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February 10, 2004 [feather]
Playing dumb about intellectual diversity

The Duke Conservative Union placed an ad in yesterday's student paper deploring the lack of intellectual diversity among Duke's faculty. Designed as an open letter to Duke president Nan Keohane, the letter declared that the humanities faculty had become "increasingly politicized over the past few decades" and argued that this has had "a significant impact on the daily workings of their faculty members." It then reported the results of checking the faculty of eight humanities departments against North Carolina voter registration records: 142 of those surveyed are registered Democrats, 28 are unaffiliated, and 8 are registered Republicans.

"The purpose of the ad was basically to bring to light the fact that the faculty in many humanities departments are completely skewed toward the left," DCU executive director Madison Kitchens told the paper. "Their viewpoints don't represent a broad, diverse intellectual balance of opinions, but rather a monochromatic look at certain subjects."

Today's Chronicle details the reactions of Duke faculty and administrators to the DCU findings. The reactions were disturbing--predictably so.

In essence, the responses took the form of almost total unwillingness to admit that the DCU's correlation of hiring pattern and political affiliation is in any way meaningful:

John Burness, senior vice president for public affairs and government relations, said the data presented in DCU's advertisement is largely irrelevant to intellectual diversity within the classroom.

"I know faculty members who are conservative and faculty members who are liberal. When I've talked to students about being in their classes, I am struck repeatedly by how often the fact of where a faculty [member] may stand in his or her own political views does not govern what goes on in class," Burness said. "In some cases, faculty members even take a different position than what they believe, just to challenge students to think differently."

Burness added that it would be difficult to adjust an imbalance in political affiliations among faculty members because the University's hiring processes do not take such affiliations into consideration. "When departments are making choices about whom they select as members of the faculty, I don't think party registration is a litmus test," Burness said.


"My sense is that a University community represents all opinions, and somehow just your party affiliation seems a very odd way of sampling it," said Maureen Quilligan, chair of the English department, noting that she has never received any complaints of professors' bias in her department. "Besides, there are many differences within Republicans and within Democrats, and Republicans certainly are not the only conservatives."

Bear in mind that the DCU knows that correlation is not causation, and is not claiming that it is. Bear in mind, too, that academic humanists believe, as a matter of principle, that EVERYTHING is meaningful, that there is absolutely nothing that cannot be interpreted, nothing whose significance is not deeper and more profound than surfaces may suggest. Everything, that is, except the overwhelming correlation between humanities faculty hiring and political affiliation.

In fairness, the denial approach documented above is not a response that is unique to the good people at Duke. It's become a standard form of dismissal on just about every campus where party affiliations are cited as indices of the faculty's political homogeneity. In its unapologetic refusal to admit that there is an ideological elephant in the living room, it's a willfully obtuse response--brilliantly, brazenly so. Its power is such that it can withstand even the most reasonable argumentation. As Kitchens himself explains,

"The University isn't looking at party registration when it is hiring, but it is looking at what faculty members' research interests are, where they fall on certain issues, and whether they toe the ideological line .... I don't think it's a coincidence that 32 Democrats are in the history department, and zero Republicans. We're not saying the University needs to hire more Republicans, but rather that it needs to be open to conservative perspectives in the hiring process."

Kitchens noted that DCU had not intended to advocate an absolute balance between Republicans and Democrats in the faculty. Rather, he said, the group wants to be sure that both sides of political argument are given heed in classes that deal with political matters.

Furthermore, he said, though the imbalance in political views may not show up in any particular classroom, it is evident in the University's course offerings.

"Certainly there's been an incredibly disproportionate focus on race, gender, class consciousness and post-modern thought in Duke's course offerings," Kitchens said. "We're not saying there should be conservative classes to take their place, but we are saying the University should look at the subjects it offers in a more objective manner.... The University does not necessarily need to offer a course in conservative thought, but it does need to provide some balance so that students can decide for themselves which they choose to take."

I think that's reasonable. Kitchens and his group are not demanding reverse partisanship, or an ideological quota system for course offerings, or anything of that nature. They are simply asking that the Duke faculty acknowledge a glaringly obvious fact, that there are entire areas of study where the university's ostensible commitment to the pursuit of truth has been supplanted by a one-sided style of inquiry that too often and too easily slides into political advocacy.

More reasonable, apparently, than DCU's understanding of the situation, is that of Duke philosophy chair Robert Brandon:

"We try to hire the best, smartest people available," Brandon said of his philosophy hires. "If, as John Stuart Mill said, stupid people are generally conservative, then there are lots of conservatives we will never hire."

"Mill's analysis may go some way towards explaining the power of the Republican party in our society and the relative scarcity of Republicans in academia. Players in the NBA tend to be taller than average. There is a good reason for this. Members of academia tend to be a bit smarter than average. There is a good reason for this too."

It says something about a department--if not the university as a whole--when its leader will come right out and say that the reason there aren't more conservatives teaching college is that conservatives are stupid. Among other things, it rather beautifully confirms the DCU's point about anti-conservative bias being structurally central to higher education as we presently know it.

Not all were so glib, so dismissive, or so ready to dissemble. Michael Munger, chair of the political science department, acknowledged that he knows of at least one department chair who "has said they thought the function of Duke was to rid conservative students of their hypocrisies." Munger does not believe there is a widespread problem--but neither is he trying to prevent a problem from being discovered and openly discussed. He also acknowledges that if the problem truly is widespread, then corrective action would be warranted.

I'm fascinated by episodes like this one--not because the numbers shock me (they are well known, and have been documented over and over again), but because the reactions faculty and administrators have to the numbers are so deeply, troublingly telling. They have been taken by surprise--not just at Duke, but at many schools across the country--and they have revealed a great deal about their attitudes in their response to confrontation with facts. Whether "liberal bias" is poisoning the classroom is a matter for public inquiry and open debate. But whether those who are implicated in the accusation of bias are willing to be accountable for their hiring and teaching practices--to subject them to scrutiny, to examine (in the favorite moralistic phrase of academic humanists) their own assumptions, to explain themselves to their students and to the general public, to declare themselves to be truly concerned with both the responsibility and transparency of their behavior--seems already to have been settled.

Thanks to Maurice Black for the link.

UPDATE: Tom P. writes:

John Stuart Mill himself had something to say about the Philosophy Chair's quote:

(5) John Stuart Mill, letter to the Conservative MP, Sir John Pakington (March, 1866)

I never meant to say that the Conservatives are generally stupid. I meant to say that stupid people are generally Conservative. I believe that is so obviously and universally admitted a principle that I hardly think any gentleman will deny it.

(Quotation found here:› http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/PRmill.htm)

The quotation does justify the Chairman's rather carefully phrased following claim, "then there are lots of conservatives we will never hire," (i.e. the stupid ones). But it does not justify his following paragraph (which implies that conservatives are generally stupid, a claim›which does not follow from Mill's›statement that stupid people are generally conservative).›

Good one.

UPDATE UPDATE: Ralph Luker has more, including a round-up of related posting across the blogosphere.

AND ANOTHER: Reader John M. writes:

I've been involved in the process for 40 years and I've never heard intelligence discussed as a criteria. Like every place else, Duke hires people on the basis of educational accomplishments thus far, so presumably what Brandon really means is that educated people aren't stupid and uneducated people are. Duh! A tautology.›

The fact that he passes this off as a great insight says it all.›

Counter factual 1: as I'm sure you're aware film actors are grossly undereducated. Very few of them ever even went to any college at all, and a surprisingly high number didn't ever make it out of high school. A good example of stupid people who aren't conservative.

Counter factual 2: I doubt Mill's understanding of the term 'conservative' can easily be equated to the word as it is used today by liberals. The classic instance of this word shift would be the›connotation of the word 'patriot' in the 18th and 19th centuries. QED, the real "stupid" person in the room is Brandon.

By the way, isn't the professorate supposed to be aghast at stereotyping?

Thanks for writing in.


If this quote is accurate, Professor Brandon seems to have forgotten that "p implies q" is not equivalent to "q implies p".›

But I also have a small caveat: I believe that not every democrat at Duke is on the left of the political spectrum. Professor Peter Feaver of the Poli Sci department is, I believe, a democrat, but his politics are more on the right than the left. His columns appear frequently in The Weekly Standard.

This is not to contradict the DCU: I think on probabilistic grounds they are correct. Thanks for bringing attention to this.

And Maurice Black writes:

It's worth noting that Duke philosophy chair Robert Brandon's invocation of John Stuart Mill to deem conservatives "stupid" relies on disingenuous terminological sleight-of-hand. In Mill's nineteenth century Britain, conservatives were those who protected inherited privilege, defended class-based inequality, and justified the established societal order. Self-described liberals (such as Adam Smith, John Locke, and Mill himself) argued for political pluralism, individual rights and responsibilities, and laissez-faire capitalist enterprise. But in their modern incarnations, the terms "conservative" and "liberal" have mutated to the point where Mill, Locke, and Smith would probably find themselves deemed too "stupid" to hold Duke faculty positions in political theory, philosophy, or economics.

Thanks to all for writing in. And don't miss the additional commentary at Tightly Wound and Photon Courier.

ONE LAST UPDATE: A reader writes, "If I can add another of Mill's thoughts that seems relevant given Professor Brandon's remarks -- 'He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.'" Touche.

posted on February 10, 2004 6:23 PM