The fracture threatening the Republican Party as the Trump era comes to a close is playing out on the University of Colorado's Boulder campus, where the school's visiting conservative scholar has faced sharp blowback for his efforts to contest the presidential election.
The founding director of CU's Bruce D. Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization, designed to be a stronghold for conservative views at a left-leaning academic institution, calls the appointment of John Eastman a "failure," and says it's become harder to draw intellectual conservatives to the university in recent years.
"What the center is trying to do to foster thoughtful civic dialogue is hard to do in the current environment," said Robert Pasnau, a CU philosophy professor who served as the Benson Center's director from 2011 to 2019. "Conservative thought is in crisis right now, and it's not easy to find those sorts of thoughtful, positive conservative voices and bring them to campus.
"We've had a lot of successes," he said. "The center has had failures. … If we can't do better than we've done this year, then we'll have to rethink things, clearly, but I'm hoping this will prove to be an aberration and the center will get back on track and continue to make positive contributions to campus."
The contentious relationship between conservatism and higher education highlighted by the fallout over Eastman did not develop overnight, burgeoning, instead, over decades of messaging, experts say, and amplified during the highly-partisan Trump era.
CU's leaders have walked a tightrope in handling Eastman following the visiting professor's appearance at the Trump rally that preceded the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, accusing him of spreading "repugnant" and baseless conspiracy theories about election fraud — but stopping short of firing him .
Instead, the campus stripped Eastman of his public duties and canceled his spring courses due to low enrollment. He's allowed to "perform scholarship" for the remainder of his appointment as the Benson Center's 2020-2021 visiting scholar of conservative thought and policy, for which he is being paid a privately funded $185,000 salary.
Eastman told The Denver Post he is being silenced by public officials who ought to know better.
"I'm rather astounded by the overt retaliation for the exercise of my constitutionally protected First Amendment rights," Eastman said. "Public universities like the University of Colorado that have as part of their own mission statement an anti-discrimination policy to not discriminate on the basis of political affiliation or political viewpoints… they need some real soul searching or maybe legal challenges to their utter disregard of those claims."
Some on campus fear the mission of the Benson Center has been usurped by a visiting professor who sought to help overturn the results of an American presidential election. The student president of CU Boulder's College Republicans said Eastman made conservatives like him ashamed to admit their political affiliations. And Eastman's home university announced an immediate retirement plan for the legal scholar following the attack on the Capitol.
But CU's leadership declined to discuss Eastman. Daniel Jacobson, the Benson Center's current director, joined CU President Mark Kennedy, Boulder campus Chancellor Phil DiStefano and the members of the Board of Regents in declining interview requests from The Post. (DiStefano cited his recent COVID-19 diagnosis.)
Kennedy and the regents issued statements supporting DiStefano's handling of the matter.
"The Benson Center is doing exactly what we intend for it to do — providing a forum for free speech, informed discussion and diverse viewpoints," the regents said in their statement. "Our students and state are the beneficiaries of its good work. It is unfortunate that the actions of Mr. Eastman distract from that."
Working with Trump
Eastman takes issue with his condemnation by DiStefano , who accused the professor of spreading misinformation that fanned the flames and contributed to a mob of Trump supporters violently storming the Capitol.
"That's patently false," Eastman said, instead claiming the organizers of the violent mob were members of antifa — something federal authorities have said there's no evidence to support . "There's a legal standard for incitement… nothing I said or the president said even remotely get close to that standard."
The New York Times also reported Eastman was in the Oval Office with President Donald Trump the day before the Capitol riot, arguing to Vice President Mike Pence that Pence had the power to block certification of Joe Biden's Electoral College victory
"That's a false story, too," Eastman said, arguing that he told Pence the vice president should delay — not block — the proceedings and allow state legislatures to investigate any illegally cast electoral votes.
Eastman also represented Trump in a short-lived lawsuit filed by Texas and 17 other states asking the U.S. Supreme Court to block four key states from finalizing Biden's electoral victory. The high court rejected the suit.
Supporters of CU's visiting conservative thought and policy role said Eastman is a poor steward of the vision to expose the liberal Boulder campus to thoughtful conservative ideals.
Eastman countered that he's exactly what the position claimed to be.
'The position… was seeking a high profile, highly visible scholar and practitioner in conservative thought and policy, and my roles included teaching classes, organizing a lecture series of very prominent academics… and engaging in community outreach — all of which I did," Eastman said. "In my personal time I was asked to represent the president of the United States before the Supreme Court. That's certainly a reflection of my national reputation and qualifications — the very thing they hired me for."
Benson Center beginnings
The Benson Center started out as a small endeavor in the early 2000s, championed by Republican regents as a program to improve students' knowledge of American history and the country's founding principles.
Then-President Bruce Benson advocated for the Western Civilization concentration to grow into what it is today: a program hosting visiting faculty, scholars in residence, CU faculty fellows and CU graduate student fellows with events and discussions largely providing a platform for conservative viewpoints, study or debate.
The privately-funded program also has hosted nine visiting conservative scholars since 2013 to teach, study and organize discussions centering conservative ideology and debate.
In an interview with The Post, Benson said he disagreed with Eastman — but supported his right to free speech.
"Everything in life does not turn out perfect and rosy," Benson said of Eastman's appointment. "If you've got a couple glitches along the way, I don't get terribly upset."
During 2019-2020, the Benson Center awarded $10,999 in grant funding to 10 undergraduate and graduate students, as well as 26 faculty grants totaling $33,175. Nearly 470 students were enrolled in one of 16 courses taught by six visiting scholars, a 33.3% increase in courses offered and a 20.6% increase in enrollment from the year prior.
The conservative thought and policy scholars are chosen by a search committee with five voting members made up of four tenured CU Boulder faculty in political science, economics, philosophy and history, and one additional faculty member. There also are five external non-voting advisory members. The committee makes a recommendation to the center's director, who then works with university leaders to make a recommendation for hiring subject to the provost's approval.
The center has featured panels on topics from gun control to diversity to Medieval history to free markets. Speakers have included: Mexican president Vicente Fox and Brexit architect Nigel Farage ; Charles Murray who argued lower IQ scores of racially diverse Americans were linked to their genetics; then-editor of conservative magazine National Review Reihan Salam; and former New York Times opinion writer and editor Bari Weiss.
"You've got the faculty overrun with the liberal point of view," said Benson, who stepped down last year after 11 years at CU's helm. "Diversity of thought is what I believe in. Free speech and all points of view are important because you don't learn anything if all you hear is one echo chamber."
Conservatism vs. higher education
A 2019 Pew Research Center survey found only half of American adults think colleges and universities are having a positive effect on the country.
Americans surveyed who said colleges had a negative effect increased by 12 percentage points since 2012, coming almost entirely from Republicans and independents who lean Republican. From 2015 to 2019, those who said colleges had a negative impact on the country went from 37% to 59% among this group. The views of Democrats and independents who lean Democratic have remained largely stable and overwhelmingly positive over the same time period, Pew research found.
"Conservatives are being blocked of having a positive view of higher education," Eastman said. "When other conservatives are observing what I'm going through now, is it any wonder?"
These tensions between conservatism and higher education aren't new.
To understand their roots, Joshua Wilson — a University of Denver professor who studies American conservative politics — said one can look to the rise of conservatism from the 1950s or even further back when Christian conservatives began worrying that sending their children to college pulled them away from religion.
Wilson pointed to figures like William F. Buckley Jr. , one of the founding engineers of the conservative movement and a Yale graduate, whose 1951 book "God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of 'Academic Freedom’" criticized the prestigious university for secular ideologies and liberal values.
Ronald Reagan partly launched his career by taking aim at the University of California, Wilson said, running on a campaign promise to "clean up the mess in Berkeley" following student activism on the college campus.
"It's a weird tension between attacking higher education as this symbol of an institution dominated by liberals but also wanting to create spaces within those institutions for conservatives because you still need institutions of higher education," Wilson said. "Higher ed was seen as this bastion of the left, and it's baked in the basic story of modern conservatism."
"Tough to be an intellectual conservative these days"
The modern conservatives who have occupied CU's conservative scholar positions or who have been invited to speak may not have stirred a national controversy like Eastman, but Pasnau admitted that "Eastman is not our first failure."
Another conservative scholar who drew negative headlines was 2013's Steven Hayward, criticized for writing a blog post during his time at CU titled "Off On a Gender-Bender," in which he expressed discomfort following a faculty orientation about gender identity and mocked the LGBTQ community, according to Boulder's Daily Camera newspaper .
Pasnau said academics have told him they would love to be a visiting scholar at CU, but are unwilling to sign up under the conservative label even if it fits their politics.
"It's tough to be an intellectual conservative these days," Pasnau said. "The Republican position seems to have positioned itself in opposition to science, to learning, to facts, and so if you'd like to think of yourself as a conservative, but also think of yourself as a scholar, it's kind of hard to keep those two things together.
"It's a challenge to find people who are willing to represent themselves as a part of the conservative movement within the academic world," he said.
Eastman argued that the notion that conservatives are anti-intellect and anti-fact is absurd.
Francis Beckwith was up for the challenge Pasnau described, holding the conservative scholar position for the 2016-2017 academic year.
In a Jan. 7 email to the center's director that Beckwith provided to the Post, Beckwith said he and two former CU visiting scholars agreed Eastman should not have been involved in Trump's post-election litigation because Eastman should have been focused on being an academic rather than participating in partisan politics.
"I intentionally shied away from the rough and tumble of electoral politics, since I saw myself in a position of leadership in a community that has within it some who were skeptical of the projects in which I was engaged," Beckwith wrote. "As for the substance of Eastman's arguments, they are embarrassing. What happened in the Capitol (on Jan.6) is the consequence of men and women like Eastman — who surely know better — peddling false hope to desperate people based on the diabolical lies of a congenital fabulist. If that's conservatism, then I'm a cultural Marxist."
Learning from mistakes
Joey Fratino, president of the CU College Republicans, also denounced Eastman's participation in the pre-mob Trump rally, lamenting that Eastman made it harder to be a conservative on campus.
"Now people think of these few hundred people at the riot and think they're crazy, and it makes it harder for us to show ourselves and makes us less willing to identity as Republican," Fratino said.
Fratino, who has taken Benson Center courses, said he has experienced discrimination in other CU classes for his conservative views. The 20-year-old recounted a history class in which he stopped himself from participating in a discussion about the Second Amendment, fearing retaliation after his professor made negative comments about the right to bear arms.
"I really hope that the program focuses more on the regular conservative… on free market, liberty and values the Republican Party used to exhibit prior to Trump," Fratino said. "I wish the school would have done a better job in vetting him, because this professor does represent conservatism at CU."
Pasnau said there is room for disagreement as to whether a program like the Benson Center is the Eastman antidote, but that he's certain the people now running the center have learned from their mistakes.
"You have to have the hope that there are ways of being a conservative that are not hostile to science and to inquiry," Pasnau said. "It's the mission of the Benson Center to try to articulate a form of conservatism that is sympathetic to inquiry and science and truth. The center is going to have to rebuild a level of trust and legitimacy on campus, and it can only do that by showing the decisions it makes that it's back on the right track."
Eastman is not so sure, noting that he expressed his conservative viewpoints on a national stage and, in exchange, the university stripped him of his duties.
"The whole point of the Benson Center was to bring a conservative voice to a campus largely bereft of it," Eastman said. "If even they are touting the view that conservatives no longer belong in higher education, it seems to have outlived its purpose."
- Why the Right’s Principled Populists Will Lose
- Donald Trump claims revelation Hunter Biden is under federal investigation will convince Supreme Court justices to overturn the election because 'Biden administration will be scandal plagued mess for years to come'
- Supreme Court rejects Texas bid to overturn election results in four states
- Sarah Palin Returns to the Movement She Started in Georgia Runoff Campaign
- The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Congress faces end-of-year crunch; Biden selects his Defense secretary
- 2020 Election Live Updates: Arizona certifies President-elect Biden’s win — by nearly 10,500 votes — over Trump
- "You have one job, Joe"
- What to know about the top female judges being mentioned for SCOTUS
- 2020 Election Live Updates: Supreme Court rejects bid by Trump allies to overturn election results
- The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - COVID-19 vaccine moves ahead. Congress? Not so much
- Mike Pence: A profile of the ex-Indiana governor playing on strong Republican credentials
“Failure” of John Eastman appointment shines spotlight on CU Boulder’s conservative Benson Center have 2721 words, post on www.denverpost.com at January 24, 2021. This is cached page on Talk Vietnam. If you want remove this page, please contact us.