Thanks to conservative author David Horowitz’s recent lecture at the
University of Texas, I have new hope for radical political organizing on
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 decades.
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
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
I am not so naïve 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 same freedom.
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 in trouble.
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