Legislation is no cure for 'imbalance' on campus · 16 September 2003

The Daily Camera, 9/17

If conservative professors are scarce on college campuses, what are conservatives going to do about it?
That's a legitimate question for Gov. Bill Owens, State Sen. John Andrews, conservative crusader David Horowitz or anyone else to ask. Unfortunately, these prominent conservatives are peddling the wrong answers because they've misunderstood the question. They aren't asking what they can do about it; they're insisting that universities do something about it.

David Horowitz, a scrappy and influential polemicist for conservative causes, has come up with something called an "Academic Bill of Rights." The language is neutral - it calls on universities to hire and fire on merit, eschew any "political, ideological or religious orthodoxy" and adopt other policies that most universities already follow as a matter of course. But the undisguised purpose is to pressure universities into hiring more faculty members with conservative viewpoints, particularly in the social sciences and humanities.

It's a well-documented fact that Democrats outnumber Republicans by overwhelming margins on most college campuses. The imbalance may be even greater than party affiliation would suggest, because some professors on the left affiliate with third parties or no party at all.

If that's a problem, who is supposed to address it? The law prohibits a university from inquiring about someone's political affiliation during the hiring process, as it should. What relevance does the label "Democrat" or "Republican" have when evaluating a scholar's qualifications to teach Aristotle or Renaissance history?

As a political instrument, the "academic bill of rights" is either pointless or dangerous, depending on its practical application. Andrews and other state politicians have talked about "introducing" it in the next legislative session. In what form? If they enacted it only as a set of recommendations, it would be nothing but hot air. If they adopted it in the form of quotas - an approach Owens and Horowitz oppose - it would be an outrageous intrusion on the academic freedom of colleges and universities.
The trouble with this debate is that politicians who exploit the issue of "intellectual diversity" have neglected to address an inconvenient question about conservative professors: Where are they?

The plain fact is that political conservatives are less likely than liberals to choose academic careers. The reasons are complex and subject to differing interpretations, but no one disputes the fact. So how are colleges and universities supposed to reflect an "intellectual diversity" that doesn't exist? How can they provide "balance," even in theory, if avowed conservatives rarely enter certain academic disciplines?

Years ago, when conservatives saw a "liberal bias" in the media, they did more than complain about it; they found their own voices and trumpeted their own viewpoint in dozens of influential print and broadcast forums. Why don't they spend more time encouraging talented young people with traditional viewpoints to choose academic careers, and less time blaming the problem on "left-wing" universities?

If conservatives want to see a different kind of "balance" on the faculties of colleges and universities, they need to consult their own playbook. They shouldn't flirt with quotas. They should take a little personal responsibility for the problems they detect on campus.