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 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 to become an increasingly public face of the academic "left," thereby providing Republicans with an opportunity to discredit mainstream Democratic liberalism.
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.
On Saturday, Sarah Palin brought to the surface the largely surreptitious GOP effort to link Obama with former Weathermen terrorist and current UIC education professor William Ayres. (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.'"
For the GOP attack to work, Ayers and Khalidi have to be viewed as exceptional figures. Obama's judgment can hardly be questioned if his "buddies" were not marginal characters but instead people who are like 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, of course). 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 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 other associations with academic figures, was acquainted with, and received support from, Ayers and Khalidi. The scandal is that the evolution of a groupthink academic environment has allowed figures such as Ayers and Khalidi to flourish. The academy doesn't offer carte blanche tolerance to 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.
In this respect, the GOP attacks against Obama are fundamentally dishonest. Unfortunately, the Democrats aren't in a position to expose this dishonesty--and Obama is in a position to be harmed by his party's poor record in promoting diversity of thought and pedagogical approach on the nation's college campuses.
Conflict of interest notes: I am an Obama supporter and donor; have acquaintances working for the Obama campaign; and served as an outside advisor to the Columbia student group that criticized Khalidi's leadership of Columbia's MEALAC Department.