Sunday, December 9, 2007

Republicans on the Fringe in Academe

Robert Maranto, an associate professor of political science at Villanova University, has an interesting article on Republicans in the academy at today's Washington Post. Here's the introduction:

Are university faculties biased toward the left? And is this diminishing universities' role in American public life? Conservatives have been saying so since William F. Buckley Jr. wrote "God and Man at Yale" -- in 1951. But lately criticism is coming from others -- making universities face some hard questions.

At a Harvard symposium in October, former Harvard president and Clinton Treasury secretary Larry Summers argued that among liberal arts and social science professors at elite graduate universities, Republicans are "the third group," far behind Democrats and even Ralph Nader supporters. Summers mused that in Washington he was "the right half of the left," while at Harvard he found himself "on the right half of the right."

I know how he feels. I spent four years in the 1990s working at the centrist Brookings Institution and for the Clinton administration and felt right at home ideologically. Yet during much of my two decades in academia, I've been on the "far right" as one who thinks that welfare reform helped the poor, that the United States was right to fight and win the Cold War, and that environmental regulations should be balanced against property rights.

All these views -- commonplace in American society and among the political class -- are practically verboten in much of academia. At many of the colleges I've taught at or consulted for, a perusal of the speakers list and the required readings in the campus bookstore convinced me that a student could probably go through four years without ever encountering a right-of-center view portrayed in a positive light.

A sociologist I know recalls that his decision to become a registered Republican caused "a sensation" at his university. "It was as if I had become a child molester," he said. He eventually quit academia to join a think tank because "you don't want to be in a department where everyone hates your guts."

Maranto believes that mention of his Republican leanings during a recruiting dinner with a hiring committee knocked him out of contention for the job. He also provides a nice set of statistics on the paucity of Republicans at research institutions, and he shows how ideological narrow-mindedness is stultifying:

All this is bad for society because academics' ideological blinders make it more difficult to solve domestic problems and to understand foreign challenges. Moreover, a leftist ideological monoculture is bad for universities, rendering them intellectually dull places imbued with careerism rather than the energy of contending ideas, a point made by academic critics across the ideological spectrum from Russell Jacoby on the left to Josiah Bunting III on the right.

It's odd that my university was one of only a handful in Pennsylvania to have held a debate on the Iraq War in 2003. That happened because left-leaning Villanova professors realized that to be fair they needed to expose students to views different from their own, so they invited three relatively conservative faculty members to take part in a discussion of the decision to invade. Though I was then a junior faculty member arguing the unpopular (pro-war) side, I knew that my senior colleagues would not hold it against me.

Yet a conservative friend at another university had an equal and opposite experience. When he told his department chair that he and a liberal colleague planned to publicly debate the decision to invade Iraq, his chair talked him out of it, saying that it could complicate his tenure decision two years down the road. On the one hand, the department chair was doing his job, protecting a junior faculty member from unfair treatment; on the other hand, he shouldn't have had to.

Unfortunately, critics are too often tone deaf about the solutions to academia's problems. Conservative activist David Horowitz and Students for Academic Freedom, a group he supports, advocate an Academic Bill of Rights guaranteeing equality for ideological minorities (typically conservatives) and ensuring that faculty are hired and promoted and students graded solely on the basis of their competence and knowledge, not their ideology or religion. That sounds great in theory, but it could have the unintended consequence of encouraging any student who gets a C to plead ideological bias.

Ultimately, universities will have to clean their own houses. Professors need to re-embrace a culture of reasoned inquiry and debate. And since debate requires disagreement, higher education needs to encourage intellectual diversity in its hiring and promotion decisions with something like the fervor it shows for ethnic and racial diversity. It's the only way universities will earn back society's respect and reclaim their role at the center of public life.

Maranto's discussion rings very true in my own circumstances. I became a 9/11 Republican after my own participation on an Iraq panel on March 19, 2003. Since then, I've had open ideological battles with a number of my faculty colleagues. One radical feminist philosopher on my floor turns up her nose and looks askance when passing me in the hallway. This is a woman who I had previously lunched with on faculty professional development days.

I strive for collegiality, but I've staunchly defended the war on campus. We have an International ANSWER cell within my social science division. Labeled the "Campus Progressives," the group sponsors talks by far-left speakers, hosts film screenings of all the hard-left cinematic fare ("An Inconvenient Truth," "Fahrenheit 9/11," "Why We Fight"), and recruits students for revolutionary activism.

Occasionally I find misplaced sociology syllabi in the classrooms on campus, and works like The Power Elite - or others arguing the institutional racism line - form the core readings. They're not balanced by more conservative voices.

I participated in a recent campus forum on the Iraq war. I debated two Marxist professors who argued that President Bush was a "pathological liar" and that the Iraq war was a disastrous failure. I provided point-by-point rebuttals to their every claim, especially noting the dramatic successes of U.S. forces under the new war strategy of General David Petraeus.

Some members in the audience were smiling and shaking their heads in agreement as I confidently deflected the leftist hokum (some of the students had jaws agape when they heard my alternative version of events).

The coverage in my school's campus newspaper wasn't so positive, however, quoting only those lines from the antiwar speakers and dismissing my remarks as uninformed (the paper's a hard-left mouthpiece, and the student reporters have little professional guidance on accuracy, fairnesss, and impartiality). I wrote a post on the experience, here.

I've been encouraged this semester to have the pleasure to teach a number of conservative students. It's heartening to know that some students on campus have more common sense and traditional values than the a few of the professors who are leading them in their classrooms.

I should note, as well, that some of my political science colleagues are conservative, and they serve as faculty leaders in student mentoring programs on campus, myself included.

Keep hope alive!


UPDATE: Well, surprise, surprise, surprise! This entry has hit a nerve with some lefty academics! See Lawyers, Guns and Money: "So Many Anecdotes!"

Regarding my division's philosophy professor who no longer speaks to me, post-Iraq 2003, here's this:

Hard as it may be to believe, there are times when adults - even those who share lunch once in a while - stop hanging out together. And yes, sometimes those personal ruptures occur because one person has exposed himself or herself as an idiot by supporting an ill-conceived war. But unless this "radical feminist" happens to sit on the writer's tenure/review committee; serve as his dean or department chair; or functions in any other way that actually imperils his professional status or future, there's no foul.

I would argue the "idiots" are those who have no clue of the war's justification in international law: Saddam violated the Gulf War truce 1991 and all of its disarmament protocols, including UN resolutions 687 and 689, and the 15 subsequent UN resolutions to enforce them. The last of these, Security Council Resolution 1441, gave Saddam one last chance to disarm, which he botched. The U.S. toppled his regime three months later.

The foul? Backing the Bush/Cheney cabal in Washington!

I've earned the opprobrium of a couple of my campus's most vocifierous Bush-bashers. This feud is common knowlege on my floor and has been the subject administrative review (which I mention as some of the commenters, in their nutty, bashing little innuendo-fest of a thread, are conjuring fantasies of impropriety).

No matter: It looks like "d" at LGM is good at throwing out a few ad hominems in the place of logic. That's an example of the academic style that shortchanges students and narrows the marketplace of ideas on campus - exactly the problem Maranto discussed in his original article (and ignored by the lefty big boys a Lawyers, Guns, and Money).

(P.S. Some of those in the audience "smiling and shaking their heads in agreement " spoke with me after the panel, offering me their congratulations for administering a decisive smackdown. I thanked them, indicating it wasn't difficult.)


UPDATE II: Michael Van Der Galien provides his perspective on the Conservatives in Education debate. Michael deploys his cool-headed reasoning, as usual.

BTW, the link's to Michael's new blog, The PoliGazette. Head on over there and wish Michael good luck!