Political Quotas in Higher Education? · 08 September 2003

Filed under: Press Coverage


Editorial from the Rocky Mountain News, 09/09/03

Conservative politicians incensed at the leftist tilt of higher education are correct that there is a problem, but wrong if they believe legislative action should be any part of the solution.
A group called Students for Academic Freedom, sparked by conservative hellraiser David Horowitz - he'd take that as a compliment - has drafted an "Academic Bill of Rights" that defines academic freedom and lays out practices that would protect it while fostering intellectual diversity.

Though the document itself is studiously neutral politically, it's no secret that the lack of diversity they're concerned about is the lopsided dominance of Democrats over Republicans among professors in the humanities or the social sciences who list a party affiliation when they register to vote.

State Senate President John Andrews, R-Centennial, says he would like to see the document adopted by individual governing boards, with or without pressure from the Colorado Commission on Higher Education or the legislature. We believe any such action by state officials would be a mistake.

Although there's much in the Academic Bill of Rights we agree with, it would be meaningless to adopt it without any mechanism for enforcement. The legislature shouldn't waste its time passing recommendations, especially since we have no doubt the various colleges and universities would strongly argue that they already do what this bill of rights requires.

Why are so many faculties dominated by the political left? The most fatuous explanation we've heard is that conservatives are more interested in earning money than in public service. That's silly. If it were correct, why would it apply to history and political science, but not to the same degree in chemistry and biology?

It's true that few professors earn superstar incomes. But as a group they are well compensated and once tenured, they enjoy a level of economic security that most of the workforce would envy. Those who make this condescending argument should realize it can be turned on its head. One could just as well believe that conservatives are willing to accept the risks of the market along with its rewards, while liberals choose higher education because they value security above all else - although we don't buy that thesis either.

In all likelihood, conservative professors are few and far between for a number of complex reasons. Overt political discrimination no doubt occurs occasionally, but it needn't be decisive. It's quite clear from the undergraduate courses and intellectual milieu in many departments what sort of ideas will be welcome in graduate school and in the academic job market. It usually takes some 15 years to complete a doctorate and earn tenure. That's a long time to spend with people who are openly contemptuous of your opinions. Add to that the difficulty of getting politically incorrect papers published, and people who are smart enough to be university professors start looking at other options.

Gov. Bill Owens, who has expressed concern about the one-sidedness of university faculty, said he would nonetheless oppose a political quota. He's consistent about that, since he opposes other quotas in higher education, and he is right in both cases. The reasons why a particular group is underrepresented in a given situation are complex. Hectoring legislation will do nothing to address underlying causes.