No sinister liberal scheme on campus

December 29, 2004|By Steven Lubet

CONSERVATIVE activists are on the march, determined to expose hotbeds of liberal influence wherever they find (or even suspect) them. Their latest target is higher education, one of the few corners of American life where liberal ideas still hold sway.

Indeed, several recent studies have confirmed that Democrats greatly outnumber Republicans -- by ratios as much as 7-to-1 -- on many university faculties. This revelation has caused outrage in conservative quarters, where it is seen as evidence of liberal manipulation, and worse.

Leading the charge is David Horowitz, a former student leftist who is now president of the right-leaning Center for the Study of Popular Culture. According to Mr. Horowitz, there has been a "successful and pervasive blacklist ... of conservatives on American college campuses" that can only be rectified by the intervention of state legislatures and boards of trustees. He has called for the enactment of an "Academic Bill of Rights" to protect the interests of conservative faculty and students.

Other conservatives make similar claims. Thomas C. Reeves, of the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, for example, has insisted that "conservatives are discriminated against routinely and deliberately" in faculty hiring, making some highly qualified candidates virtually "unemployable" on highly respected campuses.

These are unexpected arguments to hear from conservatives, since they usually deny that disproportionate statistics can be taken as proof of discrimination. When it comes to employment discrimination or affirmative action, conservatives will blithely insist that the absence of minorities (in a work force or student body) simply means that there were too few "qualified applicants." And don't bother talking to them about a "glass ceiling" or "mommy track" that impedes women's careers. That's not discrimination, they say, it's "self-selection."

Conservatives abandon these arguments, however, when it comes to their own prospects in academe. Then the relative scarcity of Republican professors is widely asserted as proof of willful prejudice.

Of course, there are other possible explanations. Perhaps fewer conservatives than liberals are willing to endure the many years of poverty-stricken graduate study necessary to qualify for a faculty position. Perhaps conservatives are smarter than liberals, and recognize that graduate school is a poor investment, given the scant job opportunities that await new Ph.D.s. Or perhaps studious conservatives are more attracted to the greater financial rewards of industry and commerce.

Beyond the ivy walls, there are many professions that are dominated by Republicans. You will find very few Democrats (and still fewer outright liberals) among the ranks of corporate CEOs, military officers or professional football coaches. Yet no one complains about these imbalances, and conservatives will no doubt explain that the seeming disparities are merely the result of market forces.

And they are probably right.

It is completely reasonable for conservatives to flock to jobs that reward competition, aggression, self-interest and victory. So it should not be surprising that liberals gravitate to professions -- such as academics, journalism, social work and the arts -- that emphasize inquiry, objectivity and the free exchange of ideas. After all, teachers at all levels -- from nursery school to graduate school -- tend to be Democrats.

Alas, there have been instances of political discrimination in academic hiring and promotion. And yes, conservatives have been snubbed or mistreated by their overwhelmingly liberal colleagues. More seriously, certain professors, and in some cases entire departments, have crossed the line from legitimate scholarship to overtly politicized advocacy, most frequently coming from the left. These problems should be vigorously addressed as individual cases, and remedied where necessary. But none of this is proof of systematic intimidation or blacklisting.

The reality is that universities, by their nature, tend to be liberal institutions. Conservatives may bemoan the social forces behind this phenomenon, but there is nothing sinister about it.

Nonetheless, liberals (like me) should admit that faculties face a resulting risk of intellectual conformity, which can be stultifying and confining even when it is unintentional. Most major universities would likely benefit from the presence of more conservative scholars, who would sharpen the dialogue and challenge many assumptions. I might even be convinced to support some form of recruiting outreach or affirmative action for Republicans -- but surely my conservative colleagues would never stand for it.

Steven Lubet is a law professor at Northwestern University. His most recent book is Murder in Tombstone: The Forgotten Trial of Wyatt Earp.

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