Saturday, October 13, 2007

Political diversity in the academy: A letter from my father's archives 

Glenn Reynolds links to Greg Mankiw, who is writing about the remarkable lack of diversity of political ideology in America's universities. Professor Mankiw quotes Larry Summers on the point, and asks a question:

If right-wingers are underrepresented in universities relative to the population and discriminated against by the left-wing majority, as Larry suggests, should there be affirmative action for right-leaning academics? It seems that, on principle, those on the left (who favor affirmative action to promote diversity and correct past injustice) should endorse such a university policy, and those on the right (who more often oppose affirmative action) would be against.

As it happens, the weekend just past I uncovered a letter on that very subject from my father to the editor of the Princeton Alumni Weekly. Back in 1975 the "Concerned Alumni of Princeton" (the same organization that briefly became famous during Justice Alito's confirmation hearings last year) was -- you guessed it -- raising a stink about left-wing professors. My father's letter of October 21, 1975 both answers Professor Mankiw's question and argues that the primary beneficiaries of the "left-wing majority" may be, actually, politically conservative students. Even though there is much less radicalism on American campuses than in 1975, it is amazing how little has changed in 32 years, and how well many of these observations hold up (bold emphasis added).
Princeton has changed a good deal since my undergraduate days two decades ago, but one thing, apparently, will never change: the endless debate, in the pages of PAW and elsewhere, between "right wing" alumni and "left wing" faculty. This debate often raises the question of whether the students are relatively mature, with independent, inquiring minds, or whether they are relatively immature and subject to intellectual influences that may be pernicious.

At present the cudgels of conservatism are being wielded by the Concerned Alumni of Princeton, and if the CAP contains some of the long-familiar apostles of the Right, it also contains some Princetonians of real distinction whom nobody can dismiss as crackpots. Unfortunately, the CAP does not seem to have improved the intellectual level of the debate as much as one would hope, while the attacks on the CAP are becoming so inept as to be embarrassing....

...In light of all of this, I should like to make a few observations of my own:
(1) It is neither surprising nor alarming that the faculty and student body at Princeton should be more "left wing" than their counterparts at small denominational schools, colleges from rural states, and large state universities that have traditionally conservative medical and professional schools. I would expect Princeton to be less "radical" than institutions with a predominently urban clientele, but I'm not sure that anybody has bothered to find this out.

(2) Students in any period are less mature and independent as thinkers than they believe they are, but they are more mature and intellectually independent than the typical alumnus of their parents' generation believes. The test of intellectual maturity in a given individual is whether he/she treats controversial problems in a detached, rational manner, or whether he/she approaches them in the emotional spirit of a moral crusade. A student of the latter type is likely to be less mature and more prone to accept uncritically the teachings that confirm his/her prejudices.

(3) University professors, of whatever persuasion, have a vital stake in the free exchange of all views, however eccentric, but are often a good deal less tolerant of opposing views than they ought to be. We professors must constantly ask ourselves this question: How much would we risk to defend the academic freedom of a colleague whose ideas we detest? What the First Amendment really guarantees is free speech for those we disagree with.

(4) The best faculties are always the most heterogeneous ones, but this very diversity can make a good faculty look foolish in a crisis that demands a quick decision. Faculty meetings can produce long debates that become tedious for the professors themselves and downright intolerable to non-academics, but the absence of a quick consensus is usually a sign of a healthy intellectual climate.

(5) A liberal education is most valuable when it compels students and faculty alike to challenge and scrutinize their own assumptions. For this reason, a "left-wing" faculty (insofar as it was so) was a positive asset in the days when it had to interact with a student body that largely came from staunch Republican backgrounds. I suspect that the Princeton students today who are getting the best education are the minority who are conservative. Now that students and faculty may both be classified as predominently "left of center" (and why try to pretend that this isn't true?), there is some cause for concern. The danger is not that students are being brainwashed or converted, but quite the opposite, that they may share so many of their professors' opinions that their assumptions are being reinforced rather than challenged. If the CAP would only express its "concern" in these terms, it would raise a valid point, and the University would be ill-advised not to confront the question forthrightly.

Can, or should, the university, in recruiting a diverse body of faculty and students, extend the principle of diversity to socio-political philosophy? Should not a really strong economics department, for isntance, make sure that it contains at least one Marxist economist and at least one conservative capitalist economist? One is strongly tempted to answer the second question affirmatively, but the answer to the first question must be resoundingly negative. Notwithstanding the desirability of having the most diverse and heterogeneous faculty possible, any attempt to hire faculty on the basis of political beliefs would be so fraught with dangers as to be unacceptable. Not only would it probably produce less, rather than more, diversity in the long run, but it would undercut the crucial principle of academic freedom on which the survival of any university depends -- that hiring and retention of faculty must be based on professional attainments and on no other criterion....

While I agree with my father that universities ought never to hire faculty on the basis of political beliefs, it is not at all obvious that most academics today honestly would have agreed with him. Where most employers conceal their political views when they are recruiting new employees -- I know that I do -- I am not so sure that professors do. Indeed, today's faculty do not seem to believe it is important to conceal their political views while they are teaching, a conflation of politics and professional practice which is wholly out of sync with the norms that prevail elsewhere in American society. My father was old school, at least in the sense that he believed that the honest teaching of history required him to conceal his political opinions. He once told me that the highest compliment he had ever received from a student came from a smart radical activist in the seventies who told him at the end of the semester that he had no idea what my father's political opinions were. How many professors today even aspire to appear objective? I suspect very few. And if professors do not generally aspire to apparent political objectivity in their teaching, why should they do it in recruitment, hiring, or promotion?

More than political diversity, our professors need to rediscover intellectual maturity in the sense described by my father and the value of attempting to appear to be objective.


By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sat Oct 13, 12:28:00 AM:

Liberal professors attempting to appear to be objective? I am experiencing a brain spasm with that one. That has never occurred to me to be a possibility. For example, try reading the Daily Kos.

Maybe your father never logged on to the internet?  

By Blogger GreenmanTim, at Sat Oct 13, 06:51:00 AM:

The tenure process is far more significant in determining the character and intellectual diversity of a faculty than the hiring process. Likewise, the process of peer review involved in academic publishing, combining with the hierarchy of academic departments, virtually ensures a drive toward intellectual conformity. This is decidedly illiberal, but then new ideas are often challenging to established understandings, whether they emerge in the academy or in society at large. Which is why we question and examine and parse and resist them until there are more adopters than skeptics and then these ideas become the established ways of thinking. See plate tectonics or deconstructionist criticism for examples (for good or ill) of these phenomina in the University.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Sat Oct 13, 07:14:00 AM:

I agree that tenure is a big issue, and you will be delighted to know that I have a whole separate set of inflammatory opinions on that subject!  

By Blogger mike, at Sat Oct 13, 10:15:00 AM:

This is very intersting...as an graduate of Cornell (I also work there)...and as someone who hopes to return to college, perhaps to get a PhD to teach at a college or university.

Princeton is just an example of the problem. Cornell is another. I'm taking a course right now...the professor began, "the US has a military base in 100+ (whatever the number is) countries around the world..."

What does that tell you? To be fair, the professor -admits-, freely, to holding a view, as any human being would. But makes only small attempts to obsure it.

Now, remember, that the course is attended by several dozen students. Each of which posesses a different level of intellectual maturity.

Is this appropriate? Or does it amount to a pernicious influence?  

By Anonymous cjm, at Sat Oct 13, 10:22:00 AM:

humanities degrees should be printed on match book covers, as a means of representing the academic rigor involved in such courses.  

By Blogger Viking, at Sat Oct 13, 01:17:00 PM:

First, I really liked your Dad's comments. Certainly these are still relevant. The viking daughter is at Columbia and most professors there wear their political affiliations on their sleeve. By the way, on a related free speech matter, it seems there is likely to be a large fall out with the alumni over the Ahmadinejad speech.

The political landscape has changed and not for the better. I increasingly question the whether the labels conservative and liberal are relevant. In the 20's and 30's they were perhaps more relevant, when republicans stood for old money, status quo, and fiscal conservatism, while the liberals were trying to engage in the massive experiment in social engineering called the "New Deal". Now it appears that the republicans have abandoned fiscal conservatism in favor of massive debt, and are trying to re-engineer the moral landscape of the country by stacking the ballot box and the courts.

Although it would probably pain Justice Scalia to hear it, I don't think any of these people really have the founder's intent in mind. The founders were smart people who did their best to establish a great experiment in self government. They did not trust big government, believed in disestablishmentarianism, and were opposed to a large standing army. They believed that common citizens should be able to determine their own future. Now it seems both parties cynically manipulate the electorate in favor of special interest groups that most of us do not willingly support. Unfortunately this seems to be a system where the rich get richer even as the basis for future stability is undermined. To be a true American conservative, freedom and individual liberty should be foremost on your agenda. That is really the hallmark of the American system, what distinguishes us most from other democracies. I dispair that the republican party has abandoned these precepts, in favor of tax breaks for the wealthy and cryptofacism.

The one thing that still rings true in your father's letter is that an education should teach students to be critical of whatever they are taught. Let's hope there are a few students out there who learn to be critical of the status quo. Adams and Jefferson despite all their disagreement certainly qualified as strong beleivers in personal liberty and responsiblity. We need a few more like them.  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Sat Oct 13, 05:09:00 PM:

"Tax breaks" wouldn't be in the cards had not the level of taxation skyrocketed during the 20th century to pay for social security and other social safety nets, and the Cold War military effort.

Everything comes from something.

And I'm confused by the term 'cryptofascism.' I guess I don't understand how torchlight parades and concentration camps full of political prisoners can be cryptic...  

By Blogger Fritz, at Sun Oct 14, 09:50:00 AM:

"Crypto-fascism is when a party or group secretly adheres to the doctrines of fascism while attempting to disguise it as another political movement. It can also refer to an individual who admires or desires fascism, but keeps this admiration hidden to avoid social persecution or political suicide. The term is used in a similarly to crypto-Judaism or crypto-Christianity, referring to the secret practice of one faith while adhering to another religion publicly."

Courtesy of Wikipedia.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Oct 14, 01:59:00 PM:

> today's faculty do not seem to
> believe it is important to conceal
> their political views while they
> are teaching

Is this just anecdotal or do you have any evidence to back this up?

Here's my anecdote: I've been out of college for 15 years now but I can't remember any professor ever talking about their politics in class. Not one single time. Of course I was a computer science major.  

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