Surviving the Blue Academy: A Modest Proposal

Joseph M. Knippenberg

November 1, 2004

I was shocked, just shocked, to learn last week that registered Democrats far outnumbered registered Republicans on the faculties of some of America’s most prestigious college campuses. I’m shocked, just shocked, this way every couple of years whenever someone offers new research on the subject. And I could be shocked, just shocked, at least once a week when some new horror story regarding faculty political extremism filters out from behind the ivy-covered walls.

This year’s big news concerns two articles slated for publication in Academic Questions, the journal of the National Association of Scholars. Daniel B. Klein, an economist at Santa Clara University, and his colleagues reported the following findings (link is a PDF file):

  • In a survey of party registrations of faculty in selected departments at Berkeley and Stanford, Democrats outnumbered Republicans by a margin of roughly 10 to 1 at Berkeley and 8 to 1 at Stanford.
  • There were no registered Republicans in the departments of anthropology, sociology, and Romance languages at either institution.
  • The least imbalanced ratios at these two institutions seem to be in departments of mathematics and engineering, where Democrats outnumber Republicans by ratios of 3 or 4 to 1.
  • The greatest imbalances are found at the junior level (assistant and associate professors), which raises the possibility that the partisan distribution will be even more skewed in the future.
  • In a survey of voting behavior in six social scientific professional associations, Klein and a Swedish colleague found Democrat-Republican ratios ranging from 3 to 1 among economists all the way to 30 to 1 among anthropologists.
  • • On the basis of their research, they estimate that in humanities and social science departments across the campus, Democrats outnumber Republicans by a margin of at least 7 to 1.

Klein and his colleagues argue that in virtually every discipline and department on many campuses (especially, I would suggest, at high prestige research universities and national liberal arts colleges), conservative voices are marginalized. Students are rarely, if ever, exposed to opinions lying outside the liberal orthodoxy. Decisions about academic programs and about hiring reflect the wishes and will of the dominant majority.

For what it’s worth, I suspect that the research might overstate, albeit only slightly, how precarious the situation is for conservatives, and hence for intellectual diversity. There is at least the remnant of an ethos, once championed by the American Association of University Professors and now taken up by the National Association of Scholars, that holds that partisan politics has no place in the classroom. There are professors—registered as Democrats and Kerry supporters—who are fair-minded supporters of intellectual diversity, do not use their positions of academic authority to browbeat students and preach to a captive audience, do not inappropriately interject politics into their courses, and do not apply formal or informal “litmus tests” in their hiring decisions. There are even some who are political liberals and curricular conservatives, enthusiastically supporting honestly conceived “Great Books” programs, opposing grade inflation, and upholding academically rigorous courses and graduation requirements. I have and cherish such colleagues at my institution and know of others elsewhere across the country.

I fear, however, that their number is dwindling because they, for the most part, represent an older paradigm, one that has been challenged and overtaken in much of the academy. Nowadays the dominant ethos is one that denies the possibility of objectivity and open-mindedness, thereby giving free rein to passion and partisanship. Anyone who insists, for example, that our perspectives are essentially products of our race, ethnicity, gender, and/or sexual orientation (to name a few of the most prominent categories) will almost inevitably deny the possibility of genuinely dispassionate ratiocination, or of a mind whose only passion is to think or to learn. If everything is political and everything is personal, there’s no reason not to politicize the classroom. Ultimately, these folks are the unself-conscious or unacknowledged enemies of liberal education understood as the education of free human beings, i.e., human beings able to think for themselves.

What is to be done?

I’m almost tempted to say “nothing.” After all, the further out of touch my colleagues get with mainstream American opinion, the more they’ll marginalize themselves and their institutions. Donors will be less likely to fund nutty extremism and parents will be less likely to pay the outrageous tuition bills American colleges and universities charge. Students and donors will migrate to relatively sensible institutions and disciplines. Oglethorpe, Ashland, and, say, Baylor will be the Williamses and Harvards of the new American academic order.

In my dreams.

One problem is that there are nutty left-wing billionaires out there. Do the names George Soros and Peter Lewis ring a bell? According to an article in The Daily Princetonian, Lewis (Princeton ’55), who gave almost $23 million to anti-Bush 527s this election cycle, is his alma mater’s single largest contributor, donating $116 million to a number of different projects. George Soros’ Open Society Institute spent over $89 million in 2003 to promote his progressive agenda. (To be sure, Lewis’ contributions seem largely to have gone to the sciences at Princeton and Soros’ focus on “social justice” offers more support to advocacy organizations than to professors of cultural studies who deconstruct Marvel comics. Maybe at least these two aren’t so nutty after all.)

Beyond billionaires with left-wing political agendas, there are run-of-the-mill billionaires and millionaires who are loyal to their alma maters and not necessarily very inquisitive about the information provided them by the university fund-raisers. Also, when you’re talking about billion-dollar endowments, the high-prestige universities are largely immune to philanthropic pressure, at least until less fashionable institutions begin to provide real competition.

I’m also not terribly hopeful, at least in the short run, about the verdict of the student marketplace. There are plenty of eager consumers of professorial fluff and flattery, not to mention plenty of people who want prestigious degrees without having to face serious intellectual challenges. Many students are willing to indulge their professors’ vanity and ideological passions in exchange for generous grades. And many parents are more concerned with the marketability of the credentials for which they’re paying rather than with the content provided in the lecture halls and seminar rooms. So long as employers hire for brightness rather than for genuine learning, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Brown are pretty safe, regardless of the travesties they might happen to indulge in their classrooms.

I ask again: what is to be done?

We in the colleges and universities have to continue to provide a serious alternative for those students who have ears to hear. We have to show them that there are different ways of thinking than those provided by the regnant liberal and leftist academic orthodoxies, that sober and serious people can adopt and advocate different conclusions. While engaging in mutually respectful inquiry with them, we have to steel their spines for the times when others won’t play fair. And if we ourselves shrink from conflict or dissemble our opinions, we can’t exactly expect our students to have the courage of their convictions.

I have the luxury of teaching and being tenured in an institution that is more pluralistic and genuinely tolerant than most. I have never had to dissemble my views and have constantly been able to attract and mentor good students. I haven’t sought ideological clones, but rather folks whose minds are genuinely open, who are excited and inspired by the prospect of wrestling with big questions. But I have to be frank with them about life after their undergraduate days, since what they’re likely to find, if they stay in the academy, is a much less friendly and welcoming, and much more ideologically rigid, environment, both in graduate school and on the job market.

For those who aren’t so fortunate, I’d recommend academic entrepreneurship: find the wherewithal to create academic programs that are centers of integrity and excellence in your institutions—”Great Books” programs, leadership and citizenship programs, honors programs, and humanities centers. Myriad examples abound: the James Madison Program at Princeton; the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville; the Center for Inquiry in the Liberal Arts at Wabash College; the Center for Free Inquiry at Hanover College; the Interdisciplinary Program in Humane Studies at Kenyon College; and, of course, the Ashbrook Center. The point is to build the infrastructure of a genuine academic community outside or across the disciplines: meaty courses, devoted teachers and advisors, real colleagues, stimulating visitors, and, above all else, able students. A successful and even moderately well-funded program may be envied, but it cannot easily be dismantled and destroyed.

Those who are in a position to do so should also seek to hire excellent and fair-minded colleagues. Note what I did not say: I didn’t say “hire only conservatives.” As I suggested above, there is a pool—probably not as deep as it once was—of people who genuinely care about the life of the mind and take serious questions seriously, not all of whom vote Republican or could plausibly be described as political conservatives. (I have met many such people at meetings of organizations like the Association for Core Texts and Courses.) That they may arrive at different conclusions than I do on particular issues only makes them interesting as interlocutors. By reaching out in this way, you widen your circle of allies and deny to others the assertion of morally equivalent narrowness.

To those who are hired, I say: make it next to impossible for anyone to deny you tenure and promotion. Make sure that your teaching and professionalism are unimpeachable. Within the limits of good taste and academic integrity, be a good institutional citizen, serving on the appropriate committees and sharing in the thankless tasks in which we all must share. Establish and maintain contacts in other departments, in the administration, and with alumni and trustees. That sort of activity—unconnected as it may be with your immediate scholarly or intellectual interests—is often recompensed with influence.

In the end, I recognize that higher education might seem to be very unappealing to smart people who are out of tune with academic fashions and who have attractive prospects elsewhere. But it is essential for those of us who care about the permanent things and about the cultural heritage that provides a setting for inquiry into them to maintain a presence in the academy. There are rewards, present and future, for doing so, albeit not necessarily of the sort enjoyed by David Lodge’s character “Morris Zapp.” For those rewards—above all, conversations that bore the fruit of friendship with students and colleagues—I am thankful. ’Tis the season.

Joseph M. Knippenberg is Professor of Politics and Associate Provost for Student Achievement at Oglethorpe University.