No Student is an Island

Posted: May 31, 2007 12:00 AM
No Student is an Island

Now that we're in commencement season, you may have seen reports of the political tilt at many universities, where Republicans exist as a fringe group and an unusual two-party system -- liberal or radical -- reigns.

The statistics are clear: Surveys of political party affiliation show that Democratic professors outnumber Republicans at least 7-to-1 in humanities and social science departments across the land. That actually underestimates the tilt, because some northern Republicans are not conservative, and some professors eschew the Democrat label because they are further to the left.

After a while, though, stats make eyes glaze over. The larger story is what students face because of the tilt. Here's one previously unpublished episode.

Some 31 years ago, as I was writing my doctoral dissertation at the University of Michigan, the chairman of my thesis committee, Marvin Felheim, was on a leave of absence. That meant he did not know how my worldview had changed as, through God's grace, I left Marxism and rethought my theological and political views. So he was shocked when in spring, 1976, after reading my dissertation draft, he saw that I had become conservative.

Felheim hated that change, and he saw it not as a shift but as a loss of brainpower. Before he read the draft, he wrote a recommendation to potential academic employers that began, "Marvin Olasky has made the most distinguished record of any of our graduate students in recent years. He is a phenomenally good student."

I quote that praise because Felheim retracted it after reading my new work. He resigned from my dissertation committee, and sent me one last note: "Oh, well and all along I thought you were one of our most intelligent students." He could not believe that a smart person would abandon the atheistic left.

This all happened only a month before I was scheduled to take my final doctoral examination. Since Felheim was the chairman of the American culture program in which I was scheduled to receive a Ph.D., other professors did not want to antagonize him -- and in any event, they shared his politics. Desperate, I turned to the history department, which partly overlapped American culture, and the one professor (out of 38 or so) known as a conservative, Stephen Tonsor.

Tonsor had multiple reasons to turn down my emergency request that he not only join my dissertation committee, but chair it. My dissertation was on American politics and film from the 1930s through the 1960s; Tonsor's field was European intellectual history. I had taken no classes from him. We had not even met until I came to him with my strange appeal.

And yet, when I showed him Felheim's bitter letters and the controversial chapters of my dissertation, he quickly agreed to assume the chairmanship. He asked good questions about parts of the thesis and then approved the whole. He guided me through the dissertation defense, where prospective Ph.D. recipients have to field critical questions from other professors. He could not have done better by me had I been his student for years, working through the whole process under his guidance.

The situation at state universities has grown even worse over the past three decades. Taxes (and sometimes contributions) from conservatives continue to build the buttresses of liberal academic cathedrals. The situation isn't as bad as it could be, because some students expect professors to be propagandists and discount what they say, but many experience a slow toxic buildup.

Why did Tonsor, now a professor emeritus, go out of his way to help an unknown? I think he understood what professors who don't bow the knee to Baal owe to one another and to those who will follow. Graduate students often need a professor in their corner, and at times I've been able to pay forward the help I received. One good act leads to more.