One of my favorite higher-education blogs is Tenured Radical, by Claire Potter, a history professor at a top liberal-arts college in the Northeast. Her latest entry takes up the issue of intellectual diversity — specifically, the hiring of conservatives — in academic searches. She looks at that issue with a characteristic combination of thoughtfulness, analytical rigor, and lack of dogma that is perhaps at odds with the title of her blog.
As I’ve said before, I’m in English, and came of age academically during the “canon wars” and the debates over “political correctness.” I am, by personal inclination, what you might call a pragmatic leftist (if my conservative friends and colleagues will grant that such a category exists at all), and “should,” by the predictive models of some critics of higher education, be an exemplar of exclusionary hiring practices that strongly favor liberals or radicals.
I have overseen a tremendous number of faculty searches, and have been party to a huge number of discussions about search parameters and desiderata, as well as conversations about particular candidates at various points in the process. The surprising thing about those experiences is actually how little “politics,” in the sense of dividing up the pool into left and right, has ever come into play.
There have certainly been a few instances where dogma of some kind (and it’s not always been leftist dogma) has had some impact on a search process. But in general, I’m pleased to say that my colleagues have genuinely looked for the best teacher, scholar, and colleague according to professionally reasonable measures rather than ideology. As a result, we’ve hired a mix of people with a mix of political positions and attitudes.
Something that Tenured Radical’s entry doesn’t really bring up is the interesting dichotomy between “political” conservatism and “academic” conservatism, and I think that distinction is worth probing. I don’t think, for example, that a strong interest in Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton necessarily makes one a political reactionary even if one’s approach to those texts is traditional in the extreme. Similarly, I have known some quite conservative colleagues who have had pretty radical scholarly and pedagogical programs in areas like Queer Theory. I’ve even known a couple of leftist bibliographers!
The point really is that academic politics — in the macro sense rather than institutionally — are pretty complex. We tell our students to avoid simplistic dichotomies and to develop comfort with ambiguity, inconclusiveness, and honest debate. When it comes to the politics of our colleagues, I think we ought to model that approach ourselves.