Conservative Strategies for Reforming the Academy:

Steve Teles weighs in on the Bruin Alumni Association and contrasts competing strategies for conservative reform of the academy. He argues that the "Federalist Society" approach of eschewing bomb-throwing has been more effective at getting conservative ideas legitimated in the legal academy than a more confrontational and combative style, which he refers to as the "Dartmouth Review" strategy (which is the BAA strategy as well). In fact, almost since its inception the Dartmouth Review has been doing teaching reviews similar to that of the BAA, as I'm sure student newspapers do elsewhere as well. (A reminder to interested readers that I was not and am not affiliated with the Dartmouth Review).

Steve's observations generally seem correct to me. But while I find the whole approach tasteless and more than a litte discomfiting, I'm not sure that I can agree that the strategy is counterproductive.

On the other hand, advocates of a more combative strategy might argue that we have both missed the real point, which is the need for fundamental change to the culture of the academy. And, indeed, I have heard some conservatives express the view that one danger of the approach that Teles refers to as the accommodationist or "Federalist Society" approach is that it runs the risk of coopting conservatives into the prevailing establishment, rather than meaningfully changing the establishment itself. (Let me stress that I am not implying here that the Federalist Society has "sold out"--I'm just borrowing Teles's terminology to describe a general type of approach toward the academy). In other words, conservatives are rewarded for their ability to "play nice" within the prevailing establishment, rather than being agents of change of the academy itself. In this view, conservatives are relegating themselves to permanent minority status because they are playing within the establishment structure and accepting the slate of rewards established there. Put otherwise, it is a serious question as to whether those who succeed within the establishment can be counted on to be agents of change of that same establishment, whether by temperament or by self-interest. To the extent that groups such as the Federalist Society simply bestow redundant rewards on those already rewarded by the establishment system, they run the risk of simply replicating the same establishment that they are titularly intended to oppose. The question here is not about whether this is true of this or that particular group, but whether the general approach gives rise to a temptation or general drift in that direction.

Consider an analogy that I have heard advanced in this context--the difference between the Republican Party of the 1970s and 1980s and the Republicans of the 1990s. The former group, led by the "Bobs" (Michael and Dole) were willing to accept the prevailing establishment rules--and permanent minority establishment. Bomb-thrower Newt Gingrich (and others, such as Lee Atwater), by contrast, used a more confrontational strategy and succeeded in overthrowing the establishment. The Bobs, of course, ridiculed the Gingrich types for the belief that either their strategies or their ideas could ever become majoritarian ideas. Gingrich, of course, intended to create an entirely new sort of establishment, a project which Tom DeLay then imperfectly took to the next level (before his fall, of course). And, of course, the new establishment eventually has come to take on many of the trappings of the establishment it supplanted.

An even more interesting question is whether the operation of both bomb-thrower groups such as the Dartmouth Review and BAA in combination with more establishment groups such as the Federalist Society may be an even more potent strategy for change than either strategy working alone. A third strategy is to simply give up on changing the existing system as hopeless and establish a completely alternative network of institutions (a counter-establishment), a position that many have come to support, especially religious conservatives. See, for instance, the rise of the home school movement, alternative universities such as Patrick Henry College, and in law, Ave Maria law school. That whole approach is beyond the alternative options addressed here, although it does seem to be an increasingly commonly-articulated strategy.

Now I'm not implying that the BAA in any way has thought this issue through with any sort of this type of care or strategic vision. But from a purely strategic and pragmatic reckoning it is not obvious to me that if the goal of the leaders of the BAA are to effect a fundamental cultural change of the academy that this is an obviously strategically stupid strategy that will inevitably backfire in the long run. It very well may turn out to backfire, as Steve suggests, but that is not as obvious to me as it seems to be to Steve. As Steve incisively observes, the purpose of strategies like the BAA or Dartmouth Review strategy seems to be to fundamentally delegitimate the entire apparatus of the establishment, much as Gingrinch did to the incumbent leadership in Congress, rather than accept permanent minority status within the prevailing establishment. I think Steve is right about that. The idea, as I take it, is to try to argue that the prevailing norms and self-governance of these institutions are corrupt to the core and should be replaced with a whole new ethos and system of governance (or in the case of the academy, I suppose they would argue "old" norms of less-political faculties).

In this sense, the BAA seems to be a flower from the same branch that has spawned the Academic Bill of Rights--the notion that universities have proven themselves to be incompetent at the task of self-government and that any catalyst for fundamental change is going to have to come from outside the academy. If that is the long-term goal of conservatives, then that is going to be much messier than the comparatively Marquis of Queensbury rules followed by the Olin Foundation and the Federalist Society, as opposed to more bare-knuckle groups like Horowitz's. Whether it is also more effective, is an open question. While I personally disagree with the Academic Bill of Rights, for instance, it is not obvious to me that it has been a strategic blunder for those conservatives who have endorsed it if they are pursuing a long run goal of a fundamental transformation of the American academy.

Steve notes that the "Federalist Society" approach is aimed at persuading fair-minded liberals within the academy of the intellectual merits of conservative and libertarian ideas. The BAA approach, by contrast, seems to be directed at constituencies outside the academy, such as alumni and state legislatures, who may have the power to change the academy from without. With respect to these consituencies, it is not obvious to me that it will be ineffective. Is it implausible that the BAA or similar groups could convince alumni to withhold alumni donations? And if that is the goal, is it obvious that this would not be an effective approach with those constituencies?

So leaving aside questions of taste or legality of the BAA, and viewing matters simply from a tactical level, it is not as obvious to me that it will be as counterproductive to the goals the group's leaders have as it seems to Steve. Indeed, I suspect that the approach will likely turn out to be quite effective with the outside constituencies toward which it is directed.

Again, let me stress that I am not endorsing this argument here and I am not implying that group that pursue an accommodationist approach have "sold out" to the establishment in any way. Teles argues persuasively that the Federalist Society approach may be more fruitful than the "Dartmouth Review" approach. But the counter-argument does not seem patently unreasonable to me for conservatives seeking to reform the academy, however, and it bears some further reckoning before being dismissed. Moreover, by remaining focused on a mission of change and avoiding co-option by the establishment, it is not inevitable that such strategies result in being co-opted. But it does seem like it is a greater temptation for those pursuing such an approach versus those pursuing a conscious counter-culture appraoch (such as the BAA), and it may be that those pursuing such strategies need to be extra-vigilant in ensuring that their tactics advance their long-term strategies, and not be content merely with permanent minority status or replicating the same establishment.

So, as I said at the outset, I find this whole approach more than a little disturbing, even leaving aside the legal issues that Eugene raises. And certainly I fear for the effect it could have on the classroom, especially among students perhaps even more than professors. But while tasteless and disturbing, I suspect that it will be somewhat effective. And, as a result and for better or worse, I expect the model to spread rapidly to other schools as well.


The New York Times reports today that the BAA has withdrawn its offer to pay students for course transcripts in order to save the groups "strident supporters" from possible legal action by the university. The reporter does not state who the BAA's supporters are or how she knows they are "strident." She does report that three members of the BAA advisory board have resigned in the wake of the offer and that group has raised only $22,000.