SUNY Trustee Takes On Ivory Towers
By: Michael Gormley
Associated Press | Wednesday, May 05, 2004
Candace de Russy has railed against a State University of New York college's sadomasochistic sex program to "60 Minutes." She earned a televised pledge from conservative icon Bill O'Reilly to fight for her job as SUNY trustee, and won an appointment from President Bush to a board of the scandal-plagued U.S. Air Force Academy.
Her quill has skewered multiculturalism, radical feminism, some black studies programs, anti-Americanism on campuses nationwide, and exposed human rights abuses in Soviet gulags and Cuba.
As a member of SUNY's unpaid, 16-member Board of Trustees, she's led often-solo fights against tuition increases as an assault on New York's working class, assailed weak professors and grade inflation and fought for public disclosure of board deliberations. She is the state's link to a nationwide "academic bill of rights," the movement on colleges to end a perceived practice of not hiring conservatives and otherwise stifling conservative and religious debate.
At stake in her conservative crusade against the liberal bastion of academia, she says, is nothing less than the future.
"It is necessary to preserve our civilization. I do not see it as optional," said de Russy, 60, from the upscale New York City suburb of Bronxville. "This country is now in a civil cultural war and the radical, secular, `progressive' left may well destroy our traditional principles and institutions, and notably our education institutions, which is seminal to the rest of the institutions ... "
She's a hate-her-or-love-her type in the academic world she both attacks and defends breathlessly, a woman whose own college experience in the 1960s led her not to radicalism but to Aristotle; who can't operate a VCR but has her own Web site.
SUNY's faculty union has called for her to be fired since 2002. United University Professions remains outraged over her criticism of some black studies programs as weak, feel-good, anti-American curriculums. The union has called her remarks "stupid" and an embarrassment to SUNY.
Others, including SUNY Stony Brook Africana studies Professor William McAdoo, have denounced her as racist, fascist, McCarthyite prude.
"She wants to go back to the `good old days' of the little red school house, when only people like herself, people who are very privileged, went to college," said William Scheuerman, president of UUP, which represents SUNY professors and researchers. "Men went to the factories and women just stayed home until they were married off. Well, that's not the America the rest of us live in anymore."
Others who disagree with her message still embrace her ferocity.
Stanley Kurtz of the National Review Online defended de Russy in 2002, citing her work with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which has defended liberal and conservative faculty: "How sad it is that de Russy herself should be defamed and attacked by a left-leaning faculty union who's own freedom of speech is far safer today for the work her organization has done."
"Being a trustee is not being a cheerleader," said Stephen Balch, president of the National Association of Scholars based in Princeton, N.J., of which de Russy is a board member. "Her inspiration is national."
De Russy was appointed by Gov. George Pataki in 1995, but they rarely speak these days after her public conflicts with his friend and appointee, SUNY Chancellor Robert King. Pataki, however, recently called her one of the "great trustees" he's appointed.
"You want to have a dialogue where different viewpoints are expressed and different points of view are fully aired out," Pataki said.
Two years into her term, she drew national attention over her criticism of a program called "Revolting Behavior: The Challenges of Women's Sexual Freedom" at SUNY New Paltz. She said the 1997 conference, which included the sale of sex toys and presentations on sadomasochism, was about pornography, not women's studies or academic freedom. In 2001, the college president resigned and de Russy's effort was considered a catalyst.
"It's refreshing to watch someone who is not shy about making her voice and opinions heard and is willing to stand up to the status quo to make that happen," said Miriam Kramer of the student-backed New York Public Interest Research Group.
Much of what de Russy fights arises from multiculturalism _ called tolerance by supporters, political correctness by critics.
"From the fact that all people should be treated fairly it does not follow that all cultures are equal," she said. "To hold that all cultural practices are equal is to equate democracy with tyranny."
In "the extreme," she said, multiculturalism allows the rise of Nazism and Islamic radicalism. It is especially damaging to minority students by "nurturing an attitude of racial and ethnic grievance, making it more difficult for them to continue in democracy."
Yet she embraces the best of other cultures, as well as of black and women's studies, saying they should be mainstreamed.
Her journey to this conservative stage was not as a bombastic commentator, but as an academic and writer.
She learned public policy as the daughter of an elected judge in the rough-and-tumble world of Louisiana politics. At 12, she was hit by a car that put her in a body cast for a year's painful recovery. Complications returned her to a wheelchair when she was in college. Today, she shuns the leg brace she should wear.
"These experiences teach fortitude," said the mother of two children in their 20s. She's also a grandmother.
She graduated from a Louisiana Catholic school and attends Mass three to four times a week. She spent a year studying in France, immersing herself in the Enlightenment. Her hardline views were forged while documenting the torture of gulag survivors in the Soviet Union and in encountering the despair of Cubans under Castro.
De Russy mixes her ideological hardline with warmth and compassion, said Stephanie Gross, a student at SUNY Oneonta and the SUNY board's student representative.
When Gross was appointed to the board in the spring, de Russy was the first trustee to reach out.
"She's a very dedicated trustee. You see that with the persistence and time" she spends, Gross said. "She is an advocate for the students."
The collaborative relationship has grown despite their differences, said the "mostly liberal" Gross:
"I think the phrase is, `We agree to disagree."'
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