No Conservatives, Please–We’re Colleges

the past several years, a number of studies have shown that registered
Democrats far outnumber registered Republicans in the academy, or in particular
academic departments (history, for instance) that would seem to have no reason
to have wide partisan imbalances.

the most interesting thing about these studies is not the finding itself–which,
after all, is a very crude measurement of ideological balance at any school–but
instead how academic defenders of the status quo have defended the figures. In
2004, for instance, after a Duke Conservative Union study, Duke’s then-Philosophy
chairman, Robert Brandon, justified the school’s partisan imbalance on the
following grounds: “We try to hire the best,
smartest people available. If, as John Stuart Mill said, stupid people are
generally conservative, then there are lots of conservatives we will never hire
. . .
Mill’s analysis may go some way towards explaining the power of
the Republican party in our society and the relative scarcity of Republicans in
academia.” Substitute “black” for “conservative” and imagine the on-campus
reaction that Brandon’s absurd words would have generated.

another study showed that University of
Iowa’s History Department didn’t even have one registered Republican, the
department’s then-chairman, Colin Gordon,
attributed the disparity to the fact that “about two thirds of Johnson County
are Democrats”–as if 67 percent equals 100 percent, and as if all of the
applicants for jobs in Iowa’s History Department came from Johnson County, Iowa. Gordon
added that “
the UI policy says not to discriminate; it does not
say we should be going out and getting diversity.” Imagine the outrage if a
major university’s History Department had only white males, and the
department’s chairman responded by remarking that men outnumbered women in the
school’s home county, and in any case the university’s policy “does not say we
should be going out and getting diversity.”

In both the Iowa and Duke cases, the defenders of the
academic status quo essentially proved the critics’ case. The partisan
disparities, in and of themselves, didn’t prove that the Duke or Iowa hiring
processes were necessarily flawed. But no reasonable observer could expect an
open Republican or conservative to be fairly treated by departments in which
figures like Gordon or Brandon played key roles. And–at least based on their
pedagogical approaches to their fields–Gordon and Brandon are what pass for
moderates in the contemporary academy.

reactions are worth keeping in mind in light of a recent article about a study
conducted by Dutch psychologists Yoel Inbar and
Joris Lammers. The duo measured not partisan affiliation but ideological
biases, and found that more than one-third of professors they examined admitted
they’d be less likely to hire the conservative when “
asked whether, in
choosing between two equally qualified job candidates for one job opening, they
would be inclined to vote for the more liberal candidate (i.e., over the


It’s hard to imagine
how anyone could offer any sort of rationalization for these findings. But in
the tradition of Robert Brandon and Colin Gordon, Massimo Pigliucci, chairman
of Lehman College’s philosophy department, does so. The Washington Times paraphrases Pigliucci’s argument: “The problem is
not that conservatives face discrimination; it’s that any hint of political
bias, whether conservative or liberal, necessarily flouts the standards of
objectivity to which scholarship must adhere.”

article continues, “‘It is to be expected that people would reject papers and
grant proposals that smacked of clear ideological bias,’ he says. 
Inbar and
Lammers, he says, should have examined the extent of bias against
liberal-leaning papers and grant proposals. If the degree of bias against liberals
and conservatives is similar, maybe the data on discrimination against
conservatives would not be so alarming after all.”

Beyond the
obvious–the Inbar/Lemmers study dealt with the hiring process, not grant
proposals–Pigliucci’s analysis makes no sense. The study was premised on a
question of whether professors would be “inclined to vote for the more liberal
candidate.” In short, the study did exactly what Pigliucci said it should have
done: it asked whether professors would differentiate between two equally
situated candidates, if the professors knew that one candidate was liberal and
the other conservative.

An illogical
response, I suppose, is all that can be used to rationalize indefensible
academic behavior.


  • KC Johnson

    KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

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