Many people are saying that higher education is a zone of political correctness, intolerant to conservative points of view. I would respond that this is a GOP talking point in the War on College that has a small grain of truth and a healthy dollop of misperception, There is no denying, however, that this is a claim that universities need to rebut.
The latest front in this intellectual skirmish revolves around how universities should engage former Trump officials. It is quite common for public policy schools and other stand-alone university units to bring in former U.S. officials on key matters of public policy. Furthermore, most academics would agree that the populist worldview is underrepresented on campus. One way to import that worldview is to bring in former Trump administration officials — and there are a lot of them — so that they can offer an alternative perspective.
The problem, however, is that many of these former Trump officials are not exactly beacons of open-mindedness and intellectual exchange. What would it be like, for example, to have “Doctor” Sebastian Gorka on campus?
Actual campus efforts to bring in former Trump officials have been racked with controversy. Harvard’s Institute of Politics invited Corey Lewandowski and Sean Spicer to campus last fall, and that did not go well at all.
The latest controversy involves the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, which announced that Marc Short, President Trump’s legislative affairs director, would be on campus for to a $48,000 year-long fellowship in the center’s Presidential Studies Program. Miller Center director William Antholis explained in an open letter, “Marc will help us think through how to capture the Trump presidency through our signature Presidential Oral History Program. … His contributions will help keep Miller Center scholars at the cutting edge of their research field.”
This decision has also triggered considerable blowback in Charlottesville. Two distinguished historians — Melvyn Leffler and William Hitchcock — resigned from the Miller Center. According to The Washington Post‘s Susan Svrluga:
Leffler and Hitchcock wrote in their resignation letter that they would welcome Short to speak at the center. But granting him a senior fellowship position — one they learned of through a news release — runs “counter to the Center’s fundamental values of nonpartisanship, transparency, openness, a passion for truth and objectivity, and civility,” they wrote. The appointment comes almost a year after white supremacists marched at the school and in the city of Charlottesville, resulting in violent clashes with counterprotesters that the president blamed on “both sides,” events that seared the community.
“Democracy today in the United States is in peril,” they wrote. “… We must not normalize or rationalize hateful, cruel and demeaning behavior. When we see things to be wrong, we must speak out and take a stand.”
Harvard’s Dani Rodrik argued in Monday’s Boston Globe that this is exactly the right approach to take toward bringing former Trump officials onto campus:
There is the danger of normalizing and legitimizing what can only be described as an odious presidency. Trump violates on a daily basis the norms on which liberal democracy rests. He undermines freedom of the media and independence of the judiciary, upholds racism and sectarianism, and promotes prejudice. He blithely utters one falsehood after another.
Those who serve with him are necessarily tainted by the experience. Trump’s close associates and political appointees are his enablers — regardless of their personal merits and how much they try to disassociate themselves from Trump’s utterances. Qualities like intelligence, effectiveness, integrity, and collegiality — words used by Miller Center Director William J. Antholis to justify Short’s appointment — have little to commend them when they are deployed to advance an illiberal political agenda….
Clear rules of engagement are necessary. The most important principle to uphold is the distinction between hearing someone and honoring someone. Trump’s immediate circle and senior appointees should be welcome for discussion and debate. They should be treated in a civil manner when they show up. But they should not be accorded the degree of respect or deference that their seniority and government positions would normally merit. We do not, after all, have a normal administration that can be served honorably.
This means no honorific titles (fellow, senior fellow), no named lectures, no keynote speeches headlining conferences or events. While individual faculty members and student groups should be free to invite Trump appointees to speak on campus, as a rule such invitations should not be issued by senior university officers. And lectures and presentations should always provide an opportunity for vigorous questioning and debate.
Let’s stipulate that the Trump administration is the most illiberal we have seen in the postwar era and should be handled with care. There are still two possible types of errors one can commit in trying to craft this kind of policy. One mistake would be excessive tolerance of Trump officials being on campus — such as, say, the Lewandowski appointment or Hillsdale College offering former NSC staffer Michael Anton a prestigious sinecure. The other error is excessive militancy and excluding Trump-affiliated individuals beyond one-shot engagements. As someone who believes that the whole point of getting an education is to have one’s core beliefs poked, prodded, and challenged, I am far more sensitive to the latter error than the former one.
Rodrik’s criteria seem elegant, but they stack the deck too far in one direction. It would, for example, block Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, who by all accounts has behaved admirably in office under difficult circumstances, from returning to the Hoover Institution after his service. It would also block someone like former secretary of state Rex Tillerson from taking an appointment at a university. He might be the most incompetent secretary of state in modern history, but he also took care to distance himself from Trump during the Charlottesville fiasco. Going down a few levels, I don’t see why Nadia Schadlow, the National Security Council staffer who coordinated the 2017 National Security Strategy, should be blackballed by academia.
Rodrik’s brush is way too broad. In a messy world, we always search for simple and elegant solutions, but that approach will not work here. Rodrik is right to point out that this president is anomalous in many dimensions. The atypical nature of the administration requires more idiosyncratic procedures.
Short’s case is a tough one. By all accounts he has not articulated racist or other objectionable beliefs. He did serve in the Trump White House in a senior position, however. Rewarding him with this honorific sticks in the craw.
At the same time, the point of free speech on campus is to allow for controversial individuals to make their case. It is also, by the way, so that these individuals can be exposed to contrary points of view as well. Assuming that Short himself is not a bigot, it seems that having him on campus makes more sense than excluding him.
Would I feel the same way about, say, Stephen Miller? No, no I would not. Some lines must be drawn. But I prefer to draw those lines as narrowly as possible. So let Short come to Charlottesville. Expose him to vigorous questioning and debate. And find out what makes people like him tick — the better to avoid the next demagogue who seeks the Oval Office.