Readers of FrontPage are by now well aware that our universities are among the most ideologically uniform institutions in modern American life. In the past year, a series of studies have confirmed the long-held and widespread perception that American faculties are dominated by one side of the political spectrum.
Let’s look at the statistical evidence. A recent study by Stanley Rothman, S. Robert Lichter, and Neil Nevitte found that 72 percent of professors teaching at American universities are liberal (by their own description) and 15 percent are conservative. At elite universities, the ratio was 87 percent to 13 percent. Rothman, Lichter, and Nevitte also found that “religiously observant Christians are disadvantaged in their placement in the institutional hierarchy, after taking their professional achievements into account.” In a separate study, Daniel Klein and Charlotta Stern found that on average faculty in six major humanities disciplines voted Democratic by a ratio of 15 to 1.
Why does this disparity exist? The academic establishment offers different explanations, including a (now famous) statement from Robert Brandon, Chair of Duke University’s philosophy department: “We try to hire the best, smartest people available . . . If, as John Stuart Mill said, stupid people are generally conservative, then there are lots of conservatives we will never hire.” To be fair, however, Brandon’s explanation is not typical. More common are responses like that of Roger Bowen, General Secretary of the AAUP. Responding to Daniel Klein’s study at an American Enterprise Institute event, Bowen said:
I’ve been a department chair, I’ve been a college president. I’ve conducted more searches than I can begin to describe, and I can tell you I have never asked a candidate what his or her party identification is, and I don’t know of a search committee in the country that would do that.
If there is no discrimination on the basis of party affiliation, then what is the explanation? Bowen suggests self-selection:
Anthropologists, which apparently according to the study, Democrats far outnumber Republicans. What do they do? Anthropologists, the discipline itself is focused on questioning religious and cultural myth, particularly myth that celebrates national, cultural or racial superiorities. That in many classrooms will be a shocker for a lot of students.
Sociologists tend to inquire on the origins of inequality as a source of alienation. New concepts to many college students that will seem, I imagine, given illustrations using the American example, rather shocking.
Political scientists, they focus on questions of legitimacy....
Historians, they look at progress frequently in terms of overcoming inequalities of the past, sometimes inequality is endorsed, even embraced by conservatives.
In other words, because the academic disciplines themselves are by definition hostile to conservative viewpoints and prejudices, it is natural and logical for conservatives not to demonstrate much interest in joining, say, an anthropology or history department. By this line of reasoning, someone who defends, studies, or explains perceived national or cultural superiorities isn’t really studying “anthropology,” and a person who dedicates himself to the tactical and strategic nuances of “island hopping” during World War II isn’t exactly a “historian.” With the disciplines thus redefined, self-selection naturally follows.
There is another explanation: ignorance and prejudice in the academy. At the AEI seminar, Bowen countered Daniel Klein’s empirical study with the anecdotal evidence of his own experience. Yet the anecdotes run both ways. I spent two years as a lecturer at Cornell Law School. During my second interview with the director of the program I was applying to join, she asked the following question: “I note from your CV that you seem to be involved in religious right issues. Do you think you can teach gay students?” How many gay applicants at Cornell have been asked: “Do you think you can teach Christian students?” The question (coming from someone I came to deeply respect and admire) came not malice but from ignorance – both of the legal standards governing hiring and of the beliefs of evangelical Christians.
Nor was my experience with ignorance and prejudice limited to faculty hiring. One of the most disturbing aspects of my experience at Cornell Law School was the year I spent on the school’s admissions committee. I saw a Christian student once almost get rejected despite tremendous academic qualification because members of the committee were wary of his “God-squadding” and “Bible-thumping.” He was admitted only after I raised strong objections to the committee’s obvious anti-religious prejudice. I also saw some Latino and African-American candidates receive less affirmative action assistance because their perceived politics or career interests (such as an interest in finance) were deemed “less diverse” than other applicants with an obvious interest in “social justice.” Moreover, some applicants of color who indicated interest in the world of commerce were said not to have “taken ownership of their racial identity.”
Yet all of this discussion of discrimination begs the question: Is intellectual diversity in higher education a good thing? Do different viewpoints matter? I found myself particularly persuaded by the following argument:
A diverse educational environment challenges [students] to explore ideas and arguments at a deeper level, to see issues from various sides, to rethink their own premises.
We learn when shaken by new facts, beliefs, experiences, and viewpoints. The student assimilates the new data so that they fit the existing conception, or revises the conception to accommodate the new data. (Emphasis added).
Who said this? The comments above come from the AAUP’s own amicus brief in the case of Gratz v. Bollinger. The comments, however, relate to racial diversity, not intellectual diversity. Does the AAUP believe different viewpoints are valuable only when accompanied by different skin colors? Or is a broad range of ideas on campus a good thing by itself? Our own experience – and the history of our nation and culture – demonstrates that it is.
No one should seriously suggest that disparities between left and right should result in new forms of viewpoint discrimination – discrimination designed to artificially boost conservative scholars. Instead, the response of the academic establishment to intellectual uniformity should be greater openness, an embrace of the rights of dissent (even from the academic party line), and a serious commitment to scholarly exploration from all sides of the thorny issues of our time. Intellectual diversity follows a truly free and open culture like the day follows the night. As it is, however, many Americans (particularly those who seek to teach) look at elite higher education from behind a glass wall. There are no visible barriers to entry, but the age-old combination of viewpoint discrimination, ignorance, and prejudice keep many people on the outside looking in . . . looking and wondering why the academic establishment’s oft-stated commitment to “diversity” and “tolerance” does not include respect for their identity or their ideas.
David French is the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.