Macalester College. (Courtesy of Macalester College)

Amid ongoing national debate about politics, ideology and free speech on campus, Brian C. Rosenberg, president of Macalester College, a private liberal arts school in Minnesota, writes about the real issue at hand: 

Macalester President Brian C Rosenberg. (Courtesy of Macalester College)

The number of college presidents willing to address controversial issues and to engage as public intellectuals with ideas that matter remains small. These campus leaders can become a target of both the right and the left, a position with which I am not unfamiliar.

A leading example, Wesleyan University President Michael Roth, does not shy away from spirited debate, expressing his views in the Wall Street Journal, “The Opening of the Liberal Mind,” and Inside Higher Ed, “From Unruly Hearts to Open Minds.” He articulates many points in both articles with which I agree. His fundamental argument is that liberal orthodoxy has become so deeply ingrained in many colleges and universities that alternative, largely conservative viewpoints are at best unfamiliar to the majority of students and at worst greeted with hostility, fear and even violence.

I have observed the same phenomenon and worry about the inability of campus communities to grapple productively with intellectual and philosophical discomfort.

I worry less about “free speech” (a term often misused in debates over these matters) than about “speech” — period.

The defining verbal action of our particular historical moment seems to be the shout, or, even worse, the intemperate tweet.

Roth argues that colleges should make “a special effort to enhance the study of conservative (religious and libertarian) traditions, broadly conceived” and that “those who point out the dangers of big government, emphasize the needs of national security in an age of terrorism, extol the virtues of family and religion, or defend free speech deserve intellectual engagement — not insult and irony.” This is fair enough, though I would myself stay away from terms such as “affirmative action” for conservative ideas, which seems to me to distort and minimize the true and original intent of race-based affirmative action.

But here is what is missing from the discussion: At the present time, the deepest challenge to “conservative (religious and libertarian) traditions” comes not from liberals, but from conservatives.

More specifically, how does one reconcile those conservative traditions with conservative actions in the Age of Trump?

If conservatism emphasizes the importance of national security, how does one understand the indifference to Russian interference in our election process? If conservatism extols the virtues of family and religion, how does one understand the tolerance of — indeed, if polling is accurate, the still overwhelming Republican support for — a person whose moral failings could lead to his being fired from every job except the one he holds? If conservatism defends free speech, where is the outrage over the attacks on a free press?

Those who argue that students need more exposure to conservative thinking to understand our current political dynamic seem to be missing the fact that, when it matters most, conservatives have stopped being conservative.

Viewed dispassionately, the lesson that the most visible conservatives appear to be teaching our students is that power is more important than principle, that winning is more important than adhering to an ethical code, that compromise is failure, and maybe worst of all, that facts don’t matter.

It seems rather shortsighted in this broader context to lay the blame for the poor behavior and narrow-mindedness of some of our students chiefly at the door of colleges. They have more than a few role models beyond the boundaries of campus.

Liberals are surely guilty of many of the same failures as conservatives. Hypocrisy is not confined to any particular demographic or political party. But I refuse to buy into the narrative of false equivalency. Put simply, there is no liberal equivalent to President Trump and all that he embodies. There is no liberal equivalent to the ongoing championing of Trump and all that he embodies.

Let us concede that liberals have their classrooms and syllabi. Conservatives, on the other hand, hold majorities in both houses of Congress and control of 32 state legislatures. They hold the U.S. presidency and 33 governorships. They hold a majority on the Supreme Court that is likely to grow.

They have an almost unprecedented opportunity to show the country what conservative philosophy looks like in practice.

They have, that is, the chance to persuade all people, including the young ones who attend college, that their ideas are worth putting into practice and will advance the common good.

If they are unable to persuade a college sophomore that conservatism is worth embracing, why should we assume that the fault lies with the college?

I am prepared to insist upon the seriousness of conservative ideas. It would be far easier to do so if conservatives resumed taking those ideas seriously.