Sunday, December 9, 2007

Life on the Fringe and Other Tall Tales

The proprietor of University Diaries alerts us to an opinion piece in the Sunday Washington Post by one Robert Maranto, Associate Professor of Political Science at Villanova University. The headline ("As a Republican, I'm on the Fringe") is not encouraging. Still, I've composed one or two op-ed submissions in my day, and I understand that the author generally lacks responsibility for any title appearing above his or her byline. So I decide to keep reading.

It is, to say the least, a strange article. Professor Maranto trots out the usual statistics about liberals outnumbering conservatives on humanities and social science faculties, but that's hardly the sort of news that merits space in one of the nation's most prestigious broadsheets. Maranto seems to understand this, suggesting throughout his piece that something sinister—more sinister than, say, benign self-selection—lurks behind these lopsided numbers.

His own story, however, generally refutes this thesis. At Villanova, Maranto has, obviously, received both employment and promotion with tenure. In 2003, he participated in a debate regarding the Iraq War, his presence occurring "because left-leaning Villanova professors realized that to be fair they needed to expose students to views different from their own…" Moreover, Maranto attended with full confidence "that my senior colleagues would not hold it against me".

Lacking a clear history of victimhood, the best Maranto can do is to relate tales of unnamed conservatives at other universities who, at least according to their own reports, experienced bad reactions upon stepping out of the right-wing closet. We are also treated to a few de rigueur words about Larry Summers, martyred president of Harvard University, whose failure in Cambridge simply had to have been a matter of ideology rather than a famously boorish and insensitive management style. How do we know this? Summers tells us so.

To be fair, Maranto does manage one personal vignette involving a job interview in which he casually mentioned his Republicanism over dinner, and gasps and fainting ensued. He did not get the job, spurned in favor of someone who evidently had fewer publications but was deemed a better "fit". Perhaps Maranto's interpretation of these events is correct, but anyone who has experienced the academic job process from the hiring side knows of the many and often complicated variables that go into the notion of "fit" (maybe Maranto's competitor had articles in more highly ranked journals, or provided a better coauthorship opportunity for one or more of the department's faculty). Maranto even goes so far as to impute ideological relevance to the fact that he had to "call…a month later to learn the outcome of the job search, having never received any further communication from the school". This sort of rudeness is, unfortunately, rather common and has little to do with partisan politics.

As for the statistics, Maranto reaches for the worst spin possible in every instance. For example, he cites research by Stanley Rothman and S. Robert Lichter—who have made something of a career with this sort of right-wing academic navel-gazing—which purports to demonstrate that "[a]mong professors who have published a book, 73 percent of Democrats are in high-prestige colleges and universities, compared with only 56 percent of Republicans". I don't bother reading Rothman and Lichter anymore, so I'll acknolwedge that their findings may be a bit more sophisticated than Maranto paints them. Perhaps they control for such obviously critical factors as the prestige of each book's publisher, the reviews received by the authors, and the disciplines in which these Democrats and Republicans toil. If not, then we don't have much to go on.

(But, hey, if we want to play a blindfolded game of pin the meaning on the statistic, then I want my turn, too. Maybe Democratic academics are simply smarter than their Republican counterparts. I don't believe this, of course, but I'm always up for a little careless interpretation of somebody else's findings.)

Finally, Professor Maranto argues that the academic "monoculture" creates an "isolation from society", by which the author actually means an unwillingness to consider conservative explanations for social phenomena. He is troubled by the fact that many of his fellow social scientists disagree with his positions on welfare reform, crime control, and bureaucratic reorganization. Mainly, though, Maranto simply wants to point out that he was right and they were wrong. So much for ideological tolerance.

Maranto's article troubles me for a number of reasons. First, it is poorly argued and more than a bit solipsistic (sorry, Bob, I'm not especially interested in your personal testimony). Second, the Washington Post provides a rather large megaphone and this piece may well persuade people who don't understand academia and its culture that widespread ideological discrimination is common on college campuses, which it is not. Despite the professor's brief swipe at pseudo-intellectual hucksters like David Horowitz, Maranto has to know that his words will be catnip for the right-wing culture warriors and their target audience of gullible rubes.

Worst of all, Maranto trivializes an issue that deserves more—and more careful—attention. Many of us on the liberal side of the academy would love to see more conservatives join our ranks. We want our students exposed to a variety of perspectives, and, frankly, we enjoy the debate. The problem is not nearly so great as Maranto suggests, but a numerical imbalance between liberals and conservatives does exist on college campuses and that is certainly not a good thing.

But careless articles like this one cause liberal professors to fear, legitimately, that the critics who want to reshape the academy have their own ideological agenda and have no interest in the sort of sober reflection that most of us value. If right-wingers wish to join us as open-minded seekers of knowledge, they are more than welcome. If they want to join us as right-wingers, however, they should be stopped by all means necessary.

The conservative critics of the academy often refer to intellectual diversity when they really mean ideological diversity. Both have their place, of course, but the former already exists on every campus in the United States other than, perhaps, those institutions bankrolled by televangelists. Many of us are prepared to embrace the latter, but not if it means allowing culture warriors to set up shop in our halls.

No comments: