Remember Cindy Sheehan, the anti-war stalker of President George W. Bush?
The poor lady’s 15 minutes of fame expired a good two years ago when even Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama kept his distance. Yet, here she was this past April primed to speak on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus when the Memorial Union realized that no proper university group was sponsoring the event.
Up to the plate, at the 11th hour, stepped the Havens Center to offer its sponsorship.
The Havens Center? In its account of the Sheehan snafu, The Capital Times described the Havens Center as “dedicated to promoting critical intellectual reflection and exchange, both within the academy as well as between it and the broader society.”
That naive puffery from Madison’s self-proclaimed progressive voice was too much even for UW student Jack Craver, a liberal who blogs for Isthmus, the Madison weekly.
“Talk about vague language,” Craver marveled. “The Havens Center is essentially
a left-wing think tank.”
Then again, Cindy Sheehan is essentially a left-wing crank. As such, she has no trouble finding champions on the Madison campus, while conservatism, despite much progress in the last 20 years, remains an exotic species. It is a campus that devotes thousands of faculty hours compiling action plans in the pursuit of that holy grail of diversity in such ephemera as gender, race, and ethnicity — but not in the one important trait at a research and teaching institution: intellectual diversity.
While the taxpayer-funded Havens Center, housed in the Sociology Department, boasts of its radical left-wing political activism, there is no exact equivalent on the other end of the political spectrum.
Indeed, not that long ago minority conservatives and their more mainstream allies with a libertarian bent, both students and faculty, won a 10-year-long battle for, of all things, the right of free speech on campus.
Now the victors of that battle are struggling, as one professor puts it, to “build up the tiny chorus” of conservative counter-voices to the liberal hegemony.
The irony is that the 50 students and faculty picketing at the Memorial Union Theater in Madison one evening in October 2007 were the beneficiaries of that free-speech fight. The picketers had a special message for 19-year-old Sara Mikolajczak as she entered:
“Racist, sexist, anti-gay / right-wing bigot go away.”
The UW political science major was the target of the reactionary rhyming because, as chair of the College Republicans, she brought in conservative David Horowitz to speak about the mistreatment of women in Middle East dictatorships.
“I’ve been called names before,” Mikolajczak recalls. The problem with the Horowitz event, sponsored by the UW-Madison College Republicans, “was the death threats and the rape threats.”
Not from Muslim students but from the liberal-progressive contingent. A month later, Chancellor John Wiley sent the college student a $1,300 bill for the police security she required. (For the Cindy Sheehan appearance, the university picked up the tab.)
At least Mikolajczak didn’t get beer and urine poured on her, as allegedly did sophomore LaVonne Derksen and other college Republicans when they protested the use of student fees to bring Michael Moore in 2004.
The left-wing filmmaker had just completed his anti-George W. Bush film Farenheit 9/11 and was speaking outdoors on the Union Terrace, where Moore “unleashed a profane tirade against Bush sympathizers,” according to the Badger Herald student newspaper. The timing? Just two weeks before the 2004 November presidential election.
“We really wanted to bring [Moore] in with the political scene heating up. We were approached by his agent,” the director of the Wisconsin Union Directorate’s Distinguished Lecture Series told the Herald.
The Distinguished Lecture Series Committee, funded through student segregated fees, has brought to Madison conservatives Dinesh D’Souza, author of Illiberal Education, and former Republican National Committee chair Ken Mehlman.
But their kind are outnumbered by the likes of PETA co-founder Ingrid Newkirk, slavery-reparations advocate Randall Robinson, unsafe-on-any-podium Ralph Nader, sex-advice columnist Dan Savage, Richard Dawkins on The God Delusion, race huckster Al Sharpton, and the late Howard Zinn, author of the progressive perennial, The People’s History of the United States.
Inside the classroom the liberal hegemony is enforced with more subtle tools.
Jordan Smith’s sophomore journalism class in 2004 was assigned to read What Liberal Media? by lefty favorite Eric Alterman. Her professor disavowed any political bias even as he denigrated President Bush during that campaign season.
“It is a shame the university is so blatantly biased toward liberal views,” says Stephen Duerst, a junior majoring in political science and history. He says he’s developed a survival sense about what will play and not play with his liberal professors.
Mikolajczak makes the same point: “I knew when to hold my tongue and when my comments would be welcome, which was infrequently.”
Retired UW-Madison music professor Bill Richardson observes: “Students today who are conservative are the rebels, the counterculture.” Richardson came to academia from his own counterculture, the Marine Corps Band.
That college campuses are dominated by liberals is a given for most observers. “We would not contest the claim that professors are one of the most liberal occupational groups in American society, or that the professoriate is a Democratic stronghold,” write professors Neil Gross and Solon Simmons of Harvard and George Mason Universities, respectively.
Their 2007 paper, “The Social and Political Views of American Professors,” found liberals outnumbered conservatives 62%-20% nationally, with 18% claiming to be middle of the road. That measure includes the business schools, engineering, and medicine, where political perspectives are of little import.
This split is upside-down from the America that lives outside the ivy halls. The Gallup polling organization in October 2009 found that 40% of Americans describe their political views as conservative and 20% as liberal, which is only slightly more than the 17.4% of social science professors who consider themselves Marxists.
Gary Sandefur, dean of the College of Letters and Science, says he did not have any statistics particular to UW-Madison but acknowledged that, nationally, those academic fields are dominated by liberals.
“In the social sciences and humanities there is no question the major institutions are tilted against conservatives,” says UW-Madison political science professor Donald Downs.
Tilted? How about locked and loaded?
Consider the A. E. Havens Center for the Study of Social Structure and Social Change. Housed in the Sociology Department, Havens operates as a kind of ACORN with tenure, a haven for — and enabler of — the radical left.
If you’re into identity politics — the theory that people are not causative agents but are the product of their skin color, or gender, or class — then you’ve found a haven at Havens. “Social justice,” “greening the globe,” and the “unequal gender division of labor” are all grist for the UW Havens Center mill.
Would it surprise you to learn that the home page of the Havens Center (www.havenscenter.org) uses the word “radical” five times?
In fact, it has its own Woodstock of leftist agitators, once known as “RadFest.” Begun in 1983, the truth-in-advertising name was dropped in 2005. Its most recent leftist lollapalooza was held over three days in March 2008 at the Wonderland Camp and Conference Center in Kenosha County.
Now called “Midwest Social Forum,” its agenda included “Building a Queer Left in the Midwest,” organizing high school students to agitate for change, and demanding “justice for undocumented immigrants” (aka: illegal aliens).
The radical encampment employed trainers from, among others, the Urban Underground, the Liberty Tree Foundation for the Democratic Revolution, and something called the Ruckus Society.
According to the Center for Consumer Freedom, Ruckus was co-founded by the founder of Earth First! of 1980s tree-spiking fame. Ruckus’ primary contributions to the activist agenda are its “action camps:” weeklong boot camps for leftist protesters usually held a few weeks prior to a major organized demonstration. A few hundred young Ruckus recruits typically attend each camp, where they are trained in the finer points of “police confrontation strategies,” “street blockades,” “urban climbing & rappelling.”
No one said community organizing was going to be easy.
At Havens, Radfest is not a one-off.
In bestowing its Lifetime Achievement Award on the geriatric anarchist Noam Chomsky this April, Havens Center director Eric Wright told the Orpheum Theater crowd that the Havens Center was founded in 1985 to “bridge the world of activism and academia in order to advance the progressive ideals of social justice.”
“Social justice” is code for socialism.
“The Role of the Radical Intellectual” was a crowd-pleaser. Chomsky, who once said “If the Nuremberg laws were applied, then every post-war American president would have been hanged,” filled the Orpheum Theater’s 2,200 seats.
A previous Havens Lifetime Achievement awardee is Frances Fox Piven, co-author of the 1982 book The New Class War. Havens credits her with developing the strategy that led to the explosion of the welfare rolls in the 1960s that created a generation of government dependents, with its attendant pathologies. Piven could hang her Havens plaque next to the Eugene V. Debs Foundation Prize she won in 1986.
Notice has been taken at the other end of State Street. A couple of years ago, state Rep. Steve Nass, a member of the Assembly Education Committee, persuaded the lower house to delete Havens’ 2008-09 school year $131,700 taxpayer subsidy, only to have the Assembly-Senate Conference Committee restore the funding.
“Developing strategies for progressive social, economic, and political change…shouldn’t be funded with tax dollars,” Nass argued.
Repeated requests for comment made to Sociology Department chair Doug Maynard, associate chair Ivan Ermakoff and Havens Center director Wright were not acknowledged.
But the dean of the College of Letters and Science stepped up to the plate, while eliding a frontal defense. “The Havens Center existed before I became dean,” says Sandefur, himself a member of the sociology faculty. I asked if such a creature existed as a conservative sociologist.
“Oh, certainly,” he responds.
“Here?” I ask.
“I don’t know of any one that would tell you they are conservative.”
That’s out of 39 faculty in the nationally ranked UW-Madison Sociology Department.
The status of traditionalists has improved on the University of Wisconsin’s flagship campus since the 1960s, when the campus was patrolled by National Guardsmen in at atmosphere heavy with tension, tear gas, and leftist terrorism.
“There is some anecdotal evidence that some of the new faculty in the social sciences are less activist in their orientation, more concerned with advancing their careers,” says former journalism chair James Baughman. “Some of the liberal hires get it. …They truly appreciate ideological diversity. Others are quite intolerant. Some of these folks championed or justified the speech codes.”
Ahh, the speech codes.
It is a cherished monument to free speech and inquiry: a bronze plaque at the entrance to Bascom Hall, the seat of university governance that sits on top of the hill looking down State Street at the State Capitol. A gift of the UW Class of 1910, it informs those who enter:
“Whatever the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual sifting and winnowing by which alone, truth can be found.”
The language was taken from a ruling of the Board of Regents in the 1890s when it refused public demands to dismiss a pro-labor faculty member. How ironic, a century later, having survived McCarthyism, that the attack on free speech should come from within.
All that pent-up radicalism from the days of rage had been codified by 1989 into an official campus speech code. Harvard civil liberties lawyer Alan Dershowitz would come to denounce the faculty speech code as “the worst speech code in the country.”
“Unfortunately, the university bought into political correctness lock, stock, and barrel,” remembers Ken Thomas, who retired in 2002 as a professor of rehabilitation psychology and special education. “It took intelligent, courageous and thoughtful professors like Don Downs, Lester Hunt, and W. Lee Hansen to put the brakes on some of that nonsense.”
As a defender of freedom of thought and intellectual diversity, few stand taller than Downs, who is professor of political science, law, and journalism.
“I do take conservative ideas seriously,” he says. “Some departments would have trouble with me,” Downs chuckles over pasta at the same State Street eatery that once employed one of the Army Math Research Center bombers.
It took a full decade until the speech code was overturned; “I got a lot of hate mail,” Downs recalls. But “we kept appealing to the sifting and winnowing thing.”
Downs did not come to the free speech side fully formed.
“I was influenced by several remarkable students in my seminar on criminal law and jurisprudence…who opposed the codes in principle,” Downs relates in his 2005 book, Restoring Free Speech and Liberty on Campus.
“That included an African-American student named Lee Hawkins who was considered to be a beneficiary of the codes but “came to consider the codes demeaning to minorities because they inherently underestimated minorities’ capacity to handle the rough and tumble of public discourse.”
Outnumbered on a hostile campus, the First Amendment champions found each other. In the summer of 1996, they formed the Committee for Academic Freedom and Rights; they were 30 strong, they occupied various perches on the ideological continuum, but it was the conservative Bradley Foundation of Milwaukee that provided needed funding, to the tune of $100,000.
Dedicated to championing and defending academic freedom and constitutional rights on the UW-Madison campus and in Wisconsin, “there is no group like CAFR on any other campus in the U.S,” Downs says.
“UW-Madison was the first university in the country to take back a speech code by a faculty vote rather than a court order,” Downs writes in Restoring Free Speech.
Political correctness may not be codified in a speech code anymore, but the “group think” that gave it form is still alive.
“The problem of intellectual diversity remains,” Downs says.
That is why many of the CAFR members in autumn 2006 formed the Wisconsin Center for the Study of Liberal Democracy. The center was launched with $67,000 in “seed money” from the Bradley Foundation. Downs is its director. Its website is
The group’s mission is to take “ideas seriously that we believe have not always enjoyed sufficient respect on campus,” including the various threads of conservative and libertarian thought and the role of the military in American society and on campus.
“Step Two is to build up the tiny chorus expressing those dissenting viewpoints,” says Downs. “Maybe there should be affirmative action for conservatives.”
The Report of the Equity and Diversity Committee of the College of Letters and Sciences, September 2007, addresses ethnicity, gender, and race but not intellectual diversity.
I put this question to Letters and Science Dean Sandefur and Assistant Dean Lucy Mathiak: Does it not differ greatly whether the black academic you hire is Thomas Sowell or Cornell West? Are you getting the same “woman’s experience” from Nancy Pelosi and Anne Coulter?
Both seemed puzzled that political perspective — not partisan politics, but the intellectual grounding it represents — should be a factor in hiring faculty.
“We look at what is the quality of their research and critical thinking,” Mathiak insists.
Both express admiration for Downs. “He often points out to the university when we stray. He has been a positive force within the university,” Sandefur says.
I ask if the UW had enough Donald Downs. “He is a really unique individual,” the dean allows, adding: “We don’t hire people based on their political ideology. He was hired because he was an excellent scholar.”
It was under Sandefur, in fact, that the Center for the Study of Liberal Democracy was approved. There are noticeable differences, however, with Havens.
Unlike Havens, the Downs center receives no university funding, and its board of directors includes liberal as well as conservative professors.
Its mission is the “investigation of arguments for and against liberal principles and institutions.” In other words, the center presents both sides. A February symposium, for instance, explored “Market Failure and Government Failure.”
It is not as if there are no conservative intellectuals. They just don’t tend to be on our college campuses. So they set up their own universe of independent think tanks.
Stanford’s Hoover Institution is the exception. Hoover houses such notables as national defense expert Richard Allen, constitutional law expert Clint Bolick, social observer Thomas Sowell, Russian specialist Robert Conquest, and former Secretaries of State Condoleeza Rice and George Schultz.
For the most part, conservative intellectuals had to circumvent the nation’s campuses by forming independent 501(3)(c) organizations. Consider such public opinion leaders as the Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute, the Claremont Institute, Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, the Manhattan Institute, the Hudson Institute, and, of course, the publisher of this magazine, the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.
For all the one-sidedness of political discourse on the Madison campus, newly elected College Republican chair Stephen Duerst has enjoyed the challenge. Ditto for Sara Mikolajczak, who grew up in Waukesha County. “Coming to the UW and to Dane County was best thing I ever did, politically,” she says.
The pervasive liberal culture forced her to dig deep, to use her education to marshal her arguments. “You have to be able to defend yourself,” she says.
That, of course, works both ways. Which is the real tragedy of a one-party campus. Mikolajczak expresses pity for what she describes as the typical, tongue-tied liberal who bought into the content-free vapidity of “hope and change.” It is no wonder that they resort to sloganeering.
“I realized they have to come up with name-calling because they can’t defend their own ideas,” she says.
In Restoring Free Speech, Downs quotes Allan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind, who says, “The most successful tyranny is not one that uses force to assure uniformity, but the one that removes the awareness of other possibilities.”
Downs reflects: “You’d be amazed at how many of my liberal students tell me they agree.”
David Blaska blogs at TheDailyPage.com. He has a lot of “formers” in his life, including Capital Times reporter, Dane County Board member and aide to Gov. Tommy Thompson.