February 16, 2004

A Pox on Both Houses, or Conservatives in Academia (again)

It’s Punch and Judy Show time, with academic blogs trading knocks over the question of whether conservatives are discriminated against in academia. Let me once again go over some of the important complexities that seem to me to be absent from most of the discussion.

1. Different disciplines and units, at different scales of institutions, are fairly non-comparable when we’re talking about existing distributions of political or social views. The humanities are not the same as the business school or the law school.

2. No one is ever asked, bluntly, in the humanities what their political affiliation is at the time of hiring. The discussion of the “politics” of a candidate in history or anthropology has never, in my own experience, involved any speculation about political affiliation. If there is a conversation about “politics”, it is likely to be about much more arcane, disciplinary arguments, about what specialization or methodology a person uses. I’ve occasionally heard someone pronounce this or that methodology or form of scholarship “reactionary”, but that’s a highly mobile epithet and can be applied to almost anything, including ideas and forms of practice that are highly, intensely leftist on the general map of American political life. To ask whether someone was a “Democrat” or even a “leftist” or “liberal” (or “conservative”) in a discussion of hiring would be like confessing that you’re the village idiot—it would seem a hopelessly unsophisticated way of thinking.

3. That’s not to say that someone who was identifiably a conservative or libertarian wouldn’t be in for some rough sailing in some academic disciplines, both at hiring or afterward. I was and remain surprised at how reluctant many people participating in this discussion are to just say, “Yes, in some disciplines, an identifiable conservative may be treated very poorly”. Most importantly, in most of the humanities there’s a default assumption that everyone around the table more or less broadly can be classed as a liberal, and a certain stunned incredulity when someone departs from that assumption. It is very, very hard to have certain conversations or advocate particular views that are held more widely in the public sphere in some departments or disciplines. I find that as I take increasingly contrarian positions on some of these kinds of issues that it is harder and harder to find a context where I can profitably converse with them about colleagues.

4. On the other hand, collegiality is a powerful cultural force in many colleges and universities, and its stultifying or comforting effects (take your pick) often have nothing to do with politics in any sense. A conservative or libertarian who is a mensch about his or her views and research may well be admired, even beloved, by liberal or left colleagues, and fondly regarded as valuable because of their views. On the other hand, someone like Daniel Pipes who is running around picking broad-brush fights with everyone whom he perceives as a bad academic, usually based on a paper-thin reading of their syllabi or even just the titles of their research, is going to be loathed, but as much for his behavior as his political views. A liberal or leftist who plays Stalinist Truth Squad in the same way is going to be equally loathed and avoided. I’ve seen departments where everyone treats a particular person as a “politicized” pariah even though the political views of that person are exactly the same as the general distribution in the department, and it’s entirely about strident, personally confrontational, abrasive, self-aggrandizing behavior. Now it may be that conservatives, having been sneered at, are more inclined, almost out of necessity, to go on the offensive, and create a feedback loop in the process. But the mode of action is more important than the views.

5. Along the same lines, ostensible political views and intellectual temperment may not map well onto each other. Tempermentally, most academics are highly conservative in the (Edmund) Burkean sense: they tend to oppose any change to their own institutions and they tend to argue strongly in favor of the maintenance of core traditions and practices. Many of the critiques of academic life circulating in the blogosphere now have less to do with the party affiliation of academics and more to do with this tempermental leaning, and the behaviors or attitudes which are justifiably seen as troubling would be no different if the party affiliations or political views of academics were changed, barring major changes to the nature of the institution. Magically turn everyone in the humanities into Republicans tomorrow, and they’d still exhibit all the behaviors that everyone is complaining about. Indeed, some of the conservative critics of academia seem to me to be actively campaigning for just this option.

6. Why do conservatives care about the humanities at all? The answer might be that for both the cultural right and left, the humanities or more broadly, mass culture, are an important alibi for explaining their failure to outright win the culture wars of the past twenty years. Rather than asking, “What about our views is just not appealing and may never be appealing to the majority of Americans”, they would prefer to assume that those views would be appealing if not for some partisan interference in the natural course of events. For the cultural right, higher education in general and the academic humanities in particular are the boogeyman of choice, to which I can only suggest that they’re vastly, gigantically overstating the possible influence of those institutions. I think the same thing is thought about mass culture in the other direction. In both cases, there’s a systematic effort here to avoid thinking the unthinkable thought, that maybe, just maybe, the majority of people have thought about your view of things and they just don’t like it, for good and considered reasons.

7. If conservatives aren’t going into academia, they’re not going into it well before they could be discriminated against. That means that conservatives should not casually ignore the possibility that there are market-rational reasons that conservatives don’t go into many fields (especially since it seems to be a compliment to them ).

Now add some new points about the latest wave of discussion on this issue:

8. Quick reads of syllabi and specializations are very lousy ways to decide what someone’s partisan politics or even general political philosophy might be, for a lot of reasons.

9. Being intolerant towards your students is different than being intolerant in hiring decisions. A student reporting intolerant asides or behavior in the classroom by a teacher is not evidence of systemic discrimination in hiring or training practices. This is a different kind of problem, a pedagogical flaw that may include behavior that is not especially or notably political, but that is simply about the failure to run a classroom which generates multiple possible outcomes and nurtures critical thought. Pedagogies which narrowly reproduce ossified orthodoxies are a common problem in academic life, and will remain a problem regardless of the party affiliation of academics.

10. Your party registration is not much of a guide to the way you actually act on your political views in an institutional environment. I have known people who are intensely active in a political party but where you’d never guess what their affiliation is from their scholarship or pedagogy. I’ve known people who could care less about formal politics who talk nothing but ideology in the classroom. In general, everyone in this discussion is failing to leave room for the professionalism of academics, which is often the most powerful determinant of their behavior.

11. The entire class of people with postgraduate degrees skew significantly Democratic in registration: it’s worth asking how much academic departments differ from this general proportion. Granted, when you hit 100%, as with Duke's Department of History, you're obviously different from the general population of people with Ph.Ds, but I wonder how much so. (Extra bonus point: can anybody guess my political affiliation? Hint: Swarthmore's History Department is not 100% registered Democrat.)

12. Kieran Healy rightfully observes that conservatives talking about this issue are making an interesting exception to their general tendency among conservatives to assume that results in the market are probably based on some real distribution of qualifications rather than bias or discrimination. It might be fair to assert in response that academic hiring is a closed or non-market system, and this is precisely what is unfair about it. But if so, it requires that one demonstrate that there is a class of potential, qualified individuals who are being discriminated against at the time of hiring, or that these individuals are being discriminatorily weeded out at the time of initial acceptance for training. If not, then the argument that conservatives are being discriminated against in academic hiring practices is exactly comparable in its logics and evidence to the logic of most affirmative action programs and many other antidiscrimination initiatives, that there is a subtle systemic bias which is producing unequal results that prevents a “normal” sociological distribution of candidates in particular jobs. It behooves conservatives who want to claim this to either concretely explain why this argument only applies to conservatives in academia, or to repudiate the standard conservative argument against affirmative action and other public-policy programs designed to deal with subtle bias effects.

13. On the other hand, most of the people mocking or disagreeing with the claim that conservatives are treated poorly in academia seem to me to be equally at odds with many standard representations of bias effects that are widely accepted by liberals or leftists, namely, that bias is often subtle, discursive, and institutionally pervasive, and that “hostile environments” can exist where no single action or statement, or any concrete form of discrimination can be easily pointed to as a smoking gun. Most of those claiming a bias against conservatives in academia are pointing to exactly these kinds of hostile-environment incidents and moments, and seeing them as causing the same kinds of psychological and inhibitory harms that this type of discrimination is said to cause in other contexts. I accept that people edging away from you in an elevator is a type of bias-effect that is harmful—an often cited instance of the kinds of subtly pervasive discrimination that African-Americans may suffer from in mostly-white institutions. I’ve never experienced myself because I’m white, and had I not read of it in the personal, anecdotal accounts of many African-Americans, I truthfully would never have noticed it. Same here. I don’t understand why it is so hard to accept that self-identified conservative undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty report experiencing many similar forms of pervasive, subtle bias. What I'm seeing from many of those who dismiss these claims is a collective eye-rolling, a sort of "big deal, so your professor sneered at you, get over it". And yet few of those doing that eye-rolling would say the same to a student of color or a woman reporting similar experiences. The grounds on which many critics are doubting that such bias exists would have to, in all honesty, extend to all anecdotal, experiential or narrative claims of bias. The only way to salvage such claims would be if they could be profitably correlated with quantifiable evidence of discrimination—but in this case, we have some evidence to that effect. The only other way to salvage this point is to say, "It's wrong to be biased against people because of their race, gender or sexual orientation, but not because of their politics". A few seem willing to say just that: I can only say I think that's a big, fat mistake on a great many fronts.