Patrick Deneen has just announced that he is leaving Georgetown University for Notre Dame. In my view, he should stay in Washington.
Deneen is the Associate Professor of Government at Georgetown. He is most notably the founder of the Tocqueville Forum, a campus organization that, according to its mission statement, "was founded in 2006 in order to advance a sympathetic knowledge of the United States of America and its roots in the Western philosophical and theological traditions....The aim of the program is to cultivate both good citizenship and good character through intellectual discussion as well as the promotion of an aspiration to a life of virtue."
Professor Deneen is taking a position at Notre Dame because he feels that Georgetown did not support the Tocqueville Forum. Distilled, the basic element in the departure is that Deneen feels that Georgetown, America's oldest Catholic university, is too liberal and too secular.
Deneen wrote a statement, "In the seven years since I joined the faculty at Georgetown, I have found myself often at odds with the trajectory and many decisions of the university....I have been heartened and overjoyed to witness the great enthusiasm among a myriad of students for the programming and activities of the Forum. However, the program was not supported or recognized by the institution, and that seemed unlikely to change. While I did not seek that approval, I had hoped over the years that the program would be attractive to colleagues across disciplines on the faculty, and would be a rallying-point for those interested in reviving and defending classical liberal learning on campus. The Tocqueville Forum fostered a strong community of inquiry among a sizable number of students, but I did not find that there was any such community formed around the conversations it sought to foster, nor the likely prospect of one, among the more permanent members of the university."
He added that without a distinct Catholic mission, "Georgetown increasingly and inevitably remakes itself in the image of its secular peers, ones that have no internal standard of what a university is for other than the aspiration of prestige for the sake of prestige, its ranking rather than its commitment to Truth." Professor Deneen also criticized the bad traffic and what he sees as the lack of community in D.C.
In the interest of full disclosure, I need to note that I myself have been employed by Georgetown for the past two summers. I have taught journalism to high school students for the Summer at Georgetown program in the School of Continuing Studies. It has been a wonderful experience and I have found the administration and faculty first-rate. I also know Dr. Deneen and have spoken at a Tocqueville Forum event.
So I am sympathetic to Professor Deneen's philosophy -- but only up to a point.
He writes that "Notre Dame has recruited me explicitly because they regard me as someone who can be a significant contributor to its mission and identity, particularly the Catholic identity of the institution. Considerations of 'mission fit' has become a criterion for faculty hiring at Notre Dame -- indeed, it was a major consideration in seeking to hire me -- whereas it is generally not a consideration at Georgetown."
Politically conservative intellectuals like Dr. Deneen are correct that most universities are run by liberals. It's often miraculous when conservatives get hired at all considering the odds. But when they do get hired, they should realize that it is possibly going to be a long and lonely tenure. The effort to achieve parity in academia is going to be the work of a couple of generations.
Furthermore, conservatives should strive for parity, not dominance, and should be happy when that starts to happen, however small the progress. A healthy university teaches not just the timeless virtues, but modernism, feminism, the gay rights movement, and popular culture. The important thing is that the professors who teach these things do it with a sense of fairness and honor.
Professor Deneen is known at Georgetown (and elsewhere) as a man of tremendous honor and integrity. His students think very highly of him, even the ones who don't agree with him. At Tocqueville events he makes everyone feel welcome, at least from what I've seen.
Yet there is also a small dollop of the problem that is endemic on the left -- the belief that some ideas are not worth engaging.
A few weeks ago I stopped by the classroom of Michael Eric Dyson, the liberal Georgetown professor who has was in the news last semester for his class on the rapper Jay-Z. I wanted to meet Dr. Dyson because I believe that modern popular music is the poetry of several generations of post-1960s people, and that rock and roll is a vital and deeply spiritual modernist art form.
It's also an example of a conservative blind spot when it comes to popular culture. The right can talk about the evils of communism for hours, but I have yet to hear one talk about the crucial role rock and roll played in bringing down the evil empire. Czech president Vaclav Havel was inspired to fight communism in part because of the way he saw the rock musicians of his country being censored and jailed.
Professor Dyson was being swamped with media at the time, but he could not have been nicer in the brief time we spoke. I only wish we could have talked a lot longer. I found myself wondering, why can't Professor Deneen talk give a lecture to the Jay-Z students about Aristotle, the passions and music, and Dr. Dyson talk to the Tocqueville Forum about the black experience with the virtues and failures of America's Greek and Christian inspired democracy?
Why not? I enjoy being part of a university that has both Patrick Deneen and Michael Eric Dyson. A place of learning should have both. Such a meeting may have produced some of that community Professor Deneen was missing.
Finally, Professor Deneen may not be as alone as he thinks. A colleague of Professor Deneen's is Fr. James V. Schall, the noted Jesuit and articulate master teacher of classic philosophy and the Christian virtues. There are also students who support Deneen. One of them, Stephen Wu, recently wrote a tough piece in the school paper The Hoya about Deneen's departure. "How many students," he wrote, "have read any part of the Summa and could give a reasonable account of Thomistic prudence? Forgetting that, who could name the century in which the man lived and wrote?"
I think just the existence of teachers like Fr. Schall and Patrick Deneen, not to mention students like Stephen Wu, is reason for celebration -- and reason for Professor Deneen to stay at Georgetown.
And not to sound churlish, but as a journalist who has watched his profession shrink and almost disappear, it strikes me that having a well-paying job talking to bright young students about stuff you love, and doing it in one of the most beautiful and culturally charming cities in America, is not such a bad deal.
Few universities are as pretty as Georgetown. And in most of them, there are literally two conservatives -- a dude teaching physics, and the janitor.