Against repeated accusations of leftwing bias on campus, professors have mounted many rejoinders disputing one or another item in the indictment. They claim that the disproportion isn’t as high as reports say. Or that reports focus on small pockets (women’s studies, etc.). Or that party registration is a crude indicator. Or that conservatives are too greedy and obtuse to undergo academic training.
The denials go on, and sometimes it’s hard to tell whether professors really believe in their own neutrality or whether they just hope to brazen out the attacks. One response, however, stands apart, precisely because it doesn’t deny a darn thing in the bias charge. Indeed, it concedes every empirical point – “Yes, left-wing people, left-wing ideas, and left-wing texts dominate,” but it adds, “And that’s exactly as it should be.”
It’s a refreshingly straightforward assertion. I heard it at an MLA Convention session awhile back when a young man in the audience talked about getting shot down by his professor when he voiced in class a conservative opinion. One of the panelists replied by telling him to quit complaining, then enlarged the rebuke to all conservative critics. “Look,” he grumbled, “conservatives have taken over every where else [this was before the 2006 election], and now they want the campus, too, the one place where liberal values can still prevail.”
I’m paraphrasing from memory, but the implication was unmistakable. We need the campus to remain solidly liberal to keep conservatism from swamping the entire present. We might call this the Adversarial Campus Argument. It says that the campus must contest the mainstream, that higher education must critique U.S. culture and society because they have drifted rightward. For the intellectual and moral health of the nation, the professoriate must drift leftward. Kids come into college awash in the three idols that, in the eyes of the teaching liberal, make up the American trinity: God, country, and family. Instruction meets its mind-opening duty by dislodging their acculturation, dismantling the dangerous corollaries of each one, namely, fundamentalism, patriotism, and patriarchy/homophobia.
Several points against the Adversarial Campus Argument spring to mind, but a single question explodes it. If Democrats won the White House in 08 and enlarged their majorities in Congress, and if a liberal replaced Scalia on the Supreme Court, would adversarial professors adjust their turf accordingly? Would Hillary in the White House bring Bill Kristol a professorship or Larry Summers a presidency again?
Hardly, and it goes to show that the Adversarial Campus Argument isn’t really an argument. It’s an attitude. And attitudes aren’t overcome by evidence, especially when they do so much for people who bear them. For, think of what the Adversarial Campus does for professors. It flatters the ego, ennobling teachers into dissidents and gadflies. They feel underpaid and overworked, mentally superior but underappreciated, and any notion that compensates is attractive. It gives their isolation from zones of power, money, and fame a functional value. Yes, they’re marginal, but that’s because they impart threatening ideas. The powerlessness they feel rises into a meaningful political condition.
This is why professors get so upset over the bias issue. It touches a delicate formation. And so, when conservatives enter bias debates with professors, they should realize that not only do they argue over political opinions and campus turf. The academic personality is at stake, and the figures who threaten it can only appear downright offensive.