Nicholas Kristof Decries 'Liberal Intolerance' in Academia

In two recent articles titled "A Confession of Liberal Intolerance" and "The Liberal Blind Spot," New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof accuses professors in the Humanities and Social Sciences of discriminating against "conservative" academics.

He argues there's a great injustice going on at colleges and universities across the country where "liberal" professors in disciplines such as English Literature, History, and Anthropology show "intolerance" towards underrepresented "conservatives."

Kristof links this assertion with incidents where college students have shut down right-wing guest speakers to construct a center-right version of essentially the same argument Donald Trump makes against "political correctness."

In these articles Kristof doesn't define for his readers what he means by "conservative" in the academic context, but he nonetheless claims there are legions of qualified conservatives out there with sterling scholarly credentials in the Humanities and Social Sciences clamoring to be let into academia only to be unjustly locked out by "intolerant liberals." He imposes a false conservative/liberal binary on academia, which would quickly break down if he defined his terms more clearly. He also chooses to ignore the multitude of "conservative" professors in Economics and Business departments, in STEM fields, and among administrators and trustees to focus only on the Humanities and Social Sciences.

(Memo to Kristof: Just about everything we do in the Humanities and Social Sciences does not fit into a narrow "conservative/liberal" frame, and even if it did we would require far more precise definitions of those freighted terms before we took it upon ourselves to give advice. False equivalencies and poorly defined terms are no way to make an argument against a bunch of college professors.)

"There are no quick solutions to the ideological homogeneity on campuses," Kristof writes, "but shouldn't we at least acknowledge that this is a shortcoming, rather than celebrate our sameness?"

But Kristof doesn't offer any concrete examples from course offerings, curriculum vitae, or current scholarship to prove his sweeping generalization of "sameness" in the Humanities and Social Sciences.

"Sure, there are dumb or dogmatic conservatives," Kristof writes, "just as there are dumb and dogmatic liberals. So let's avoid those who are dumb and dogmatic, without using politics or faith as a shorthand for mental acuity."

Kristof should at least identify a couple of these "liberal" Humanities and Social Science professors are who are using criteria based on "politics" or "faith" instead of scholarly work and teaching ability to deny "conservatives" their rightful place in the groves of academe. It's ironic to see Kristof denounce "liberal dogma" since in his own opinion pieces he consistently expresses the most predictable and conventional "liberal" worldview.

Another problem that makes these two editorials so weak is their lack of understanding they show about the power relations in contemporary American society. There is no crying need to buttress "conservative" ideas in the Humanities and Social Sciences.

This is a terrible argument to make in the post-Citizens United era of runaway corporate power. As Jane Mayer shows in her new book, Dark Money: The Hidden History of Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, the "conservative" Koch brothers are not only pouring money into political campaigns, but also into the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), "Americans for Prosperity," and dozens of other think tanks and foundations, as well as heavy-handed contributions aimed to control the curriculum at many colleges and universities.

At George Mason University the Koch brothers, after donating $30 million, demanded that its law school be named after Antonin Scalia, which sparked considerable backlash among faculty and students but illustrates the Kochs' power in academia.

Kristof chooses to ignore the dozens of powerful "conservative" think tanks, such as the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, CATO, the Manhattan Institute, the Hudson Institute, the Claire Booth Luce Policy Institute, the Pope Center, the Clayton Christensen Institute, the Pete Peterson Institute, and so on, which provide a steady torrent of shoddy "scholarship" that all ends up validating their right-wing ideological biases. They don't need universities anymore and certainly not Humanities and Social Science departments to ventilate their viewpoint.

These "conservative" think tanks have so much power in Washington that on any given day or night you can switch on C-SPAN and catch their panel discussions on topics ranging from tearing up the Iran nuclear deal to privatizing Social Security and the U.S. Postal Service. I doubt if any of the "research fellows" at these prestigious and well-financed right-wing think tanks aspire to be let into the History or Sociology departments of Oberlin or UC, Santa Cruz.

Then there are "conservatives," such as the Business professors Jeff Sandefer and Clayton Christensen, who advocate doing away with academic tenure and shrinking the Arts and Humanities departments at public colleges and universities. So in Kristof's universe to fight against "liberal intolerance" on college campuses we must accommodate people who would "disrupt" academia to the point of obliteration?

And let's not forget that the "conservative" governors Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Pat McCrory of North Carolina have implemented policies that undermine the Arts and Humanities at their public colleges and universities.

Governor Walker boasts about his efforts to get rid of academic tenure and Governor McCrory has said he doesn't believe the public should pay to enable young North Carolinians to study worthless majors like the Arts and Humanities. The "conservative" former Florida senator and presidential candidate, Marco Rubio, derided students majoring in the Humanities calling it "basket weaving."

With this kind of anti-intellectualism and contempt targeting public universities, academics, and the Arts and Humanities coming from leading "conservative" figures Kristof shouldn't be surprised that "conservatives" aren't equally represented in Comparative Literature and History departments.

"With her experience and intellect Condoleezza Rice would enhance any political science department," Kristof writes.

Condoleezza Rice -- President George W. Bush's National Security Advisor during the false WMD scare that led the country to war in Iraq, a person who sat on the board of directors of Chevron Corporation (and even had an oil tanker named after her) -- is Kristof's big example of someone who would "enhance any political science department."

Really?

With "conservatives" controlling the House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate, most governorships and state legislatures, and financed to the hilt by right-wing billionaires it's disappointing to see Kristof lament the absence of right-wingers in the Humanities and Social Science departments at our nation's universities.

Equally disappointing is that Kristof reveals in these two pieces a lack of understanding or critical analysis of what he's writing about, which is the worst quality a professional op-ed writer can ever display.