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July 8, 2008 [feather]
Running the Zoo

The NAS is running a series entitled "If I Ran the Zoo," in which contributors offer their thoughts on what they would do if they were in charge of higher ed. The idea is playful in origin, arising from the Dr. Seuss story of the same name, and has thus far been tackled by Minding the Campus' John Leo, FIRE's Adam Kissel, ACTA's Anne Neal, Tenured Radicals author Roger Kimball, Dartmouth trustee Todd Zywicki, and others. I'm co-writing a contribution myself, as are, I would imagine, quite a few people out there.

I was scanning over the various entries last night, and ran across one by University of Oregon professor and Critical Mass regular Michael Kellman; it's an interesting meditation on the question of ideological imbalance within the professoriate, and it also drew a couple of interesting comments. Here's the entry:

If I ran the zoo, I would first remind myself that nobody really runs the zoo. Then I would relax and go back to musing about an imaginary world.

In my world, contemporary academics would acknowledge the astonishing disparity between liberals and conservatives among their ranks. They would realize that this is very unhealthy for their institutions, for the education they provide, for their own intellectual life. They would not necessarily own up to overt politicization of the classroom--in fact, I think this is greatly exaggerated. But they would recognize that the current lopsided faculties can't possibly do justice to the full range of perspectives that are needed in the academy. They would avoid the temptation to fall back on a denial of open bias, and would look, for example, at the range of invited speakers on politically tinged subjects. And they would immediately understand why outsiders see a problem.

What to do about it? A difficult question, especially if, like me, you are opposed to group preferences. Maybe I am blind and deaf, but I really am not aware of legions of conservative scholars banging on the doors of academia, seeking entry. Maybe some conservatives have had their careers trashed, but the biggest problem as I see it is simply that they are vastly outnumbered. I would be happy just to see the academy acknowledge that the imbalance, whatever its causes, is a real problem, and begin to ponder what might be done to ameliorate the damage it causes.

In my fantasy world, outsiders, especially conservatives, would ponder their own role in the problem. They would not be so quick to blame everything on bias in faculty hiring. My own experience from many years in the natural sciences, in something approaching a hundred faculty hiring, tenure, and promotion cases, is that nothing having to do with political views plays much of a role. (I wouldn’t say the same of high administrative positions.) And yet, I have no doubt that even the natural science faculties lean heavily to the left. Whatever the complete explanation for the faculty tilt, a greater taste for academic life among people of the left is a big part of it.

Another thing: it doesn't help that so many conservative academics and scholars have shunned academia for conservative institutes and think tanks, where the teaching loads are low, to put it mildly, along with the chance to influence students.

If conservatives really want to do something about the ideological imbalance on campus, it won't do to shun graduate studies, take up a pose of disdain for the campus, and opt for greener pastures.

The situation was typified perfectly, if perhaps unwittingly, in a recent Wall St. Journal column, in which Naomi Schaefer Riley pondered "The Ivory Tower Leans Left, but Why?" Her final sentence said it all: "If you want to know why conservatives don't get doctorates, maybe it's because they just don't like hanging out with the people who do."

To which I say, "If you don’t play the game, don't complain when you don't win."

Here's the first comment:

The point re conservatives not playing the game is a reasonable point vs conservatives as a group. The left, being very concerned with groups, thinks this way. The fact is that conservatives as individuals find that if their views become public they will be ostracized, at the least. More typically, on any subjective evaluation, they will receive lower grades, less likely to be hired, much less likely to get tenure, etc. than those spouting the liberal mantras. DO NOT say this isn't true; I have personal experience -- ask any conservative that has ever attended college. You learn quite quickly that if you expect to pass Freshman English with a decent grade you either write non-ideological prose, or fake the leftist view. It goes on from there.

In the sciences (my field) life is lot more objective. Politics doesn't really matter--you either proved the theorem or didn't. Opinon matters a lot less. I think this, in part, plays part of why the hard science faculty is a lot less ideological.

So--as individuals, we tend to go find a playing field that isn't so tilted. Where we aren't ridiculed, shouted down, graded down, and not presumed, a priori, as intellectually inferior. There are good conservative writers--you just don't find them in the English Department.

As a group, it would be in our best interests to grin and bear it, but individual interests, such as feeding the family, suggest strongly otherwise.

And here's the second:

Dr. Kellman's comments certainly merit consideration, but I beg to differ on several points.

For one, I very much disagree with his premise that no one really does run the zoo. Translation: Claims of a heavily biased, left-leaning PC-dominated academy -- both within the administrative and faculty ranks -- are somewhat of an exaggeration. Sorry, Dr. Kellman, they are not.

The space allowed here would be inadequate to describe the heavily politicized curriculum, faculty-hiring process, and programs and policies in place at the institution at which I work. For example, a standard question to applicants for a faculty or administrative position continues to be as follows: "How would you demonstrate your commitment to diversity?" Applicants who want to be considered for the post know that they had better talk about their commitment to "racial and ethnic diversity", not "intellectual diversity." So much for the chances of Dr. Kellman, who professes to rejecting race-based preferences, to even get the proverbial “foot into the door.”

The curriculum, too, is rife with courses that are reflected through the prevailing prism of group identity. The faculty is routinely encouraged to incorporate "multicultural perspectives" and "gender issues" into the development of new course outlines and programs.

Lest one thinks that students themselves are exempt from this troubling phenomenon, permit me to give you only one of countless examples of student coercion along the PC lines. A student recently informed me that as part of his admission to a UC graduate program in Physics -- yes, Physics! -- he had to write an essay on how he would present the subject matter to individuals of "historically underrepresented groups." That debunks the myth that the so-called hard sciences are immune to infection with the PC virus altogether.

The larger issue, however, is that the narrow focus on social justice and minority issues in contemporary higher education severely limits the broad, unfettered debate that undergirds a genuine liberal education. Arguably, the physical and natural sciences are much less shackled by the various forms of PC than disciplines such as Sociology, Political Science, or History -- the latter with its tendentious revisionism. But the question beckons: Shouldn't all educators, regardless of the prevalence or degree of politicization in their respective fields, harshly condemn said politicization's destructive effect on producing truly learned men and women?

Sylvia Wasson

I'm rushing off to an appointment--but want to flag just a few things about this exchange.

First, I think it captures neatly not only some of the major problems with the current one-sidedness of the faculty, but also some of the problems that tend to arise when we try to talk about that. For example, people who are concerned about that one-sidedness are not uniformly--or even mostly--advocates for conservative affirmative action. I'm certainly not.

Second, to say that in some fields bias is endemic is not to say that vast hordes of conservatives get turned away at the hiring stage--they don't, and that's because there is at this point such an identity between certain political leanings and humanist training, humanist scholarship, and humanist job descriptions that most people with consciously centrist or conservative leanings get weeded out--or eliminate themselves from contention--long before the hiring moment arrives. Likewise, those more malleable students, the ones without a clear sense of politics (i.e., the majority), tend simply to morph into conformity with the ideas, assumptions, and interests that surround them in their courses and their assigned reading. They often don't recognize these things as containing any sort of slant; without contrasting perspectives, they can't. It's tautological.

That is certainly how it works in English--there are very few hard core, self-conscious leftists among students or faculty, but there are a great many who have readily and unselfconsciously habituated themselves to a style of thought and a set of premises that are absolutely politicized. It's this sort of soft leftism--ambient, saturating, normal, and unremarked--that is the real kicker in the humanities. There is no real need for overt radicalism in the classroom or bias in grad admissions or hiring, because the people who get that far into the disciplinary culture are, by definition, deeply acculturated. Having only been exposed to one outlook, they simply can't imagine another way to look at things--and that's bad for free inquiry, bad for intellectual development, bad for teaching, study, and scholarship.

Third, I think Mike dispenses rather too quickly with "conservatives" who "have had their careers trashed." It happens, either actively or passive-aggressively, at every level of the system, and it is connected to the biases whose existence he questions. I have watched brilliant undergrads be unable to embark on graduate study--because they dared to question the politicized intellectual orthodoxy of their professors and so could not get good letters of recommendation. I have known others who were shunned by professors who found their interest in traditional topics beneath them. I have seen students and faculty blackballed for going against the grain--and I have seen faculty and students stand by and watch it happen, either because they thought the blackballing was well deserved, or because they were afraid of what would happen to them if they spoke up. I have seen hiring decisions turn on such questions as race, sex, and national origin, when those were not politically correct; I have also watched those perpetrating such fraud mask it with elaborate intellectual rationales--grounded, usually, in criticisms of the scholarship--for why the individual in question is professionally undeserving.

In the academic humanities, there is never a good time to get labeled "conservative." Even if you have tenure when the label gets applied, you can still experience social and professional death--through everything from hostile shunning to harassment and stalking to below-the-radar administrative aggressions such as punitively small or nonexistent raises. It doesn't do to downplay such things, especially when they happen with the full imprimatur of the administration, often as administrative actions. There's an awful lot that can be done while still remaining technically within the bounds of policy.

All of this is to say, though, that I appreciate Mike's insistence that even if you don't believe these things happen--or even if you think it's just fine that they do--that academics really need to take another look at their homogeneity, and figure out an ethical way to do something about it. As Michael Berube writes in his What's Liberal about the Liberal Arts?, it's not just that having more political and intellectual variety in the academy will benefit those who are currently outnumbered--it's also that it will sharpen up the resident majority. There's no better way to hone and develop your ideas and your effectiveness as a teacher and scholar than to be seriously challenged by those who disagree with you. That's a basic truth that has gotten lost.

posted on July 8, 2008 8:19 AM

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A quick question: Do you think the elimination of tenure would help or hurt conservatives in the humanities?

FWIW, I couldn't help but smile when I read this story about the faculty member fired for her union activities -- at a college without tenure. Because as we all know, faculty are so much better off at schools without tenure....

Posted by: Eveningsun at July 8, 2008 11:59 AM

I think it's evident that tenure isn't protecting them now. It's shoring up what Alan Kors likes to call an "ideological fiefdom" that is very careful about who gets to join. It does nothing whatsoever to protect students, adjuncts, or assistant professors, and it selects for people who succeed by conforming to the system. It's also protecting classroom conduct of the sort I describe above; in an IHE interview last week, Stanley Fish estimated that around 5-10% of professors abuse the classroom in politicized ways. That's not a number to sneer at--it's something like 85,000 to 170,000 people. And we both know where they are likely to be concentrated.

When I say I have problems with tenure, as I did in that recent post, you seem to assume that I think we ought to just move academe into at-will employment and you proceed to argue from there, with evident disdain. But you're fighting a straw man. I would like to see fixed term contracts with clear standards for dismissal and renewal, standards that protect academic freedom but also are quite clear about what academic freedom is and what it is not. Those contracts could be fairly substantial in length--they have to be to accommodate the slow pace of meaningful research and intellectual development. What they would do is balance academic freedom against accountability--no firing people on the spot for speaking out on issues, for example, or leading a union; but regular, transparent, reasonable review to ensure that teaching, research, and service are up to snuff. A meaningful post-tenure review process would just about accomplish this very thing--but then, that's why so many schools only have meaningless post-tenure review on the books.

By the way -- I notice your school gets a red light rating from FIRE for its speech code. Are you using your tenure to fight that? Do you know anyone who is?

Posted by: Erin O'Connor at July 8, 2008 12:26 PM

Yes, I have used my tenure to fight for free speech on my campus. (See here. Pimp-Smackin' McCracken graduated a couple years back but dropped by just a couple weeks ago to chat and to thank me again. The housing authority who censored him is no longer working here. But I am!)

I have also used my tenure to go to bat for our student newspaper. In one incident the administration wanted us to squelch a story about radiation levels beneath the college radio station transmitter (which had somehow been located too close to inhabited space). The administration was worried about PR and about liability, but I felt comfortable telling them to solve those problems by coughing up the money to move the bleepin' transmitter. (Which they did. We got a hardware upgrade out of it, too. Heh heh.)

My tenure also protects my academic freedom in the most basic sense of the term, by freeing me up to teach in controversial ways. Unlike any other American lit teacher I know of, I teach excerpts from the writing of Joseph Smith (along with other religious texts that have long been standards of American lit syllabi, like Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God and the Journal of John Woolman). My area has a large and conservative LDS population, and the local leadership is not happy with the fact that LDS students are getting a secular-academic-literary-historical perspective on things like the Book of Mormon and the King Follett Discourse. My classes have occasionally been monitored to see what I'm saying about these texts. But to no avail--I've got tenure.

As for the speech code rating, I'm hoping to interest one of our student journalists in doing a story on it this fall. As far as I can tell, the main problems are the Declaration of Tolerance (which I've vocally opposed, mild as it is) and the "window decoration" policy in the Residence Handbook (which uses a "community standards" criterion and bans "controversial and antagonistic" expressions). I'm looking forward to the ensuing turmoil, though I probably wouldn't be if I didn't have tenure. Or even if I had a five-year contract. Some people have long memories.

Posted by: Eveningsun at July 8, 2008 1:36 PM

Glad to hear it. And trust me, I know about the long memories.

Posted by: Erin O'Connor at July 8, 2008 1:42 PM

It is a wonder that employees in other fields have managed to survive and succeed without tenure policies. Eveningsun's post about the benefits of tenure begs several questions: How did he speak truth to power before he obtained tenure? How free was he to "teach in controversial ways" before his academic coronation? What protected him from the thin-skinned tenured and administrative bullies during the (5-10?) years spent toiling in the groves of academe? Silence? Teaching in approved ways?

Posted by: TG at July 8, 2008 9:41 PM

One other point, Erin, about the ideological bias. Academic hiring in no way proceeds by democracy. I am a pro-market libertarian, but also a socially-liberal Christian, at a top grad program in the behavioral sciences. I keep both of these facts to myself b/c they would color the perception of any academic who met me.

Hirings can often be held up by the squeakiest wheel who is determined to hire one person or to not hire another. Fish estimates 5-10% people who overstep their professional bounds politically, but all it takes is one person to kill your chances at a job.

Posted by: Scholes at July 8, 2008 11:25 PM


Yep. Silence and teaching in the approved ways. Stay under everyone's radar and then, once you get tenure, do what you know you should have been doing all along.

Posted by: Winston Smith at July 10, 2008 1:49 PM

TG and Winston, that's not exactly how things have worked in my experience. When you get get hired, your department knows, or should know, what it's getting. If you interviewed honestly, there should be no reason to be silent and "teach in approved ways"--just be the person the department believed it was hiring. Over time, as you mature in your field, evaluate what does and does not work for you in the classroom, that's when you'll possibly find yourself at odds with colleagues. Also as time goes on you find yourself serving on higher-profile committees, maybe the faculty senate, or whatever. Before tenure, you're typically making the transition to the classroom, working to get your dissertation published, etc., which is to say, being the person who was hired, not being someone else to avoid trouble.

When I was first hired I had no idea I would someday be adding Mormon texts to my American lit syllabus. And I certainly wasn't serving on my faculty senate butting heads with the administration. Those things came later.

Anyway, I'm not sure I get the logic. If tenure's a good thing, then surely having it for the greater part of one's career is better than never having it at all. If tenure's a bad thing, then the fact that it takes awhile to get it seems irrelevant.

Scholes, as a "pro-market" socially liberal Christian you would certainly not be alone at my school.

Posted by: Eveningsun at July 10, 2008 4:08 PM

The logic is that tenure policies do not protect the most vulnerable among the faculty ranks. Why shouldn't a bright, young teacher be able to teach in controversial ways? The subjects of MLK's plagiarism, first noted by a black scholar, the campus rape myth, noted by Heather Macdonald and others, or the hysteria and political agendas common to women's studies departments, written about magisterially by Daphne Patai, come to mind. It should be all good, right? But it is common knowledge that it is definitely not considered to be all good in academe. On most college campuses, crazy Joe Smith and those LDS automatons with their name badges and "gee whiz, that left hook hurt like all heck!" way of speaking are easy targets. Black on black violence and the unfairness of Title IX programs - just two examples - are verboten, even for most tenured folks. It's an ethical - do the right thing - issue. Why do college professors need tenure when other people in other fields manage without it? Why do academics act this way? Are intellectual hatreds, even ones over minor differences of opinion, deeper than others? Sadly, this appears to be the case. I'm glad that you stand up for free speech though. Good on you.

Posted by: TG at July 10, 2008 9:42 PM

TG, you ask, "Why shouldn't a bright, young teacher be able to teach in controversial ways?" Such a teacher should be able to do so. Lots of things should be the case. But I still don't see your point. I doubt you're suggesting that tenure should be granted at the moment of hiring. I think you're suggesting that tenure is bad because it only applies to part of an academic career rather than all of it. That strikes me as a pretty weird argument. If we assume tenure is good, then tenure for part of a career is better than tenure for none of a career. If we assume tenure is bad, then further argument is unnecessary.

You also ask, "Why do college professors need tenure when other people in other fields manage without it?" Um, maybe because a college is not a business? Anyway, if the arguments for tenure are sound, they're sound regardless of whether they would apply in other fields. Might as well ask, "Why do law firms need partners when internet startups manage without them?"

I don't understand what you're getting at with some of your examples. Daphne Patai was ten years into her career when she published Professing Feminism, by which time she presumably had tenure. Are you arguing that had she worked at a school without tenure she might have published this book earlier? Seems just as likely that at a school without tenure she might not have published it ever. You seem to be suggesting that she delayed publication out of fear she would be denied tenure. But it might have been the case that she started out as a believer in academic feminism and didn't begin her criticism until she became disillusioned with it. I wouldn't want to talk about the timing here until I knew more.

I've said this before, but it might bear repeating here. All these questions have been hashed out time and again in the past, yet tenure endures. The system isn't likely to change without effectively engaging people like me. You might consider the possibility that it's counterproductive to sling around insulting stereotypes (like the idea that academics are peculiarly prone to petty squabbling).

Posted by: Eveningsun at July 11, 2008 8:22 AM

P.S. re TG's claim that "black on black violence" is "verboten, even for most tenured folks," I spent a few minutes on Google and turned up plenty of counter-evidence. Maybe what's "verboten" is the idea that black people are intrinsically more prone to violence than white people. Think for a moment about the incredible bloodshed in the European Theater in WWII. This aspect of history has been studied exhaustively in the academy, though never under the heading of "white-on-white" violence. It's always been studied in terms of social, cultural, national, or historical context, not in racial terms. Why then do people (generally conservatives) demand that violence between black people be studied under the sign of race, that is, as black-on-black violence?

TG, just because academics don't frame an issue as you would like them to doesn't necessarily indicate a problem (at least not a problem in academia). Sometimes it's just a sign that academics have thought things through a bit more than you have, or that they don't share certain questionable habits of thinking.

For all I know, Leonard Jeffries bemoans the fact that "white-on-white violence" is "verboten" in academia. Maybe he even considers it just more proof of the intellectual totalitarianism resulting from tenure.

Posted by: Eveningsun at July 11, 2008 9:14 AM

"In the sciences (my field) life is lot more objective. Politics doesn't really matter--you either proved the theorem or didn't. Opinon matters a lot less. I think this, in part, plays part of why the hard science faculty is a lot less ideological."

Try telling that to a science faculty member who is skeptical about global warming, who believes life begins at conception, who has reservation about the harvesting of stem cells from human embryos, etc. etc. etc. For that matter, try telling that to any person who is an active participant in any theologically conservative Christian tradition. It's getting to the point these days that if you don't sign off on the Enlightenment-rationalist party line, you're branded as "anti-Reason" and a threat to democracy, and your career is on thin ice.

Posted by: Robert at July 16, 2008 9:00 AM

Robert: I'm somewhat reluctant to pop back in here, but let me say this. I have some credentials as a scientist, I am somewhat skeptical -- open-minded is perhaps a better way to put it -- about global warming, and I have expressed some of this quite publicly, despite the fact that the climate is not my field of expertise. And you know what? I have survived, I haven't lost my (tenured) job, I haven't been ostracized. Maybe some people think I'm crazy, but I've actually had some rational discussions, with scientists and non-scientists both, about the reasons for my point of view. Maybe I would be less sanguine if I were actually in the field of climate science, but my background is what it is.

The other things you mention, like when human life begins (or personhood, perhaps), or the acceptability of stem cell research, are matters of values -- not of natural science, as it is generally understood today, per se. And anyone who gets involved in controversies about values, scientist or not, is entering the fray, and should know that beforehand.

But you know what? There are not a few persons who are part of "theologically conservative tradition" of various stripes who are also natural scientists and mathematicians. Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox Christians (and for that matter, Orthodox Jews). I know or have known some of them. Having their views publicly known may not always have made their professional lives easy, but it hasn't destroyed them, either. Oh, if you are going to do molecular biology and you are a proponent of Intelligent Design, you better be ready to back it up with some real science.

Posted by: Michael Kellman at July 16, 2008 9:28 AM

Robert, maybe it's a good thing Michael Behe has tenure. (But wait--I thought academics of the type you've just describe don't even exist in academia!)

Anyway, any academic who says "life begins at conception" should be more precise. It's not life that's at issue, it's personhood. This is a pretty important distinction, and any pro-life academic who doesn't make it needs to think things through a little bit before asking to be taken seriously.

FWIW, Robert, that bit about how "if you don't sign off on the Enlightenment-rationalist party line, you're branded as 'anti-Reason' and a threat to democracy" applies as much to postmodernists as to conservative Christians.

Posted by: Eveningsun at July 16, 2008 9:39 AM

Robert wrote:

It's getting to the point these days that if you don't sign off on the Enlightenment-rationalist party line, you're branded as "anti-Reason" and a threat to democracy, and your career is on thin ice.

You may have conflated two things: for science to proceed, it's conclusions must be based on reason. But a reasoned conclusion alone is not science.

Religion, based on the laws of a supreme being, is highly reasoned, but it is not falsifiable, nor is it intended to be. How do you prove there is no God?

Science is quite different. At is core is the test of hypothesis. At its best, the test of an hypothesis is a very rigorous attempt to falsify it. If the hypothesis survives one such test, it is strengthened, but not proved correct. If it fails the test, it is falsified.

Timothy Sandefur wrote an interesting article entitled Reason and Common Ground: A Response to the Creationists' 'Neutrality' Argument. You can download a pdf of it by clicking the icon at the upper left of the page, and I urge you to read it through.

If I misunderstood you, I apologize in advance.

Posted by: Clawmute at July 16, 2008 11:15 AM