Alan Kahan was hired into a position at the University of Colorado Boulder that left him cleaning up the mess of his predecessor.
The predicament is more public than most rocky job transitions.
Kahan succeeds John Eastman who served as CU Boulder’s conservative thought and policy scholar while embroiled in investigations over his role advising former President Donald Trump on how to stay in power after losing the 2020 election.
Kahan was appointed the visiting scholar in conservative thought and policy for the 2021-2022 academic year and is reprising the role again for the 2022-2023 academic year. The position is offered through CU’s Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization. Kahan stepped into the job amid controversy over the previous visiting professor, Eastman.
Eastman began his 2020 tenure as CU Boulder’s conservative scholar denounced by Chancellor Phil DiStefano for publishing an essay questioning whether then-Sen. Kamala Harris was eligible to serve as vice president because of her immigrant parents. He ended his term spotlit in national scrutiny with his public duties at CU stripped and his photo on the Benson Center’s website quietly taken down.
Coming into the position occupied by an election denier, who a federal judge said “likely committed crimes” in his efforts to overturn the presidency, Kahan said he had his work cut out for him repairing relationships between the Benson Center and a left-leaning faculty — all while doing his job teaching and hosting lecture series for the center, which stands as a conservative outpost on a liberal campus.
Daniel Jacobson, director of the Benson Center, said neither he nor anyone in the current leadership of the Benson Center was involved in Eastman’s hiring and that Eastman was selected by a faculty committee “comprised of no one who self-identifies as conservative.”
“In my opinion, Eastman is a crank who has espoused crackpot theories and acted irresponsibly, in ways that have harmed the Center,” Jacobson said in an emailed statement. “However, some of the loudest voices at CU and in the press have used Eastman as a pretext to attack the Center for pursuing its mission of bringing intellectual and political diversity to the university. We are proud of Alan Kahan, whose scholarship and temperament represent our vision for this position.”
Kahan — a historian, political theorist and author who teaches at the Université de Paris-Saclay — said he is quite different from Eastman and was encouraged to apply for the position because of those differences.
For one thing, Kahan said he believes Joe Biden is the legitimate president of the United States.
“We do radically different things,” Kahan said, in reference to himself and Eastman. “I’m a scholar, not a political activist. He has a particular kind of practice, which would not necessarily be my cup of tea.”
Kahan earned his Ph.D. in history from the University of Chicago in 1987. He taught at Florida International University in Miami for 15 years before he and his wife moved to France, where he became a professor of British civilization at a French public university for the next 15 years.
Kahan wanted a re-introduction to American academic life and culture. He searched for an opportunity to spend a year in the U.S. and found an opening with the Benson Center. Kahan appreciated the center’s mission.
“In part because of Mr. Eastman, this position has been considered a position for ideologues or people who take an extreme political view,” Kahan said. “That’s not what this position has been about. The Benson Center has not ever been intended to represent one particular party line. It’s always been about intellectual freedom, diversity and heterodoxy, and it has a conservative label but that’s in part because it is conservatives who are the defenders of intellectual diversity.”
Following Eastman’s stint at CU came calls to close the Benson Center.
New Era Colorado, a non-profit with progressive values focused on youth civic engagement, demanded the Benson Center’s closure in June. In April, the group circulated a petition arguing the same.
“The Benson Center serves as a symbol of white supremacy, and it does create a very harmful environment for students with marginalized identities,” said Susmitha Ponnapalli, a 20-year-old CU Boulder student who works as a New Era fellow.
The Benson Center has featured panels ranging from gun control to diversity to Medieval history to free markets. Speakers have included: Mexican president Vicente Fox and Brexit architect Nigel Farage; Charles Murray who argued lower IQ scores of racially diverse Americans were linked to their genetics; and former New York Times opinion writer and editor Bari Weiss.
Kahan knew of Eastman’s “previous antics” when he accepted the position, but was not deterred. Instead, he got to work on damage control.
“When I arrived, there was a great deal of hostility toward the Benson Center on many parts of campus,” Kahan said. “There were departments that told me, no offense, they would not cross-list my courses, so I’ve spent a lot of time building bridges.”
The damage to conservatives done by Eastman extends beyond the Boulder campus, according to 21-year-old Patrick Warnaka, a CU Boulder student and state chairman of Colorado Federation of College Republicans. It’s a problem college campuses are facing nationwide, Warnaka said.
“I don’t think anybody outside some of the most hardcore, fringe members of the Republican Party has a favorable view of John Eastman,” Warnaka said. “He did a lot of damage to the credibility of the Republican movement especially on college campuses because he’s basically the equivalent of a college professor that tried to overthrow a free election. It makes college Republicans look, in the minds of students that are on the fence, just as bad.”
During Eastman’s tenure, Warnaka said, the CU Boulder chapter of College Republicans tried to distance themselves from the Benson Center to show that they did not condone Eastman.
Now, Warnaka hopes to get more involved with the Benson Center as they try to promote the College Republicans chapter in “a more positive light.”
“The stereotype is that Republicans are not intelligent and don’t have a college education,” Warnaka said. “We’re really trying to bring out the perception that you can be educated and be Republican.”
This fall, Kahan is teaching “The European Union and History of Liberalism.” He is experienced in teaching about 19th-century French political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville and why intellectuals don’t like capitalism, he said, and why that can be a flawed perspective.
In 2018, Kahan published “Why Steve Bannon is Not a Fascist” in an academic journal. The article argues criticism of Bannon — recently charged with money laundering, conspiracy and a scheme to defraud for his alleged role in an organization that raised millions to build a private border wall between the U.S. and Mexico — as a fascist is incorrect. Instead, Kahan said, Bannon is in line with “neo-conservatives of the 1960s.” Kahan said he does not defend Bannon’s ideas.
“I’m a perfectly reasonable academic doing perfectly respectable academic things, and it was not my intention to burn down the Capitol,” Kahan said. “I’ve spent a lot of time building bridges. Showing people since I have no hair, I can’t possibly conceal my horns, and I don’t have a tail.”
Once Kahan began conducting outreach to other departments on campus, they “were willing to listen to sweet reason,” he said. He is pleased with how students and faculty have warmed to him.
Politicization of academia
One facet of American academia has horrified Kahan, in particular.
Rumors of the politicization of the American university, which he presumed to be inaccurate, partly drove his interest in teaching in the U.S. again.
“I found it’s not just true, but it’s far worse than what I anticipated,” Kahan said.
For example, Kahan said some CU Boulder faculty will write political email signatures or post their political views on their office doors.
Kahan said it’s clear the campus is left-leaning and that the Benson Center is “a drop in the bucket” when it comes to conservative representation on campus.
Kahan’s conservative students have told him they’re afraid to express their points of view on campus without being penalized.
This attitude, Kahan said, is why some conservatives take issue with higher education as a whole.
“When people repeatedly kick you, you’re apt to get pissed at them,” Kahan said. “Conservatives of any stripe, people who identify as Republicans, when they walk onto a university campus and the people who don’t look like them don’t like them, it’s not surprising that people should feel resentful.”
Overall, Kahan said he’s enjoyed his time at CU Boulder and the opportunity to compare the differences between academia in France and the U.S.
“French students never want to talk,” Kahan said. “They don’t want to be told they’re idiots. American students know nothing and say a lot. From a pedagogical perspective. that’s much better. It’s easier to teach them, to engage them. My students here have been enthusiastic, talkative, ignorant…The writing here is just as bad as it was 15 years ago. No improvement in that regard. But I’ve enjoyed my experience teaching CU Boulder students.”