MAXWELL:  Academe respects Lieberman for his independent thinking

8/20/2000 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


During last week’s Democratic National Convention, voters learned a few things about Joseph I. Lieberman, Vice President Al Gore’s running mate. As a former university professor who still has occasion to teach, I wanted to know what Academe thinks of Lieberman, where he stands on some of the important issues in higher education.

To begin with, academic leaders give the Connecticut senator high marks _ even when they believe he is wrong. According to a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, academics believe that Lieberman sweats to understand the issues. Perhaps just as important, he has been willing to stand on principle and break with conventional thinking.

Take affirmative action. Until the convention in Los Angeles, Lieberman has not been a friend of university programs that try to compensate for past discrimination. He has called them “patently unfair.”

Here, the Chronicle states, is what Lieberman told the Hartford Courant in 1995: “Polls show that 75 percent of the American people think affirmative action laws have to either be changed or abolished. That doesn’t mean 75 percent are racists. It means they think this is an unfair way to achieve equal opportunity.”

Most admissions officers _ seeking ways to maintain ethnically diverse campuses that resemble larger society _ disagree with Lieberman’s affirmative action position, but they respect his willingness to talk and reason with them.

Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, rails against political correctness in academia. He was the only Democrat, for example, to reject the selection of Sheldon Hackney to lead the National Endowment for the Humanities. He opposed the nomination because Hackney, while president of the University of Pennsylvania, was lukewarm in protecting the free speech rights of conservative students and professors on his campus.

Interestingly, Lieberman and his opponent for vice president, Richard Cheney, have a soulmate in common. Lieberman and Lynne V. Cheney, Richard Cheney’s wife, co-founded the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a group that supports the teaching of Dead White Male _ the Western canon _ and opposes political correctness.

“Speech codes and other attempts to suppress what is not politically fashionable at a given moment in our history simply cannot be tolerated,” he told the Chronicle. “And in our time, they must be stopped.”

Another bold move, one important to university officials, was Lieberman’s campaign to implement visa regulations that would let foreign scholars have an easier time of coming to the United States to teach and conduct research.

Presidents of scientific research institutions, such as Charles M. West of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, praise Lieberman. He, along with Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, spearheaded efforts that greatly increased funding for civilian research over 10 years and that doubled money for the National Institutes of Health over five years.

“Both the senator and his staff have been consistently thoughtful and open to meaningful discussion with the scientific community,” West said in the Chronicle.

Closer to home, Lieberman persuaded American colleges to stop automatically raising tuition each year, which often outpaced inflation many times over. According to the Chronicle, he cautioned fellow senators that attending college has become “a luxury that an increasing percentage of our population cannot afford.” He also called for measures to increase competition among the schools that would lead to lower tuition and other costs.

Many university officials believe, however, that Lieberman, who studied at private Yale University as an undergraduate and as a law student, incorrectly compares tuition at private colleges with that of public institutions. Still, officials respect his earnest attempt to understand the issues.

One of Lieberman’s harshest critics in the tuition controversy is Edward Elmendorf, vice president for governmental relations at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. But listen to Elmendorf’s respect for Lieberman, even as he criticizes the senator: “I like informed leaders who look at the research, rather than those who thrash around and try to figure out what their next move will be.”

Again, academic leaders with whom I spoke believe they can trust Lieberman even while disagreeing with him. They believe that if he becomes vice president, he will give them thoughtful and fair hearings. And having written five books, by the way, Lieberman seems to feel right at home in Academe _ where independent thinking remains an important personal asset.