but squeezed out by a system that values conformity and subordination to power more than deep critique.

I am not so naïve as to expect institutions to go out of their way to foster dissent; institutions tend to reproduce the relationships of power in the wider society, and universities are no different.

But we should put away the fantasy that radicals are running the show and begin to ask seriously whether our society cares about maintaining universities as a place for independent critical inquiry.

This is not a plea for sympathy for poor lonely radicals on campus. As a tenured professor, I enjoy a freedom to pursue my intellectual interests that is available virtually nowhere else in the culture, and I’m grateful for that freedom. But I worry that graduate students and younger colleagues coming up through the ranks won’t enjoy that same freedom.

That should be of concern not just to aspiring academics but to a society that wants to call itself democratic. If higher education is not a place for critical self-reflection on the powerful, we’re all in trouble.