Persecution and the Conservative Academic

Do conservative academics suffer persecution?

NYU professor of history and education Jonathan Zimmerman recently called for affirmative action for conservative college professors, even though, Zimmerman insisted, such professors hadn’t suffered from historic discrimination.

That hit a nerve.

Writing in the higher-education blog Minding the Campus, a publication of the conservative Manhattan Institute, Ronald Radosh called foul.

Radosh took exception to Zimmerman’s insistence that liberal professors like himself were not the “wild-eyed Marxists” many conservative pundits had accused them of being.

Radosh disagreed.  “NYU,” Radosh wrote, “is most egregiously guilty of precisely such a bias. Their own history department is dominated by precisely those types, and some of the institutes and centers they have established have gone out of their way to make that crystal clear.”

Radosh complained that his career had suffered for purely political reasons.  At George Washington University, for instance, Radosh claimed that he had been subjected to questions mainly “about my politics, and not about my approach to history or how it should be taught.”  At another school, Radosh said he was buffeted in a job interview with a series of “hostile questions” about his views on Cold-War spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.

In the end, Radosh concluded that most history professors discriminate actively and self-consciously against conservative academics.  As Radosh wrote,

“The reason such professors will not hire conservatives is precisely because they do not want ‘other right-leading students’ to ‘follow them, into the academic profession,’ as Prof. Zimmerman hopes they will once conservative professors are hired. Does he really think people like Marilyn Young and Linda Gordon at NYU want anyone to challenge the ideological hegemony they now hold over molding students’ minds?”

Other sorts of conservative academics have long claimed to suffer from similar persecution.

The case of Teresa Wagner, for instance, still bubbles along.  Wagner had applied for jobs at the University of Iowa’s law school.  She was one of five finalists, but was passed over for the most desirable tenure-track job.  Was it due to prejudice against Wagner’s loud-and-proud conservative activism?  Wagner had made no secret of her pro-life and traditional-marriage stances.

One unique element of Wagner’s case was the existence of a smoking gun.  Unlike most hiring-discrimination cases, Wagner was able to produce a document that seemed to make her case.  Associate Dean John Carlson had written in an internal email, “Frankly, one thing that worries me is that some people may be opposed to Teresa serving in any role in part at least because they so despise her politics (and especially her activism about it). I hate to think that is the case, and I don’t actually think that, but I’m worried that I may be missing something.”

That email made Wagner’s case complicated.  A group of jurors agreed that Wagner had been treated unfairly.

These conservative claims of academic persecution are nothing new.

Creationist Jerry Bergman collected cases of such discrimination in his 1984 book The Criterion.  Bergman, who claimed to have been denied tenure at Bowling Green State University in the early 1980s due to his creationist beliefs, described the stories of academics such as Clifford Burdick.  Burdick was allegedly refused his PhD at the University of Arizona in 1960 for including a consideration of divine creation as an explanation for discrepancies in the fossil record.  Bergman argued that such attitudes had no place in a university setting.  Firing a creationist for speaking to students about his or her beliefs, Bergman argued, would be like “if a black were fired on the suspicion that he had ‘talked to students about being black,’ or a woman being fired for having ‘talked to students about women’s issues.’”

Even further back, anti-evolution leader T. T. Martin complained in 1923 that the universities had been taken over.  “We sent our young men to the great German universities,” Martin lamented, “and, when they came back, saturated with Evolution, we made them Presidents and head-professors of our colleges and great universities.”

Of course, the academic politics of evolution are much different than the politics of communism, which are different from the politics of abortion.  I think it is safe to say that a mainstream school will be more open about its discrimination against a creationist than against a neo-conservative anti-communist or a traditional-marriage supporting legal scholar.

However, Professor Zimmerman’s claim that conservatives have not been the subject of historic discrimination still rankles among conservative academics of various backgrounds.  One of the most closely treasured beliefs among conservative intellectuals, after all, is that American universities have been largely captured by a totalitarian and essentially anti-liberal left.



In the News: Conservatism a Category of “Diversity” at Iowa Law School?

This just in: Now being a “conservative” is a legally actionable category.  A story in yesterday’s New York Times tells the tale of conservative activist Teresa R. Wagner.  Wagner had applied for a job at the University of Iowa College of Law in 2006.  She was not hired, and recently she won the right to sue from the Eighth Circuit US Court of Appeals in St. Louis.  She hasn’t won anything yet, but the circuit court ruled that she had shown enough evidence that the decision not to hire Wagner was due to unconstitutional discrimination against Wagner’s political beliefs.

Apparently, the smoking gun here was a statement in 2007 by the school’s Associate Dean Jonathan C. Carlson.  Carlson said Wagner ought not be hired since most people at the school “despise her politics (and especially her activism about it).”

Wagner doesn’t dispute her fierce partisan politics. She has worked for the National Right to Life Commitee and the Family Research Council.

One thing that makes this looming lawsuit so interesting to all those interested in the culture wars is that the notion of conservatives as a special kind of persecuted minority has become such a large piece of the jigsaw puzzle of cultural conservatism.  As we have noted on other posts, creationists have complained about this prejudice for years.  Jerry Bergman, for instance, insisted that he was refused tenure at Bowling Green State University due to his religious beliefs.  Clifford Burdick was refused his doctoral degree at the University of Arizona.  He and his supporters have argued that he was only denied due to his religious beliefs.

Of course, these are very different cases.  Some mainstream scientists will find it perfectly appropriate to refuse tenure or a doctorate in science to someone who dissents from one of the basic premises of mainstream science.  At a law school, however, faculty can agree on basic principles, while holding different political ideologies.  In other words, it is not as if Teresa Wagner disputes the existence of the Constitution.

In any case, students of the culture wars will be watching the progression of this case carefully.  Even if the legal issues in play don’t technically mean much for other sorts of conservatives, a legal decision that conservatism should be considered a category of ‘cultural diversity’ will doubtlessly be used as a weapon in upcoming culture-war skirmishes.


TRADITIONALIST EDUCATION IIa: The Cult of Multiculturalism (cont.)

In an earlier post, we argued that the dominant ideology of public schooling speaks in the language of inclusion and tolerance, but it therefore must exclude and suppress any traditionalist notions of a single transcendent truth.  Fundamentalists have complained long and loud that such unacknowledged discrimination is at the heart of contemporary education.  They have appropriated the language of the twentieth-century civil rights revolution to appeal for their own rights as an aggrieved minority.

For instance, in 1984 the pro-evolution American Association for the Advancement of Science invited prominent creationist Duane Gish to a meeting between creationists and evolutionists.  When he arrived, Gish complained that he had not been afforded the equal treatment he had been promised.  The conveners of the “confrontation,” Gish claimed, had disingenuously told Gish that they had not had time to invite more creationists, but they had found time, he noted, to include more evolutionists.  Such unfair treatment, Gish complained, allowed biased evolutionists “to do what is done every day in practically every university in the United States.”  The evolutionists could dominate the proceedings and relegate the science of creationism to the role of the unwelcome outsider.  Gish protested against such unfair treatment by concluding, “I will proceed to take one of the two seats on the back of the bus reserved for the creationists in this meeting.”

Like other beleaguered minority groups, Gish implied, fundamentalists could not get a fair hearing in mainstream academic culture.  Other fundamentalist authors agreed.  Jerry Bergman, for example, complained that he had been refused tenure at Bowling Green State University merely because he held fundamentalist views.  He admitted that he had spoken with students about his beliefs, but not as part of his instruction.  He had talked with students about it, but to refuse him tenure for that reason, Bergman argued, was as if a “black were fired on the suspicion that he had ‘talked to students about being black,’ or a woman being fired for having ‘talked to students about women’s issues.’”  Those who might be expected to come to Bergman’s defense, he complained, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, did not, since “many members are intolerant, narrow-minded, anti-religious bigots.”  In Bergman’s opinion, “Not since Nazi Germany turned on the Jews has such widespread intolerance existed in a modern, ‘advanced,’ educated nation.”

Other examples of discrimination against fundamentalists and especially creationists in America’s pluralist schools have become legendary in fundamentalist circles.  One of the most well-worn sagas of intolerance in American higher ed among fundamentalists is the story of Clifford Burdick.  Burdick attracted attention among both creationists and evolutionists for two of his most controversial claims.  First, Burdick insisted that he had found evidence of pollen in layers of core samples that, according to an evolutionary interpretation, ought to have been laid down before any such pollen had evolved.  Second, Burdick found what he claimed were human footprints in rock layers that also included dinosaur fossils.

More relevant, though, Burdick and his supporters insist that he had been denied his PhD from the University of Arizona because of Burdick’s religious beliefs.   Burdick completed all his work for the degree, but one of his professors adamantly refused to grant a fair hearing.  The only reason for this hostility, Burdick claimed, was because that professor had found out that Burdick was a committed creationist.

Of course, the professors had a different explanation.  They found Burdick’s scientific work sloppy and incompetent.  More damning, Burdick—as he himself later admitted—could not answer many of the questions posed during his oral examination.  Even some relatively sympathetic creationists considered Burdick to be more of an intellectual liability than a persecuted martyr.

But COULD such discrimination play a role in the millions of minor decisions Americans make about one another every day?  Could fundamentalists fairly complain—even if stories like that of Clifford Burdick don’t hold water—that they are the targets of bigotry and unfair prejudice?  Consider the results of a 1993 Gallup poll, in which 45% of respondents admitted they had a “mostly unfavorable” or “very unfavorable” view of “religious fundamentalists.”  Or a similar Gallup finding from 1989, in which 30% of Americans admitted they would not like to have “religious fundamentalists” as neighbors, while only 12% said out loud they would not like to have African American neighbors.

Such poll results, one might object, do not fairly specify the meaning of “fundamentalist.”  The folks answering such questions might have objected to living next door to Osama bin Laden as much as they did to Jerry Falwell.  The 1993 poll, for instance, found that only 25% of respondents had a “mostly unfavorable” or “very unfavorable” view of “born-again Christians” in general.  And in the 1989 poll, even 24% of the respondents who identified themselves as “evangelical” said they would not want to live next door to a “religious fundamentalist.”  Even more befuddling, these polls merely ask respondents for their views of fundamentalists in general.  They do not shed much light on whether or not a creationist doctoral candidate can get a fair hearing before a committee of evolutionists, or whether a fundamentalist who opposed gay marriage can get a fair hearing before a school board staffed with people committed to equal status for gays, lesbians, and transgendered people.  But it makes a good deal of intuitive sense to suppose that those situations would be even more slanted against fundamentalists.  That is, if almost half of Americans don’t want fundamentalists as neighbors, think how much more strongly those people would feel about having fundamentalists as their children’s teachers.  If such respondents don’t even want fundamentalists living in the same neighborhood, think how unsympathetic they would be to fundamentalist worries that the public schools are indoctrinating their kids with ideas that break down their home morality.

We can’t know much for sure from such polls.  But taken as yet another piece of evidence, they suggest that some Americans tend to see bias against fundamentalism as a badge of honor.  They openly admit to this kind of bias, ironically, because they think it demonstrates a fashionable open-mindedness.  This kind of convoluted belief runs especially strong among the cultural left.  In some circles, it is fashionable to go to excessive rhetorical lengths to bash fundamentalists.  Consider the case of Timothy Shortell of Brooklyn College.  This case came to light in 2005 when Shortell was elected chair of the Sociology Department.  In a 2003 article published in the online journal Fifteen Credibility Street, Shortell used highly derogatory language to describe not just fundamentalists, but all people of faith.  As he put it:

On a personal level, religiosity is merely annoying—like pop music or reality television. This immaturity represents a significant social problem, however, because religious adherents fail to recognize their limitations. So, in the name of their faith, these moral retards are running around pointing fingers and doing real harm to others. One only has to read the newspaper to see the results of their handiwork. They discriminate, exclude and belittle. They make a virtue of closed-mindedness and virulent ignorance. They are an ugly, violent lot.

The phrase that garnered the most attention was Shortell’s “moral retards.”  Ouch.  To be fair, the bigotry and cruelty of Shortell’s comment caused the higher-ups at Brooklyn College to block his advancement to department chair.  Yet the fact that his hostile anti-religious beliefs did not disqualify Shortell in the eyes of his colleagues from taking on a leadership position speaks volumes.  Imagine if an academic writer had used such language to condemn any other social group.  He or she would likely be hounded from his or her position; he or she would become a social pariah as well.  Yet Shortell was not only accepted but lauded by his colleagues in spite of his use of such offensive language.

The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance argues that “Fat discrimination is one of the last publicly accepted discriminatory practices. Fat people have rights and they need to be upheld!”  Fundamentalists might make a similar claim.  Like the plight of fat people, fundamentalists in American life have reason to complain that they are one of the few cultural groups that it is still considered socially acceptable to attack.  When nearly half of surveyed adults say that they would not want you as a neighbor; when your children in public schools are forced to repudiate central beliefs of their families and faith traditions; when every group in society except yours is apparently granted special rights and privileges to counteract the pervasive prejudice to which Americans are prone; these conditions make it difficult to deny fundamentalists’ claims of a unique form of cultural persecution.


FURTHER READING: Jerry Bergman, The Criterion: Religious Discrimination in America (Richfield, MN: Onesimus Press, 1984). Ron Numbers, The Creationists (2006); Duane T. Gish, “The Scientific Case for Creation,” in Frank Awbrey and William Thwaites, eds., Evolutionists Confront Creationists: Proceedings of the 63rd Annual Meeting of the Pacific Division, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Vol. I, Part 3 (San Francisco: Pacific Division, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1984), 25-37; George Gallup, Jr., The Gallup Poll: Public Opinion 1993 and George Gallup, Jr., The Gallup Poll: Public Opinion 1989.


Anti-Evolution IIa: Closedmindedness (continued…)


Plus, even the commonly held notion that “all” scientists believe in evolution doesn’t hold up. Look closely the next time you hear that argument.  Notice that much of the evidence given is not about the science itself, but about the credentials of the scientist.  A scientist is supposedly closer to the truth the more accolades he or she has received.  Thus, you may see a letter supporting more evolution education in schools, signed by seventy-five Nobel Prize winners.  Signed by leading professors at Stanford, MIT, Harvard, Michigan.  But notice the circularity of that measure.  Those accolades come from within the dominant scientific paradigm.  By definition, such prizes and honors represent not some objective truth, but rather the opinion of other scientists that someone has done something praiseworthy.

The next time you hear that all scientists believe evolution, try sampling from the list below:

  • Fred Hoyle: Hoyle has suggested that current thinking about materialistic evolution is a crock.  Most memorably, he has suggested that the
    chances of life on earth developing on its own was about as likely as the chances that a hurricane blowing through a junkyard would assemble a Boeing jetliner.  In other words, life on earth is entirely too complex to have simply happened.  It needs some source, some cause.  In Hoyle’s case, this is not an argument based on a previous intellectual commitment to the Bible.  In fact, Hoyle’s preferred explanation for the origins of life are not from divine intervention but rather through the seeding of this planet by interstellar viruses containing the basic forms of life.  And even by the standards of mainstream science, Hoyle’s credentials are hard to ignore.  He is often credited, for instance, with coining the term “Big Bang,” although he did not accept the notion himself.  He did not win a Nobel Prize
    himself, although many people think he was unfairly denied one in 1983 despite his contributions to the project that won.
  • Chandra Wickramasinghe: Wickramasinghe was a student of Hoyle, and collaborated with him.  Like Hoyle, Wickramasinghe’s  mainstream scientific credentials are hard to ignore.  He has published dozens of articles, for instance, in the journal Nature.  He holds a professorship at Cardiff University and was the youngest person ever to receive such a professorship.  Like Hoyle, Wickramasinghe is not a biblical Christian.  He does not try to disprove the notion of materialistic evolution out of a commitment to religious ideas.  He is
    simply an innovative scientist able to rest on his credentials enough to publicly doubt the orthodoxy of evolution.  His unorthodox ideas have occasionally cost him funding.  Nevertheless, he has continued to study the idea that life on earth developed from cosmic dust, rather than simply springing into existence on its own.
  • Michael Behe: Behe is a biochemist.  He has argued that some organic functions, such as the mechanism for blood clotting, demonstrate what Behe calls an “irreducible complexity.”  Such complexity cannot have been evolved by a random process, since the entire mechanism needs to have developed all at the same time in order to offer any evolutionary benefit.  In other words, the evolutionary idea that some mutations offer a selective advantage to some individuals of a species, and that those advantages can lead to new species, does not account for some of the complex organic mechanisms.  It would do a simple species no good, in other words, to mutate one part of the blood-clotting mechanism.  It would have to mutate all the parts of it at once in order to derive any evolutionary benefit.

Evolutionists will point to the shortness of this list as evidence that such ideas are the realm of the kook, the crank.  But a balloon only needs a tiny pinhole to explode.  If even a few scientists doubt the evolutionary orthodoxy, that is enough to explode the myth that all scientists agree on the idea.  It is enough to demonstrate that scientific experts, even one expert, can evaluate the scientific evidence and find compelling alternative explanations.  The fact that the great majority of working scientists agree with the idea that life evolved on its own does not prove that it is true.  Before Einstein, the vast majority of working scientists did not understand the theory of relativity.  That does not mean that relativity was not true.  It simply means that most scientists were not able to come up with that idea on their own.  They were trained in other ideas and they  conducted all their research based on the ideas in which they were trained.  The vast majority of scientists at one time worked with the  assumption that phlogiston explained combustibility.  The vast majority also assumed at one time that human races were linked in a hierarchical chain with sub-Saharan Africans at the bottom and Nordic Europeans at the top.  Such orthodoxies are not convincing simply because they can conjure up large majorities of scientists.  Such majorities are, rather, just result of such ideological dominance.  They demonstrate nothing about the fundamental truth of evolution or any other scientific idea.

Even Darwin, in a famous closing passage to his 1859 Origin of Species, invoked the notion of a Creator as the ultimate source of life.  “There is grandeur in this view of life . . . having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one.”  But wait, you might say, Darwin said that to soften the blow of his controversial book.  As he delved further into the idea, he largely discarded the notion that any Creator had been involved in any way, even to initially breathe life into the evolutionary process.  Such notions only got in the way of his understanding of life.  But look at it from a different angle.  When Darwin started, he was open to the idea of a creator.  As he explored the idea of organic evolution, it only made sense if he eliminated the creator part.  That is, once he decided there was no creator, he realized he didn’t need a creator.  Circular logic.  Not due to evidence, but due to preliminary assumptions about the evidence.  You can do the same thing in reverse.  Assume a young earth.  It will lead you to conclude that such a thing is not possible without a supernatural creator.  Also circular?  Yes.  But it is better, more scientific, to leave all the options on the table.  To examine evidence without first presuming that there are or are not supernatural causes.  Science should mean open minded inquiry, not materialistic inquiry.  If you include that possibility, nine times out of ten the best explanation for life on earth is not due to chance but to design.

When Galileo agreed to recant his support for a heliocentric earth, according to legend, he did so only with an ideological wink.  “E pur si muove,” he allegedly said, “It still moves.”  In other words, in the origins of the modern scientific project, Galileo asserted that whatever humans might say about the physical universe, that universe went on heedlessly.  It didn’t matter, to Galileo, whether or not he recanted his statement, the earth still rotated around the sun.  It seems that Galileo’s position is the one of ultimate faith: It doesn’t matter what I say or do, the truth of my position
is larger than my own being.

The fact that Galileo’s would-be successors in the modern scientific establishment can no longer muster his sense of calm confidence is revealing.  If scientists today really were as confident in their evolutionary ideology as they purport to be, they would not be as insistent that all scientists agree with their position.  In other words, if the notion that life evolved in all its forms without a guiding intelligence really had the same
intellectual weight as the notion of a heliocentric solar system, scientists should be able to muster Galileo’s calm notion that “It still moves.”  They ought to be able to allow other ideas to be considered, knowing that theirs was the truth.

But they can’t.
Mainstream scientists today enforce a rigid evolutionary ideology.  The ideological—as opposed to truly scientific—roots of this kind of closedmindedness become evident in those few cases when scholars have attempted to present alternative ideas in academic settings.  Creationist Jerry Bergman collected cases of such discrimination in his 1984 book The Criterion.  Bergman, who claimed to have been denied tenure at Bowling Green University in the early 1980s due to his creationist beliefs, describes the stories of academics such as Clifford Burdick.  Burdick was allegedly refused his PhD at the University of Arizona in 1960 for including a consideration of divine creation as an explanation for  discrepancies in the fossil record.  Bergman argued that such attitudes had no place in a university setting.  Firing a creationist for speaking to students about his or her beliefs, Bergman argued, would be like “if a black were fired on the suspicion that he had ‘talked to students about being black,’ or a woman being fired for having ‘talked to students about women’s issues.’” In a similar case, Dean Kenyon was reprimanded by his
institution for his work with the notion of intelligent design.  Kenyon had co-authored one of the most influential textbook supplements in the intelligent-design field, Of Pandas and People.  In 1992, his school, San Francisco State University, ordered him to cease teaching scientific creationism as part of his biology classes.  Kenyon had been teaching such ideas as part of his curriculum.  He had been teaching evolutionary ideas as well, but had included other notions about the origins of life.  Such open-mindedness was anathema to the administration of the purportedly open-minded university.  To be fair, the rest of the faculty voted to allow Kenyon to keep teaching such ideas, as part of their right to academic freedom.  But the sentiment in favor of muzzling such ideas was significant.

Similarly, intelligent-design advocate Michael Behe’s university department felt forced to publish a disclaimer of Behe’s work that strayed beyond mainstream orthodoxy.  In embarrassment, apparently, that one of its faculty members could question the reigning scientific ideology, his academic department felt obliged to post the following disclaimer on its website: “The department faculty . . . are unequivocal in their support of evolutionary
theory. . . . Behe’s . . . views . . . are his alone and are in no way endorsed by the department.”  Why is this sort of statement necessary?  Because evolution’s dominance of mainstream science is maintained through social, not scientific, rigidity and control.

However, there is a heavy price to be paid for such control.  Such attitudes not only enforce
the evolutionary orthodoxy, they also demonstrate its fundamental intellectual weakness.  When scientists feel they must resort to such heavy-handed ideological enforcement, it is evidence that their emperor really has no clothes.



Michael J. Behe, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, 2nd edition (New York: Free Press, 2006); Dean Kenyon and Percival Davis, Of Pandas and People: The Central Question of Biological Origins, 2nd edition (Haughton, 1993); Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe, Evolution from Space: A Theory of Cosmic Creationism (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984).