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Ask The Radical: Have You Stopped Discriminating Against Republicans Yet? Or; Do Political Views Count As Diversity?

October 18, 2009, 2:43 pm

The other day the Radical mailbox yielded the following:

Dear Dr. Radical,

Occasionally a parent, a trustee or an alumnus/a approaches me who wants to know how many conservatives we have on our faculty, and why we do not diversify our teaching staff by hiring more conservatives. Alternatively, the query might be framed around political party affiliation: how many registered Republicans are on the faculty, and why do students not have opportunities to take more classes from Republicans? Such questioners often frame their inquiry in terms of the university’s stated interest in hiring and retaining a diverse faculty. Others claim that a student they know well has complained of finding the campus unfriendly to conservative thought, had difficulty in finding teachers and classes that reflect a conservative point of view, or had no choice but to take classes that are so relentlessly liberal in their orientation as to be boring and repetitive.

How should I respond to such questions?

Signed,

A Top Administrator

This isn’t the first time this question has been posed directly to me, or in my presence. Usually it makes me want to leave the room for a cup of tea while other people discuss it. How anyone actually knows the political makeup of any given faculty is beyond me, unless they have really devoted time to studying it. More importantly, generalizations about the political orientation of faculties seems to me to be one of the huge grab bag of non-issues invented by a right-wing that is blatantly hostile to education more generally. Despite what seems to me to be a partisan agenda inherent in the question, and its lack of fit with the world of education I inhabit, the notion that secular campuses are hotbeds of left-wingery is one of the more successful ways that conservative assumptions have penetrated mainstream thought. When I was young, prior to a political moment when telling casual, ironic jokes about violence against women was revealed as not-funny, adults used to refer to questions that had no good answer as being similar to the following: “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?” Yes would reveal a reformed wife-beater, while no… well, you get the point.

See? Not funny. But the lesson about how rhetoric alone can create stigma is a good one. The reason this bad joke comes to mind is that top administrators, because of their role as spokespeople for and caretakers of institutions of higher learning, are, in part, paid to answer such inquiries from people who support colleges and universities financially – boards of education, legislators, alumni/ae, trustees and parents. They are not paid to answer such questions when posed by organizations like David Horowitz’s Students for Academic Freedom (“How can you get a good education if they are telling you only half the story?” the website asks), Stanley Fish and other scholars who see themselves as fully engaged in the battle against campus liberalism (which is what is meant when people refer to the problem of “political correctness.”) But they try, and usually not very successfully.

Therefore, while I can’t “answer” the question that has no answer (and neither can you, Top Administrator), I would like to take a stab at reframing the issue by looking at its component parts: why is the question framed as if the political beliefs of faculty members constitute a form of diversity (equivalent to race or gender) that a responsible administration should attend to; what does this have to do with education; and should students be interrogating faculty, or faculty interrogating each other, about their politics?

Why is the question framed as if the political beliefs of faculty members constituted a form of diversity (equivalent to race or gender) that a responsible administration should attend to? I think this points to residue from the various challenges to the academy that were posed by the civil rights and feminist movements that is rarely examined nowadays: under what conditions does identity matter? And what do we mean by identity anyway? And is diversity really about having different “identities” represented on one’s faculty? And when did one’s political stance become an “identity”?

Strictly speaking, diversity used to mean a university paying serious attention to redressing various forms of discrimination against people whose race or gender was, for centuries, seen as unsuited to serious intellectual labor. By the 1970s, legal mandates about representation began to set the standard for integrating one’s faculty; but in the last ten years challenges to what we used to call affirmative action diluted institutional efforts considerably. Nowadays, affirmative action training usually begins and ends with a handout that asks us all gently and suggestively to “look around the room” and “notice who isn’t there” when we are making hiring decisions.

This is the state of play now, and it is terrible hiring policy for so many reasons, not the least of which is the assumption that you can look around the room and know who is there and not there. It has nothing to do with guarding against active discrimination against people or points of view; in fact, it asks us to make independent, presumptuous judgments that can easily conflate the person we think we see with a point of view we assume that person will have. It asks established scholars to believe that everyone in a job search is equally credentialed and that the intellectual requirements for a job are interchangeable as long as you get the right body in the room. It creates no mechanism for actually making departments more diverse because there is no common understanding about why departments are not diverse in the first place, what kind of “differences” might be intellectually generative, or what constitutes a fair hiring policy. In fact, one wonders why we are talking about political orientation at all when current hiring practices still seem to be producing faculties that are overwhelmingly white in a nation steadily becoming more brown; or why some departments are persistently so male when there are ample numbers of female Ph.D.s on the market in that discipline.

What the failure of affirmative action opened the door to, in my view, is a kind of vague idea in secular institutions that any kind of “difference” could be articulated as an “identity,” and that a representation of all “identities” — even if the faculty as a whole was pretty monolithic otherwise — solved a problem of employment discrimination that few people wanted to discuss in the first place. As a political progressive, I can attest that people of good will affirm a great many things that we have no real basis for believing. We also tend to ignore the fact that the fruits of our labors have been pretty mixed when it comes to achieving integration or intellectual diversity on our faculties. That conservatives are now stepping up and claiming a piece of the pie seems like a logical outcome of this; that conservatism is being claimed as an “identity” seems to me to be the price you pay to get into the game.

So one of the things I would advise, Top Administrator, is that you respond to queries of this sort by saying that good hiring policies prohibit asking any job candidate about partisan affiliations, sexuality, marital s
tatus, or philosophical positions that are not relevant to the job description at hand. But I would also suggest that you ask departments to periodically discuss with each other why they hire the people they do; what their needs are; and whether what they perceive as their hiring needs actually reflect the newest and most interesting developments in their fields.

What does this have to do with education? The collapse of the academy as a white male preserve in the first place had at least as much to do with barring formal discrimination as it did recruiting and encouraging those who had been excluded for centuries. But, aside from making it possible for a wider variety of people to do intellectual work and creating vibrant fields of study, why did opening up the academy really matter? Well, we’re not sure, because that question was never answered except by vague gestures that inferred the following: the only reason women and people of color had not taken their rightful place in the academy was that they had low self-esteem and didn’t pursue advanced work. Mentoring — by people “like them,” and beginning at the undergraduate level– would solve this problem.

This idea that the overwhelming whitemaleness of the academy was no one’s fault, but merely due to a lack of mentoring and role models (despite abundant evidence that women, Jews and people of color with excellent self-esteem were actively barred and discouraged from pursuing higher education for generations) presents us with a funny little historical contradiction. On the one hand, it is an unquestioned assumption that non-white, non-male (or as feminist John Stoltenberg used to put it, “non-penised”) individuals need to see people “like them” in the classroom, in order to aspire to excellence. On the other hand, it is abundantly clear that most of what constitutes an “establishment” of senior scholars in women’s studies, African American Studies, queer studies and ethnic studies (who are women and people of color) managed to aspire to and achieve excellence by working with scholars who were, in fact, overwhelmingly penised and white. Those of us who were educated in the 1970s and 1980s know perfectly well that a teacher doesn’t have to “look like me” to be an excellent mentor, and that teachers who do “look like me” are sometimes generous, and sometimes can be cruel and discouraging.

In other words, despite the fact that we don’t actually know whether identity matters in the classroom, we continue to assert that it does. Again, why wouldn’t conservatives want a piece of the pie if this were how the game is played? Why wouldn’t the vision of sad little teenaged conservatives with low self-esteem, being discriminated against or ignored by mean-spirited liberals who don’t see them for “who they really are”, be a logical extension of the parable progressives tell about defeating race, gender and religious discrimination in the academy in the latter half of the twentieth century?

So Top Administrator, assuming you still have the attention of the individual who asked the question, this is what you need to say: that good teaching means attending to, listening to, and taking seriously all of one’s students. And being a good student means beginning with the assumption that when you are criticized by a teacher it is meant positively, not as a wholesale condemnation of who you are as a person.

Finally, we live in an imperfect world and schools are a reflection of that — not a refuge from it. Taking account of negative reactions to your ideas and meeting critiques with thoughtful, articulate and well researched responses is the primary responsibility of a student. Studding a transcript with grades achieved by telling people in authority what you think they want to hear is not. Hearing only positive responses to what one already believes is a path to complacency and irrelevance, on the left or on the right. In the end, when students truly feel overwhelmed and unheard, it isn’t a question of political discrimination. Any professor who is teaching ideology without permitting, encouraging and modeling critique is not teaching well. The corollary to that is that students who fear reasonable criticism to the extent that they refuse to disagree or support their disagreement with cogent arguments are gaming the system for grades, not growing intellectually.

Should students be interrogating faculty, or faculty interrogating each other, about their politics? Interrogating, no. Be interested and constantly inquiring, yes. Recently Cary Nelson (the other Tenured Radical, or some might say, the original one) was on our campus and stated unequivocally that he believed professors should model advocacy in the classroom because it is an important component of citizenship. Students, he argued, need to learn how to articulate and fight for what they care about. I agree with this. Most of our students won’t go on to be academics; some will go on to be lawyers; but all will continue on in life as citizens. My one reservation is that I think one can often advocate convincingly for things one does not believe, and that a good teacher does this: again, it isn’t my responsibility to send students out in the world as much “like me” as possible, but rather to model excellent intellectual inquiry so that they can learn how to be their best selves. Listening carefully to, and accurately representing, things you do not believe is an important component of much advocacy.

What I would argue strongly against is encouraging an atmosphere of suspicion between students and faculty. Regardless of actual time spent a deux, the relationship between teacher and learner is an intimate one, and it can be productively or destructively intimate. Constructive intimacy would include assuming that both parties are of good faith; that either party can make an error without being charged with deliberate deception, stupidity or bad faith; that either party can say what s/he believes and be heard out; that skepticism is healthy and productive; and that the classroom atmosphere is safe for the introduction of a minority perspective that has some basis in fact and is conducive to logical argument. A constructively intimate relationship would allow either party to argue a position s/he does not believe in, possibly to test the consequences of that paradigm shift as a strategy for truth seeking, without being accused of lying or currying favor.

Where conservatives are not helping students at all, in my view, is when they encourage them to assume that faculty members are by nature untrustworthy (in fact, probably liars) unless they “come out” as conservatives themselves. So, Top Administrator, a final piece of good advice would be to advise your questioner that a student only has a limited number of classes to take in college, and that student needs to make the most of every one of them by finding the teachers who nourish an intellectual atmosphere where they are best able to learn.

A final word: unlike other forms of diversity, it is impossible to cherish the fantasy that you can eyeball a faculty meeting and know how many conservatives there are, nor would many people who actually are conservative always describe themselves that way. A fair number of people are conservative on some issues and progressive on others. In addition, academic watchdogs rushing down to the registrar of voters to see whether we are all registered as Democrats has led to the assumpti
on that the “conservatives” on a faculty would naturally be “Republicans.” But this flies in the face of what we know about politics, and how regional party affiliation is. Yes, I know that the Republican Party believes it has the lock on conservatism, but the national debate on health care reform and the current deal making in the Senate is a reminder that although there are few Republican liberals left, there are lots of conservative Democrats. My guess is that there isn’t a single Republican in my department (because to be a Republican in Zenith is to commit yourself to voting in politically irrelevant primaries over and over again), but I could name several self-proclaimed conservatives off the top of my head, and most of the department occupies a big, fat — oops, I mean vital — center, not any kind of a left.

Top Administrator, don’t be pushed around by this one. It’s a canard. But your campus may, like mine, be very liberal all the same. In that case, you need to emphasize that it can be bracing to be a conservative student in what seems to be an overwhelmingly liberal environment; the opposite can be equally bracing. I would also argue that no student at a place like Zenith, who will graduate having taken classes from a maximum of 32 scholars out of over 200, is in a position to judge what the political slant of the faculty as a whole is, and that would be even more true of very large schools. When students talk about the burden of political correctness, they are, in fact, usually talking about their fear of being disliked by those they see the most of: other students, who can say incredibly harsh things to those they disagree with, and need no help from the faculty to encourage them to do so.

But in the end, what is wrong with asking when we stopped hiring Republicans is that to answer it on its own terms is to accept the premise that education is more or less a cookie cutter, and that all schools should be all things to all people. It puts the onus for delivering a good education on ideology, not pedagogy, and fails to underline each student’s responsibility for stepping up to the plate intellectually wherever s/he happens to be enrolled. It reinforces the notion that original thinking is dangerous, that grades rest on whether the student is well liked and can repeat what the teacher “wants” to hear. It assumes that good ideas require safety, not risk-taking; that a student is learning best when s/he is comfortable and in an affirming space. It encourages students to interpret discomfort and uncertainty as a sign that one’s education is being mishandled. And whereas conservative activists are quick to judge liberal universities for excluding conservatives, they don’t seem to worry about conservative and religious schools erecting explicit ideological barriers to employment, and restricting ideas that can be presented in a classroom. Many young right-wingers choose to go to schools that are famous for their conservatism, where there is a substantial conservative presence, schools that have “morals clauses” restricting faculty employment and matriculation, and where graduation requirements do not include grappling with moral worlds and ideas a student does not understand, does not wish to engage or to which s/he is already opposed.

If a conservative student has chosen your college, Top Administrator, that student must want what you and your faculty have to offer. Be ready to say what that is.

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Tenured Radical has been on an unplanned hiatus because of participation in the Head of the Charles regatta and a simultaneous effort to complete some long overdue work for people who still publish on paper, set deadlines, blah, blah, blah. Many apologies to those who have checked for new posts repeatedly and left weeping. Results for the Grand Master Women’s Singles can be found here: look towards the bottom of the list.

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