BY JOHN K. WILSON
I’m disturbed by many of the arguments against the decision by the University of Virginia’s Miller Center to hire as a senior fellow Marc Short, the former White House director of legislative affairs and senior adviser to President Donald Trump.
William Hitchcock and Melvyn Leffler, history professors at Virginia, resigned from the Miller Center in protest and argue in their resignation letter, “The appointment of Mr. Short runs counter to the Center’s fundamental values of non-partisanship, transparency, openness, a passion for truth and objectivity, and civility,” But there is no civility in banning Republicans because Donald Trump is uncivil. There is no non-partisanship to ban Trump supporters when Obama supporters would face no barrier. There is no passion for truth in banning people you disagree with.
The argument Hitchcock and Leffler make against Short is explicitly about guilt by association. By working for Oliver North, the Koch brothers, and Donald Trump, they argue, “He has associated himself with people and institutions who disregard, circumvent, and even violate the norms and laws that are fundamental to civil discourse and democratic politics.”
By serving in the Trump administration, Short “has associated himself with ongoing attacks on a free media.” Hitchcock and Leffler wrote, “He has associated himself with rhetoric and policies that have empowered and emboldened white supremacists and that have led to spectacular increases in racist and misogynistic talk and behavior.”
This is a very troubling standard. It is wrong to ban the hiring of people based on their “rhetoric” about politics rather than the merit of their appointments. But it is a huge step further to judge people based on the rhetoric of their employers.
We have a term for this kind of guilt by association: McCarthyism.
That is a harsh assessment of well-intentioned people. But the fact is, they are wrong. Any declaration that political “association” should be used to ban hires by a university certainly does raise the spectre of the days when membership in a leftist organization linked by critics to Communism would result in a blacklist from academia.
It is wrong to create a similar blacklist for anyone who has worked for the Trump Administration. As the author of a book condemning Trump, I obviously share Hitchcock and Leffler’s views about the evil of the Trump Administration, and I think there can be moral critiques made of those who support Trump and embrace his policies. But personal moral critiques should never be confused with hiring standards.
However, there are troubling aspects to the Short appointment that Hitchcock and Leffler also raise, especially the lack of shared governance and consultation with faculty.
The director and CEO of the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, William Antholis, wrote that Short “brings a missing critical voice — one that represents members of Congress and the Republican Party who continue to support the president in large numbers.”
The selection of academic appointments should be based on academic merit, not political representation. The notion of hiring preferences for (or against) conservatives is anathema to academic integrity.
So what should we advocate when everyone is wrong? How should we react when a flawed appointment is opposed on illegitimate grounds?
The answer, if we care about academic freedom and shared governance, is that we never cancel academic appointments for political reasons. The Miller Center should fix the flaws in shared governance, but it should also clarify that ideology is not the basis of any appointments.