Published on Saturday, March 24, 2001
Horowitz and the Myth of the Radical University
by Robert Jensen
Thanks to conservative author David Horowitz's recent lecture at the
University of Texas, I have new hope for radical political organizing
Many of us on the faculty with left/progressive values have felt
rather isolated on what we all thought was a conservative campus. But
it turns out that all this time we've been working in a nest of
left-wing radicals who have over-run the place, leaving conservatives
cowering in silence.
At least that's Horowitz's analysis. University faculties around the
country, including UT, are "skewed far to the left" as a result of
conservative professors being "systematically purged," according to
Horowitz, a one-time leftist turned right-winger.
My colleagues and I are hoping Horowitz will help us find where all
these radicals are hiding; more company would be nice.
In the decade I've been at UT, a handful of faculty members have been
willing to get involved in left/progressive causes. Events and
actions that address racism, sexism, militarism or corporate
domination usually involve the same small group of committed folks.
If the "left-wingers run the universities" claim were coming only
from Horowitz, it wouldn't be cause for much concern. The political
analysis that comes out of his "Center for the Study of Popular
Culture" is so consistently loopy that he's hard to take seriously.
But this assertion about left-wing dominance of universities is
repeated so often throughout the culture that it has become widely
accepted. The fact, however, is that the typical American university
is dominated by centrist to moderately conservative faculty members
and administrators, with steady movement to the right in the past two
At UT, for example, there are some professors -- mostly scattered
throughout the liberal arts and social sciences -- who might
reasonably be called left or progressive, a few even radical. But in
my experience the majority of faculty members run from liberal
Democrats to conservative Republicans.
In some places on campus -- the well-funded McCombs School for
Business comes to mind -- it would be silly to argue that the
ideology of professors is skewed even mildly to the left; they are
bastions of conservatism where no critique of the basic nature of
corporate capitalism is voiced.
More and more, universities are influenced by the wealthy donors and
corporations that exercise increasing power as public funding for
higher education shrinks. Professors, no matter what the nature of
their research, are being told that attracting outside funding is
increasingly a requirement for tenure and promotion.
That means that people doing work that critiques the fundamental
assumptions of powerful institutions in this culture (one reasonable
definition of a "leftist") are becoming even more marginalized. Not
"systematically purged," as happened during the McCarthy era, but
squeezed out by a system that values conformity and subordination to
power more than deep critique.
I am not so naive as to expect institutions to go out of their way to
foster dissent; institutions tend to reproduce the relationships of
power in the wider society, and universities are no different.
But we should put away the fantasy that radicals are running the show
and begin to ask seriously whether our society cares about
maintaining universities as a place for independent critical inquiry.
This is not a plea for sympathy for poor lonely radicals on campus.
As a tenured professor, I enjoy a freedom to pursue my intellectual
interests that is available virtually nowhere else in the culture,
and I'm grateful for that freedom. But I worry that graduate students
and younger colleagues coming up through the ranks won't enjoy that
That should be of concern not just to aspiring academics but to a
society that wants to call itself democratic. If higher education is
not a place for critical self-reflection on the powerful, we're all
Robert Jensen is a professor in the Department of Journalism at the
University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at
firstname.lastname@example.org. Other writings are available online at
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