January 22, 2006

UCLA Alumni vs. The Professoriat

Recently a group of conservative alumni has been publishing portraits of professors whose leftism it denounces. This otherwise unremarkable event made the news when it came out that the Bruin Alumni (no affiliation with the official alumni association) were offering to pay up to $100 for evidence of classroom indoctrination or intimidation by lefty academics.

Some of the portraits on the website were right on (Victor Wolfenstein doubles down as a Marxist and a Freudian, of all things?), some sophomoric, and some plain silly. Law school professor Carole Goldberg, for instance, is no radical, even if she supports affirmative action and garnered a donation from a casino-rich Indian tribe.

In response to the website, howls of "McCarthyism" were heard, of course.

Having been, in my callow youth, one of those lefty profs, and having aged into a libertarian conservative wingnut, as my sister puts it, I find the whole subject amusing.

The charge of McCarthyism (assuming that such a thing ever existed and was as evil as it was reputed to be) can be put quickly to rest. These accusations are neither gratuitously false, nor are they coupled with anything beyond mere denunciation--no call for mass firings, blacklisting, or lynching has been heard in the land. As Eugene Volokh, a non-lefty UCLA law professor comments,
My colleagues and I are public servants. We have a certain degree of influence over public affairs, both through our public commentary and through our teaching. Others disagree with us, and think we're doing a public disservice rather than a public service. They're entitled to criticize us, and to monitor our public performance of our duties to see whether that performance is, in their view, lacking. I try to imagine what I would think if someone from the Left set up a site to criticize Prof. Bainbridge, me, and my (rather few) conservative colleagues, and to solicit concrete evidence of our supposed misdeeds; I would like to think that I would recognize that this was their right, both legally and ethically.

Now it's true that this may have a "chilling effect" in the sense of deterring some people from saying controversial things, in class or outside it. But all criticism has such an effect; much criticism is intended to have such an effect. It's even good when criticism has such a deterrent effect, for instance when it deters us from saying foolish or unsound things. If you criticize my posts, my articles, or my lectures, and I recognize that your criticism is apt — that my lectures were too partisan, or that my arguments were unsound — then I may well change what I say. That's criticism performing its proper function.

And if I think your criticism is unsound, my duty is to remain undeterred. It's not always an easy duty to fulfill. But look: Most of my colleagues have tenure. Even our untenured colleagues have the protection of being reviewed by their peers, and peers who are generally unlikely to much sympathize with what the UCLAProfs.com site says. We're in a much better position than other public servants, who routinely have to deal with criticism. If we're not robust enough to resist unsound criticisms — if we're deterred from saying certain things even when we think they should be said — what's the point of all the employment protections we have?
In short, if you're going to put your snout in the public trough, and take positions that are more popular on your insulated campus than in the outside world, be prepared to take criticism, even it it's a sophomoric and beside the point, as much, though not all, of the UCLA Profs website is. That's not a witchhunt, it's free speech.

I remember when one of the UCLA Profs honorees, Richard Abel, came to a Santa Monica City Council meeting while I was serving as a councilmember, and after saying his 3-minute piece, marched off muttering loudly that I was a "turncoat" and worse. I was a turncoat, from his point of view, and if he didn't like the way I voted, or spoke on the Council, he was free as an American to blast me, as indeed, the "SMRR" leftist faction did in the next election campaign. Such is life in a democracy.

It is still true that UCLA academics, especially in the humanities and social sciences, list sharply to the left (although at one time at least, the Economics Department, very much "Chicago school," was an exception). Academia is monolithically left wing and politically correct, which is a problem when we consider the taxes that go to support them and the tenure that protects their sinecures, and the pressures of speech codes and political correctness that too often chill dissenting speech on campuses.

People who are publicly political must expect criticism, and not always in the form of wiffle balls. If critics blast them, they may choose to respond, politely or in anger, or they can grin and bear it. And most of these folks are publicly political. The Bruin Alumni website, however, is the first instance of interest in the petitions that professors sign that I've seen in years! Those who are one-sided or intimidating in the classroom have committed a different sort of offense, and may be called to account in a different way; this sort of thing appears to be much less common, outside the schools of ethnic studies and the occasional course on the Middle East.

In any event, if you're going to go public with your politics, stop whining and learn to live with criticism. It comes with the territory.

UPDATE--Corrected some typos at 1500 hrs. PST on Jan. 22.

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