February 14, 2002
What to do about liberal professors?

Megan McArdle has an interesting thread going about a survey commissioned by David Horowitz which claims that professors at Ivy League universities are much more liberal than the American population at large. The thread starts here, with followups here, here, and here.

I'm going to make one side comment first, just to get it out of the way. David Horowitz is, in my humble opinion, a complete nutbag. He sees Left-Wing Conspiracies everywhere he looks. He's a shameless publicity hound, and as his slavery-reparations advertisement debacle showed last year, an expert in playing the Professional Victim game. It's very difficult to believe that he commissioned this survey with an open mind, especially given that he hired Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who's been known to bend facts to suit his beliefs (see this Virginia Postrel archive page, and search for "Luntz").

All that said, it's certainly possible that they're right and that Ivy League professors are in fact way out of step with the rest of us Just Plain Folks. Well, then what? McArdle isn't sure:

It's important to look at the whole academy, but especially at humanities at elite schools, because that's where a majority of the media, especially the major media, derive their ideas, and there is data that suggests that they perceive the world to be centered considerably to the left of the country's political center, and that they tend to discount the bona fides of conservative intellectuals. Moreover, it would be better for the academy as a whole to have all sides represented in debates, so that students could develop sharper analytical skills. However, while it is important to address hiring bias, or self-selection due to perceived discrimination, it would be folly to enact remedies that lower the rigorous intellectual standards of the academy. The only caveat is that we must ensure that the existing professors don't set up the rigorous standards to exclude conservative thought.

Now, how do we bell the cat? Any suggestions?

There's a cheap joke about affirmative action for right-wing professors to be made here, but it's not what I came here to do. I'm genuinely interested in what sort of remedies might be acceptable to address this problem (and I'm not yet willing to concede that there is a problem; more on that later).

After all, why isn't the Free Market the solution here? Let everyone know the political leanings of every professor and institution, and thus let the informed consumers (i.e., those who plan on going to college) decide what best suits them. If the Ivies are too damn liberal, start your own college with a greater diversity of viewpoints, or just one which only allows right-wing professors. It's not like there's any restriction on founding a university. It simply takes money and people. Sure, you may not have the cachet of Harvard or Princeton, but if you truly believe that those schools are doomed to obsolescence by their slanted politics, then the market is ripe for a competitive alternative. Who's to say that in twenty or fifty years Reagan University can't be a top ten school? One of the commenters on Megan's last post explicitly makes this point.

Getting back to this issue of whether this is a problem at all if Horowitz's claims are true: I didn't go to an Ivy League school, but I did go to a very good private liberal arts institution. At the time I attended, many of the professors were relatively new hires. Most of them were children of the 60s, with the liberal creds to go along. I had my fair share of classes taught by unapologetic lefties. I like to think that my critical thinking skills came out more or less intact. Of course, I was a math major, and I managed to avoid some of the fluffier lib-arts classes.

But even still, my recollection of many of these liberal professors is that they were really good at their jobs. They were good teachers who respected their students and those students' opinions. I'd have to doublecheck with some of my Republican classmates, but at the time I don't recall any of them complaining about bias. Was I just lucky? I don't know.

This is just anecdotal evidence, so take it with the grain of salt it deserves. All I'm saying is that if the evidence does in fact show that Ivy League profs are Too Liberal For Our Own Good, that still doesn't mean that taking classes from them will turn you into a zombie of the radical left. Whether true or not, the Ivies have had the reputation of being a haven for lefties for years now. Anyone who goes there without knowing this beforehand has no real right to complain about it, and anyone who goes there with this foreknowledge is presumed to be forearmed. So what's the fuss?

Posted by Charles Kuffner on February 14, 2002 to Society and cultcha | TrackBack