A hard lesson on student politics learnt

 After a Pyrrhic victory for free speech, I’m going back to what I do best

My uncle Ian enjoyed asking his younger brother, my late father, when that wastrel Niall would leave college and get a real job. The implication was that, by becoming an academic, I had essentially failed to grow up. I sometimes think Uncle Ian was right.

One of the attractions of university life to me was precisely that academic jobs were not like real jobs. At Oxford my tutors inhabited large, wood-panelled studies with towering bookcases and mullioned windows. They wore not suits but old tweed jackets with leather patches on the elbows.

For roughly half the year the dons had to put up with undergraduates knocking on their doors with hastily written essays to be discussed. During the vacations, however, they were free to do as they pleased, as long as they occasionally published books. I resolved to join these happy eggheads.

In those distant days of the 1980s academic historians came in different flavours. There were fierce Marxists. There were brilliant liberals. There were polemical radicals. And there were acerbic Tories. This was part of the joy of the Oxbridge experience. In Michaelmas term you boned up on the rising gentry and falling bourgeoisie. In Hilary term, having been sent to a conservative tutor, you learnt that this was all drivel.

On the whole I found the Tory dons more fun. We Oxford Thatcherites were, to be sure, a minority, but we had our mentors and they egged us on. A highlight of my time at Oxford was my election to the Canning Club, a conservative discussion group run by undergraduates but presided over by the Oriel College medievalist Jeremy Catto.

Fast-forward more than 30 years and I find myself at Stanford. My don’s life has not been exactly as I imagined it, but near enough. Books? Fifteen at the last count. Scruffy jackets? A wardrobe-ful. A level of freedom unknown in any other profession? No question.

But there is one huge difference that has crept up on me almost imperceptibly. Today scarcely any conservatives are to be found among academic historians. In American history departments, according to a 2016 study of 40 leading institutions, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by a ratio of 33.5 to one. Compare this with the ratios for law (8.6:1) and economics (4.5:1). The ratios are higher if you exclude older faculty members, so the trend is clearly the progressives’ friend.

This helps explain why, shortly after taking up a post at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, I was approached by a succession of students. Some were self-professed conservatives, others registered Republicans, but most were libertarians, classical liberals or undecideds. Their common complaint was that the campus was dominated by progressives, and that it was hard even to get a conservative as an outside speaker. Their common goal was intellectual diversity.

Remembering Jeremy Catto, I offered encouragement. I suggested setting up a visiting speaker series dedicated to free speech. I opposed those who argued that only conservatives should be invited. As the president and provost also wished to promote free speech at Stanford, we joined forces. Seeking a bipartisan basis for the initiative, we brought in a Democrat colleague, Mike McFaul, and involved all the student publications, left and right-leaning alike. We organised five such “Cardinal Conversations”, ranging from technology and politics to populism and inequality.

There was (as I had expected) opposition from the outset. In particular, our invitation of Charles Murray provoked outrage from the campus left. Ever since the publication in 1994 of Murray’s book The Bell Curve
(co-authored with Richard Herrnstein), there has been controversy about their (brief) discussion of race as a factor in differences in IQ and their claim that socioeconomic outcomes reflect genetic and not just environmental influences. Yet the sheer scale of the discussion that Murray’s work has generated would seem to argue for its importance, regardless of whether one ends up agreeing with him.

The campus left took a different view. Eight student groups joined forces to write to the president, calling for Murray’s invitation to be rescinded. “Murray’s work is not an academic undertaking,” they wrote. “It is a foundation for white supremacy.” When the event nevertheless went ahead, they organised a noisy protest.

So far, so predictable — though I had never expected to hear students chant: “F*** Steve Bannon / F*** the western canon.” What I had not foreseen was that the protest leaders might attempt to take over the student steering committee we had established.

I had met representatives of the various aggrieved student groups. I had heard their charge that I was “weaponising free speech”. I had satisfied myself that their antipathy to Murray was not based on any reading of his work.

I had no objection to these groups’ views being heard, but began to fear they were seeking an effective veto over future events. The existing committee was not unrepresentative: only half its members were white, and half were women. By contrast, the groups represented by the “coalition of concerned students” seemed to constitute a rather small proportion of the overall student body. When I heard an emergency meeting had been called by their leader to change the structure of the committee, I decided to mobilise the college Republicans.

Now the emails we exchanged have been published, I stand condemned for my intemperate language. Fair enough. As soon as it became clear that these emails had been inadvertently forwarded to unintended recipients, I resigned from Cardinal Conversations.

Re-reading my emails now, I am struck by their juvenile, jocular tone. “A famous victory,” I wrote the morning after the Murray event. “Now we turn to the more subtle game of grinding them down on the committee. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” Then I added: “Some opposition research on Mr O might also be worthwhile” — a reference to the leader of the protests.

None of this happened. The meetings of the student committee were repeatedly postponed. No one ever did any digging on “Mr O”. The spring vacation arrived. The only thing that came of the emails was that their circulation led to my stepping down.

From all of this I draw two conclusions. First, it might have been avoided if conservatives at universities did not feel so beleaguered. There is a debate about whether free speech has been restricted on American campuses in recent years. I have no doubt it has. Middle-of-the-road students live in fear that a casual remark will be deemed “offensive” or “triggering” and that social media will be unleashed to shame them. Conservative students have to keep quiet or fight a culture war in which they are hopelessly outnumbered.

The other lesson I have learnt is that Uncle Ian was right: I do need to grow up. Student politics is best left to students. So I am putting my tweed jacket back on and retreating to my beloved study. It is time to write another book.

Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford

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