Taking Back the University
On November 1, 2012, I will give a talk at the Krannert School of Management on the Purdue University campus. I say this not so much to promote the event as to promote the change the event represents.
In the thirty years since I received my Ph.D. at Purdue in American studies -- dissertation: "The Capitalist as Hero in the American Novel -- this marks the first time I have been invited back. Although I produced twenty documentaries in the interval and wrote nine books, almost all with major publishers, I could not buy an invite to an academic conference on campus even when I tried to cajole one.
Out of insecurity perhaps, Purdue's liberal arts departments have clung even more desperately to progressive orthodoxy than their hipper counterparts in places like Madison and Bloomington. Even in a conservative state like Indiana, rightists need not have applied.
Purdue trustees signaled a change in the air this summer when they chose Republican governor Mitch Daniels to become the university's next president. Responding to the change, an ambitious student named Hillary Cherry started a Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) chapter at Purdue.
"I have a clear vision of exactly what I need to do on my campus," said Cherry at the beginning of the semester. "Ready or not, Purdue University is about to become a conservative battleground!" It was Cherry's newly formed YAF that invited me, and Purdue's Development office that facilitated the invite.
I love Cherry's spirit. Her kind of resolve will be absolutely essential if we are to liberate America's universities from the monolithic madness that has gripped them for the last forty years. Administrators like Daniels can make a difference, but not much and only slowly. Alumni can make more of a difference, but they have proven hard to organize and slow to act. The real power to change campus culture lies with the students.
For starters, students need to create campus organizations as Cherry has done. The YAF works much better than a campus Republican club because it has a broader mission and a potentially cooler zeitgeist. A YAF chapter can be more creative, more daring, and, ideally, more subversive. Its mission is not to dwell in the shadow of the monolith, but to topple it.
To accomplish that mission, campus conservatives need to create their own media, and they need to direct that media aggressively against the university. I have seen too many conservative publications heavy with editorials about weighty subjects beyond their reach like, say, the Middle East or the national debt. Instead, they need to turn their attention to their university's daily assaults on freedom and common sense, and they will not have to look hard to find them.
Once found, they need to use the technology at their disposal to expose the absurdities. This most definitely includes video. It helps too to have a sense of humor about what they are doing. A useful role model in this regard might be James O'Keefe.
While still an undergraduate at Rutgers, O'Keefe and his pals decided to showcase the university's exquisite racial sensitivities. To accomplish this, they visited with a campus diversity officer as representatives of the "Irish Heritage Society," who were troubled by "some unpleasant and uncomfortable experiences in the dining halls."
In perfect deadpan, O'Keefe then explained the cause of their discomfort. "We noticed that the dining halls here at Rutgers serve Lucky Charms," he told the official, "and we think that this that promotes negative stereotypes of Irish Americans." O'Keefe expressed particular objection to the "green-cladded gnome" on the cereal box. Pressed to honor its own Orwellian policies, Rutgers responded by banning Lucky Charms. O'Keefe captured this, of course, on video and posted it on YouTube.
The skills learned in assaulting an oppressive orthodoxy on campus can prove useful in assaulting a Democratic-media complex that is every bit as oppressive. O'Keefe has proved that as well. "This is a fact, and it will piss off liberals," wrote David Weigel in the left-leaning Slate on Thursday, "but James O'Keefe has had more of an impact on the 2012 election than any other journalist." O'Keefe, now just 28, works without a boss or a safety net. His campus experience schooled him to do just that.
Ultimately, students can best liberate the campus if they do it class by class. In liberal arts and social science courses, students need to know more about the issues that are being politicized than their professors do. This is easier than it sounds. Academics all too often satisfy themselves with knowing only one side of an issue because they are rarely challenged in class and almost never challenged in the faculty lounge.
Once up to speed, students can take on their profs in class. This should be fun. If they cannot straighten out a professor themselves, they have every right as consumers to expose the imbalance and protest it. These protests, if executed in the right spirit, will have the side effect of empowering other students who might have thought submission the only reasonable strategy.
But submission is so Obama era! Hillary Cherry has another idea. She wants to fight. She wants to make Purdue a "battleground." If she and her allies succeed, if they can turn Purdue into the Concord of a new American revolution, conservatives all across America, alums or not, will start writing checks. Boiler up, Hillary! The battle is joined.