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A Casablanca for conservatives

Nov 16,2021 - Last updated at Nov 16,2021

AUSTIN — Pity the academic conservative. Having enjoyed tenure at Harvard University, the London School of Economics, and New York University, and now a steady gig at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, the historian Niall Ferguson now plays the victim. He will soon decamp, he lets us imagine, to “a new kind of university — the University of Austin”.

What is the very first thing that Ferguson highlights about UATX? That its founders are “diverse”. To ensure that there is no mistake about the meaning of this word, he follows up: “In 1975, universities everywhere were still predominantly white, male and middle-class. The process whereby a college education became more widely available — to women, to the working class, to racial minorities — has been slow and remains incomplete.

So that is the big problem that mainstream, liberal, conservative-oppressing American universities have been ignoring! It’s great that Ferguson plans to help us out. How will UATX achieve diversity? According to Ferguson, admissions will be strictly by competitive examination, to avoid the “corrupt racket” of college admissions in other places nowadays. But what will the competitive examination examine? He does not say.

Driving the good conservative from the ivied halls are the malign forces of wokeness and cancel culture. Citing a study by the Centre for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology, Ferguson writes that “40 per cent of American social sciences and humanities professors under the age of 40 [support] at least one of four hypothetical dismissal campaigns”, and for PhD students under 40, it’s even worse (55 per cent). As the nonpartisan CSPI states in its mission statement, “In the last decade, white liberals in America have shifted far to the left on issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation.”

That sounds pretty bad. But read the actual study and you will find that just one of the four (actually, five, but who’s counting?) hypothetical campaigns produces the result that Ferguson cites. The other four — dealing with “traditional parenthood”, immigration, diversity, and empire — generated very minor adverse reactions. The one that provoked 43 per cent of the 124 young PhDs sampled in the United States and Canada was a hypothetical about a researcher finding that “having a higher share of women and ethnic minorities in organisations correlates with reduced organisational performance”. The long history of studies trying to show the innate superiority of white men over other groups might, possibly, have accounted for this.

Another terrible problem with top-ranked US liberal arts colleges, Ferguson tells us, is that the professors “with known political affiliations” are “overwhelmingly Democratic”. Apart from the military academies, Republicans are to be found in greater numbers only in lower-ranked institutions.

Now, Ferguson does not suggest that there is anything wrong with the rankings. Instead, he takes this as evidence that better institutions discriminate against conservatives. But if the rankings are accurate, couldn’t that correlation reflect an actual relationship between relatively liberal politics and good liberal arts teaching? Just a thought.

The next great thing about UATX is that it will pay very close attention to its donors. According to Ferguson, regular universities do not do this. As a result, “the capitalist class appears strangely unaware of the anti-capitalist uses to which its money is often put”.

As a critic of capitalism who holds an academic chair in government/business relations, I beg to differ. A great virtue of many American capitalists, to judge by the ones I’ve dealt with, is that they make donations in good faith and then stay politely informed without complaining. What UATX is signaling, then, is that it will be for active donors who want to run the place. This naturally raises a question: If Friedrich Engels were still around, could he endow a chair for Karl Marx?

As for the curriculum, UATX will emphasise such “forbidden” topics as “entrepreneurship and leadership”, and especially the “classical principles of the market economy”. Presumably, that will include David Ricardo’s principle, popularised by Henry George, that all taxes should fall on landlords, and Adam Smith’s dictum that “wealth, as Mr. Hobbes says, is power”. Fine by me. That stuff is already on my syllabus.1

Competition is good (there’s another classical principle for you), and it’s a free country. Fools can dispose of their money however they like. So as an academic in Austin, I say bring it on.

Still, after reading Ferguson’s announcement, I cannot help but hear Humphrey Bogart’s famous words echoing in my ear: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, [he] walks into mine... ”


James K. Galbraith, a trustee of Economists for Peace and Security, holds the Lloyd M. Bentsen, Jr. chair in Government/Business Relations at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. From 1993-97, he served as chief technical adviser for macroeconomic reform to China’s State Planning Commission. He is the author of “Inequality: What Everyone Needs to Know”and “Welcome to the Poisoned Chalice: The Destruction of Greece and the Future of Europe”. 


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