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.