A hiring spectacle playing out at the University of Colorado (CU) demonstrates the futility of trying to reform our corrupt state universities from above.
The CU board of regents was searching for a new university president. Their preferred candidate turned out to be Mark R. Kennedy, who currently heads the University of North Dakota. Prior to taking the North Dakota job, Kennedy served as a Republican member of Congress for six years. His voting record was mainstream Republican — conservative, but not hardcore.
When the regents selected Kennedy as their sole finalist, the faculty, students, and hangers-on who frequent the CU’s Boulder campus responded with petitions and protests. They insisted the regents should reject him.
They objected to Kennedy’s congressional votes for gun rights. They disliked his low grades from the national teachers’ union. They complained that he opposed taxpayer-supported embryonic stem cell research. They said he was insufficiently committed to “diversity,” the euphemism academia applies to its political and ethnic spoils system.
The protesters were particularly horrified by Kennedy’s congressional vote for a constitutional amendment affirming the traditional definition of marriage. In opposing same-sex marriage, Kennedy — like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama at the time — was in sync with the teaching of all cultures and religions throughout history. In fact, during Kennedy’s congressional tenure, the Coloradans who ultimately pay for CU soundly endorsed the traditional definition in a referendum.
But the truth is that political and religious views on issues like same-sex marriage and abortion are not relevant to a university administrator’s job. In any decent academic environment, the regents and Kennedy would have so informed the protesters. Indeed, religious and political tests are rarely, if ever, appropriate in state universities supposedly devoted to academic freedom. And applying such tests may violate the protections in the First Amendment.
But there is little decency in academia these days. Kennedy felt compelled to issue a sniveling “open letter” fully displaying the testicular deficiency expected of a modern college administrator: His views on same-sex marriage, he said, had “evolved.” (He now favored it.) In North Dakota, he wrote, he had worked to support the “LGBTQ+ community.” He had become “passionate about advancing diversity.”
Thus, Mark Kennedy had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.
The response from two of the University Regents, a Republican and a Democrat, was almost as pathetic. In defending their decision they explained how Kennedy had won their hearts: He “spoke with us at length about his current support for same-gender marriages, how he worked productively with the LGBTQ community … and that he supports diversity.”
The Kennedy story shows how deeply ingrained political and religious discrimination has become in university hiring. It is literally impossible for a principled conservative to be employed in many academic jobs today because no principled conservative could accommodate himself to the “diversity” spoils system. Indeed, academic hiring notices commonly list support for that spoils system as an absolute job qualification.
It is also literally impossible for traditional Christians, Muslims, and orthodox Jews who take their religion seriously to qualify for many academic positions. They will invariably flunk the litmus test on abortion, same-sex marriage, or both.
This situation is utterly intolerable — not just because it is screamingly unfair, but because the intolerance and intellectual narrowness under-girding it will destroy American universities as credible centers of learning. Yet the Kennedy story illustrates the futility of trying to reform universities from above.
If top-down reform worked, the University of Colorado would be a different place. For many years, it has been (nominally) governed by (nominally) Republican regents and presidents. It has adopted rules against political discrimination in hiring. In recognition that public dollars pay for liberal and socialist dogma at CU, the regents have acceded to private funding of a program on conservative thought.
Nevertheless, in the first real test, these top-down reforms proved useless. Even a Republican regent felt it necessary to justify hiring a person partly because his views on same-sex marriage had “evolved.”
Real reform will require that state universities be partly or wholly privatized, scaled down in size, subjected to more market competition, and limited to educational services the market cannot deliver. And they will have to reject federal grants that skew campus political life.
Robert G. Natelson is a long-time constitutional scholar who has written extensively on federalism and on the Constitution’s meaning. He is senior fellow in Constitutional Jurisprudence at the nonprofit Independence Institute in Denver.