Steve Shapiro On To Something, But Reagan Lectureship Has Misfired

Marc Blecher

Thanks to Steve Shapiro, ’83, for his letter in last week’s Review opening discussion of the Ronald Reagan Lectureship, his one-man project designed to cure Oberlin’s political ills. As Marx said of Proudhon, he “certainly hears the bells ringing, but never knows where.” That is, Mr. Shapiro is on to something important and worthy. But his diagnosis of the problem is misplaced and wrong, which helps explain why, as he clearly senses, his project has misfired so badly.

Mr. Shapiro traffics in the old trope that Oberlin is a nest of political lefties unwilling to examine their views and content to maintain a self-satisfied echo chamber that dominates all discussion on campus. There are several serious problems here. First, the claim about Oberlin’s political complexion is evidence-free, based on anecdote, impression, and therefore itself subject to political prejudice. We really don’t have any systematic research on the political values and policy views of Oberlin’s students, faculty and administrators. My own strong impression, and it is no more than that, is that my students and colleagues represent a pretty wide range along any number of political spectra.

Second, Oberlin’s historic commitment to social progress, whatever that means, is the furthest thing from a problem. For our College, that orientation has, palpably, served us so well over nearly two centuries now, and we continue to celebrate it, as we should. And for the country, the huge problem is not the generally left-of-center orientation among intellectuals (which actually can be demonstrated with data), but the overweening and successful determination of a ruthless political right to pull our politics to an extreme far out of touch with what still remains a basically centrist set of Americans’ core beliefs, as the eminent political scientists Paul Pierson (Oberlin ’81) and Jacob Hacker have brilliantly demonstrated in Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy. Or as Douglas McGrath has quipped: “The way this society works is this: Leftist intellectuals with hare-brained Marxist ideas get to control Stanford, MIT, Yale and the American Studies department at the University of Vermont. In return, the right gets IBM, DEC, Honeywell, Disney World and the New York Stock Exchange. Leftist academics get to try out their stupid ideas on impressionable youths between 17 and 21 who don’t have any money or power. The right gets to try out its ideas on North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Australia and parts of Africa, most of which take Mastercard. The left gets Harvard, Oberlin, Twyla Tharp’s dance company and Madison, Wisconsin. The right gets Nasdaq, Boeing, General Motors, Apple, McDonnell Douglas, Washington, DC, Citicorp, Texas, Coca-Cola, General Electric, Japan and outer space. That seems like a fair arrangement.” Yet still Mr. Shapiro is not satisfied. He wants Oberlin too. Third, even if Oberlin’s political complexion does indeed lie somewhere to the left of center, that is a very different matter from saying that the campus would not welcome searching debate between right and left – and a most unfair and, once again, evidence-free accusation. I do not know a single student, colleague or administrator who would deny the importance of such discussion or would shun it. On the contrary, most of us bemoan its relative absence on campus. This is where Mr. Shapiro does indeed hear the bells ringing, even if he thinks we don’t.

Fourth and most pertinent to Mr. Shapiro’s project, his approach to creating such debate is misguided, in two senses. To begin with, it violates a basic norm that the academy must scrupulously avoid overtly ideological entanglements of all kinds. Like all serious academic institutions, Oberlin would never accept funding for, say, a faculty position or program in right- or left-wing political theory or analysis. We all know the dangers of putting academic decisions up for sale. Likewise, we should never accept donations even for student activities that come with explicit political strings. Going further, the only instance in my nearly four decades on the faculty when we have done so – the Reagan Lectureship – has gone badly wrong in part precisely for this reason. Mr. Shapiro is frustrated that his program has not been well received, but he fails to understand that a major reason is precisely the campus’ horror at the overt politicization and commodification of the academy that it represents. Finally, though, let us take Mr. Shapiro at his word: that his concern is not just with promoting the right-wing on campus, which is inappropriate, but also with widening the spectrum of serious political debate on campus, which is completely appropriate. In that case, the way to accomplish it is not to build up the College Republicans and Libertarians as a counterweight to our supposedly left-wing campus, but rather to go straight at the problem in an appropriately scholarly and apolitical way. I’d like to invite Mr. Shapiro to direct his sizable donations to create a fund that would sponsor serious political debates on campus. For example, let’s get a respected advocate of the hegemonic agenda of school “reform” onto the Finney stage in a discussion with Diane Ravitch. Or a thoughtful conservative voice on taxation up there to debate David Cay Johnston. On and on. In line with standard academic practice, such a program would be administered by a duly-appointed campus committee. This would avoid the problems that the Reagan Lectureship has encountered, as well it should have, of failing because it was too partisan and too closely influenced by a donor who should remain much more at arm’s length from the actual administration of the campus program that he funds. More positively, it would be something that would be truly constructive, would be welcomed by the campus, would help advance Mr. Shapiro’s goals, and would be something of which he could be duly proud.

—Marc Blecher Professor of Politics & East Asian Studies