McCarthyism in Mudville

Or, what passes for academic freedom around my neck of the woods.

I don’t really follow what goes on in local colleges all that closely, partly because my children are still so far away themselves from the college years, and partly because even though this may be a fantasy I should jettison sooner rather than later, I always sort of assumed this would be more of a weigh station than a permanent residence, and that my kids would have their high school years onward in some different part of the country – or at least make their pick of colleges from among a national rather than local list. So I wasn’t following this when it happened, but came across it by chance today in the AJC.

The big local state college around here is Kennesaw State University. Apparently, they’ve been searching for a new Provost, the #2 administrative position, directly underneath the Dean. It’s a prominent position, with a salary of $228,000/yr, so naturally, the selection process was a bit more involved than simply putting an ad in the classifieds of the AJC. Administrators at KSU conducted a nationwide search and, I presume, thorough interview process, before offering the job to Dr. Timothy Chandler, currently an Associate Provost at Kent State University (yes, that Kent State), in Ohio. I have no personal knowledge of either the search committee’s process, nor of Dr. Chandler’s background, but I’m willing to assume prima facie, based on Chandler’s current position and the fact that a university the size of KSU would have knowledge of how to conduct a proper search for such a high-ranking position, that Dr. Chandler is qualified for the position. At any rate, clearly, the search committee thought so as well. They offered Chandler the job, and after deliberation, he accepted. Things appeared set for Chandler to move his family to Georgia and begin a new phase of his career – one which amounted to a promotion from his current position at Kent State.

But a funny thing happened on the way to what should have been a routine appointment. Local politics got involved.

Oh, I don’t mean that any actual issues relevant to Kennesaw or even to Georgia in particular intervened in KSU’s hiring of Chandler. Instead, what intervened was a political philosophy which, while certainly not totally unique to Georgia, has come to be known as rather endemic to not just Georgia, but The South™ in general – to the detriment of the region. For background, since Atlanta is by far the largest city in Georgia, the Atlanta paper, the Journal-Constitution, is correspondingly by far the largest and most authoritative paper in the state. Just as the Los Angeles Times can be bought throughout most of California, so can the AJC be thought of in some senses as “Georgia’s paper.” That’s not to say – also like California – that there aren’t other papers in the state, or that those papers are not worthy of consideration, only that in a state with one major metropolitan area (and newspaper), other papers tend to have a smaller circulation and they tend to take on much more of a local focus and importance than they might in a state without such a clear single-city weighting of population and news.

One such paper, the Marietta Daily Journal (circulation 17,555) featured a column on March 4th – after Dr. Chandler had been offered the Provost position and accepted – entitled “Around Town: KSU’s new colors … black, gold – and red?” And yes, that’s exactly what you think it is: literal, undisguised red-baiting in the pages of a local newspaper, the circulation of which (theoretically) extends to less than a mile from my own house. Cobb County, GA is famously among the reddest counties in an already red state – and among the most conservative in the country. Cobb County is perhaps most recently famous as the launching pad of disgraced former House Speaker, perennial almost-Presidential-candidate and serial philanderer Newt Gingrich. Mr. Gingrich is hardly anomalous amongst Cobb politicians, however. Currently, the county is represented by Tom Price, not exactly noted for his squishy liberalism, and in the past, the general area has featured a succession of far-right politicians ranging from running a candidate (J.B. Stoner) for Lieutenant Governor in 1990 who had been convicted of (and served time for) the bombing of the all-black Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL in 1958, to the neighboring 7th district’s choice of former John Birch Society President Larry McDonald, who represented the seventh district from 1975 until his death aboard Korean Airlines flight 007, which was shot down by Russian fighters in 1983.

In addition to their choice of representatives, Cobb County is also famous for right-wing activism among regular citizens and lower-level local politicians as well, such as the recent attempt by the far-right Cobb County school board to place “disclaimers” on high-school science textbooks warning students that evolution was “just a theory” (a decision which was challenged in court and eventually overturned):

Cobb County textbook evolution disclaimer

Cobb County is also where the Board of Commissioners voted in 1993 to pass a resolution condemning homosexuality (not gay marriage or even domestic partner benefits, homosexuality itself) as inimical to the “values” of the county. I place the word “values” in quotes not because I think it’s meaningless, or even a misused word in context here, but rather to highlight what sort of values are being represented by such a comment, when the area’s chosen representatives run to the likes of serial adulterers, John Birch Society Presidents and convicted church bombers, but where apparently simply being gay is intolerable to the sensibilities and values of the populace. You may remember that specific anti-gay resolution was enough to spark an outraged protest from gay Olympic diver Greg Louganis, who urged the International Olympic Committee to remove the planned volleyball competition from Cobb County in the upcoming 1996 Olympics and avoid Cobb County on the Olympic torch’s planned route to Atlanta – both of the the ICC did.

Speaking of the Olympics, Cobb County was also the home base during 1996 of Centennial Olympic Park bomber Eric Robert Rudolph, who was later wanted for bombing abortion clinics in Alabama and Georgia as well as an Atlanta lesbian bar. And finally, returning to the most notorious claim to fame of Kennesaw proper itself, there’s the famous 1982 ordinance which made the area the first (and then, only) municipality in the country which mandated by law that every household possess a firearm, bullets and the knowledge to use them.

But I digress. You get the idea. My point in this diversion into regional “flavor” and history is to point out that such extreme far-right political stances are not out of the ordinary for this area, by a long shot. So perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that the Marietta Daily Journal objected to neighboring Kennesaw State University’s choice of Provost. Here’s how the MDJ article published on March 4 began:

MARXISM? GOOD.

Capitalism? Bad. Very, very bad.

And the United States? Why, it is “the most violent nation-state in history.”

No, we’re not quoting Nikita Khrushchev or Hugo Chavez. Not Moammar Gadhafi or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Those sentiments and that quote can be found in a lengthy research paper by Kennesaw State University’s new $228,000-a-year provost, Dr. Timothy Chandler of Kent State University, who will be the second-highest administrator and right-hand man to President Dr. Dan Papp.

Standard overblown small-paper journalism, except for the outright McCarthyism. Leave aside your objections that neither Gaddhafi nor Ahmadinejad is on record as opposing capitalism or supporting Marxism (they’re apparently just there to provide some bad-guy red meat), it’s not common to see this level of overt red-baiting in an authentic, published newspaper of any size, at least not since Senator McCarthy strolled off the national stage and into well-deserved ignominy. And never mind the fact that the MDJ had already – as Georgia’s paper of record, the AJC, points out – asked Dr. Chandler the same question used by McCarthy about whether one was now, or ever had been, a member of the Communist party (MDJ used “Marxist,” but the rest of the thrust of the question was the same). Chandler’s answer?

“I am certainly not a Marxist,” he said. “I see it as one way of looking at the world. It’s not the way I personally choose to look at the world. But as an academic I have to be open to a variety of points of view. It’s not my own personal point of view. I would consider myself anything but a Marxist, but I think there’s still good reasons to think about it from a variety of perspectives.”

“….Certainly there are aspects of that paper where we looked through a Marxist lens, and I think that’s perfectly acceptable in academic circles to do that,” he said.

The very model – indeed, a textbook example – of the sort of open-horizoned approach to academics which leads to the best education. Even if one considers oneself (as Dr. Chandler says here) “anything but a Marxist,” it’s idiotic to try to ignore that Marxism exists, and that it was one of the most-influential schools of economic and social thinking of the last 150 years. To express one’s opposition to it by pretending that it doesn’t exist is the antithesis of the sort of exploration and understanding of the world which higher education is supposed to provide students. Chandler’s response above is not defensive, it’s accurate, well-considered and thoroughly moderate in its outlook. Nevertheless, the neanderthals at the MDJ managed, through their turgid and tendentious yellow journalism, to excite the populace of Cobb County (who were already inclined to loathe anything smelling even vaguely of “socialism” and especially of Marx) to raise enough of a stink that Dr. Chandler, after initially reassuring both Dean Papp and the rest of the school hiring board that he had no intention of being chased off by a “red scare” to reconsider his acceptance of the position and withdraw his name from consideration.

Ah, the sweet smell of victory at the MDJ. Smells like (in the words of Tom Lehrer) “jasmine and tear gas.” But what have we (the people who live in and around the Kennesaw area and will conceivably be considering sending our children to a local, (semi-) affordable college) actuallly won? As I said earlier here, I know almost nothing about the background of Dr. Chandler, but judging solely from his answer to the loaded question of whether he was “a Marxist,” I’d say we – the northwest Georgia community around Kennesaw State, have lost – no, have driven away – a broadminded, well-educated administrator who would have been a real “get” for KSU, and ensured that when the board does eventually settle on someone to fill the position Dr. Chandler now no longer wants, that someone will be able to be viewed (in light of the obvious litmus test for the position) by both the residents of the surrounding area and the national academic community, as someone whose chief qualification was holding right-wing views.

Maybe that’s as it should be: if a majority of the residents of this area or any area are in fact somewhere between Attila the Hun and Godzilla on the political ideology spectrum, then shouldn’t their local institutions reflect those leanings? Well, as I showed above, the local institutions (and politicians) already DO reflect the views of the community. And I have no objection to the outcome of the political procss being that I am represented by wingnuts who I wouldn’t even invite to dinner. That’s the way electoral politics works, and I recognize I’m not in the majority here. But although the committed ideologues at the MDJ didn’t do anything at all wrong in the legal sense, and possibly not even in the moral sense, depending upon how you look at it, I can’t imagine that being known as the “right-wing college” does anything but degrade the school’s reputation. And that, in turn, degrades other possibilities for greater things for KSU. I hope the editorial board at the MDJ are happy with their demonstrated ability to flex their muscles and affect the decision-making ability of the local university based on their own ideological proclivities. I just wonder if the loss to KSU is worth the ideological purity.

Then again, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that my views are also in the minority on this question, too, given that this county was willing to go to court to defend their school board’s decision to put “evolution warning” stickers on their public high-school textbooks. Sigh…

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