Liberal Orthodoxy in the Academy: the Exception that Proves the Rule

–Richard E. Vatz

Standing out among expressions that should be counterintuitive is “That’s the exception that proves the rule.”

People mistakenly use this expression to paradoxically claim that an exception to a general proposition in fact validates further the proposition, rather than lessens its claim to be unadulterated truth.

In fact, demonstrated exceptions to rules do lessen their hold on validity. The word “proves” in this expression means “to test.” An exception tests the extent of the truth of the rule.

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I bring this up as an introduction of an exception I personally have experienced to what many — including myself — have depicted as the liberal dominance in higher education.

This alleged dominance implies an omnipresent liberal ethic to the point that conservative views are often censored in university classrooms, university policies and multi-university national organizations.

I have complained about liberal control and discrimination in my National Communication Association, the umbrella organization for communication studies. There, the history has included exclusionary practices against conservatism, such as not allowing articles praising conservative presidents in major journals, convention panels wherein conservatives were excluded, and the presence of serious and humorous disparaging of conservative perspectives with the unstated premise of the superiority of liberal dogma.

The exception that I have personally experienced over the last five years-plus has been a current political rhetorical issues panel, populated by several liberal scholars and me (and sometimes an additional conservative).

These panels, which have regularly been accepted by the Eastern Communication Association (ECA) and the National Communication Association (NCA), have been unique: there have been no such similar panels appearing regularly in either organization. In fact, in the NCA over the past 5 years the creation of major political panels has been assigned to a bright ultra-liberal colleague, who has year after year excluded all NCA conservatives and included only a tiny minority of conservatives from time to time from outside the organization.

Back to my panels: in the 2010 ECA convention – concluded just today – my panel, “The Rhetorical Construction, Conditions and Limitations of Presidential Popularity: the Obama Presidency Examined,” included all of the elements that one could expect in a genuinely respectful academically diverse environment: the powerful presentation of serious left and right perspectives with good, sophisticated humor and a lack of threat perception by one side or the other.

It may surprise the reader to learn that I was in four ECA panels this year that included liberal and conservative perspectives with attendant genuine and respectful academic probing and the ease of unthreatened inquiry. I have never seen four such panels at any meeting of the much larger NCA, but even that organization is improving – slowly but surely (well, very slowly but surely).

This exception proves — i.e., tests — the rule of liberal orthodoxy in academe, at least in my field. It is not only possible but fruitful to have ideological diversity, the diversity that is rarely mentioned in diversity conversations in higher education. All it takes is men and women of good will who authentically believe in the much-vaunted, but rarely supported in academia, “marketplace of ideas.”

Richard Vatz is a professor of Communication Studies at Towson University

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