Sunday, October 18, 2009

Ask The Radical: Have You Stopped Discriminating Against Republicans Yet? Or; Do Political Views Count As Diversity?

The other day the Radical mailbox yielded the following:

Dear Dr. Radical,

Occasionally a parent, a trustee or an alumnus/a approaches me who wants to know how many conservatives we have on our faculty, and why we do not diversify our teaching staff by hiring more conservatives. Alternatively, the query might be framed around political party affiliation: how many registered Republicans are on the faculty, and why do students not have opportunities to take more classes from Republicans? Such questioners often frame their inquiry in terms of the university's stated interest in hiring and retaining a diverse faculty. Others claim that a student they know well has complained of finding the campus unfriendly to conservative thought, had difficulty in finding teachers and classes that reflect a conservative point of view, or had no choice but to take classes that are so relentlessly liberal in their orientation as to be boring and repetitive.

How should I respond to such questions?

Signed,

A Top Administrator


This isn't the first time this question has been posed directly to me, or in my presence. Usually it makes me want to leave the room for a cup of tea while other people discuss it. How anyone actually knows the political makeup of any given faculty is beyond me, unless they have really devoted time to studying it. More importantly, generalizations about the political orientation of faculties seems to me to be one of the huge grab bag of non-issues invented by a right-wing that is blatantly hostile to education more generally. Despite what seems to me to be a partisan agenda inherent in the question, and its lack of fit with the world of education I inhabit, the notion that secular campuses are hotbeds of left-wingery is one of the more successful ways that conservative assumptions have penetrated mainstream thought. When I was young, prior to a political moment when telling casual, ironic jokes about violence against women was revealed as not-funny, adults used to refer to questions that had no good answer as being similar to the following: "Have you stopped beating your wife yet?" Yes would reveal a reformed wife-beater, while no… well, you get the point.

See? Not funny. But the lesson about how rhetoric alone can create stigma is a good one. The reason this bad joke comes to mind is that top administrators, because of their role as spokespeople for and caretakers of institutions of higher learning, are, in part, paid to answer such inquiries from people who support colleges and universities financially - boards of education, legislators, alumni/ae, trustees and parents. They are not paid to answer such questions when posed by organizations like David Horowitz's Students for Academic Freedom ("How can you get a good education if they are telling you only half the story?" the website asks), Stanley Fish and other scholars who see themselves as fully engaged in the battle against campus liberalism (which is what is meant when people refer to the problem of "political correctness.") But they try, and usually not very successfully.

Therefore, while I can't "answer" the question that has no answer (and neither can you, Top Administrator), I would like to take a stab at reframing the issue by looking at its component parts: why is the question framed as if the political beliefs of faculty members constitute a form of diversity (equivalent to race or gender) that a responsible administration should attend to; what does this have to do with education; and should students be interrogating faculty, or faculty interrogating each other, about their politics?

Why is the question framed as if the political beliefs of faculty members constituted a form of diversity (equivalent to race or gender) that a responsible administration should attend to? I think this points to residue from the various challenges to the academy that were posed by the civil rights and feminist movements that is rarely examined nowadays: under what conditions does identity matter? And what do we mean by identity anyway? And is diversity really about having different "identities" represented on one's faculty? And when did one's political stance become an "identity"?

Strictly speaking, diversity used to mean a university paying serious attention to redressing various forms of discrimination against people whose race or gender was, for centuries, seen as unsuited to serious intellectual labor. By the 1970s, legal mandates about representation began to set the standard for integrating one's faculty; but in the last ten years challenges to what we used to call affirmative action diluted institutional efforts considerably. Nowadays, affirmative action training usually begins and ends with a handout that asks us all gently and suggestively to "look around the room" and "notice who isn't there" when we are making hiring decisions.

This is the state of play now, and it is terrible hiring policy for so many reasons, not the least of which is the assumption that you can look around the room and know who is there and not there. It has nothing to do with guarding against active discrimination against people or points of view; in fact, it asks us to make independent, presumptuous judgments that can easily conflate the person we think we see with a point of view we assume that person will have. It asks established scholars to believe that everyone in a job search is equally credentialed and that the intellectual requirements for a job are interchangeable as long as you get the right body in the room. It creates no mechanism for actually making departments more diverse because there is no common understanding about why departments are not diverse in the first place, what kind of "differences" might be intellectually generative, or what constitutes a fair hiring policy. In fact, one wonders why we are talking about political orientation at all when current hiring practices still seem to be producing faculties that are overwhelmingly white in a nation steadily becoming more brown; or why some departments are persistently so male when there are ample numbers of female Ph.D.s on the market in that discipline.

What the failure of affirmative action opened the door to, in my view, is a kind of vague idea in secular institutions that any kind of "difference" could be articulated as an "identity," and that a representation of all "identities" -- even if the faculty as a whole was pretty monolithic otherwise -- solved a problem of employment discrimination that few people wanted to discuss in the first place. As a political progressive, I can attest that people of good will affirm a great many things that we have no real basis for believing. We also tend to ignore the fact that the fruits of our labors have been pretty mixed when it comes to achieving integration or intellectual diversity on our faculties. That conservatives are now stepping up and claiming a piece of the pie seems like a logical outcome of this; that conservatism is being claimed as an "identity" seems to me to be the price you pay to get into the game.

So one of the things I would advise, Top Administrator, is that you respond to queries of this sort by saying that good hiring policies prohibit asking any job candidate about partisan affiliations, sexuality, marital status, or philosophical positions that are not relevant to the job description at hand. But I would also suggest that you ask departments to periodically discuss with each other why they hire the people they do; what their needs are; and whether what they perceive as their hiring needs actually reflect the newest and most interesting developments in their fields.

What does this have to do with education? The collapse of the academy as a white male preserve in the first place had at least as much to do with barring formal discrimination as it did recruiting and encouraging those who had been excluded for centuries. But, aside from making it possible for a wider variety of people to do intellectual work and creating vibrant fields of study, why did opening up the academy really matter? Well, we're not sure, because that question was never answered except by vague gestures that inferred the following: the only reason women and people of color had not taken their rightful place in the academy was that they had low self-esteem and didn't pursue advanced work. Mentoring -- by people "like them," and beginning at the undergraduate level-- would solve this problem.

This idea that the overwhelming whitemaleness of the academy was no one's fault, but merely due to a lack of mentoring and role models (despite abundant evidence that women, Jews and people of color with excellent self-esteem were actively barred and discouraged from pursuing higher education for generations) presents us with a funny little historical contradiction. On the one hand, it is an unquestioned assumption that non-white, non-male (or as feminist John Stoltenberg used to put it, "non-penised") individuals need to see people "like them" in the classroom, in order to aspire to excellence. On the other hand, it is abundantly clear that most of what constitutes an "establishment" of senior scholars in women's studies, African American Studies, queer studies and ethnic studies (who are women and people of color) managed to aspire to and achieve excellence by working with scholars who were, in fact, overwhelmingly penised and white. Those of us who were educated in the 1970s and 1980s know perfectly well that a teacher doesn't have to "look like me" to be an excellent mentor, and that teachers who do "look like me" are sometimes generous, and sometimes can be cruel and discouraging.

In other words, despite the fact that we don't actually know whether identity matters in the classroom, we continue to assert that it does. Again, why wouldn't conservatives want a piece of the pie if this were how the game is played? Why wouldn't the vision of sad little teenaged conservatives with low self-esteem, being discriminated against or ignored by mean-spirited liberals who don't see them for "who they really are", be a logical extension of the parable progressives tell about defeating race, gender and religious discrimination in the academy in the latter half of the twentieth century?

So Top Administrator, assuming you still have the attention of the individual who asked the question, this is what you need to say: that good teaching means attending to, listening to, and taking seriously all of one's students. And being a good student means beginning with the assumption that when you are criticized by a teacher it is meant positively, not as a wholesale condemnation of who you are as a person.

Finally, we live in an imperfect world and schools are a reflection of that -- not a refuge from it. Taking account of negative reactions to your ideas and meeting critiques with thoughtful, articulate and well researched responses is the primary responsibility of a student. Studding a transcript with grades achieved by telling people in authority what you think they want to hear is not. Hearing only positive responses to what one already believes is a path to complacency and irrelevance, on the left or on the right. In the end, when students truly feel overwhelmed and unheard, it isn't a question of political discrimination. Any professor who is teaching ideology without permitting, encouraging and modeling critique is not teaching well. The corollary to that is that students who fear reasonable criticism to the extent that they refuse to disagree or support their disagreement with cogent arguments are gaming the system for grades, not growing intellectually.

Should students be interrogating faculty, or faculty interrogating each other, about their politics? Interrogating, no. Be interested and constantly inquiring, yes. Recently Cary Nelson (the other Tenured Radical, or some might say, the original one) was on our campus and stated unequivocally that he believed professors should model advocacy in the classroom because it is an important component of citizenship. Students, he argued, need to learn how to articulate and fight for what they care about. I agree with this. Most of our students won't go on to be academics; some will go on to be lawyers; but all will continue on in life as citizens. My one reservation is that I think one can often advocate convincingly for things one does not believe, and that a good teacher does this: again, it isn't my responsibility to send students out in the world as much "like me" as possible, but rather to model excellent intellectual inquiry so that they can learn how to be their best selves. Listening carefully to, and accurately representing, things you do not believe is an important component of much advocacy.

What I would argue strongly against is encouraging an atmosphere of suspicion between students and faculty. Regardless of actual time spent a deux, the relationship between teacher and learner is an intimate one, and it can be productively or destructively intimate. Constructive intimacy would include assuming that both parties are of good faith; that either party can make an error without being charged with deliberate deception, stupidity or bad faith; that either party can say what s/he believes and be heard out; that skepticism is healthy and productive; and that the classroom atmosphere is safe for the introduction of a minority perspective that has some basis in fact and is conducive to logical argument. A constructively intimate relationship would allow either party to argue a position s/he does not believe in, possibly to test the consequences of that paradigm shift as a strategy for truth seeking, without being accused of lying or currying favor.

Where conservatives are not helping students at all, in my view, is when they encourage them to assume that faculty members are by nature untrustworthy (in fact, probably liars) unless they "come out" as conservatives themselves. So, Top Administrator, a final piece of good advice would be to advise your questioner that a student only has a limited number of classes to take in college, and that student needs to make the most of every one of them by finding the teachers who nourish an intellectual atmosphere where they are best able to learn.

A final word: unlike other forms of diversity, it is impossible to cherish the fantasy that you can eyeball a faculty meeting and know how many conservatives there are, nor would many people who actually are conservative always describe themselves that way. A fair number of people are conservative on some issues and progressive on others. In addition, academic watchdogs rushing down to the registrar of voters to see whether we are all registered as Democrats has led to the assumption that the "conservatives" on a faculty would naturally be "Republicans." But this flies in the face of what we know about politics, and how regional party affiliation is. Yes, I know that the Republican Party believes it has the lock on conservatism, but the national debate on health care reform and the current deal making in the Senate is a reminder that although there are few Republican liberals left, there are lots of conservative Democrats. My guess is that there isn’t a single Republican in my department (because to be a Republican in Zenith is to commit yourself to voting in politically irrelevant primaries over and over again), but I could name several self-proclaimed conservatives off the top of my head, and most of the department occupies a big, fat -- oops, I mean vital -- center, not any kind of a left.

Top Administrator, don't be pushed around by this one. It's a canard. But your campus may, like mine, be very liberal all the same. In that case, you need to emphasize that it can be bracing to be a conservative student in what seems to be an overwhelmingly liberal environment; the opposite can be equally bracing. I would also argue that no student at a place like Zenith, who will graduate having taken classes from a maximum of 32 scholars out of over 200, is in a position to judge what the political slant of the faculty as a whole is, and that would be even more true of very large schools. When students talk about the burden of political correctness, they are, in fact, usually talking about their fear of being disliked by those they see the most of: other students, who can say incredibly harsh things to those they disagree with, and need no help from the faculty to encourage them to do so.

But in the end, what is wrong with asking when we stopped hiring Republicans is that to answer it on its own terms is to accept the premise that education is more or less a cookie cutter, and that all schools should be all things to all people. It puts the onus for delivering a good education on ideology, not pedagogy, and fails to underline each student's responsibility for stepping up to the plate intellectually wherever s/he happens to be enrolled. It reinforces the notion that original thinking is dangerous, that grades rest on whether the student is well liked and can repeat what the teacher "wants" to hear. It assumes that good ideas require safety, not risk-taking; that a student is learning best when s/he is comfortable and in an affirming space. It encourages students to interpret discomfort and uncertainty as a sign that one's education is being mishandled. And whereas conservative activists are quick to judge liberal universities for excluding conservatives, they don't seem to worry about conservative and religious schools erecting explicit ideological barriers to employment, and restricting ideas that can be presented in a classroom. Many young right-wingers choose to go to schools that are famous for their conservatism, where there is a substantial conservative presence, schools that have "morals clauses" restricting faculty employment and matriculation, and where graduation requirements do not include grappling with moral worlds and ideas a student does not understand, does not wish to engage or to which s/he is already opposed.

If a conservative student has chosen your college, Top Administrator, that student must want what you and your faculty have to offer. Be ready to say what that is.


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Tenured Radical has been on an unplanned hiatus because of participation in the Head of the Charles regatta and a simultaneous effort to complete some long overdue work for people who still publish on paper, set deadlines, blah, blah, blah. Many apologies to those who have checked for new posts repeatedly and left weeping. Results for the Grand Master Women's Singles can be found here: look towards the bottom of the list.

22 comments:

Fletch said...

I don't want to lump all conservatives under one monolithic umbrella, but isn't this often the case of conservatives demanding a slice of a pie that they believe shouldn't exist, ie affirmative action? If there were conservative voices supporting affirmative action and then asking why they weren't represented, I would be much more supportive of their argument. But as long as they call to abolish affirmative action and look for their own hiring benefits, it all seems a tad hypocritical.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Fascinating post, TR! Here are a few thoughts:

(1) I have always been uncomfortable with utilitarian consequentialist arguments for rooting out unfair discrimination in faculty hiring, i.e., arguments of the form "it will improve educational outcomes if we root out unfair discrimination". These arguments concern me because, as you point out, this is an empirical question with little or no available evidence one way or the other. I much prefer an argument based on justice: it is simply unjust not to root out unfair discrimination, especially that based in historical group oppression.

(2) In relation to political conservatives claiming discrimination, this distinction matters. If the argument for rooting out discrimination is utilitarian, then conservatives can likewise reasonably argue that pedagogical outcomes will be better if conservatives are better represented. If the argument is one of justice, then conservatives can be told to pound sand, as they have no history of oppression or unfair discrimination.

Congrats on the rowing!!

Anonymous said...

I certainly have no problem with conservatives being systematically excluded from academia (which was standard practice when I was teaching) as long as I can freely exclude consideration of liberals when I hire staff in my business. To paraphrase Dan Ackroyd's character in Ghost Busters, in the real world, we have to show results.

Digger said...

"And whereas conservative activists are quick to judge liberal universities for excluding conservatives, they don't seem to worry about conservative and religious schools erecting explicit ideological barriers."

But isn't that what they'd truly love? For an admission from those hotbeds of liberalness that they were explicitly barring conservatives? One HINT that that is the case, and the conservative activists will have a field day. "They're exclusionary, just like us! Only they've lied about it!"

Jonathan Dresner said...

unlike other forms of diversity, it is impossible to cherish the fantasy that you can eyeball a faculty meeting and know how many conservatives there are, nor would many people who actually are conservative always describe themselves that way.

Another aspect of the problem is that the political spectra are very low priorities for most departments: it's topical and methodological diversity which should be the first priority in hiring, so departments can offer a real range of options and a fair assessment of the field to their students. I'm a partisan in the classroom: I believe history is the best discipline, and I say so, and I think that a fairly traditional critical method is the best approach within history, and I say so. I also believe that diverse approaches add to our sum of knowledge, rather than it being a zero-sum game. Does that make me a conservative, or liberal?

Anonymous said...

You state that "(current hiring practice/affirmative action) creates no mechanism for actually making departments more diverse..."

Does your comment about lacking mechanisms to diversify hiring mean that you would support administrators diversifying an interview pool by adding candidates of color and/or women?

Tenured Radical said...

Anonymous 9:59 --

I made that as a statement of fact alone, not as a call for intervention by a higher power: the state of play now is a charade because when you fail to define lines in fields that are likely to generate a diverse pool you are unlikely to get a significant pool of candidates of the kind you say you want.

What would make departments more diverse would be if, instead of advertising and imagining jobs in the same tired old way that reflects past practices, departments looked to how the field will be defined when the current crop of scholars reaches maturity. You can tell what the field will look like in ten years from a pile of dissertations, believe me. If departments, and the administrators who govern them, actually greeted developments in the field, new scholarship and interdisciplinarity warmly in all searches, rather than, say, confining their hires of scholars working on race or gender to lines specifically designated for same.

Tenured Radical said...

BTW, Anonymous: There have been a couple times when intervention from a higher power has been invoked at Zenith, and it is more or less a disaster, so whether I would support it or not it isn't practical. You can lead the department to the trough but you can't make them drink, and the candidate enters a hostile environment not of his/her making. Once the search is in motion, the department can easily "buy-out" of a process if they feel that they are being hijacked. It's much better to lay the groundwork early by asking for administrative cooperation in defining the line in a forward looking way that generates a large pool of candidates of the kind you want, which then gives the department the power over the search that they cherish.

catfood said...

The Smartest Guy I Know, as well as my partner who teaches at a prestigious university--both socialists--say it's a lot simpler than that.

They say it's because rightist positions don't actually make sense; people who spend their careers asking questions and trying to understand things generally figure out that left-of-center attitudes make sense, and left-of-center policies work well.

Yeah, it sounds elitist, and I suppose it is, but I agree that if a preponderance of really smart, inquisitive, analytical people feel the same way about things... maybe it's because they're right.

JackDanielsBlack said...

Catfood, it is possible that the lack of conservatives in Academe is because smart people are all liberal and Academic folks must be smart; however, it is also possible that really smart people just don't do Academe -- not enough money, prestige, power, etc. You know the old saying that "Those who can, do--those who can't, teach."

Dean Dad said...

Nicely done. I'll just add that people's politics (or the political spectrum generally) can shift over time. To make keeping your job contingent on maintaining the politics you held in your twenties for the rest of your career would be absurd. ("You're supposed to be the department liberal!")

To assume that the current ideological distribution in America is eternal and correct is ignorant, dispiriting, and a blasphemy against the possibilities of the future.

Anonymous said...

Every time this topic comes up, we hear comments such as the one above by catfood: "The reason there are few conservatives in the academic world is because conservatives are stupid and greedy." If professor are openly making such comments, it's no wonder that conservative students usually feel afraid to speak their minds...and they do. That is a fact, not an opinion. Yes, a lot of that is initiated by other students, but the faculty does not discourage it. The truth is, however, that few professors are really "smart" in areas beyond their own narrow specialty.

Anonymous said...

It's not that smart people are liberal; I know many very smart conservatives, some of them my family members. It's that, at least in my generation, the smart people who were more conservative tended to go into fields where they could make more money, leaving academia largely to the liberals, who tended to have an aversion to becoming capitalists.

Tenured Radical said...

It's a little weird how a discussion like this can devolve into a polarized Glen Beck v. Rachel Maddow spat about who is smart and who isn't. There are lots n' lots n' lots of conservative college professors, and they certainly are just as "smart" (whatever *that* means) as anyone else who was hired to teach at the university level.

Can we do a little better than this in the comments section, friends?

Jonathan Dresner said...

I tried, TR, I tried.

Jo said...

I really appreciated this post, especially the points about how identity, whether political, cultural, sexual orientation, racial, or whatever, is not self-apparent.

Anonymous said...

Uh TR one can't "eyeball" a faculty and decide it has no Republicans. However one can check public databases of voter registration and/or campaign contributions and get a pretty good idea. Usually the result of this is to discover the faculty is overwhelmingly left wing.

Tenured Radical said...

Anonymous 10:51 --

Yes one can look at those things, but currently 30% of voters are registered independent; many Republicans are voting Democratic, and in some parts of the country many Dems are voting Republican.

Yes, this has been true in a couple cases that someone has made a big deal of, but I still don't think party registration tells you anything about whether a person is conservative, centrist or liberal -- or what those categories even mean to them.

Disagree that this is meaningful research.

Anonymous said...

I think you're off base with your characterization of the desire to include conservative faculty being based on "having a conservative identity." Many if not most conservative thinkers would probably be very much opposed to that idea, generally disliking identity politics as they do. Diversity of thought is not about identity, right?

Your last section is a nice argument against Affirmative Action and other diversity initiatives ...

Tenured Radical said...

Anonyous 12:58 --

How would you know a person was conservative if they did not openly self-identify? I do think one of the basic divides in a conversation like this is that a person's ideology, and hence the kind of scholarship they would write, their teaching, is simply self-evident and fits in a one-size fits all label. There are many kinds of conservatives (a quick look at any post-war political history lays this out) and most are not of the culture-wars variety. Similarly, many people who identify as liberals are not on the left at all -- again, the idea that anyone who is not a conservative is just a "liberal" is reductive. Surely you see this?

But how could one honestly respect anyone whose scholarly work was so patently driven by ideology? And why would one hire a person for his/her political beliefs, rather than what s/he contributed to knowledge and teaching? If the charge is that this is what happens, and people are hired at colleges and universities *because* they are liberals, a quick look at my home department would defy this immediately.

As an aside, Im glad your gotcha moment gave you pleasure, but I do believe in diversity. I just don't think it is being accomplished under current conditions, and that affirmative action policies --as they were implemented(or not) in most places for several decades -- do bear some responsibility for this.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for that thoughtful, serious, nuanced response. I'm going to copy it and give it to my colleagues. I'm sorry that many responders did not appreciate the complexity of your essay.

Anonymous said...

Good call on 'asking about their political affiliation is probably illegal.' The hammer point, though, is that it really doesn't matter. If asked, direct The Administrator to "I Think My Professor is a Democrat: Considering Whether Students Recognize and React to Faculty Politics" in PS: Political Science and Politics, April 2009. Much as us Poli Sci people wish it were true -- we just don't have that kind of impact when it gets to the kids in our classes. They're sui generis by the time they get to my American Government or Global Issues class: my flaming, dyed in the wool liberalism isn't going to change their opinion that much.