How the conservative movement has undermined trust in academe (essay)

Accepting the Republican presidential nomination in July, Donald Trump accused his Democratic opponents of offering “carefully crafted lies” and “media myths,” promising to “present the facts plainly and honestly.” One week later, Hillary Clinton claimed in her own acceptance speech that only Democrats “believe in science” and “sweat the details of policy,” criticizing Trump for dismissing policy experts and attacking reporters.

Both candidates presented carefully chosen statistics to justify their very different policy visions, continuing a pattern that leaves citizens with the impression that data serves as just another weapon used for political arguments. Shared facts seem to be a victim of the polarized American political system.

But a closer look reveals that each party’s relationship to information -- and the institutions that produce it -- is quite distinct. Republicans aim rhetorical fire at “mainstream” news media and “elitist” experts, whom they view as biased actors surreptitiously working to advance the cause of liberalism. Democrats defend these traditional intellectual authorities, accusing Republicans of abandoning scientific consensus and cocooning themselves in a conservative media universe with little respect for objective inquiry.

A common history lies behind those sentiments: only the Republican Party has actively opposed society’s central information-gathering and -disseminating institutions -- universities and the news media -- while Democrats have remained reliant on those institutions to justify policy choices and engage in political debate, considering them both independent arbiters and allies. Although each party’s elites, activists and voters now depend on different sources of knowledge and selectively interpret the messages they receive, the source of this information polarization is the American conservative movement’s decades-long battle against institutions that it has deemed irredeemably liberal.

Universities are thus caught in the partisan crossfire but unable to plead nonpartisanship without evoking conservative suspicions. Like journalists, faculty members are no longer regarded as impartial conveyors of information by Republicans; academics seek to conform to norms of objectivity but face a skeptical audience on one side of the partisan aisle. As institutions that strive to inform policy debates even as they remain dependent on support from political leaders, universities confront the difficult task of fulfilling their traditional research role and engaging in more active problem-solving missions while they find themselves increasingly treated as combatants in an ideological battle.

Our new book, Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats, tells the strikingly parallel stories of how the conservative movement simultaneously undermined popular faith in both mainstream academe and journalism among its supporters, building and reinforcing Republican reliance on alternative ideological information sources. Our investigation combines historical studies with analysis of partisan political messages, public opinion, media coverage and research reports stretching over several decades.

Today, we find that Republicans are more likely than Democrats to consume media that are openly aligned with their political orientation and to distrust other news outlets. The establishment of an explicitly right-of-center media ecosystem as a conscious alternative to “mainstream” journalism allows conservative media personalities to exert an influence over Republican officeholders and voters that has no true counterpart among Democrats. Similarly, Republicans have attacked university-based researchers for advancing leftist ideas and have built explicitly conservative think tanks to reorient Washington policy debates. We find differences in the content and sources of these elite information sources, which reinforce appeals to ideology among Republicans and specialized policy analysis among Democrats.

This structural imbalance both reflects and reinforces the larger asymmetry between the parties: Republicans are organized around broad symbolic principles, whereas Democrats are a coalition of social groups with particular policy concerns. Republican perceptions of widespread bias in the mainstream media and academic community encourage party members to view themselves as engaged in an ideological battle with a hostile liberal “establishment,” turning even their choice of news or research source into a conscious act of conservative self-assertion. Consumers of conservative news media and think-tank reports are exposed to a steady flow of content that further promotes that perspective.

Democrats, in contrast, are relatively content to rely on traditional news media and intellectual sources that often implicitly flatter the Democratic worldview but do not portray themselves or their consumers as engaged in an ideological conflict. Fox News Channel and conservative talk radio lack equally popular and influential counterparts on the left. Similarly, left-of-center think tanks have adapted to conservative upstarts by frequently opposing them in policy debates, but still retain broader ties to scholarly researchers and closer adherence to academic norms.

Both Democratic voters and elites therefore remain relatively unexposed to messages that describe political conflict as reflecting the clash of two incompatible value systems. Instead, the information environment in which they reside claims to prize objectivity, empiricism and policy expertise -- thus remaining highly congruent with the character of the Democratic Party as a coalition of voters who demand targeted government actions.

Our observations do not constitute a value judgment against the conservative movement’s approach. Conservatives have had a good reason to build alternative institutions: academe and the news media are both disproportionately populated by liberals and Democrats, and have become more so over time. Most journalists and professors do not view their proper professional responsibility as advancing a left-wing political agenda, but the collective left-leaning orientation of academics and reporters influences their output -- even if implicitly or unconsciously. Conservative suspicions of science and the news media are based on fundamentally correct perceptions of these professions as disproportionately occupied by liberals.

A Self-Reinforcing Process

Although conservative elites long viewed academe and journalism as hostile to their politics, it required a sustained effort to transmit that distrust to their public supporters and to promote their alternatives. Accusations of liberal bias in each institution have long been more common than accusations of conservative bias. Declining public approval of academics and journalists coincided with the rise of alternative sources on the right that popularized ideologically motivated criticisms of these professions. Previous research shows how distrust of the news media helped to fuel conservative alternatives, which in turn gave rise to more media distrust. We find that academe has similarly become increasingly entangled in partisan conflict.

In a self-reinforcing process, conservatives have come to distrust ostensibly nonpartisan scientists and professors while creating an alternative research infrastructure for policy debate -- providing the Republican Party with its own network of policy experts that further undermines the standing of the academic community in the eyes of the right. Beginning with William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale in 1951, the conservative movement has long attacked academe as excessively secular, liberal and disrespectful of social institutions and America’s exceptional history. Campus protest activity in the 1960s provoked more antagonism from the right, prompting future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell Jr. to recommend that conservatives develop their own scholarly networks and institutions to balance faculties, demand equal time in campus speaking and media debates, and evaluate textbooks.

Conservatives founded Accuracy in Academia in 1985 to be a campus watchdog, following up with efforts to create networks of conservative academics. Conservative critics as diverse as Rush Limbaugh, Allan Bloom and Dinesh D’Souza later found easy targets in academe, constantly poking fun at “political correctness” and deploring or mocking the behavior of extremely liberal professors. Although initially focused on the humanities and social sciences, the scope of conservative targets grew to include the hard sciences in debates over environmental regulation -- especially climate change -- and issues such as stem cell research that pitted scientists against religious authorities.

Attacks by conservative-movement leaders on academic science have successfully influenced the conservative public. Data from the General Social Survey demonstrate that declining public faith in science is concentrated among conservatives. Compared to Democrats, Republicans are significantly less likely to trust what scientists say, more critical of political bias in academe and less confident in colleges and universities. Negative attitudes toward science and the media also intersect, with one-third of Republicans reporting no trust in journalists to accurately report scientific studies. Attitudes toward scientists have become more polarized while confidence in the role of scientists in political debates has eroded overall.

Just as the conservative movement built a national media apparatus, conservatives have also developed a network of policy experts outside the liberal confines of academe. The key development in the rise of this rival center of power was the 1973 founding of the Heritage Foundation by former Republican congressional aides Paul Weyrich and Edwin Feulner. Heritage represents the “prototypical advocacy think tank” with “no academic pretensions,” in the words of economist and former Ronald Reagan adviser Murray Weidenbaum, seeing itself as engaged in a “war of ideas” rather than producing objective scholarship.

In a 1988 speech at the American Enterprise Institute, another conservative think tank, Reagan himself noted that conservative ideas had been “greeted with varying degrees of scorn and hostility by what we used to call the establishment institutions … And so, it became necessary to create our own research institutions.” Reagan used the speech to declare “the triumph of the think tank,” saying “the most important American scholarship comes out of our think tanks.” Nationwide, conservative think tanks outnumber their liberal counterparts by a two-to-one margin and have been growing at a much faster rate than left-leaning or nonideological institutions.

From the Democratic point of view, Republicans have undermined a system of empirical expertise based in academe by establishing institutions for ideological advocacy disguised as scholarly enterprises. From the Republican perspective, separate groups of policy specialists agree with the objectives of each party; any deviations from a balance between those two sides constitutes bias. This dispute in interpretation does not challenge the agreed-upon facts: the conservative movement founded a series of think tanks to counteract a liberal academic establishment and expects them to be treated as equally respected participants in policy debates.

Compared to Republicans, Democrats are more likely to trust scientists to supply the research base for public policy -- just as Democrats rely primarily on mainstream news media outlets to report on problems, debate potential solutions and police the information presented by each side. Perceiving liberal bias in both sets of institutions, Republicans look to their own network of think tanks to provide research consistent with conservative ideology and to a set of avowedly conservative media sources to popularize their ideas among the public.

The same patterns of information use and dissemination are repeated in every election and each policy dispute, producing a political conversation that is less a “great debate” over principles and policies than an asymmetric dialogue between combatants who do not share each other’s premises. Democrats accuse Republicans of ignoring scientific information and enveloping themselves in an alternative media universe -- criticisms that have some merit but understate conservatives’ legitimate aversion to trusting institutions overwhelmingly composed of liberals to fairly adjudicate information on the public’s behalf. The two sides talk past one another when they intersect, but conservatives’ successful efforts to delegitimize mainstream outlets and to construct alternatives mean that Republicans are more often engaged in a separate conversation.

University faculty and administrators, like reporters and media executives, have suffered a decline in prestige and influence from a societal conflict in which attacks come overwhelmingly from the ideological right. Academics and journalists can neither ignore conservative critiques in the hope that bipartisan trust will automatically return nor abandon their own formal neutrality to become openly left-wing mirror images of conservative institutions. This damage will be difficult to repair, but requires an acknowledgment that academe has become a central participant in contemporary partisan debates, with the Republican leadership and nearly half of the American public standing in fervent opposition. Mainstream researchers and journalists may claim a devotion to simple empirical objectivity, but this stance is difficult to maintain when information has become fodder for the political wars.

Matt Grossmann is director of the institute for public policy and social research at Michigan State University, and David A. Hopkins is an assistant professor of political science at Boston College. This submission is adapted from Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats, published last month by Oxford University Press.

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Harvard, MIT Professors Share Nobel in Economics

The 2016 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics was awarded this morning to Oliver Hart, the Andrew E. Furer Professor of Economics at Harvard University, and Bengt Holmström, the Paul A. Samuelson Professor of Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

They were honored for their work on contracts. "Modern economies are held together by innumerable contracts. The new theoretical tools created by Hart and Holmström are valuable to the understanding of real-life contracts and institutions, as well as potential pitfalls in contract design," said the Nobel announcement.

The Nobel Prizes tweeted Hart's reaction this morning.

With the awards to Hart and Holmström, six professors at American universities have won Nobels this year (with the literature prize still to come later this week). All six were born outside the United States, five in Britain and one (Holmström) in Finland.

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Research suggests some students are more likely than others to perceive political bias of professors

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Study suggests that whether students think their instructors have political bias is linked to attitudes about entitlement and grades, not what the professors are saying or doing.

Memorial Fund for Davis Postdoc Killed in Ethiopia

Many readers were saddened by the story last week of Sharon Gray, a plant biology postdoc at the University of California, Davis, who was killed by a stone-throwing protest (having nothing to do with her visit or work) while she was on a research trip to Ethiopia.

Her husband and other relatives have created a fund in her memory to support the mentoring of young women in science. You can find more information, and donate, here.

Her departments at both UC Davis and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she received her bachelor's degree and Ph.D., created photo galleries of Gray.

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Why you should use football tailgating to find a job (essay)


Katharyn L. Stober describes how and why you should use tailgating and football lingo in your job search.

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Responding in the classroom to a racial incident on the campus (essay)

Last month, a Snapchat image circulated on the campus of Quinnipiac University of a white female freshman student in a dorm wearing a dark exfoliating beauty mask. Captioning the image in a collage made by another student were the words “Black Lives Matter.” In the days that followed, members of the university community received a number of emails from the administration, culminating with one that informed everyone that, as a result of an administrative investigation, “the student who took the photo, added the remark and posted it is no longer a member of the university community.”

In the midst of it all, my students and I decided to take time in our English 101 class to discuss both the images and the responses that we’d seen, read and heard up to that point. In our discussions, my students -- all first-semester freshmen -- offered a range of thoughtful and considered perspectives.

A theme of our discussions was the way in which the offending image mocked and trivialized the Black Lives Matter movement -- and, more broadly, concerns about racism, social justice and the calls for a more equitable America. My students pointed out that the words, phrases and images that were hardly offensive in themselves -- that is, the image of a white woman wearing an exfoliating mask as well as the words “Black Lives Matter” generated a problematic message when placed together in a collage. Some students pointed to the impact such images have on students of color struggling to learn, fit in and feel safe at the university.

One thing that didn’t come up for the students was the connection to the history of blackface minstrelsy, another key reason why the Snapchat image was such a problem. It not only mocked and trivialized other people’s misery and criticisms today, but it also did so by referencing and repeating -- unwittingly or otherwise -- a long history of it. As someone first trained in cultural studies, I offered some words about the subject and pointed the students to a few relevant resources.

But much of what piqued my students’ interest was the administration’s response. They quickly raised questions concerning money, liability, potential student recruitment and alumni giving -- all key elements of the conversation, to be sure. One thing we didn’t talk about, however, was genre: the fact that we were dealing with a kind of writing that, while being offered in response to a specific incident here at Quinnipiac, is governed by some rules, reader expectations and history.

Last spring I attended a faculty workshop concerning antiracism led by David Shih, an English professor at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire. In that workshop, Shih drew our attention to the ways that such articulations of “community” are increasingly a part of the administrative playbook for dealing with racism on campuses. And, in fact, the response we saw at our university was pretty generic -- although, as we never tire of arguing in English departments, genres do some pretty serious work. Often it seems as if administrative responses to racism sound a lot like the conventional way it gets talked about in the wider world: as something episodic, immediately identifiable and always perpetuated by someone from outside the community. Or, more specifically at work at my institution because of the manner in which the offender was quickly “no longer part of the community,” the implication was that the person was not really part of the community to begin with. Thanks to the administration’s intervention, the “community” could now get back to its normal business of operating in the absence of racism. Case closed.

My students, of course, had not attended David Shih’s workshop, but they raised some strikingly similar points in our discussion. Several also said that racist remarks in the form of jokes, asides and the like happen “all the time” on the campus. The problem, in this case, was that someone got caught. “There’s a big deal about it right now,” one of my students suggested, but what about all the other times these things happen, and they go unchecked?

For the students, the major difference was that it was a public act on social media. And what’s different about social media, they pointed out, is that it opens incidents to the outside world. A number of students were nervous or upset at having to answer to family, friends and others about the image, and some discussed how it had hurt our campus community not only directly but also by damaging the university’s public image. In short, the students seemed to say that the key difference between a “private” utterance and a more “public” image or “speech act” like the one that I’ve been describing is best understood as a degree of risk. “It’s just stupid,” several students agreed. But when pressed, it was clear that, by “stupid,” they meant “really risky.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, our discussions turned into a kind of reading of the administration’s style of risk management. When I asked what they thought should have been done, student suggestions ran the gauntlet from hiding the story from outside news media to expelling the students involved to insisting that this is not a “big deal” in the first place.

But many expressed frustration that the administration’s response was never fully explained in any understandable or transparent way. Almost everyone seemed to agree that something had to be done to take the incident seriously not only because of its hurtful nature but also because it was public. I asked what the campus would be like if the administration intervened every time a racist act of any sort occurred. One of my students immediately answered, with a raised eyebrow, “Things would get pretty out hand around here.”

Whether or not things getting “out of hand” on a campus sounds like a good thing or a bad one probably depends on a number of factors, and certainly this brief essay can’t settle such a question. But I raise this because much of what was at stake for my students -- at least in our initial classroom conversation -- was a response in large part framed and limited by the same terms as the administration’s emails, language and directives.

Most people agreed that such an incident needed serious and swift attention, and I agree with that sentiment. But the implication quickly became, “So if you do this type of thing, we don’t want to see it -- in other words, don’t get caught.” Because the risk is so high for everyone involved, that’s what makes it a problem: visibility and exposure to risk. My students really understand that posting such an image on social media is a risky move and could lead to issues at the institution in one way or another. But just why and in what ways such a racist speech act was a problem was tougher for them to articulate. Rather, the explanation for what the image meant and why it mattered was what we had to learn about in class -- not something the students could glean from the administration’s electronic missives.

Let me be clear: the fact that the administration did not discuss issues of racism or the history of minstrelsy is not why I invited my students to think about such topics in class. But it is striking to me that here, in a moment of crisis, some pretty clear lines between administrators and educators get redrawn. One way that happens is how the administration so directly articulates itself in such emails as something different and other than an agent of education and learning.

In the last administrative email on the subject, directly following the sentences informing us that the student was “no longer a part of the university community,” we were directed to “learn from this experience” and “encouraged” to participate in campus programs that “support our values of diversity and inclusion.” But just what we were supposed to learn here and what kinds of opportunities are available for us to do so was left intentionally unsaid. We were informed about the “existence” of a “racially offensive” image but not invited to ponder why it was offensive or racist, or what, for that matter, we should do about it. Likewise, we were told to seek out related programming and activities, but the fact that a previously scheduled and long-planned teach-in concerning Black Lives Matter was to be held on campus the following week was left out.

The following week, when the administration finally did publicize the teach-in (and with less than 24 hours before it was to start), we were “encouraged” to attend and “welcome to stop by,” but no connection to the Snapchat image was drawn. In other words, the administration seemed to be making a decision to leave the matter of education up to others at the university. Its role, if we judge by such emails, was to conduct investigations and render discipline.

And as a teacher, I would certainly prefer that what counts as education be left up to faculty members and students. Don’t get me wrong: I’m upset about the incident at our institution and wish it had not happened. But let me be clear about something else: as a teacher, I welcome the chance to turn such moments of difficulty into moments of consideration and reflection in my classroom -- all in the service, of course, of equipping my students with skills to make more informed and more thoughtful decisions in the future.

In fact, I’ve found that doing so is a pretty good way to teach writing and might even be thought of as a kind of “educational outcome” of higher education, regardless of discipline. In my English class, all of a sudden, some seemingly abstract questions got really real. It felt as if we were all doing what we ought to do in college: asking tough questions and taking the answers, and their implications, seriously.

My students did not come to consensus. But judging from some follow-up conversations with a number of them, I don’t get the sense that anyone felt that their views were not voiced and explored for what they were: attempts to come to terms with something important happening in their world and to use our class as a chance to hone skills they could apply both now and in their future.

I learned a phrase in walking picket lines alongside the union of clerical workers at the University of Minnesota that I’ve always liked: “The University Works Because We Do.” Since then, I’ve heard this phrase foreground the importance of a wide range of labor unrest that happens on college campuses from many people -- janitors, IT techs, food service workers and others. The phrase, when spoken by those who do a kind of work that the administration does not recognize and value as essential to the university’s mission, attempts to reframe the issue at hand and offer a sight line from a less common, but no less significant, perspective. And probably because, over the last few decades, the focus has been on the struggles of noninstructional university staff for recognition, better wages and respect, I have heard that phrase less often evoked when describing teachers and students.

So here, I’ll take a risk of my own: last month at Quinnipiac, all around the campus, the university was working because we did: that is, because teachers and students stopped their normal, planned activities and discussed racism -- and the administration’s response to it -- in a serious way.

Part of the problem is that what appears to be the administration’s desired outcome -- that what happened would be a short-lived but impactful moment that would quickly go away -- turns out to be not so unlike the way that Snapchat works. Images appear for a short time and then disappear, (hopefully) without a trace. What throws a wrench in the machinery is someone calling attention to it, someone who says, “Wait, this is important. This means something.” And thanks to a Quinnipiac student who reposted the image on Facebook with an impassioned critique concerning the connection between feeling safe on campus and being empowered to learn, we’ve had the chance to do so.

I don’t know who that student is, but I think I could learn something from her or him. And of course, this person wasn’t mentioned in the administration’s emails, either. In fact, I only learned about through my students in our class discussion. Last month, I went to teach class but I got schooled. To me, that’s also an important way that a university works -- and something we should all fight for.

John Conley teaches courses in academic writing, cultural studies and literature at Quinnipiac University and Trinity College.

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A student-led course raises questions of academic freedom and pedagogy (essay)

The University of California, Berkeley, recently briefly suspended a one-credit course already in session as part of the systemwide DeCal program of student-taught courses. The course, Palestine: A Settler-Colonial Analysis, had been promoted on the local Facebook page of Students for Justice in Palestine and gained wide attention both on and off the campus, including assertions that the course promulgated the idea that Israel is an illegitimate state denying Palestinians their basic right to political self-determination.

We think the readings assigned in the syllabus do not present a representative range of views about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After a passage was added to the syllabus assuring that a wide variety of views would be entertained, and some additions were made to the opening statement about the purpose of the course, the course was reinstated with the reading assignments unchanged. It may still be valuable for Berkeley to explore whether the oversight process it uses for DeCal courses is adequate and unfolded properly in this case.

It would be fair to argue that the whole matter was overblown, given that this was not a permanent addition to Berkeley’s course catalog. Yet a few issues remain that may merit discussion, given the wide publicity the course received.

The first is whether a course that is politically one-sided or even one that shades from pedagogy into advocacy and activism enjoys the protections of academic freedom. In keeping with ample precedents, we believe that academic freedom gives faculty members the right to advocate for their political views in the classroom and even to design a one-sided syllabus, however much we may disagree with the views expressed. They are not required to produce a politically “balanced” syllabus. To have permanently canceled the course would have been to undermine academic freedom.

At the same time, courses can be professionally criticized for their intellectual and political limitations. We would hold the same view if the course in question had the opposite political slant. In our view, one cannot fully understand the Israeli case without understanding the Palestinian case, and vice versa.

And, as a matter of pedagogical responsibility, no instructor (including a student instructor, as in this case) should disallow contrary points of view in the classroom. In any course, students have the right to present alternative and opposing points of view. They must not be humiliated, embarrassed, condescended to or penalized in grading for doing so. Instead students should be encouraged to agree and disagree when they choose to do so. The instructor of any highly politicized course has a special burden to welcome -- perhaps even to encourage -- opposing opinion, since not all students are ready to differ with instructor views that are passionately held and expressed. It can be difficult for students to argue for a different position, however, when all the readings assigned for the course point in a different direction. They will have no readings in common on which to draw to represent opposing points of view or scholarly traditions.

In addition, the incident raises the question of the merits and pitfalls of student-taught courses. Because undergraduates attend colleges and universities above all to learn, any role they might take on as instructors is an occasion for their own development as students. Accordingly, student-led courses like those in the DeCal program require especially close review at both the departmental and campus level. Perfunctory faculty approval does not moot that oversight responsibility.

Student teachers do not have the same kind or level of academic freedom as faculty members. They must be explicitly educated about the values and responsibilities enumerated above, about what is gained and lost by a one-sided syllabus, and about why the classroom ought to be a place for something more than the propagation of the instructor’s own politics.

The fact that a single one-credit student-taught course has sparked a national debate about politically biased teaching suggests that on the matter of Israel and Palestine, as well as on other highly contentious issues, there are real hazards in letting students, as opposed to professionally credentialed and qualified experts, formally educate their fellow undergraduates. Faculty members at each institution must decide for themselves whether to offer such opportunities.

Without observing the class or the instructor, we cannot definitively judge the merits of the course. But the fact that we would have opposed the permanent cancellation of the course does not mean that we do not have critiques of this course or similar courses in other colleges and universities.

According to the syllabus, Palestine: A Settler-Colonial Analysis aims to explore a Palestine “in which justice is realized for all its peoples and quality is not only espoused, but practiced.” To do justice to that goal, the syllabus might have benefited from treating the historical varieties of Zionism, the views of those advocates of a two-state solution who think both that the occupation must end and that Israel has a right to be a Jewish state within its pre-1967 boundaries, and proposals that enable both peoples to achieve their national political ambitions.

David Greenberg, Rebecca Lesses, Jeffry Mallow, Deborah Dash Moore, Sharon Musher, Cary Nelson, Kenneth Stern and Irene Tucker are members of the Alliance for Academic Freedom, which has published this statement.

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How academe can make someone conservative (essay)

A.W. Strouse tells a cautionary tale about how academe turned him into a gay conservative.

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Author discusses new book on attacks on philosophers during Cold War

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Author discusses his new book about why philosophers were an early target of the Cold War Red scare.

Q&A with authors of book on scholarship in the digital era

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New book explores what it means to be a scholar at a moment when every aspect of life in academe is being changed by technology.


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