If you thought that GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum was "out there" with his recent charges that President Obama is a "snob" who wants everyone to go to college as part of a "liberal indoctrination" plot, he has launched into another orbit with an incredible new allegation.
In a radio interview this past weekend with a Michigan talk radio station, Santorum claimed that professors at Penn State -- where he graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1980 -- gave him lower grades because of his conservative ideology:
“I’m very careful about the colleges and universities our children go to,” Santorum said. “There are schools, I went to one — Penn State — that’s one of the liberal icons, unfortunately it’s gotten a lot worse. I can tell you professor after professor who docked my grades because of the viewpoints I expressed and the papers that I wrote, there’s no question that happened.”
“Your grades suffered because of your views at Penn State?” Langton asked
“Absolutely, absolutely,” Santorum said. “I used to go to war with some of my professors, who thought I was out of the pale, these are just not proper ideas. This is not something that’s not unusual, folks, I know this may be a surprise to some people … There is clearly a bias at the university."
Santorum's comments are indeed surprising, but more importantly, they strain credibility. For one thing, the notion that Penn State is "one of the liberal icons" is pretty absurd. He seems to be confusing Berkeley, where students demonstrated for free speech and against the Vietnam War, with Happy Valley, where students rioted after the basketball team lost to Temple.
More importantly, it's hard to believe that Santorum's grades were "docked" -- this is a very serious allegation -- for his conservative views, because numerous students and professors who knew the future pol when he attended Penn State from 1976 through 1980 said that Santorum's early interest in politics was all about strategy and nothing about ideology. Famously, Santorum led the campus campaign for the late Pennsylvania senator John Heinz, a liberal-to-moderate pro-choice Republican (yes, we used to have these). The New Republic recently did the definitive piece on Santorum's years in State College:
And Santorum himself admitted as much to NPR this past May, saying that his early interest in politics wasn't mainly a matter of ideology. "I was generally conservative, I was generally Republican," he said. "But I was more of a political operative than I was someone who had strong convictions about issues."
My own conversations with people who knew Santorum in college support this view. Bob O'Connor — who in 1994 told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "I have never had a student so blindly ambitious" — told me, "He was a very memorable student because he was an unusual one." Even in policy-oriented classes, like American Local Government and Administration, "he didn't ask a whole lot of questions, or talk, about policy and policy positions and what would work best. He did ask an unusual amount about what policies would be more popular, rather than engage in debate about trade-offs, and what would be more effective, and why."
The bottom line is this: If Santorum is to continue making this allegation about Penn State, he needs to present actual evidence. (Just how bad were his college grades, anyway?) Without proof, this whole thing smells like a lie, based on what we know about the candidate and what we know about Penn State. And it also feels like another blatant attempt at manipulating resentment among working class voters -- the work of someone who is still a "political operative," not someone who is serious about ideas.