UNL, Conservatism, and the Alt-Right

December, 2017

Lincoln -- Many years ago our family had a pet dog. My wife found him as a puppy in Arizona on an Indian reservation while she was attending a community college there as a German foreign student. We thought of him as an "Urhund," with lines perhaps going back to coyotes and dingos.

When people asked what kind of dog he was, suspecting a mongrel, I answered definitely not, that he was a special dog, incorporating the very best traits of several different breeds. He lived a long, healthy, happy life.

So it is with many, if not most, people's political views. People often are not pure-bred liberals or conservatives, but can be conservative on some issues and liberal on others. And even proud of it. It makes for a healthy body politic.

Which is why the current, right-wing and alt-right effort to describe the University of Nebraska-Lincoln as a place hostile to conservatives is misguided. Just as there are individuals who comfortably hold both conservative and liberal views, so too do institutions have departments with faculty of both persuasions. Many of those faculty are themselves reconciled to holding competing ideological views internally, being human like everyone else.

Moreover, anyone who knows UNL well, knows that conservatism is deeply embedded in the institution.

• The Board of Regents is customarily dominated by conservatives; presidents and chancellors are picked for their compatibility with conservatism, if they are not always outright conservatives themselves.

• The institution is a land-grant university with a long tradition of close ties to agri-business interests. The Cooperative Extension Service of the university has never totally broken off from the Farm Bureau, the most conservative of agricultural interest groups.

• The UNL East Campus layout is now oriented around large, imposing, well-executed statues paying homage to four conservatives who served as U.S. Secretaries of Agriculture: Clayton Yeutter, Mike Johanns, Clifford Hardin, and J. Sterling Morton. Yeutter was also chairman of the Republican Party; Hardin served in the Nixon Administration; Johanns was a Republican governor and senator. Morton, famous tree-planter, was a Bourbon Democrat and, truth be told, a Copperhead-sympathizer and racist. He published The Conservative magazine for four years in an ideological battle with William Jennings Bryan's The Commoner, which was unabashedly progressive.

• On the UNL City Campus, the social science departments are engaged in battles over the epistomological virtues of quantitative versus qualitative methodologies, which are argued with more passion than old-hat liberalism versus conservativism. The English department makes an effort at so-called Social Justice studies, associated by some* with a liberal, progressive outlook, but there is no statue of Weldon Kees or Grace Abbott in front of Andrews Hall.

• The English department is best known for being the home of the literary journal Prairie Schooner and having a pre-eminent Cather Studies faculty. That would be Willa Cather, Republican, although doubtless her art transcends politics and ideologies. (Now would be a good time to re-read The Professor's House, better to understad the faculty mind.) Not long ago I was in the basement archives of Love Library where my only fellow researcher was mining a rich trove of Cather documents.

• The last time I was in the UNL College of Business, before it moved to its new building, I was approached by young representatives of Koch Industries, who were handing out green popcorn balls and literature extolling the virtues of the Koch company. If I were a conservative student, perhaps I would feel at home or maybe even a little uneasy about the presence of not just conservatives, but the very source of funding for so much of the alt-right agenda.

The university president, Hank Bounds, and the UNL chancellor, Ronnie Green, deserve commendation for their strong words in defense of the university, replying to the right-wing and alt-right attacks against it for supposedly being hostile to conservatives. Chancellor Green especially has been put in an untenable position for having tried to placate three right-wing state senators who demanded the firing of an English department instructor, a graduate student herself who called another student, in an open forum area, a "neo-fascist" for passing out buttons and shirts with the message "Big Government Sucks." Such language. Makes one long for the days when the Dean of Women would intervene, not members of the Nebraska legislature.

But fire her he did, and now the chancellor is in trouble with the American Association of University Professors and a new right-wing group, FIRE, whose mission is to make campuses safe for free speech, especially alt-right speech. His dilemma and picture are national news, on the front page of The Chronicle of Higher Education.

One sympathizes with the president and chancellor for not being able to speak what must really be on their minds, and that is to tell the three state senators that their talents are badly needed elsewhere. Courage is needed to fix Nebraska's broken correctional system, along with other messes in state code departments directly under their control. And help is especially necessary to get Nebraska out of the cellar economically, Nebraska currently having the nation's worst performing economy. Do they understand that the agricultural sector is failing, and Nebraska state government may be in a revenue crisis for years to come? Or is that happily part of the alt-right plan to starve the beast, the university?

The president and chancellor can't say or ask such things, but how about the UNL faculty? If there was ever a time for faculty to step up, it is now.

*Social Justice studies, with their attention to identity politics, are not so popular anymore with Democrats and Progressives who lament losing a presidential election, fought in part on identity issues. Others, like me, do not hold justice so high in the heirarchy of values. See earlier post on Justice and Mercy.