The notion of left-wing political bias in the universities is widely pooh-poohed on the left as so much right-wing propaganda -- a smokescreen for an attempt to push a conservative agenda on college campuses. Sure, conservative professors may be a rare breed; but that, we are told, is only because the academy is all about intellectual openness, tolerance of disagreement, robust and untrammeled debate, and all those other intrinsically liberal values that conservatives presumably just don't get.
For a rather dramatic test of this proposition, one need look no further than Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, which is currently in the grip of a witch-hunt that would do the late Joe McCarthy proud -- except that it's directed by a leftist mob.
The victim of this left-wing McCarthyism, history professor Jonathan Bean, identifies himself as a libertarian but is widely regarded as a conservative on the campus; he serves as an adviser to the Republican and Libertarian student groups at the university. (There are reportedly no Republicans among more than 30 faculty members in his department.) A prize-winning author, he was recently named the College of Liberal Arts Teacher of the Year.
On April 11, six of Bean's colleagues published a letter in the college paper, the Daily Egyptian, denouncing him for handing out ''racist propaganda" in his American history course. The offending document, which Bean had distributed as optional reading for a class that dealt with the civil rights movement and racial tensions in that era, was an article from the conservative publication FrontPageMagazine.com about ''the Zebra Killings" -- a series of racially motivated murders of whites in the San Francisco Bay area in 1972-74 by several black extremists linked to the Nation of Islam. The article, by one James Lubinskas, argued that black-on-white hate crimes deserve more recognition.
Bean's critics charged that the article contained ''falsehood and innuendo" and that, in printing it out for the handout, Bean deliberately abridged it in a way that disguised its racist context -- specifically, a link to a racist and anti-Semitic website.
In fact, Bean did omit a paragraph containing a link to the European American Issues Foundation, which has held vigils commemorating the Zebra victims and which is indeed racist and anti-Semitic (its website features a petition for congressional hearings on excessive Jewish influence in American public life). He has told the student newspaper that he was simply trying to fit the article on one two-sided page.
By the time the letter from the outraged professors appeared, Bean had already canceled the assignment in response to criticism and sent an apology to his colleagues and graduate students. His letter of apology ran in the Daily Egyptian on April 12. On the same day, College of Liberal Arts Dean Shirley Clay Scott canceled his discussion sections for the week and informed his teaching assistants that they did not have to continue with their duties. Two of the three teaching assistants resigned, leaving the course in a shambles.
One may argue that Bean showed poor judgment in selecting the article for a reading given the offensive link it contained. But imagine reversing the politics of this case. Suppose a left-wing professor had assigned a reading which turned out to contain a link to the website of the Communist Party USA, or to a group that supported Palestinian terrorism in Israel. Imagine the outcry if the administration penalized this professor for such guilt by association.
Anita Levy, associate secretary in the Department of Academic Freedom and Tenure of the American Association of University Professors, says that making one's own decisions about the course curriculum as long as the material is relevant to the course is ''a part of academic freedom" and that it's clearly inappropriate to penalize a professor for such decisions -- especially without any due process. (While FrontPageMag.com has criticized the AAUP for remaining silent on the case, Levy says that the organization had not heard about it before and has not been contacted by Bean, whom I have been unable to reach for comment.)
A number of SIUC professors who do not share Bean's politics have rallied to his defense. Jane Adams, an anthropologist who was a civil rights activist in the 1960s, told the Daily Egyptian that the persecution of Bean ''puts an axe at the root of academic freedom and the freedom of inquiry." She added, ''For anybody who is a conservative, this has got to be a chilling case." Indeed, if this case is any indication, conservatives on many campuses are not just a rare breed but an endangered species.