Shock of the Week: Liberals in Liberal Arts
George Will’s column this week is unusually unreflective. I don’t often agree with Will, but he is usually a bright and well-informed columnist on the Reaganaut Right. He knows enough to castigate Justice Scalia for saying that Darwinian evolution is “only a theory” (a theory is a robust explanation well grounded in the evidence); and he knows that the Iraq war has been a disaster from beginning to end.
So it is surprising to see him parroting the ridiculous and pernicious line about major universities having few political conservatives in them.
There are all sorts of social-science problems with this allegation. First, what is the population that is being studied? Is it all tenure-track teachers in all universities in all schools and departments? Are we including two-year colleges? Four-year ones? Are we including Economics Departments, Business Schools, Medical Schools, Engineering schools?
If that were the pool, then academics probably mirror the general American society pretty closely. There are about 1.1 million post-secondary teachers in the United States. A lot of the ones in the Red States are conservatives, and a lot of the ones in the engineering schools everywhere are. So it simply is not true that “universities” are bastions of the political left. Moreover, there are almost no leftists in any major economics department in the United States, in contrast to Europe.
If what is being alleged is that the professors of History, English, Sociology, Anthropology, etc. at the top 25 universities in the US are disproportionately liberals, then that also raises questions. What is a “liberal?” If he means they vote Democrat, then so did, until recently, Zell Miller. And, what does it even mean to be a “liberal” in your study of Milton or of the French Revolution?
Then comes the question of “why”? If that is the question, it should be studied. The rightwing “think tanks” have not studied the question, and have only polemicized about these poorly constructed “studies.” (These are the same people who assured us that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and was 2-5 years from having a nuclear bomb.) In this instance, George Will jumps to conclusions about why.
I have been in a major history department for 20 years, and have served on innumerable search committees, in my own department and in other units on campus. I have never, ever, even once, heard any search committee member broach the political party affiliation of a candidate for a position, and there has never been any way to even know such a thing from the materials submitted. Hiring is done at the grass roots level in academic departments. The department appoints a search committee. The committee solicits manuscripts, reads widely, and decides on 10. Then it narrows those to 2-3 for a campus visit. Those finalists come and give a talk. If they seem less coherent or less able to engage with hard questions than their writing had suggested, then they are dropped. The question is always, “is this an interesting mind?” “Is this person’s methodology sound?” “Has this person mastered the relevant literature (i.e. has read the other articles and books on the subject)?” The manuscripts are read by the search committee, by the Department executive committee, by the faculty at large, by the School’s executive committee and deans, by the divisional committee (e.g. social sciences or humanities).
There would be no way to stack this process politically. The school executive committee is elected at large from all school departments; ours often has economists or biologists on it. The divisional committee often has political scientists. A substandard historian being hired only because he was a leftist would never get through this gauntlet. Each search committee is ad hoc, staffed according to field, and each differs in composition from the others. All the other committees are constantly rotating personnel, by election. There is no possibility of a centralized cabal that could appoint people of only one political coloration. In fact, David Horowitz wants to find a way to use state legislatures and congress to corrupt this grassroots and professional process by politicizing it and focusing on political outcome rather than academic achievement.
So if it were true that we don’t have many conservatives in the department, which I could not verify because it is a department of over 70 persons and I don’t know the politics of most of them, then how could that be explained?
That certain professions at certain points in time, skew politically, is demonstrable. For instance, back in the Eisenhower era, the US officer corps was about evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. Now, only 10 percent of US officers identify themselves as Democrats (a really worrying development). Yet the salaries of the officer corps is probably disproportionately provided by the blue states. Why should this have happened to the officer corps? Should Congress legislate political balance in the upper ranks of the US armed forces?
In immigration studies, there are “push” and “pull” factors. Some people emigrate because of war or poor economies. Some people are perfectly well off but emigrate for even greater opportunities. The former is a push factor. The latter is a pull factor.
The most logical explanation for any political bias in some parts of the professoriate in my view is that the sort of persons with the skills to be in a major academic liberal arts department could also be successful in business, lobbying, law, advertising and other well-paying professions. And it is the corporate world and its lobbying appendages that have the marked bias, to the Right. Someone who has academic skills but is a Republican would just have enormous opportunities and could easily become a multi-millionnaire. In contrast, academics on the Left would not be welcome in corporate boardrooms or at a think tank funded by Richard Mellon Scaife, and wouldn’t be comfortable in such a position. (All think tanks hire explicitly by ideology, and 17 of the 19 most influential ones in Washington are deliberately staffed by conservatives, but that doesn’t bother Will.)
Exhibit A is William J. Bennet. Bennett has a Ph.D. in political philosophy from the University of Texas. If he had been a man of the left, he would be teaching that subject at some small liberal arts college for $70,000 a year. Because he was on the Right, he had an entree to the Reagan administration, and rose to become Secretary of Education and then drug czar.
The vast opportunities open to an intellectual on the Right can be seen in Bennett’s career. It is often forgotten that he deserted public service as drug czar after only about a year, leaving all of his commitments unfulfilled. He was able to land at Joe Coors’s and Richard Mellon Scaife’s so-called American Heritage Foundation. Bennett’s opportunities were so many and so lucrative that the hard work of public service, and the ethics rules requiring careful reporting of income, seemed increasingly unappealing. The opportunities are so enormous, if one is willing to oppose affirmative action and support increasing inequality of wealth and bash unions, that it is even hard to keep such persons in high-profile, remunerative public service positions on the Right. They are sucked out of them by the corporate vacuum cleaner.
The next time we meet Bennett, he has somehow made so much money that he can drop $6 million in Las Vegas casinos in a single year (he says he won as much as he lost, which, if true, means he probably cheats). This level of gambling makes him a “whale” in casino terms, given all sorts of perquisites. That is a very different life than teaching in a small liberal arts college, having spent one’s youth making in the $20,000s and $30,000s a year (that would have been true of Bennett’s generation of academics). And the price of admission to all those riches? Say things like that “homosexuals” have an average lifespan of 42 years, or public education should be privatized, and blame poor people for being poor because they are lazy and immoral and gamble too much.
So, Mr. Will, it is the “pull” factor that explains your conundrum. Liberal academics aren’t viciously excluding conservative intellectuals who apply to teach hundreds of students a week for $45,000 a year (nowaday’s entry-level salary at a good liberal arts college), after they paid $100,000 for a Ph.D. in English literature from a top-rate university and spent 8 or 9 years beyond the BA toiling away as graduate students on tiny stipends. Conservative intellectuals don’t have to put up with that kind of thing (that is how they think of the privilege of teaching). They have other opportunities. They can be whales, and can pontificate on morality to the great unwashed.
As for Will’s argument that academia “has marginalized itself, partly by political shrillness and silliness that have something to do with the parochialism produced by what George Orwell called “smelly little orthodoxies.” Many campuses are intellectual versions of one-party nations — except such nations usually have the merit, such as it is, of candor about their ideological monopolies. ” — it is another instance of blaming the victim.
Academia has not marginalized itself. It has been marginalized. Perfectly reasonable beliefs such as that workers should have a right to explore unionizing without fear of being fired have been redefined by Joe Coors and Richard Mellon Scaife as “out of the mainstream.” Thinking that it was a bad idea to invade Iraq (as I said repeatedly in 2002 and early in 2003, even as I admitted Saddam’s atrocities) was defined as out of the mainstream and unpatriotic. Corporate media bring in a parade of so-called “experts” (often lacking credentials and saying ridiculous things) from “think tanks,” in Washington and New York instead of letting academics speak. (There are some exceptions, obviously, but I am talking about over-all numbers). Wouldn’t you like to hear about Ayman al-Zawahiri from someone who actually had read him in Arabic? The universities have such experts. The think tanks mostly just have smelly little orthodoxies of the Right.