A few years ago, I testified before the Senate Education Committee about the diminution of the academy's intellectual diversity. I spoke as a registered Democrat, and contended that the issue should concern Democrats as much as Republicans, since neither party has an interest in an academy dominated by race/class/gender groupthink.
Indeed, it seemed to me both then and now that the Democrats have much to lose from the current state of affairs in higher education. First of all, Democrats no more than Republicans should want a generation of students trained in ignorance of U.S. political structures and culture. Second, as Emory professor Mark Bauerlein most persuasively has argued, "when like-minded people deliberate as an organized group, the general opinion shifts toward extreme versions of their common beliefs." A campus environment overwhelmingly dominated by people who occupy one side on issues of race, class, and gender has allowed extremist voices—such as the Group of 88—to become an increasingly public face of the academic "left," thereby providing Republicans with an opportunity to discredit mainstream Democratic liberalism.
Alas, few, if any, prominent Democrats have expressed concern with the academy's ideological one-sidedness. From the standpoint of a political realist, I suppose this disinclination shouldn't surprise: race, class, and gender correspond politically to civil rights activists, unions, and feminists—three pillars of the Democratic Party's base. But, as recent attacks on Barack Obama have revealed, the Democrats might have profited from addressing academic extremism before now, because the ideas of academic extremists (whether the Group of 88 in the lacrosse case or the records of Obama "associates" in the current campaign) are all but impossible to defend in the public square.
On Saturday and again yesterday, Sarah Palin brought to the surface the largely surreptitious GOP effort to link Obama with former Weathermen terrorist and current UIC education professor William Ayers. (It was ironic to see a patriotism guilt-by-association attack coming from someone whose husband belonged to a political party advocating secession from the Union.)
Yesterday, Atlantic's Marc Ambinder reported McCain campaign officials planned "to highlight Obama's alleged contacts with individuals who they say have been linked to terrorist organizations, including controversial Columbia Prof. Rashid Khalidi . . . and Ali Abunimah, . . .who received a grant . . . approved by Wm. Ayers, Obama and Khalidi. Khalidi and his wife held a fundraiser for Obama in 2000. One strategist said: ‘Obama needs to understand he will own his friendships with individuals that are in some cases anti-American, anti-Semitic and pro-terrorist. The American people can decide whether Obama's buddies reflect their values.'" (That Obama has been denounced by Chicago pro-Palestinian activists and has enjoyed strong support from Chicago Jewish leaders doesn't fit this narrative, and rarely is mentioned.)
For the GOP attack to work, Ayers and Khalidi have to be viewed as exceptional figures—wholly unlike nearly all other professors. Obama's judgment can hardly be questioned if his "buddies" were not marginal characters but instead people who resemble lots of other academics, especially since Obama lived in an academic neighborhood (Hyde Park) and spent several years teaching at the University of Chicago Law School.
Yet the truth of the matter is that the basic approaches of Ayers and Khalidi fit well within the academic mainstream. Ayers is, after all, a prestigious professor of education (hardly a field known for its intellectual diversity, as I have explored elsewhere). Khalidi was of such standing that Columbia hired him away from the U of C, and named him to chair its Middle East Studies Department. From that perch, he presided over a wildly biased anti-Israel curriculum, even as he informed readers of New York that students of Arab descent—and only such students—knew the "truth" about Middle Eastern affairs.
I agree with Palin that there's a scandal here—but it's not that Obama, among his hundreds of associations with academic figures, was acquainted with, and received support from, Ayers and Khalidi. The scandal is the evolution of a groupthink academic environment that has allowed figures such as Ayers and Khalidi to flourish. The tolerance for extremism is on one side and one side only: the academy doesn't offer carte blanche endorsement to some types of unrepentant domestic terrorists or to figures who suggest that politically incorrect ethnic groups know the "truth." Imagine the chances of someone who had bombed abortion clinics in the 1980s becoming a prominent education professor. Or consider the likelihood of a man who claimed that Jewish and only Jewish students knew the "truth" about Middle Eastern matters becoming chairman of a major Middle East Studies Department.
As anyone who followed the lacrosse case understands, professors with worldviews like those of Ayers or Khalidi are hardly out of the norm in the academy. Indeed, they would look like moderates compared to some of the Group members (notably Wahneema Lubiano or Grant Farred). If Khalidi or Ayres were employed at Duke, doubtless they would have joined the Group of 88. Likewise, many Group members enthusiastically supported Khalidi's pet cause of divestment from Israel, just as they had backed the "diversity" educational agenda that Ayres has championed.
In this respect, the GOP attacks against Obama are fundamentally dishonest: the focus should be not on Obama but on an academic culture that has created figures like Khalidi, Ayres, or the Group of 88. Unfortunately, the Republicans have no partisan reason to focus on the educational problem, while the Democrats, because of their past record, aren't in a position to expose the GOP's dishonesty.
[A modified version of this post initially appeared at Cliopatria.]
[Update, 10.39am: Sol Stern, whose work I very much admire, addresses the question in today's City Journal. I agree 100% with everything he says about Ayers, and also agree with him that it's perfectly reasonable to "ask Obama what he thinks of Ayers's views on school reform."]