A Less Leftist Brown

Hiring of Glenn Loury and other moves leave conservatives praising a university they loved to bash.
September 16, 2005

Until this fall, Glenn Loury taught at Boston University, an institution that is home to many neoconservative scholars.

Loury, an economist who doesn't like the way he is tagged by some as a conservative, freely acknowledges that he stands out as a black scholar who rejects some views that are widely held among black scholars. For example, Loury has questioned the value of affirmative action.

So where is Loury now? He has moved to Brown University, an institution frequently mocked and attacked by conservatives for being politically correct. Loury says that his move may suggest that he and his new university both may not be what others assume.

"Brown is a liberal institution, but it's not mindlessly so. I have taken some very conservative positions, although my views have moderated in recent years," he says. But the bottom line for him is that "Brown is a very dynamic place right now," and he has felt completely welcomed even though his scholarly work continues to be controversial. His current project is a book for Princeton University Press that will argue that everyone is wrong about affirmative action and that there is a "lack of conceptual thinking" and "evidence" on all sides of the debate.

The stereotypical Brown would be up in arms about Loury's appointment. In fact, he's been warmly welcomed, and even given a courtesy appointment in the university's black studies department.

To be sure, Brown is not about to be confused with Hillsdale. People of all political persuasions agree that the student body and faculty are overwhelmingly liberal. But Loury's appointment follows other signs that suggest to some that the university has become much more hospitable to non-liberals and suggest to others that the image of Brown may have been unfair to start with.

In February, Ruth Simmons, Brown's president, gave a talk to kick off the spring semester in which she said she was concerned about reports she hears from students, parents and alumni about “the lack of diversity of opinion on campus.” Students have told her of a “chilling effect caused by the dominance of certain voices on the spectrum of moral and political thought,” she said.

Jonathan Ellis, editor in chief of The Brown Daily Herald, says that the speech had an impact. "The issue of intellectual diversity has really been brought to the forefront, really sparked by that speech," he says.

Ellis isn't sure how the issue is playing out. He thinks Brown is less activist than most people believe. "If you expect everyone to be tree-huggers, you'd be surprised," he says. And some liberal students believe that the intellectual diversity issue is a ploy by conservatives "who don't have any trouble getting their voices heard, but who are using this to get heard even more."

Besides the Simmons speech and the Loury hiring, another development at Brown has been the growth over the last three years of the Political Theory Project, which supports postdoctoral fellows with a range of views, but sponsors conferences and lectures on issues related to a free market and "Liberty Lunches" on such thinkers as Adam Smith and F.A. Hayek.

John Tomasi, director of the project and an associate professor of political science, says that at a conference last year, there were more than 250 Brown students who attended a Friday night program on market-based economies -- and that the students stayed from 7 p.m. until after midnight so that they could also take in an Ayn Rand play. "There has been a groundswell of enthusiasm from undergraduates here," he says.

Tomasi says that Brown currently has "a disconnect" between students who are interested in market based ideas and "the kinds of courses many Brown professors teach."

While Tomasi considers himself politically in the minority at Brown, he says that "the culture of the place is changing, and I think in a most positive way."

"I certainly feel that there is a more receptive audience among students," he says. And he also praises the Simmons speech, which he says was influenced by her listening to students.

"The current administration is open to students pursuing whatever ideas and whatever political perspectives interest them, and this administration seems more open to that than previous administrations," Tomasi says.

Some of the many Brown professors who are not conservatives are also noticing a change. Robert Pelcovits, a physics professor who holds the elected position of chair of the faculty, says "I don't think these things people are noticing are coincidental, but how widespread this is going to become, I couldn't say."

Pelcovits -- who identifies himself politically as a moderate -- says that he thinks the climate is changing in a good way. "One of the things I've appreciated about Ruth Simmons is that she is telling students that it's critical that they engage in a frank exchange of ideas."

P. Terrence Hopmann, chair of political science, says that if there is a shift going on now, that doesn't mean conservatives weren't welcome in the past. Hopmann, a self-described liberal, says that there is a self-fulfilling nature to being identified as a liberal institution (or a conservative one).

"I think Brown has always been hospitable, but there's self-selection in these things. If you have a liberal reputation, more liberal students may apply. Because we've had that reputation, we probably had more liberal students than at many other campuses," he says.

If word gets out that conservatives can thrive at Brown, which Hopmann believes is true, that's great. "I think anyone should feel comfortable coming here. A university thrives on the free exchange of ideas," he says.

William Keach, an English professor, says he believes that all the conservatives' talk about how they need more outlets demonstrates that they in fact have plenty of outlets. "There's an irony in that they are writing about how they have no access, when they have access," says Keach, who adds that he does feel that the student body has become more conservative recently.

Keach, a socialist, also says that conservative faculty members overestimate the political commitment of their liberal colleagues. "My complaint about Brown is that too many of my colleagues identify themselves intellectually with the left, but try to get them to come to an antiwar meeting or a demonstration, and you see that Brown is less left-wing than other university communities."


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