To be a conservative college professor in Academia today is akin to performing in a road company of Fiddler on the Roof in Syria, particularly when you are a free-market economist at one of the Seven Sisters of the Ivy League.
Smith College economist James Miller put himself in a professionally precarious position when he reapplied for tenure at the school. The first time that he came up for tenure, he did not have enough published articles. When he came up for tenure the second time, he had too many.
“I went from one article to six and wrote a book,” Dr. Miller recalls, but remembers that “one professor took offense with an article that I did for National Review Online on women’s studies.”
The department that the professor works in reviews all bids for tenure. On the review committee that voted against Dr. Miller’s tenure were at least two professors who found his conservativism problematic.
Although Dr. Miller got rave reviews from students, the economics professors viewed his classes as lacking in diversity, or devoid of Marxism. Ironically, one of Dr. Miller’s supporters was a left-leaning academic more sympathetic to Marxism who defended the young academic’s academic freedom.
Dr. Miller’s critics on the tenure review committee also took issue with the economist’s treatment of tenure in his book. “I said that a lot of professors like tenure so that they can take it easy in middle age,” Dr. Miller explained.
“There are a lot of professors who say, ‘Okay, I’ll work all these hours now so that I don’t have to work as hard when I’m older.”
“There’s a lot of professors making $100,000 a year and working 15-hour weeks,” Dr. Miller told me in a radio interview, although he added, “but there’s a lot of professors who work 100-hour weeks.”
His department voted against granting Dr. Miller tenure. In his fight for tenure, Dr. Miller sought the aid of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).
Although frequently quoted in the press as a defender of the academic freedom of professors, Dr. Miller found the AAUP no help in his own quest for intellectual liberty. In fact, he found them downright duplicitous.
“The AAUP lied to me,” Dr. Miller said in our radio interview. When Dr. Miller sought the aid of the AAUP’s academic freedom committee, the organization told him that it could not assist him because he “did not follow procedure.”
Actually, the AAUP sided with Dr. Miller’s critics on the tenure review committee, in a letter. When Dr. Miller went back to the AAUP, they denied any involvement in the case.
Due to the publicity that Dr. Miller’s case spawned, the Board of Trustees at Smith finally granted him tenure. While university Boards of Trustees usually rubber stamp tenure decisions made by faculty departments, those bodies can, as Dr. Miller’s case shows, overturn such verdicts.
Dr. Miller is rare among what is in turn a rare breed. Most conservative college professors do not dare come out of the closet philosophically until they have achieved tenure.
At the other end of the scale, the search committees that newly minted professors must pass to get a teaching job to begin with can present an ideological obstacle course.
Although a seat on a search committee is considered something of a chore at many schools, Dr. Miller observes, other institutions of higher learning use those committees to keep out the politically incorrect.
Smith College is the school that former first lady Nancy Reagan went to but it has changed quite a bit since she graduated. Last year, the Ford Foundation gave Smith a grant for “archival preservation of the collected works of Gloria Steinem and for an oral history project on feminism and related collection development,” Kimberly Schuld reported in Front Page magazine earlier this year.
“Smith also received $210,000 for Meridians, an interdisciplinary journal of scholarship and creative writing by and about women of color and Third World women.”
Too many teachers emphasize feelings over facts and self-esteem over scholarship, Dr. Miller notes. This training can have a detrimental effect on the student’s ability to argue or even reason, Dr. Miller told an audience in North Carolina last month.
“I was asked to speak at an anti-war rally at Smith when one student asked ‘Is war all there is?’ to resolve conflicts,” Dr. Miller says. The economist then took the student through the armed conflicts America has fought in, from the Revolutionary War to the current intervention in Iraq to show that this last resort, historically, is frequently the solution that the United States was forced to resort to,
The student’s response: “That makes me very sad.”
“At that Iraq debate, I had students say that freedom is relative,” Dr. Miller recounts. “The students thought that George W. Bush was going to come after them because of their stand against the war.”
A final irony: The very National Review Online article that so unnerved Dr. Miller’s tenure review committee critics gave professors who share their political persuasion the benefit of the doubt on academic freedom.
“Questioning a professor’s politics is unlikely to endanger a student’s grade,” Dr. Miller wrote in December of 2001. “Even most left-wing professors prefer students who talk and challenge to those who quietly submit.”
When I, in our radio interview, respectfully challenged the accomplished economist on this conclusion, he said, “I was naïve.”