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Proving the Critics' Case

Proving the Critics' Case

August 26, 2005

Inside Higher Ed recently reported on four University of Pittsburgh professors critiquing the latest survey suggesting ideological one-sidedness in the academy. According to the Pitt quartet, self-selection accounts for findings that the faculty of elite disproportionately tilts to the Left. "Many conservatives," the Pitt professors mused, "may deliberately choose not to seek employment at top-tier research universities because they object, on philosophical grounds, to one of the fundamental tenets undergirding such institutions: the scientific method."
 
Imagine the appropriate outrage that would have occurred had the above critique referred to feminists, minorities, or Socialists. Yet the Pitt quartet's line of reasoning -- that faculty ideological imbalance reflects the academy functioning as it should -- has appeared with regularity, and has been, unintentionally, most revealing. Indeed, the very defense offered by the academic Establishment, rather than the statistical surveys themselves, has gone a long way toward proving the case of critics who say that the academy lacks sufficient intellectual diversity.

In theory, ideology should have no bearing on how a professor teaches, say, physics. Even so, should responsible administrators worry that the overwhelming partisan disparity is worthy of further inquiry? And, in theory, parents who make their money in traditionally conservative professions such as investment banking or corporate law probably do not encourage their children to enter academe. Yet, as money-making fields have always been attractive to conservatives, why has the proportion of self-professed liberals or Leftists in the academy nearly doubled in the last generation?

Had members of the academic Establishment confined themselves to such arguments (or had they ignored the partisan-breakdown studies altogether), the intellectual diversity issue would have received little attention. Instead, the last two years have seen proud, often inflammatory, defenses of the professoriate's ideological imbalance. These arguments, which have fallen into three categories, raise grave concerns about the academy's overall direction.
 
1. The cultural left is, simply, more intelligent than anyone else. As SUNY-Albany's Ron McClamrock reasoned, "Lefties are overrepresented in academia because on average, we're just f-ing smarter." The first recent survey came in early 2004, when the Duke Conservative Union disclosed that Duke's humanities departments contained 142 registered Democrats and 8 registered Republicans. Philosophy Department chairman Robert Brandon considered the results unsurprising: "If, as John Stuart Mill said, stupid people are generally conservative, then there are lots of conservatives we will never hire."
 
In a slightly different vein, UCLA professor John McCumber informed The New York Times that "a successful career in academia, after all, requires willingness to be critical of yourself and to learn from experience," qualities "antithetical to Republicanism as it has recently come to be." In another Times article, Berkeley professor George Lakoff asserted that Leftists predominate in the academy because, "unlike conservatives, they believe in working for the public good and social justice, as well as knowledge and art for their own sake." Again, imagine the appropriate outcry if prominent academics employed such sweeping generalizations to dismiss statistical disparities suggesting underrepresentation of women, gays, or minorities.
 
These arguments become even more disturbing given the remarkably broad definition of "conservative" employed in many academic quarters. Take the case of Yeshiva University's Ellen Schrecker, recently elected to a term on the AAUP's general council. This past spring, Schrecker denounced Columbia students who wanted to broaden instruction about the Middle East for "trying to impose orthodoxy at this university." The issue, she lamented, amounted to "right wing propaganda."
 
The leaders of the Columbia student group, who ranged from registered Republicans to backers of Ralph Nader's 2000 presidential bid, were united only in their belief that matters relating to Israel should be treated objectively in the classroom. Probably 98 percent of the U.S. Congress and all of the nation's governors would fit under such a definition of "right wing."
 
Indeed, it seems as if the academic Establishment considers anyone who does not accept the primacy of a race/class/gender interpretation to be "conservative." To most outside of the academy, such a definition would suggest that professors are using stereotypes to abuse the inherently subjective nature of the hiring process.

2. A left-leaning tilt in the faculty is a pedagogical necessity, because professors must expose gender, racial, and class bias while promoting peace, "diversity" and "cultural competence." According to Montclair State's Grover Furr, "colleges and universities do not need a single additional 'conservative' .... What they do need, and would much benefit from, is more Marxists, radicals, leftists -- all terms conventionally applied to those who fight against exploitation, racism, sexism, and capitalism. We can never have too many of these, just as we can never have too few 'conservatives.'"

Furr's remarks echoed those of Connecticut College's Rhonda Garelick, who decried student "disgruntlement" when she used her French class to discuss her opposition to the war in Iraq and teach "'wakeful' political literacy." Rashid Khalidi, meanwhile, rationalized anti-Israel instruction as necessary to undo the false impressions held by all incoming Columbia students except for "Arab-Americans, who know that the ideas spouted by the major newspapers, television stations, and politicians are completely at odds with everything they know to be true."

To John Burness, Duke’s senior vice president for public affairs, such statements reflect a proper professorial role. The "creativity" in humanities and social science disciplines, he noted, addresses issues of race, class, and gender, leading to a "perfectly logical criticism of the current society" in the classroom.

At some universities, this mindset has even shaped curricular or personnel policies. Though its release generated widespread criticism and hints from administrators that it would not be adopted, a proposal to make "cultural competence" a key factor in all personnel decisions remains the working draft of the University of Oregon's new diversity plan. Columbia recently set aside $15 million for hiring women and minorities -- and white males who would "in some way promote the diversity goals of the university ." And the University of Arizona's hiring blueprint includes requiring new faculty in some disciplines to "conduct research and contribute to the growing body of knowledge on the importance of valuing diversity."

On the curricular front, my own institution's provost, Roberta Matthews (who has written that "teaching is a political act") intends for the college's new general education curriculum to produce "global citizens" -- who, she commented, are those "sensitized to issues of race, class, and gender."

Given such initiatives, it is worth remembering the traditional ideal of a university education: for faculty committed to free intellectual exchange in pursuit of the truth to expose undergraduates to the disciplines of the liberal arts canon, in the expectation that college graduates will possess the wide range of knowledge and skills necessary to function as democratic citizens.

3. A left-leaning professoriate is a structural necessity, because the liberal arts faculty must balance business school faculty and/or the general conservative political culture. University of Michigan professor Juan Cole, denouncing the "ridiculous and pernicious line" that major universities need greater intellectual diversity, complained about insufficient attention to the ideological breakdown of "Business Schools, Medical Schools, [and] Engineering schools." UCLA's Russell Jacoby wondered why " conservatives seem unconcerned about the political orientation of the business professors." Duke Law professor Erwin Chemerinsky more ambitiously claimed that "it's hard to see this as a time of liberal dominance" given conservative control of the three branches of government.

Professional schools reflect the mindset of their professions: Socialists are about as common on business school faculty as are home-schooling advocates among education school professors. But, unlike business schools, liberal arts colleges and universities do not exist to train students for a single profession. Nor are they supposed to balance the existing political culture. If the Democrats reclaim the presidency and Congress in the 2008 elections, should the academy suddenly adopt an anti-liberal posture?

The intellectual diversity issue shows no signs of fading away. Ideological one-sidedness among the professoriate seems to be, if anything, expanding. And so, no doubt, will we see additional surveys suggesting a heavy ideological imbalance among the nation's faculty -- followed by new inflammatory statements from the academic Establishment that only reinforce the critics' claims about bias in the personnel process.
 
In an ideal world, campus administrators would have rectified this problem long ago. A few have made small steps. Brown University's president, Ruth Simmons, for instance, has expressed concern that the "chilling effect caused by the dominance of certain voices on the spectrum of moral and political thought" might negatively affect a quality education; her university's Political Theory Project represents a model that other institutions could follow.

To my knowledge, however, no academic administration has made the creation of an intellectually and pedagogically diverse faculty its primary goal. This statement, it should be noted, applies equally as well to institutions frequently praised by conservatives, such as Hillsdale College. Such an initiative, of course, would encounter ferocious faculty resistance. But it would also, just as surely, excite parents, donors, and trustees. If successful, an institution that made intellectual diversity its hallmark would encourage imitation -- if only because other colleges would face the free-market pressures of losing talented students and faculty. So, the question becomes, do we have an administration anywhere in the country willing to take up the cause?

Bio

KC Johnson is a professor of history at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.

 

 

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