Partisan Politics and Academic Freedom

What’s the point of calling academia, or an association of academics like the AAUP, “too liberal”? Doing so always has a political goal; it’s an attempt to make academia—or the organization—more conservative. It’s never an unbiased or objective (whatever that means) complaint; it is part of an agenda to transform academia into one’s own image and it needs to be called out as that.

The faculty trends progressive—yes—and so do its organizations. Boards of Trustees, on the other hand, tend to be dominated by conservatives—even in public institutions. Parts of the reasons for that are the very natures of the beasts. Scholars look for the new, the undiscovered. They take risks. Trustees look to the past, the tried-and-true. They promote safety. That’s the way it was and, perhaps, that’s the way it should be. Certainly, we’re not going to change that, whether we like it or not.

Today, however, even that balance is disappearing, for “conservative” no longer means what it once did. While liberals remain true to the general trend of the twentieth century, conservatives have become something else (I am not sure how to describe it, but “conservative” as we used to know it is certainly not adequate). What was always, indeed, a false equivalency between the left and the right has become a distortion, an attempt to pull the so-called “Overton Window” (the window of discourse framing acceptable political ideas) to the far right. Complaining that the faculty is liberal is like complaining that the sky is blue—except that the purpose, today, is to re-color the faculty by forcing rightwing ideologues into it and diluting the power of “liberal” academia. By the same token, complaining that faculty organizations like the AAUP should not take leftist positions is an attempt to reduce the influence of the organization, to keep it from representing the “liberal” faculty. This isn’t even a “conservative” strategy, but an attempt to use the charge of partisanship in a purely partisan manner.

Today, in The New York Times, the head of one of the most adamantly rightist think tanks (the American Enterprise Institute), Arthur Brooks, takes the faculty to task in “Academia’s Rejection of Diversity,” arguing that a lack of conservative voices shows a lack of commitment to diversity of thought. In an essay datelined November 9, 2015 for The Weekly Standard Book Review, “Scholars and Politics: The AAUP’s Devotion to Freedom Has Its Limits,” Jonathan Marks, a professor of Political Science at Ursinus College, does somewhat the same for the AAUP, though in a much more sophisticated and scholarly fashion—and much more tellingly (though no more accurately). In both cases, the writers are, paradoxically, asking for a broadening of the faculty or its organization that is, in itself, actually more limiting.

Brooks is the easier to counter. He bases his conclusion on an unnamed (by him) paper published in Behavior and Brain Sciences. Published last January, “Political diversity will improve socialpsychological science” by Jarret T. Crawford, José L. Duarte, Jonathan Haidt, Lee Jussim, Charlotta Stern and Philip E. Tetlock looks at the field of Social Psychology specifically. The article includes this in its conclusion:

Social psychologists are in deep and productive discussions about how to address multiple threats to the integrity of their research and publication process. This may be a golden opportunity for the field to take seriously the threats caused by political homogeneity. We think the case for action is strong, and we have offered specific suggestions for ways that social psychology can increase its political diversity and minimize the effects of political bias on its science. (13)

Brooks expands this narrow and focused critique of a particular field to claim that it “details a shocking level of political groupthink in academia.”

I doubt a look at the predominance of conservatives in business departments would spark the same outrage in Brooks’ soul.

What Brooks ignores is the very fact of this article, a plea from within to clean one’s own house. That it could appear at all is a token of the tolerance found in academia—one that would not be seen in, to take a random example, the American Enterprise Institute. Brooks goes on to ask if politically motivated “untrustworthy academic findings” are “really a problem.” He answers, “most definitely,” though admitting that this is limited to “a few high-profile cases” and that this “kind of ideologically motivated fraud is mercifully rare,” undercutting his own conclusion.

That headscratcher aside, what’s most interesting to me about Brooks’ article is that it comes from a man most certainly not a proponent of “ideological diversity.” The AEI think tank, in its own words, is dedicated to “strengthening free enterprise.” That makes any socialist-type conclusions out of bounds, even though, in its “Research Integrity” statement, AEI says that “the substance and conclusions of its research and publications are determined by the individuals conducting the research.” AEI stalwarts include such ideologically rigid people as John Bolton, Charles Murray and Paul Wolfowitz, and even Lynne Cheney. The resident liberal is Norman Ornstein.

At one point in his article, Brooks conflates “universities and think tanks.” Yet he concludes by criticizing universities for not doing exactly what he will not in his think tank—that is, for limiting the scope of inquiry or, at best, allowing only token dissent. He writes:

Improving ideological diversity is not a fundamentally political undertaking. Rather, it is a question of humility. Proper scholarship is based on the simple virtues of tolerance, openness and modesty. Having people around who think differently thus improves not only science, but also character.

It’s good for other people, I guess, but not for himself.

Marks, in his criticism of the AAUP, is much more nuanced and much less overtly political than Brooks, who (essentially) complains about the inclusion of politics by others to further his own political ends. But the point is ultimately much the same, to restrict the faculty from its natural progressive tendency. He writes that

[T]he AAUP also championed—and still champions—the idea of the scholar as above the political fray. The “liberty of the scholar,” declares the 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure, depends on his conclusions being “gained by a scholar’s method and held in a scholar’s spirit.” But that conception of scholarship sat uneasily with the AAUP as representative of a distinctive political movement. This tension could be resolved in the minds of people like [first AAUP president John] Dewey because they thought that their politics were a product of the scientific spirit—that is, like many partisans, they were quite sure that their partisan views were true. But it is not hard to see how the public might balk at conferring a special status on academics—a status that gives their speech even more protection than the First Amendment already confers—when they offer themselves not as gadflies but as advocates and potential rulers.

Oddly enough, this is exactly a criticism that could be aimed at Brooks and the AEI, though the AEI does not claim academic-freedom protection for its members—which is Marks’ point about the AAUP, to be honest.

I’m not sure Marks is completely correct, however, when he says that the AAUP promotes the idea of the scholar ‘above the fray.’ Partisan politics is a battle for political office. We sometimes extend participation in that, as both Brooks and Marks do, to include promotion of positions connected with political ideologies—but that really should be seen as a different thing. Political battles involve ideologies, but ideological disputes do not necessarily involve participation in partisan battles. The two should not be conflated; academic freedom is an attempt to circumvent that conflation.

The difference between academic freedom and the First Amendment is that the First Amendment was enacted to ensure political debate. It is an explicit protection for partisanship. Academic freedom, on the other hand, while not meant to place academics ‘above the fray,’ is intended to remove them from it. It protects them from being buffeted by politics: If scholarly conclusions tend toward the liberal (as in climate-change debates), so be it. Forcing a false “balance” should always be exposed as a political device—as is clearly the case with Brooks. Social psychologists may need to open themselves up to a greater diversity of thought, but so should the faculties of business schools. So should all of us, including me, Brooks, and probably even Marks. But that has nothing to do with academic freedom—it has to do with all of our political leanings, something else entirely.

9 thoughts on “Partisan Politics and Academic Freedom

  1. You highlight some compelling trends, Aaron- and I used to be in your camp, until moving out west, and living in Colorado for 11+ yrs. I believe the kind of modern conservative you refer to is likely a “corporatist”. They believe in the mega-merging, private business model for all things big and small.

    But I must assert that the Western Republican is very different animal. And I think “liberals” have missed a huge opportunity in teaming up with western Republicans when it comes to issues like individual liberty, freedom (academic or otherwise) and civil rights. Fact is, western Republicans are for the most part waaaaay ahead of western Democrats on these issues.

    Although I have yet to do so, I shall change my life-long affiliation as a Democrat to a Republican before the 2016 general election. That doesn’t mean I will stop voting for Democrats- or start voting for Republicans. I already vote for both. But in my considered opinion, the Democratic party has lost its way concerning individual liberty, freedom and civil rights. I see them as wanting to have their cake and eat it too. And that has caused me to leave the Democratic party.

    As an aside, academia has not always been predominantly liberal. That is actually a fairly recent phenom born out of the 1960s counter-culture movement. I personally could care less about any faculty member’s politics, but after fighting conservatives for years over their assertion that academic faculty are “liberally biased” across the board… I’ve come to agree with them.

    I also agree diversity is not defined by skin color or sexual orientation. Rather, real diversity lies in life experience, and colleges have missed the boat on this. SATs, ACTs, GREs and so on select for a single phenotype… excluding all others. It’s time for that to change.

  2. People on the left and right have the idea that if you don’t see things their way about something, you must be on the other side. I view this as bipolar thinking about issues. It is possible for people on both sides to be wrong when they have rolled a huge amount of information into a yes or no answer they are certain is the only correct answer. There can be other ways of dealing with that information and people in both groups can be wrong about some of the things they thought about in deciding yes or no is the only correct answer. I would guess that professors may also be used to thinking they must be right because they have to think that about what they teach.

  3. Aaron, this is a terrific post that makes some very important points in a very thoughtful, careful, and nuanced way.

    I think that it is not only one of the best posts ever made to this blog, but it is also one of the most insightful pieces that I have read in a long while on why the charge of rampant liberal bias among college and university faculty probably indicate much more about the ideological assumptions and motives of the person leveling the charge than about any supposed deficiencies in higher education that are due to the political ideology of the faculty.

    It is ironic that the token liberals in conservative media and think tanks are pointed to as representing diversity while any prominent liberal voices in academia or the media are offered as evidence of rampant bias. The truth is that the charge that college faculties are bastions of leftist political bias is as outdated as the charge made in the most recent Republican debate that the “mainstream media” is a liberal PAC. I am not sure that either charge was ever as true as those leveling it wanted everyone to believe, but neither charge is true now. Anyone who has worked on a unionization campaign on a college or university campus knows that the ideological antipathy toward unions as “liberal” groups is a major challenge.

    The problem with a two-party system is that no matter how demographic groups realign themselves within the parties, there is always a gross simplification in what each party stands for and whom it includes. The either-or choice is a basic logical fallacy. Yet, it not only defines and limits our electoral choices, but it also channels our political rhetoric into discussions that either regurgitate hackneyed talking points or, if there is an effort to be more nuanced, very often cannot transcend hackneyed ideological assumptions.

    In an electoral cycle as volatile as the current one, the old political lexicons of highly charged words are being exposed within the complex ideological mix that has risen more closely than usual to the surface of our national politics–even as the continued use of those loaded words contributes to the complexity and volatility of our politics.

    • I’m not entirely certain there was a tinge of circular reasoning in your argument, Martin. Even though Washington appears deeply divided along ideological lines, I do not believe the electorate is. I also believe the electorate is more savvy than many give them credit for.

      I also believe much of the grandstanding we see among politicians these days is less than genuine, and likely an extension of the big money contributions funneling into the campaign coffers. I think we’d all like to see a more civil tone with many politicos, but the left and the right of mainstream media are merely screech magnets. Whether it’s Bill Maher, Rachel Madow, Rush Limbaugh or Bill O’Reilly, the vitriol is over the top. And so I tune them all out.

      Like you, I once believed the allegation of “liberal bias” among college faculty was ridiculous. But having been in and out of academia since 1980, I must be honest with myself and recognize that yes, there is a significant liberal bias. It does not happen on every campus, but it’s true of a majority of campuses. It is not true of every department, but of a majority of departments.

      I’ve witnessed conservative colleagues hazed to an extent that they simply packed it in and left. And let’s face it- non-tenured faculty very often must tow the liberal line if they expect to get tenure. I’ve seen liberalism serve as a litmus test on many of the campuses I’ve been affiliated with.

      I’m not suggesting we push the pendulum all the way to the right, but instead, endeavor to create an apolitical environment across academia when it comes to hiring and retaining faculty. I can truthfully say that for all the academic departments I’ve been a part of (and there are many)- the vast majority of faculty were liberal. So either academia discourages conservatives from pursuing these careers to begin with, or, make it so unpleasant that they turn to the private sector.

  4. Aron, This morning I had read the article by Brooks and agreed with its general criticism, though in terms of the humanities. I still do. But I think your concluding paragraphs are very persuasive. The political and partisan battles, so hardened, are of less concern to me than the ideological ones, which run deeper, to my mind, and perhaps as you distinguish them. “Above the fray” in that context is less a factor, it seems to me in the humanities, versus climate change and the physical sciences. “Greater diversity of thought” is what often gets crushed out of existence in my experience of English departments.

    The “culture wars,” as so often construed on “both sides,” amount to too narrow a slice of human experience, in my view. That’s much of the problem. The culture of the humanities is deadlocked in narrow terms and thinking. I think too that the humanities today has become based on a far too limited conception of the humanities, in our extremely fragmented society, accepting a meta-narrative, an ideology, that actually works against the humanities, while closing off to other views of life that might help reinvigorate them and help reach people more broadly with the serious reflection that the arts at their best are capable of offering.

    Human experience is much deeper and profound than what the humanities has come to allow in our time, creating a disharmony that has deeply damaged itself and contemporary culture. One often hears the underlying fear implicit in the humanities is a backward movement to fundamentalism, Christian or otherwise, as though there were no other possibilities. Academic secular formalism and nihilism, however, are just fine, and almost invariably the prescribed ideology.

    The ideological issues at stake on *both sides* is flawed, neither allowing a full debate, since each is stuck in categories of thought grounded in exclusivism. Following Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence, I believe the extreme polarization of our time is what’s the most telling, though disturbing, fact and is the clearest evidence of decadence, exactly what the humanities today can so rarely consider, conceiving and caricaturing it again only in terms redolent of right-wing Christian fundamentalism.

    My argument isn’t against the university or what is salutary from the Enlightenment, but to point out the flaws on all sides and the way we can make relatively modest adjustments in our thinking and culture that would help resolve our endemic crises.

    Unfortunately, in my experience, the humanities remain closed off to any real debate, virtually guaranteeing their continuing decline.

    Frederick Glaysher

    • Unfortunately, Frederick, I know exactly what you are talking about, but I don’t think it falls into a left/right or any sort of spectrum of partisan politics. You don’t seem to, either. This becomes a much more convoluted topic and a saddening one to those of us with a real belief in the importance of the humanities. It’s a conversation that should be had, however, and I am glad you address the real problem of an increasingly small-minded area within academia, one that should pride itself on openness and expansiveness. We all need to.

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  7. Thanks, Aaron, for replying. I feel saddened by what’s happened to the humanities too. It’s why for the past forty years I’ve continued to study and write my poetry and essays… struggling for, I’d like to think, a whole new way of looking at modern experience and our many problems. The difficulty that I’ve had is finding capable readers willing to consider a serious literary and cultural vision other than what’s become dominant. Seeking unity in a time of extreme fragmentation, I constantly run up against the experience of one syllable closing minds on all sides. Eventually, it drove me to the moon…

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