other topics, politics

The “Intolerant” University


I am usually a fan of Nicholas Kristof’s op-eds in the New York Times. But as a recovering academic, I must take issue with his latest.


As its title suggests, the op-ed argues that academia is, despite its vaunted tolerance, intolerant – of conservatives. At first glance, Kristof appears to have the facts on his side. Especially in the humanities and social sciences, faculty members skew strongly liberal: only 2% of English professors identify as Republicans; 18% of social scientists claim to be Marxists. Most of the faculty members of every linguistics department I know are liberal. According to Kristof, faculty members express in surveys a preference for liberal colleagues. Most despised of all are evangelical Christians: according to another survey, this one conducted by an evangelical Christian sociologist, “59% of anthropologists and 53% of English professors would be less likely to hire someone they found out was an evangelical.”


Well, that sounds pretty intolerant, making academics look deeply hypocritical – demanding openness of others but creating for themselves closed societies of similar thinkers. Kristof goes on to suggest that, since “universities should be a hubbub of the full range of political perspectives” (because a necessary part of education is exposure to a spectrum of ideas), academia is the very worst place for such intolerance to exist. How embarrassing!


But I am not embarrassed, because Kristof’s argument is specious. People have at best only a superficial knowledge of how institutions operate, unless they themselves are directly involved in their operations. This is certainly true of university undergraduates: they don’t know about, and are mostly incurious about, the workings of institutions in which they spend four years or more. They don’t understand the status hierarchy that overtly or covertly pervades academia; can’t distinguish among administrators, professors, and TAs; have no notion how hiring works and how tenure is awarded; and know nothing of faculty self-governance. You would expect graduate students to be more interested in and more sophisticated about these matters, since they themselves hope to join the institution as full-fledged members before too long. But generally speaking, they aren’t.


I am sure Kristof spent time in college. But I would bet he didn’t pay much attention to the workings of the institution he attended. So he may grasp what the surveys he cites tell him about numerical inequality between liberals and conservatives on campus. But numbers might not be what the politics of academia are about. And Kristof doesn’t explore this fundamental question: what is the university, as an institution, about? If he did, he would see that the “liberal bias” of the university exists for a couple of important reasons, prejudice not being one. And if he looked at the university along with other similarly prestigious institutions, he would realize that all of them are very similar in their selectivity – and that there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s essential.


Take the Church, an institution even more venerable than the university. Like the University, the Church is selective in giving out its prestigious jobs. And just as the university prefers liberals, the church prefers conservatives: I would bet that if a survey were done analogous to the ones Kristof cites about the Church, a conservative “bias” would be evident.


And there would be nothing wrong with that.


Here’s why: the university has as its mission the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge. The church, by contradistinction, has as its mission the pursuit and dissemination of faith. Knowledge is not faith, and they are achieved in different ways.


To seek out knowledge, the university must be forward-looking in its methods. Scholars need to know what their field already knows or believes, and contrast that with something it does not yet know, that it is their job to uncover. The future will be brighter than the present because we will know more. Scholars do have a regrettable tendency toward overkill in this respect: we are apt to throw babies out with bathwater, discarding valuable past insights as we trade the past for the future. But so it is; we make progress this way.


Liberalism is also forward-looking. Liberals believe in progress, expecting that the Golden Age is yet to come. A liberal must see a better world that does not yet exist, and work towards the creation of that world. So there is an intrinsic connection between the mission of the university and its workers, and the politics of liberalism. Research is necessarily liberal in nature, concerned with discovering what is not yet known and therefore uprooting and discarding what we thought we knew.


But the church is backward-looking, committed to what was written and said by ancient authorities. To go against that is “heresy,” and very disruptive to the institution. What religion already knows and believes is held to be right, and so modern theologians are expected to find new ways to support old beliefs.


Conservatism likewise looks backward toward a past Golden Age where everything was better. Once upon a time, men were men and women were women and anyone who didn’t totally identify with the stereotypes of either were dangerous to decent society and deserving of persecution. Men had the God-given right to do whatever they wanted with women; children needed to be beaten; Christians had not only the right but the duty to kill or enslave everyone else. It was necessary for devout Christians to fight to preserve these ideas; replacing them would be heresy.


So it is only natural that people with liberal mind-sets would gravitate toward the university and its research agenda; and those with conservative mind-sets would find the church a congenial institution. Therefore, the major reason that universities have a preponderance of liberals on their faculties is not that professors refuse to hire conservative thinkers, but rather that conservative thinkers find the usiness of the university uncongenial. That is because professors and liberals are the same kind of people with the same implicit agenda: the future will be better: work to make it happen!


Hiring and promotion in academia very seldom involve any examination of a candidate’s field-external politics. (We are, and ought to be, concerned about a candidate’s field-internal politics, because we need to know how a potential colleague will add to the department’s depth and contribute to its collegiality.) We do ask about a prospective hire’s likely ability to do cutting-edge work, and we should. And it makes sense to assume that people with an intrinsic preference for forward-looking thought are apt to be better at cutting-edge research, and it is right to preferentially hire such people.


So there are two reasons for the scarcity of conservatives in academia: first, they self-select out because the processes of the university are antithetical to their ways of life and thought; secondly, if there is a bias in hiring, it is a bias toward “who will be the best at what we do?” And that is the future-facing individual. An institution that wants to survive and succeed has to ask and answer that question as universities do, just as the analogous bias of conservative institutions works ideally to foster their own success and survival. Similarly, financial institutins preferentially hire people who are good at manipulating numbers, and they should. And advertising firms prefer to hire people good at manipulating words. And they should.


It is true that, as Kristof notes, academics often are condescending toward conservative thought, but that’s because conservative thinking would be a hindrance in academia: it would make meaningful research impossible. It goes against the grain. And it is also true that the church often behaves much worse than condescendingly (excommunication; burning at the stake) toward individuals who do not act according to its needs and requirements. In both cases, the attitude isn’t irrational bias, but rather rational bias in favor of those who will make the institution more successful.