“Campus” Is Not Quite What Nicholas Kristof Thinks It Is

BY AARON BARLOW

When I read Nicholas Kristof’s “The Dangers of Echo Chambers on Campus” last night, I knew I would have to write in response. Drive-by commentary of this sort can’t be ignored by those of us who really are members of college communities.

Fortunately for me, John K. Wilson posted even before I had started writing, making the point that Kristof’s false equivalencies undermine his entire piece: calling someone a racist does not balance threats of violence. After all, someone might actually deserve the appellation; no one deserves violence. Given John’s excellent rebuttal, I can move on to consideration of other aspects of Kristof’s unfortunate column.

There’s an assumption in his piece that all colleges are pretty much the same, sanctuaries for the children of the upper classes while they try to work out their futures and prepare for them. Kristof writes that he fears “how insular universities have become. When students inhabit liberal bubbles, they’re not learning much about their own country.” There are somewhere around a quarter of a million students in the City University of New York (CUNY) system where I teach. I doubt there’s a single one of them who could demonstrably be accused of living in a ‘liberal bubble.’ The vast majority of American college students attend similar types of state institutions. Less than half a percent of our college students attend an Ivy League school. Not too many go to elite ‘R1’ research institutions like the University of Michigan Kristof targets, either.

Most college students, today, inhabit a ‘real world’ that Kristof only knows through his forays out of the cocoon of the American elite. Only slightly more than half of them are able to complete their degrees within six years of starting. Why? The reasons are myriad, but they include family and financial pressures that those of us with secure incomes and stable lives can hardly comprehend. Today’s students, for the most part, are tough and worldly wise. Kristof condescends to them: “To be fully educated, students should encounter not only Plato, but also Republicans.” Few of my students have encountered Plato; all of them (yes, even in New York City) deal with Republicans frequently.

Yes, it is true, as Kristof says, that only a limited range of aspects counts as “diversity” on college campuses today, but that is just as true outside and beyond the tyranny of Title IX. He writes, “Too often, we embrace diversity of all kinds except for ideological. Repeated studies have found that about 10 percent of professors in the social sciences or the humanities are Republicans.” Actually, we don’t: Ask students (and faculty) with disabilities how included they feel. And the fact of a small percentage of conservative professors in ‘the social sciences or the humanities’ has nothing to do with ostracism, for all of the claims some on the right make. The make-up reflects the nature of the profession and not any intentional bias. Business-school faculties (and those at medical schools) tend to be highly conservative. Few of us in higher education feel that we have developed a perfect system of inclusion—but it would be hard to argue (from any real knowledge of American campuses) that we don’t try.

Kristof argues that American colleges need to make more of an effort to include conservatives on the faculty, giving a couple of cherry-picked examples of people who could be (and would be, if they so desired) on any campus in America. He says he’s against ‘affirmative action’ for conservatives, but that’s just what he then asks for: “I do think we can try harder to recruit job applicants who represent diverse views.” I suspect he has never sat on an academic hiring committee. Had he, he would know just how ridiculous his exhortation sounds. He follows that by urging that we “avoid a hostile work environment for conservatives and evangelicals.” As if there is one—except in the minds of conservatives and evangelicals who have their own particular axes to grind.

In his last paragraph, Kristof writes, “It’s ineffably sad that today ‘that’s academic’ often means ‘that’s irrelevant.’” Sanctimony aside, Kristof’s assertion isn’t even accurate. It’s not that ‘that’s academic’ means ‘that’s irrelevant’ but it means ‘that’s arguable.’ A very different thing. Argument is what we do best on campus—and we find diversity of opinion everywhere we turn, both on campus and in the rest of our lives.

Mr. Kristof: It’s not those on our college campuses who live in sanctuaries but the members of the new elites who think they can drop in on the lives of people elsewhere, be it on campus, in public housing, in a West Carolina holler, or even in a refugee camp in the Middle East, and understand in a New York minute just what is going on.

4 thoughts on ““Campus” Is Not Quite What Nicholas Kristof Thinks It Is

  1. The idea that conservatives aren’t welcome on campus has been belied by academic conservatives themselves. In a post to this blog back in March I discussed a book by two conservative scholars, based on 153 interviews with right-leaning academics, on the conservative experience in contemporary academia. They argue persuasively that “right-wing hand-wringing about higher education is overblown.” In fact, the authors “believe that conservatives survive and even thrive in one of America’s most progressive professions.”

    Here’s a quote from an op-ed these scholars published in the Washington Post:

    “Conservative professors do not say the university is implacably hostile to their ideas and values. In fact, about half the professors we interviewed began drifting toward conservatism while in the academy itself. While some recoiled against the perceived excesses of leftist students and faculty members, conservative professors more commonly moved right because of positive experiences. Some took undergraduate courses in economics that exposed them to the virtues of markets. . . . Others began to drift rightward after encountering conservative students for the first time. . . .

    “For these professors, the university is not an adversarial institution — it is the birthplace of their conservatism and intellectual identities. As one literature professor told us: ‘The university has really given me my life. It’s a very wonderful place.’”

    The post is here: https://academeblog.org/2016/03/15/a-conservative-defense-of-academia/

    Kristof might also consider reading the remarkable perspective of University of Chicago conservative student activist Malloy Owen, published in The American Conservative here: http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/what-campus-activists-are-complaining-about/

    Owen concludes: “The left’s attacks on free speech may endanger the academic project, but the greater threat to the free exchange of ideas comes from academic corporatization. As long as that process continues unchecked, the university’s bold rhetorical defense of an art that it no longer teaches us how to practice will be nothing better than posturing.”

  2. Good post, but one quibble. Kristoff is correct, at least in the business world, that saying “that’s academic” means that it’s an irrelevant detail, not that it’s debatable.

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