Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Perils of Professor (and President) Newt

Newt Gingrich declared in 1995, “I am the most seriously professorial politician since Woodrow Wilson.” If Gingrich wins the Republican nomination, we will see the first presidential contest fought by ex-professors in American history. But if Gingrich wins, what would his presidency mean for higher education? Gingrich's history as a professor certainly doesn't make him a supporter of higher education.

Gingrich was hired in 1970 as an assistant professor of history at West Georgia College, but he clearly had bigger ambitions. Within a year, he applied to be president of the college. A bid to become chair of his department also failed, so Gingrich turned to politics and took an unpaid leave to run for Congress in 1974. Gingrich lost then, and again in 1976. In the meantime, he was moved to the Geography department, and coordinated a new program in Environmental Studies.

Although some media outlets have reported that Gingrich was denied tenure, the facts are not known. According to a spokesperson from West Georgia University, “The personnel records we have on Gingrich, because they are so old, are incomplete, so it is not clear whether he sought tenure and was denied or never sought tenure.” However, it's clear that Gingrich never did academic research and showed little interested in winning a tenured position, and he left the college in 1977 before finally winning a seat in Congress in 1978.

One reason why Gingrich may have lost interest in academia was the lack of money. He never made more than $15,400 a year, and his idea in 1973 to start an institute and make money as a consultant selling services to local public schools was shot down by campus officials.

In 1977, when Gingrich's academic job was ending, a group of Gingrich's donors gave him $15,000 (that's over $50,000 in today's dollars) for a family vacation in Europe. They did it under the guise of Nomohan, Ltd., a limited partnership created solely to invest in Newt's proposal to write a futuristic novel which he would “research” in Europe. The man who organized Gingrich's novel vacation deal, his friend Chester Roush, received more than $12.6 million in federal subsidies for his real estate ventures in the 1980s, and Gingrich twice intervened with Reagan Administration officials to make personal appeals for his friend to receive government money. For a man who was paid to research a futuristic novel that was never published, getting money from wealthy donors was always a priority.

In the early 1990s, Gingrich came up with a scheme to return to the role of professor and teach a course called “Renewing American Civilization” that would be transmitted via satellite to a national audience with the aim of helping Gingrich expand his political influence. Gingrich started up the nonprofit Progress and Freedom Foundation to promote the course and raise money. Gingrich wrote to College Republicans across the country, declaring that the goal of the course was to define the future and “to explain that future to the American people in a way that captures first their imagination and then their votes.”

Gingrich concealed his explicitly political goals in order to get the non-profit group approved by the IRS, and the plan approved by the House Ethics Committee. Gingrich had helped Tim Mescon (dean of the Kennesaw State College School of Business) solicit consulting contracts from the federal government for the Mescon Group, so Mescon invited him to teach the class there. (Because state law prohibited elected officials from serving as state employees, Gingrich could not be paid for the class, so the money was used to hire a marketing staffer for the course.)

To help pay the annual $250,000 satellite fees for the course, Gingrich engaged in a vast scheme of product placement and influence peddling. Course donors were told that if they gave $50,000 they could be “sponsors” of the course and would be able to “work directly with the leadership of the Renewing American Civilization project in the course development process. (Donors who gave $25,000 or $10,000 would only have the opportunity to “influence” the course.)

A May 10, 1993 from one of the course's staffers reported that Richard Berman, a lobbyist for Employment Policies Institute (a restaurant trade group) offered to give $25,000 “if the course can incorporate some of the ideas” that “entry level positions are not necessarily dead end.” When Berman's $25,000 check arrived, it included the note about the information he'd provided: “I'm delighted that it will be part of your lecture series.” And Berman added a handwritten note at the bottom of his $25,000 letter, “Newt, Thanks again for the help on today's committee hearing.” In the course, Gingrich praised one of Berman's biggest clients, Chili's founder Norman Brinker, showing a promotional video made by his company to the class: “Whether it's his beloved game or polo or his magical success in business, Norman Brinker simply does not know how to lose.”

In return for donations to the Progress and Freedom Foundation to support the course, Gingrich often did favors. Ten days after the Georgia Power Co. gave $7,500 in 1994, Gingrich wrote a letter to the Securities and Exchange Commission on the company's behalf.

After faculty at Kennesaw State objected to a course devoted to promoting a politician's career, Gingrich was forced to move the course to Reinhardt College, a small private school. But Gingrich's willingness to put the content of a college course up for sale to wealthy bidders showed his regard for higher education. To Gingrich, a university classroom was simply a tool for expanding his influence and helping him achieve his ultimate goal of becoming the president of the United States.

Since being forced out of his job as Speaker and resigning from Congress in 1998, Gingrich has continued to see higher education as a tool for politics. Because he regards colleges as too liberal, Gingrich wants to cut off funding and impose ideological control over them.

In a Feb 28, 2005 speech at the American Enterprise Institute, Gingrich responded to a question about Ward Churchill with this answer: “Jefferson basically said every generation needs its own revolution. One of the revolutions we need is on campuses.” Gingrich called for imposing political control over colleges, abolishing tenure, and reinstating loyalty oaths: “I think we have to say to state legislatures, why are you putting up with this? Boards of regents are artificial constructs of state law. Tenure is an artificial construct of state law. So you could modify, you could introduce a bill tomorrow morning to modify tenure law to say, proof that you’re viciously anti-American is automatically grounds for dismissal. And it would be over.” Actually, Gingrich's proposal went far beyond the McCarthy Era loyalty oaths, since he wanted to fire professors who espoused ideas that he deemed “anti-American.”

The differences between Newt Gingrich and Barack Obama as teacher is stark. Professor Obama (whose class on “Race, Racism, and the Law” I took at the University of Chicago Law School) was a consummate listener, a professor unusually interested in hearing what his students thought, and encouraging them to develop their own point of view. Professor Gingrich (whose “Renewing American Civilization” class videotapes I watched while researching my book about him) is the embodiment of the self-obsessed lecturer, someone entranced with his own bountiful fountain of ideas and largely uninterested in hearing the criticism of others.

During his current campaign for president, Gingrich has said that “higher education should become dramatically more productive and less expensive.” But he strongly opposes direct student lending, and wants to return to the era of government-guaranteed loans that cost taxpayers billions every year while adding to the profits of banks.

Newt Gingrich was a failure as a professor, and he now leads attacks on higher education and academic freedom. Ironically, Gingrich's intellectual pretentions might be his downfall among the anti-intellectual base of the conservative movement today, which denies the science of global climate change and views all former academics with suspicion. But if Gingrich is elected president, his contempt for academic freedom and tenure, and his view that the content of college courses should be influenced by corporate donors, would indicate a dark future for higher education in America.

John K. Wilson is the author of Newt Gingrich: Capitol Crimes and Misdemeanors (Common Courage Press, 1996). Crossposted at Academe Blog.

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