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08 Jun Posted by in Observations | Comments

One of the interesting aspects of serving in higher administration, in a public university, involves the obvious need to seem, and be, fairly even-handed politically. I may not have done this as well as I should, having fairly pronounced and obvious liberal views (if not worse), but at least I don’t seem to have gotten myself, or more important the institution, into trouble. One certainly finds oneself in situations where it would be enjoyable and cathartic to be more outspoken, but the indulgence would be inappropriate.

Former President Merten was a master at neutrality, and I say this with admiration. I did finally figure out what his politics were, but it took years. I found his approach commendable, though I just don’t think I could be that politically cool myself.

Mason of course finds itself in a particularly challenging situation because, unlike many sister universities, we have some clearly conservative units, and win some favor from the outside world on these grounds. While our economists and law faculty are not politically monochrome, they do tend to be on the right. While I personally would love to see these folks converted to right reason, I have accepted the inevitable and have even welcomed, in principle, the extent to which the university is actually a bit more diverse politically than some of its counterparts elsewhere.

This said, a couple of other points. First, the fact that we have some conservative segments has undoubtedly affected our reputation in some other quarters, where academic and liberal are meant to be more uniformly hand in hand. Liberals can actually be quite intolerant, and we have faced a bit of that from time to time. The fact that we have extremely liberal segments – for example, many of the social scientists other than most of the economists, or our climate change scientists, or the conflict analysis folks – has provided less public balance for us than I would have expected.

Then I wish I could say we have derived more internal intellectual profit from our internal political diversity than has been the case. Of course it would be silly to line up conservative and liberal faculty for regular combat. But the fact that some units are almost entirely one way, others the other, reduces active interchange. I think we could do better, to the benefit of our overall academic community and occasionally perhaps in the interests of seeking more common ground; but I never figured out how to accomplish this.

And finally – and this applies well beyond Mason – there is the recurrent issue of public misunderstanding of university commitments to freedom of speech. Any controversial speaker (right or left) predictably earns some irate outcry, and sometimes retaliatory threats, as if the university officially endorsed the positions espoused. It continues to amaze me that universities would be expected to toe any particular line, and avoid presentations that deviated in any significant way. Ignoring the protests, or politely explaining why we welcome diverse viewpoints (without always having to counterbalance immediately with a presentation from the other side), is simply part of the academic routine. There’s every reason to plan to keep this up, for the benefits clearly outweigh the nuisance involved.

When I offer my new course on the History of Peace in the fall, I will make it clear that I have views – they would be impossible to conceal – but that I welcome debate and encourage presentations of alternative approaches. Balance in the classroom does not, I think, require artificial concealment, but it does demand openness.