Monday, March 21, 2005

Cry Me a Tenure

Russell Jacoby has a great essay in The Nation about the newest fad on campus: conservatives whining that they are under-represented on the faculties of the nation’s colleges and universities.

Conservatives complain relentlessly that they do not get a fair shake in the university, and they want parity–that is, more conservatives on faculties. Conservatives are lonely on American campuses as well as beleaguered and misunderstood. News that tenured poets vote Democratic or that Kerry received far more money from professors than Bush pains them. They want America’s faculties to reflect America’s political composition. Of course, they do not address such imbalances in the police force, Pentagon, FBI, CIA and other government outfits where the stakes seem far higher and where, presumably, followers of Michael Moore are in short supply. If life were a big game of Monopoly, one might suggest a trade to these conservatives: You give us one Pentagon, one Department of State, Justice and Education, plus throw in the Supreme Court, and we will give you every damned English department you want.

Conservatives claim that studies show an outrageous number of liberals on university faculties and increasing political indoctrination or harassment of conservative students. In fact, only a very few studies have been made, and each is transparently limited or flawed. The most publicized investigations amateurishly correlate faculty departmental directories with local voter registration lists to show a heavy preponderance of Democrats. What this demonstrates about campus life and politics is unclear. Yet these findings are endlessly cited and cross-referenced as if by now they confirm a tiresome truth: leftist domination of the universities. A column by George Will affects a world-weariness in commenting on a recent report. “The great secret is out: Liberals dominate campuses. Coming soon: ‘Moon Implicated in Tides, Studies Find.'”

The most careful study is “How Politically Diverse Are the Social Sciences and Humanities?” Conducted by California economist Daniel Klein and Swedish social scientist Charlotta Stern, it has been trumpeted by many conservatives as a corrective to the hit-and-miss efforts of previous inquiries by going directly to the source. The researchers sent out almost 5,500 questionnaires to professors in six disciplines in order to tabulate their political orientation. A whopping 70 percent of the recipients did what any normal person would do when receiving an unsolicited fourteen-page survey over the signature of an assistant dean at a small California business school: They tossed it. With just 17 percent of their initial pool remaining after the researchers made additional exclusions, some unastounding findings emerged. Thirty times as many anthropologists voted Democratic as voted Republican; for sociologists the ratio was almost the same. For economists, however, it sank to three to one. On average these professors voted Democratic over Republican fifteen to one.

[…]

The notion that faculties should politically mirror the US population derives from an affirmative action argument about the underrepresentation of African-Americans, Latinos or women in certain areas. Conservatives now add political orientation, based on voting behavior, to the mix. “In the U.S. population in general, Left and Right are roughly equal (1 to 1),” Klein and Stern lecture us, but in social science and humanities faculties “clearly the non-Left points of view have been marginalized.” This is “clearly” not true, or at least it is not obvious what constitutes a “non-Left” point of view in art history or linguistics. In any event, why stop with left and right? Why not add religion to the underrepresentation violation? Perhaps Klein, the lead researcher, should explore Jewish and Christian affiliation among professors. A survey would probably show that Jews, 1.3 percent of the population, are seriously overrepresented in economics and sociology (as well as other fields). Isn’t it likely that Jews marginalize Christianity in their classes? Shouldn’t this be corrected? Shouldn’t 76 percent of American faculty be Christian?

[…]

More leftists undoubtedly inhabit institutions of higher education than they do the FBI or the Pentagon or local police and fire departments, about which conservatives seem little concerned, but who or what says every corner of society should reflect the composition of the nation at large? Nothing has shown that higher education discriminates against conservatives, who probably apply in smaller numbers than liberals. Conservatives who pursue higher degrees may prefer to slog away as junior partners in law offices rather than as assistant professors in English departments. Does an “overrepresentation” of Democratic anthropologists mean Republican anthropologists have been shunted aside? Does an “overrepresentation” of Jewish lawyers and doctors mean non-Jews have been excluded?

Higher education in America is a vast enterprise boasting roughly a million professors. A certain portion of these teachers are incompetents and frauds; some are rabid patriots and fundamentalists–and some are ham-fisted leftists. All should be upbraided if they violate scholarly or teaching norms. At the same time, a certain portion of the 15 million students they teach are fanatics and crusaders. The effort, in the name of rights, to shift decisions about lectures and assignments from professors to students marks a backward step: the emergence of the thought police on skateboards. At its best, education is inherently controversial and tendentious. While this truth can serve as an excuse for gross violations, the remedy for unbalanced speech is not less speech but more. If college students can vote and go to war, they can also protest or drop courses without enlisting the new commissars of intellectual diversity.

I’ve never been able to fathom where the right-wingers get off crying about Political Correctness Run Amok when their solution seems to be a gerrymandered faculty that would conform to political correctness but on their terms.

The students at colleges and universities are, ostensibly, adults. Most of them are old enough to vote and therefore we assume that they’re old enough to think for themselves and challenge different points of view. Where does the right-wing get off assuming that students who disagree with their professors — whether they’re liberal or conservative — are too stupid or too weak in their convictions to stand up for what they believe? College is supposed to challenge your beliefs; how else are you going to learn something new?

This whole argument, as Mr. Jacoby points out, is based on the fact that conservatives, no matter how many branches of government they control (all of them at the present time), how many Wall Street firms they run (most of them), or how many SCLM outlets they own (all of them), they’re still worried that somehow they’re not really entitled to whatever it is they think they deserve, and it really bothers them. And well it should.