On a campus where professors are seldom reticent to share their political views, Ken Mayer stands out for being meticulous in keeping his personal politics to himself.
Mayer is a scholar who studies the American presidency and he teaches a course in that subject in the Political Science Department. He goes so far as to ask his students at the end of each semester to tell him if they can discern his partisan leanings. He reports that most of them say they can’t.
I can vouch for that. I’ve been a casual acquaintance of Ken’s for many years. I don’t know how he votes.
So, it’s ironic that a couple of years ago Mayer found himself the center of controversy for allegedly showing bias against President Trump. In his course syllabus he noted that Trump is a controversial figure who has destroyed norms of political behavior. That’s hardly a revelation or a matter of factual dispute or personal interpretation. In fact, Trump himself revels in it. Yet, one of Mayer’s students raised a ruckus about that language in the syllabus.
That student even got herself on Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News. Mayer found himself pummelled on social media and in emails. His life was even threatened. Never mind that even the campus Young Republicans took Mayer’s side.
For his part, Mayer, probably wisely, didn’t engage publicly with the student or his unhinged critics at the time. Now, he’s decided to speak out a bit more as Trump leaves office.
In an interview with the Wisconsin State Journal, Mayer said, “What I’ve always told students is I have an obligation to be nonpartisan and neutral but I also have an obligation to be truthful.”
And that’s the gist of this whole thing. Is it possible to be both neutral and truthful? Of course it is, but in this highly polarized environment everyone seems ready to go nuts at the slightest provocation.
The central question is, what is a fact? Take this remarkable quote in the same news story from Dave Murphy, the Republican chair of the Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities, who called on Mayer to be removed from teaching his course when the controversy erupted.
“It’s really hard when there’s hardly anything you can read or hear that you can count on as being factual,” Murphy said. “Nowadays, everybody’s so far apart and calls each other’s facts junk that it ends the discussion. There’s no principles or facts we can base the discussion on.”
Sorry, Chairperson Murphy. Verifiable facts do exist. Trump and his minions in your party have become untethered to facts almost entirely. Trump has made baseless assertions on a daily basis and his lies have been routinely ignored or echoed by his followers. His denial of the legitamacy of the November election was the worst of it. Not only was there no evidence of widespread fraud or inaccuracies, but his continued denial of those facts has served to undermine the basic institutions of our democracy and has led to the riot that tore through our nation’s Capitol.
To be fair, I think the assertion that there is a liberal bias on most campuses is probably true. It’s just that Mayer is exactly the wrong guy to use as a poster child for that argument. A trend toward viewing ideas that are not in keeping with liberal orthodoxy as being harmful to students was well documented in the 2015 book The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt.
(A recent survey of UW Madison students also found a willingness to silence voices that were deemed unacceptable, but that survey seemed flawed to me. For example, it asked if students would ban “hate speech.” Well, even advocates for maximum openness like me might have answered in the affirmative. But, of course, that’s pretty much meaningless because what counts is how hate speech is defined and who gets to define it.)
One thing I find truly dangerous and troubling is the view on the far left that basic liberal values like free speech and the presumption of innocence need to be trampled in the cause of social justice.
Mayer might share my concerns about the left. Or maybe not. I’m not sure. But whatever his view I’m certain it will be based on facts and reason.