12.12.2004

The Academy

With your permission, Gentle Reader, I am going to add my proverbial two cents to the conservatives-in-the-academy debate that has been flaring up like a hemorrhoid across the blogosphere. I feel obliged to chime in, since I am an aspiring member of the academy and a “conservative” to boot (not really, but we’ll just go with it for now since I’m undoubtedly more conservative than most of my colleagues).

In general, I agree with Adam Kotsko that the whole thing is a bit of a straw man, and it’s not really about “aspiring academics of a conservative bent who [feel] either excluded from a fair shot at a job or ostracized by their peers after attaining one.”

My department just finished a protracted search for two new assistant professors, and they generously opened up the process to the grad students--giving us the chance to meet with the applicants, see their research presentations, and even offer our suggestions about the best candidates.

Not only were we prevented from asking about their political or religious affiliations, but we couldn’t ask them anything personal at all. No questions about their marital status or their family life or what kind of tea they prefer--nothing that would reveal even the slightest hint of bias. It went so far that one faculty member was cut off at our decision meeting when he suggested that a candidate might not like our town, based on some comment over a meal. Injecting any kind of personal information into the hiring decision is apparently grounds for a law suit.

So, I seriously doubt that there is a systemic bias against conservatives or Republicans. And I should say that I attend what is widely recognized as one of the most liberal, secular, elitist universities on God’s green earth.

That said, the hiring process did reveal a pervasive but unspoken assumption that everyone in the room was liberal. The research presentations and conversations were sprinkled with cheap jabs at Bush, Cheney, Fox News, and Republicans in general, to everyone’s visible amusement.

But I don’t think that’s the issue. If I were so thin-skinned that such trivial insults offended me, I wouldn’t last a day in the academy, which can be a vicious place for even the most liberal person.

The very nature of a cheap jab is that it costs nothing and has little actual content. When one of the candidates presented research with some real political content (comparing conservative and liberal news coverage of a topic), he took great pains to maintain the detached disinterestedness that is supposed to be characteristic of a social scientist.

My theory, which is purely anecdotal and based on a short amount of time, is that the bias is not against conservative scholars; it is against conservative scholarship. I realize some of my readers will think this is a contradiction in terms (and they may be right), so perhaps it would be more accurate to say the bias is against approaching scholarship from an ideology that is not liberal.

Whatever the locution, here’s my point: A former student in my department wrote a dissertation about the stem cell debate in the public sphere, hitting on some of the religious aspects of the dialogue. (I should stress that I have no problems with him or his research; he’s really quite talented.) This person is an unabashed skeptic, and therefore no one had any problem with his treatment of the topic. Yet if I were to approach the same topic from my point of view (read: ideology) as an unabashed Christian, I bet I would meet some resistance because my beliefs might interfere with the research. I don't plan to do that, however, so I guess this will never be tested.

There is much more to say about this, which is probably why everyone keeps saying stuff, even though it is often dismissed as a non-issue. But I will concede the floor for now.

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