‘T he political difference between the McCarthyism of the 1950s and the egalitarianism of the 1980s and now 1990s is that this time the enemies of free speech, dispassionate inquiry, and scholarly merit are within.”
—Aaron Wildavsky, founding dean, Goldman School of Public Policy, UC Berkeley, in 1991
Way back in the pre-Trump era of 2015, an anonymous academic published an article on the Vox website entitled “I’m a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me.” He wrote: “I wish there were a less blunt way to put this, but my students sometimes scare me—particularly the liberal ones. … I once saw an adjunct not get his contract renewed after students complained that he exposed them to ‘offensive’ texts written by Edward Said and Mark Twain. His response, that the texts were meant to be a little upsetting, only fueled the students’ ire and sealed his fate.”
Variations of this story are spreading rapidly in the academy. The deepening of campus dogmatism is having a chilling effect on students and faculty across the board. As Vicky Wilkins, the dean of American University’s School of Public Affairs, told the Washington Post recently, “Something that we’ve noticed with our students, especially over the past five years that I’ve been there, is this reluctance to get into tough conversations. … They would rather walk away from hard topics than to actually engage.”
If mainstream liberal academics find today’s campus climate tricky, imagine what it’s like for the increasingly rare conservative academic. The story of my time at the University of California at Berkeley offers some guidance.
When I was appointed a visiting (and non-tenured!) faculty member at Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies in the fall of 2016, friends and observers wondered how such an unlikely thing came to be—and how long it would be before I was “canceled” and run off campus. How I ended up at Berkeley is a circuitous story, but the relevant fact is that even many liberals at Berkeley knew that the campus was ideologically unbalanced, and I was warmly welcomed and encouraged to teach classes in political science and at the law school.
I never used to declare my ideological leanings to a class, and then as now, I teach the subject matter in a deliberately neutral fashion that in the past has sometimes prompted students to ask mid-semester whether I am a liberal or a conservative. But over time I have come to embrace being a conspicuous conservative and telling students of this fact on Day One. This ironically may provide me a greater degree of safety than would be the case for someone who concealed his opinions and was then “outed” as a conservative. Berkeley’s student newspaper, the Daily Cal, ran a news story and an editorial when I first arrived in 2016 about what a horrible human being I am, but the adverse publicity had the predictable effect: I had a long waiting list for my first course, which included a lot of liberal and even far-left progressive students telling me they were interested in hearing something different. (They were terrific, by the way, as have been the smart Berkeley progressive students in all of my subsequent classes.)
It was perhaps naive to think this constructive circumstance could last indefinitely, even at an institution as large as Berkeley. I wondered whimsically at times what I was doing wrong. Maybe I wasn’t testing the limits, or I was being too timid.
I wonder no more.
Last year, an invitation was extended to teach at Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy by the current dean, Henry Brady, a distinguished political scientist and past president of the American Political Science Association. While his own views appear to skew moderately liberal, he emphasized to me the importance of students knowing the perspectives of conservative thinkers such as Edmund Burke, Friedrich Hayek, and James Q. Wilson. Brady’s impulse here was sound: Good public-policy analysis and training, though heavily quantitative, shouldn’t be purely technocratic. Also sound were his institutional instincts: The Goldman School had an alumni donor whom the university’s development department wished to cultivate, and that donor was eager to support a visiting professor who would add some conservative content to the Goldman curriculum. I proposed a course I had previously taught in the Berkeley political science department featuring readings from Thomas Sowell, Michael Oakeshott, Isaiah Berlin, Leo Strauss, James Buchanan, Richard Weaver, Dierdre McCloskey, Edward Banfield, Robert Nisbet, and other authors from the contemporary conservative canon. I also make a point of assigning material critical of conservatism, in particular E.O. Hirschman’s The Rhetoric of Reaction and Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind.
The first sign of trouble came when an associate dean called to say that the title I used for the political science course—“Conservatism from Burke to Bannon”—was too provocative for the Goldman School’s left-leaning students. She suggested the more anodyne title “The Debate Between Conservative & Liberal Politics and Policy and Its Impact on Society.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, this blander title resulted in luring fewer than half the number of students who had registered for the political science department’s version of the same course. Still, it went off without a hitch, though with noticeably less classroom discussion than had been the case in previous iterations. I often ended up arguing with myself when I couldn’t get students to argue with me.
The spring semester proved to be a different matter. Dean Brady encouraged me to offer a graduate seminar, and I updated a course I had taught previously while embedded in the environmental studies department at the University of Colorado at Boulder. That department, while leaning decidedly to the left, was largely and happily not all that politicized and had welcomed me warmly. Herewith the course title and description for my proposed spring course at Goldman:
Title: Free-Market Environmentalism, Ecomodernism, Degrowth, and Other Heterodox Perspectives
This course seeks to explore the traditional causes of environmental harms, focusing especially on market solutions to market failures, as well as the issues involved in “the tragedy of the commons.” Because of the problems of imperfect information, neither government nor markets lead to perfect solutions; thus their real world counterparts should be compared when forming public policy. The course will explore the application of various market-oriented viewpoints, including property rights, emissions trading and Pigovian taxes on “externalities,” public choice theory, and common law legal reforms as an alternative or supplement to traditional political regulation. The course will also consider the technocratic perspective of “ecomodernism,” as well as post-Malthusian perspectives on economic growth and the environment. Case studies will include wildlife, forest, land, and water management, along with larger scale problems of air and water pollution and energy.
Even a casual reader might notice something conspicuously missing from the title and course description: climate change. That was a deliberate omission, owing chiefly to my view that climate change has eaten environmentalism alive, distorting the whole domain of environmental politics and policy. Although there are discernable climate aspects to many particular environmental issues, climate change has become the primary driver of our focus to the exclusion and detriment of existing conditions that deserve remedies.
My thesis is that we should look at specific problems and policy frameworks apart from the repetitive and currently unproductive exclusive focus on greenhouse-gas emissions. One of the books proposed for the course was Eleanor Ostrom’s Managing the Commons, which features case studies, mostly from developing nations, of local self-management of environmental problems, with solutions located in the zone between centralized regulation and pure market-driven property-rights schemes. (Ostrom, one of only two women to have won the Nobel Prize in Economics, is largely neglected in the Berkeley public-policy curriculum.) I had also planned to bring to class several guest speakers with views diametrically opposite of my own.
Apparently just using the phrase “free-market environmentalism” (taken from a book of that title that has gone through several editions, sold over a hundred thousand copies, been translated into multiple foreign languages, and widely assigned, except at Berkeley) was enough to trigger some students. They went to work combing the Internet for my past transgressions against orthodoxy, which are not hard to find.
It didn’t take long for the inevitable tweetstorm to land. Many of the tweets were soon taken down and I didn’t think to screen-cap them, but a few survived, including:
“Woke up this morning still fuming about the donor-endowed welfare state in academia for right-wing propagandists, how’s everyone else’s Saturday going?”
“Don’t worry he’s also a huge sexist.”
“Stop I’m going to get into a physical altercation with Dean Brady if I learn any more about this man.”
Much more significant than indignant tweets were the series of long memos to Dean Brady from various student groups, including a consortium featuring members of Equity in Public Policy (EQUiPP), Students of Color in Public Policy (SCiPP), and Black Students in Public Policy (BiPP). I was denounced as “a climate denier who actively promotes ideas that harm communities of color and other marginalized groups,” and for “repeated racist, misogynistic, and transphobic statements.”
The student outrage wasn’t limited just to me. Dean Brady was subjected to a lengthier attack not merely for the disgrace of hiring me but because, to quote the EQUiPP-SCiPP-BiPP memo, “your leadership has been severely lacking over the course of your tenure as dean. . . Your micro- and macro-aggressions serve to create a space at GSPP that is toxic for students of color, further contributing to trauma whose effects will be felt for generations.”
There was no enumeration of any specific aggressions on Dean Brady’s part; I suspect his defect was simply that he is an older white male who had not properly assimilated the woke vocabulary that has become the lingua franca of the academy over the past decade. A separate letter to Brady signed by 129 students in the public-policy program stated: “Your decision led us to contemplate requesting your resignation; however, we do not believe you will assent.” Instead, students offered up a long list of procedural demands intended to ensure that they will never again be subjected to a conservative on their faculty, and that the next dean, to be chosen soon, will be a conforming leftist, which is likely.
Poor Dean Brady! Faced with this ferocious onslaught, he sent a department-wide email to all students and faculty attempting to appease the furies (but without speaking with me first). The most significant passage ran as follows:
I owe an apology to all of you. I take full responsibility as it was my sole decision to invite Steven Hayward to GSPP to teach two courses—one in Fall 2019, one in Spring 2020. I took the fact that he was already affiliated with IGS and teaching at Berkeley Law as indicators that he would be a thoughtful person to have as a visiting professor, but it has become clear that the information I had at the time was insufficient. Specifically, I was not aware that Dr. Hayward has made statements that belittle others and undermine our shared goals of ensuring a just, inclusive society. It is one thing to disagree with someone, but it is another to demean them. Decency and respect should be, and must be, shared values across all political perspectives. With what I now know, I would not have invited Hayward to teach for us, even though I remain committed to the notion that we should have diversity of all sorts in academia.
Henry Brady is a busy man, so I doubt he read at all or with any care the few samples of my writings that were assembled to demonstrate my supposed offenses against decency. The relevant part of my reply to Dean Brady runs thus:
I am aggrieved that you would so readily agree that my *off-campus* comments and opinions (which I would *never* intimate in a classroom in front of students) are “demeaning,” and that you wouldn’t have extended an offer if you had known about them. For the record, something I never talk about is that years ago when I lived in Sacramento and attended a predominantly gay church (ironically because it was theologically conservative—a paradox I suspect zero GSPP students are capable of comprehending), my wife and I would deliver communion on Sundays to AIDS patients who were too ill to attend services. You will understand my meaning when I add that we often delivered the last communion to some individuals. In addition, I am currently counseling a transgender student at Berkeley on law-school admission strategies—she seeks me out in preference to the political science department’s formulaic cookie-cutter counselors—and I’ll add as a point of pride that I’ve had several African-American students I’ve counseled here and at Colorado—and stoutly recommended to law schools—tell me that my advice to them was much more helpful than the university’s counselors. This does not surprise me for a moment, but is subject for another day.
Although I like gonzo challenges, or I wouldn’t be at Berkeley in the first place, I don’t have much appetite for full immersion in the rank pool of the ideologically crazed, so I voluntarily withdrew from the Goldman School appointment and taught the spring semester at the law school instead. I am told, however, that the anger at Dean Brady has not abated.
As one more entry in the annals of “cancel culture,” my story is not unique. The complete details all come from the playbook of campus clichés. Yet there may be an aspect of this particular story that illustrates just how distorted campus culture has become—how this kind of ideological fanaticism has spread from the hothouses of “critical theory” disciplines such as gender studies to more traditional disciplines.
The wall in the middle of the wood-paneled main hall of the Goldman School on Hearst Street features a photo of Aaron Wildavsky, the founding dean of Berkeley’s public-policy graduate program in the late 1960s. Wildavsky had been the chair of the political-science department during the free-speech movement of the 1960s and thus had a front-row seat for the evolution of radical student politics over the last third of the 20th century. Wildavsky was a legendary and prolific political scientist who passed away of lung cancer in 1995 at the too-early age of 63. He exhibited extraordinary range, publishing notable works on the dense and arcane practice of federal budgeting, defense spending, regulation, risk perception and assessment, the presidency, Congress, local government, public opinion, political parties, as well as deep forays into cultural topics. He even wrote a fascinating study of Moses.
A few of his contributions endure decades after his death and provide a framework for ongoing social-science research, especially his four-part cultural theory of political cleavages in America—which departs from the simple red–blue polarization models popular today. Echoes of Wildavsky’s cultural theory can be found in Jonathan Haidt’s work in social psychology, and his theory also forms the basis for much of the work of the very interesting Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School.
It is impossible to discern Wildavsky’s partisan preferences from his writing, still less any conventional ideological markers. His published work suggests he had little interest in or sympathy for conservative thought. Given the leanings of his generation and the intellectual mentors he cites from the 1950s and 1960s, he appears to have been a sober New Deal liberal. Even after the passage of time, some of his writings in the 1960s about racial injustice are compatible with the outlook of Black Lives Matter today. His careful attitude about the Great Society programs directed at problems of race and poverty tend toward the conclusion that they were too limited, unambitious, and destined to fail.
But if Wildavsky held traditional liberal views of equality and social justice, by degrees he came to regard what he called “radical egalitarianism” as a central impulse in modern politics—and thought it corrupted everything it touched, including race, environmentalism, the news media, and especially higher education. He believed that radical egalitarianism was severed from any objective claims about justice or even a decayed Marxist dialectic of progress and was instead an expression of a nihilist will to power.
In a 1991 essay called “The Fall of Academic Standards,” Wildavsky wrote:
What is correct? Radical egalitarianism. Who decides? Radical egalitarians. How do they decide? By determining among themselves which actions support greater equality of condition and pressuring other campus constituencies to comply with their demands. Why do they succeed so often despite violating widely held norms of academic life? Because arguing against their great equality of condition subjects critics to charges of racism and sexism but also because arguing against equality in any form makes Americans uncomfortable. Yet exactly this—arguing against equality of condition as the most moral criterion of judgment—is what must be done if freedom of speech and inquiry are to be preserved in American colleges and universities. And not only there.
Wildavsky illustrated the dynamic of this warped egalitarianism with a mischievous exploration of what he called “the oppression gap,” a supply-and-demand problem that stymied the ambitions, and more crucially the status, of the academically ambitious:
The proportion of privileged elites (defined as people of high education and income) has been increasing at a geometric rate, while the proportion of oppressed minorities for them to lead has been decreasing at an arithmetic rate.… As the supply of oppressed minorities was decreasing, the demand for them was increasing… . To justify its aspirations for leadership, therefore, the privileged elite has a vested interest in crying (that society is) foul…Injustice in America grows apparently in direct proportion to efforts to alleviate it…The beauty of the search for the oppressed is that it generates its own growth.
Wildavsky calculated that 374 percent of the American population could be counted among the oppressed. Start with consumers, oppressed by corporations, according to Ralph Nader, and you reach 100 percent, and then add women—51 percent of the population—whom feminism claims to be oppressed, and you’re over 150 percent before you begin with racial minorities and other standard classifications. Today Wildavsky’s methodology would probably yield an estimate of oppression that reaches 600 percent of the population.
Wildavsky’s tongue-in-cheek rendering of cumulative oppression did indeed anticipate today’s “intersectionality,” and likewise he noted that some groups had to be “de-oppressed” or “de-minoritized” in order for the radical egalitarian scheme to work (because “if all are oppressed, none are, no man more than any other”). He named groups that used to be referred to as “white ethnics” (Irish, Italians, Slavs, etc.), but one group stood out above the others for re-designation: Jews. Wildavsky saw how this once-despised minority was being converted into part of the oppressor class along with white males, and Israel into an imperialist oppressor. This, more than 20 years before the campus BDS movement arose.
Beyond the campus, Wildavsky thought that radical egalitarianism explained why the Democratic Party had been losing so many presidential elections—namely, the trend of demonizing white working-class males. Another prescient observation from a 1991 essay: “Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts, himself a liberal Democrat, has publicly asked his party to say things that are no longer fashionable among them—like that capitalism is better than other economic systems. I believe he will fail because many Democratic activists do not believe these things.”
Wildavsky matched these offenses against campus orthodoxy with equal offenses against environmentalism, which he regarded as merely another handy means for promoting radical egalitarianism more than authentic scientific concern for the health of the planet. Much of his late work and final publications concerned environmentalism, health, and safety regulation, and he was scathing in his view that most environmental issues were bogus or grossly exaggerated, and that most of our risk assessment and risk regulation had become completely irrational. “Of all the subjects I have studied or read about in over three decades as a social scientist,” Wildavsky wrote in his final book, “environmental and safety issues are the most extraordinary in that there is so little truth in them.”
He was especially suspicious of climate change. “Global warming is the mother of environmental scares,” Wildavsky wrote in 1992, “dwarf[ing] all the environmental and safety scares of our time put together.” He wrote extensively on the issue in the early 1990s before his passing and was not impressed with the claims of “consensus” among scientists that has become the incessant refrain of today. He was equally clear-eyed about the perversity of the chief climate-policy prescription of de-industrialization. Imagine how this passage would be greeted today in faculty clubs (and newsrooms):
No one reading a variety of pieces about global warming, for instance, would believe those who peddle the line that there is a consensus among scientists on this subject. The lay reader would soon discover that scientists do agree that, other things being equal, more CO2 upstairs means greater warming. But the dispute revolves around whether other factors . . . might not alter or even reverse this one effect. Then the claim of consensus can be seen for what it is, a tactic in the struggle over whose views will be accepted and become the basis for public policy.
These are only a few examples from a long catalogue of Wildavsky’s heterodox views, but the point is clear: Wildavsky—the founding dean of the public-policy program at Berkeley—could not be hired at the Goldman School today.
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