Karen Heller: Santorum's profs beg to differ

Rick Santorum in his Penn State years. He says his conservatism hurt his grades.
Rick Santorum in his Penn State years. He says his conservatism hurt his grades. (LaVie Board of Directors)
Posted: March 11, 2012

Rick Santorum is not only the first viable presidential hopeful from Pennsylvania in many years, but he's also the first candidate who is a graduate of Penn State.

And how does he thank his alma mater?

By brandishing Happy Valley as "one of the liberal icons. Unfortunately it's gotten a lot worse," he said recently, a description of Penn State that's rarely made.

"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," Santorum said. He added: "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," noting, "There is clearly a bias at the university."

Honestly, hasn't Penn State been through enough?

"I never received a complaint from any students that a professor had downgraded them because they were conservative and the professor was too liberal, or a student was too liberal with a conservative professor," Robert Friedman told me. He served as chair of the political science department in the late 1970s when Santorum was a student. "Any problem he had with his grades had nothing to do with the fact that he was politically conservative."

Penn State wasn't liberal. "I find it amazing that anyone would see this as some kind of a leftist bastion, the Berkeley of Pennsylvania," said Robert O'Connor, who taught or supervised Santorum in four courses.

Santorum campaigned for John Heinz, the late senator whom Friedman deems "a centrist of the old kind that was very common back then in Pennsylvania."

Heinz was the sort of candidate who couldn't win a Republican primary in this state today, as Arlen Specter can attest, and whom the adult Santorum would never support.

"Any problem Santorum had with his grades had nothing to do with the fact that he was politically conservative," Friedman said. "He wasn't a very serious student."

"He was an OK student," noted O'Connor, "not great."

James Eisenstein, like Friedman, had previously taught at the University of Michigan, one of those true "liberal icon" campuses: "I think it was a knock against the integrity of the faculty in our department, as if our main purpose was to convert students into raging liberals. And that's just not correct."

Eisenstein taught Santorum in Intro to American Politics. When Santorum attended Penn State, Eisenstein recalled, the campus was "evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. The student body struck me as sort of apolitical."

After one class, Santorum told Eisenstein, "I want to work for the Heinz campaign on campus, but there isn't one." The professor suggested, "Well, start one."

Santorum asked how to proceed. Eisenstein told him: "Go to the phone book. Call information, get the number for the Heinz campaign in Harrisburg, call them, and tell them what you want to do."

Which Santorum did. "He did a very good job," his professor recalled.

Santorum has recounted a different story about his start in politics. "I was too cheap to buy the New York Times and too lazy to go to the library," he told The Inquirer in 1994, "so I went to the Republican headquarters and the only name I recognized was John Heinz. Either the first day or the second, the coordinator for Heinz came up and said, 'Great, you're president of Students for Heinz.' "

All three veteran, now-retired faculty members were stunned by Santorum's account of the university politics and their department.

"Maybe he believes it, but he doesn't have a very good memory," Friedman said. "He wasn't very conservative."

The real story about Rick Santorum's education is this one: "He was telling a story that isn't true," Friedman said. "It's a fantasy," Eisenstein echoed. "You're in a political campaign and you're dealing with people you can get to applaud if you tell stories about people being indoctrinated and liberal professors, but it's not true."

As I noted earlier, hasn't Penn State endured enough?


Contact Karen Heller

at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @kheller. Read her blog at www.philly.com/blinq.

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