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Do we really want to join big liberal institutions?

By Anonymous on Wednesday, Jul 8 2009

Those of us at Princeton this past June know we missed one little thing on our schedule. In one of the afternoon forums on the academic career, we were supposed to discuss the issue of whether we should aspire to move to better institutions. So many of us, after all, are at the Texas-State San Marcoses of the world. (Sorry, Paul, but your school is my school’s rival, and our rival must always pay.) We never got to the matter, so I think I’d like to take it up a bit here.

It’s a little strange for conservatives to want to join big liberal institutions. What conservative would want to be a higher-up in the Ford Foundation, say, or a mainstay at Riverside Church (friends at NEH notwithstanding)? Maybe there’s a rascal or two in our ranks who would want to shake the places up from the inside, but the general conservative option is to let big liberal institutions flounder on their own, without our assistance or help at reform.

Yet when it comes to universities, we are not so sure. We would rather, in the main, join than fight. Our heroes – justifiably – are such people as Robbie George, Harvey Mansfield, AC Kors, dear Hadley, S Thernstrom, Miss Betsey Genovese, Roy Jastram, and the like. No doubt, these people do and did yeomen’s work in keeping their places sane and responsible. But still – it’s odd that a conservative would want to set as a goal a seat in a big liberal institution.

In the world of work, of course, this is no longer the goal. People with real ambition want to get out of IBM. They want to start companies and, possibly, bring down IBM, if not wholly, then a couple of notches – indeed to get IBM to dance to their tune. This is what happened in American business over the past some 40 years. It used to be the goal to get a seat at the Fortune 500; today, such a goal nearly smacks of copping out! These days, you’re a nobody – you’re a lifer – unless you started your own business.

How much of the entrepreneurial revolution has penetrated the thinking of conservative academics? To be sure, there are conservatives dubious about capitalism, but all on the right are in accord that small is beautiful. The demise of the Fortune 500, and at least the idea of small enterprises is something we all love.

So I ask again: do we really want to join big liberal institutions? Why? So we can make them big conservative institutions? That’s essentially a contradiction in terms. I think we have to start thinking about how to incorporate the idea of the sole practitioner into our vision of what an academic career should be. As for communitas, that can be built up at the schola level in many ways, if one has a mind to it.

My ideas are not specific – but surely the Net is a boon as goes academic entrepreneurialism – but I do want to get the ball rolling. So I want to ask the question again, it’s so stark: do we really want to join big liberal institutions?