Soundings

Adam Freedman
Politics and the University President
They go together—so long as the politics are left-wing.
Winter 2014

Mitch Daniels, the former Indiana governor and current Purdue University president, got himself in hot water back in October for giving a speech to a Minnesota think tank. Not that anyone objects to Daniels making speeches in general; indeed, it comes with being a university president. In this case, however, the venue for the speech was the Center of the American Experiment, a conservative organization. And in the eyes of Indiana’s cultural elites, that made all the difference.

The Lafayette Journal and Courier blasted Daniels for addressing the Center. Though the editors conceded that they didn’t know “the particulars of the speech,” they voiced concern that Daniels may have discussed what he had done as governor to “cut taxes and preserve state finances”—perhaps fearing that such talk would incite further outbreaks of fiscal responsibility. As it happens, the speech focused on nonpartisan themes such as “how to deliver basic services effectively, how to bring people together across political lines, the importance of civility in public discourse, and the centrality of social mobility,” according to Daniels. Not exactly red meat for the Tea Party. Even after Daniels issued an apology for accepting the engagement, his critics weren’t appeased. According to Bill Mullen, a hard-left professor of English and American studies at Purdue, it was inexcusable for Daniels to use the “platform” of a public university to talk about such incendiary topics as “lowering taxes”—clearly a partisan endeavor.

What would mainstream academics say if a former governor used the “platform” of a public university to promote politically divisive “green-energy” policies? Actually, there’s no need to speculate: it’s already happened. In 2011, Bill Ritter, the former Democratic governor of Colorado, became head of Colorado State University’s Center for the New Energy Economy, an organization bankrolled by Democratic Party donors. The express purpose of the center is to lobby state politicians in Colorado and elsewhere to adopt green-energy mandates. On top of that, Ritter has publicly endorsed Hillary Clinton for president in 2016. Yet neither Colorado State faculty nor local media seem to have uttered a word in protest about the former governor’s overtly political activities. Imagine that.

Likewise, when former senator Bob Kerrey took the helm of the New School in New York, he made no pretense of steering clear of politics. In 2009, he gave a public speech urging Congress to pass the ill-fated “cap-and-trade” legislation promoted by President Obama. Kerrey argued that the climate-change bill was a “moral” imperative, and even compared it with 1960s civil rights legislation. How much criticism did that speech generate on the left? None.

One wonders what Daniels’s critics expected. When a university recruits a former governor to serve as its president, it is presumably because the university values the governor’s public-policy experience. And since universities are in the teaching business, why should anyone object to a university president sharing the hard-won insights that he gained in office? Likewise, one would think that a university president should be allowed—even encouraged—to comment on curriculum matters. Yet students and faculty denounced Daniels’s criticism (which began when he was still governor) of the late, discredited historian Howard Zinn as “censorship.” Based on Daniels’s treatment at Purdue, one might conclude that university presidents should confine themselves to raising money and attending football games.

But, of course, as the Ritter and Kerrey examples show, university communities actually do want their leaders to be political. It just has to be the right kind of politics. When Janet Napolitano, the former Homeland Security secretary, became president of the University of California system, there were no reported fears that she would be political. To the contrary: student groups demanded that she wade into politics—mainly by renouncing the homeland-security policies that she had overseen for four and a half years. One group demanded that Napolitano provide sanctuary for undocumented students and workers, slash tuition, renegotiate university contracts—and then resign.

Kerrey himself turned out to be another casualty of university intolerance. His tenure at the New School (he stepped down in 2010) was dogged by his initial support of the Iraq War. “Part of the problem I have with the faculty,” Kerrey told New York in 2009, “is I like to argue. . . . But if [faculty members] begin by saying ‘Oh, your argument is unacceptable,’ what kind of university is that?” The answer, alas, is: a typical university.

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