Joan Vennochi

Conservatism 101

Republicans are making inroads at a traditional liberal stronghold: the Ivy League

By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / February 13, 2011

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LAST NOVEMBER’S shake-up could be shaking up the liberal Ivy League.

This semester, Brown University is offering a new course on political conservatism. The university said the course is unrelated to current events and reflects Brown’s commitment to “broad-based academic inquiry and intellectual exploration.’’

But the fact that the Leadership Institute — a group dedicated to increasing “the number and effectiveness of conservative students, activists, and leaders in the public policy process’’ — sent out a congratulatory press release reflects another reality.

Conservatives believe they won at least a tiny beachhead in a sea of academic liberalism. With help from the Leadership Institute, similar courses are now offered at American University and the University of Virginia. Coincidental or not, the course in conservatism comes to Brown as power shifts from Democrats to Republicans in the House of Representatives and the Tea Party agitates to redirect the country’s political conversation to the right.

The independent study course — Modern Conservatism in America: Conservative Thought in the 20th Century — was designed by five students in collaboration with Steven G. Calabresi, a visiting professor of political science with a high profile in conservative legal and political circles. Calabresi, a Northwestern University law professor, co-founded the Federalist Society, the nation’s leading forum for conservative and libertarian thinking about the law and its impact on public policy. He also served in the Reagan and first Bush administrations, advised Attorney General Edwin Meese III and wrote speeches for former Vice President Dan Quayle.

Terrence George, a Brown sophomore who helped put the course together, said it “isn’t meant to indoctrinate anybody, but to inform people about a perspective they would not hear about.

“The history of intellectual conservatism at Brown is a history denied,’’ he declared.

Brown’s Dean of the College Katherine Bergeron doesn’t see it quite that way. “There is a preponderance of progressive thinking on this campus,’’ she acknowledged. “But conservative students sit side by side with progressives in an environment that fosters’’ openness to ideas such as this course offering.

Bergeron pointed to the Janus Forum Lecture Series as an illustration of Brown’s commitment to open discourse. According to the university website, an upcoming lecture will address the impact of legalizing gay marriage; one of the speakers is Maggie Gallagher, a well-known conservative who opposes it. But beyond the lecture series, Bergeron could not cite any previous courses that specifically address conservative principles.

Conservatives have long complained about the lack of intellectual diversity in courses taught in American universities. In the preface to his book, “Indoctrination U. The Left’s War Against Academic Freedom, ’’ David Horowitz writes: “Ideas that oppose left-wing orthodoxy — opposition to racial preferences, belief in innate differences between men and women, or, more recently, support for America’s war in Iraq — are regarded as morally unacceptable or simply indecent. The proponents of such ideas are regarded as deviants from the academic norm, to be marginalized and shunned.’’

To George, who also heads Brown’s Republican Club, this most liberal of Ivy League schools can be an intellectually lonely place for conservatives. There are members of the Republican Club who don’t tell fellow students of their affiliation, he said, because their peers think “you can’t be an intelligent and compassionate person’’ if you’re a conservative.

“There are some people who do believe that being a conservative means you support the Iraq War and hate gay people,’’ said George. “I think that’s unfortunate. I aim to snuff that thinking out.’’

No political party or philosophy is entirely monolithic. But the conservative agenda does include a commitment to lower taxes, reduced government regulation, resistance to environmentalism, support for military intervention overseas, the right to bear arms, tough anti-immigration policies, and opposition to abortion and gay marriage.

All those topics are worthy of academic debate, especially since more Americans describe themselves as conservative versus liberal. A Gallup/USA poll taken last June showed that 42 percent of those surveyed identify as conservative; 35 percent as moderate; and 20 percent as liberal.

Perhaps it’s liberals who really need to take courses like this, to better understand conservative thinking and how to counter political reality beyond the Ivy League.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at