Durham, We Have a Problem · 01 March 2004

By Jack Langer--New Sense, 03/01/04

Much to the dismay of the Duke administration, the DCU has provoked its ritual annual contretemps, this time by publishing an advertisement revealing that registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by a whopping 142-to-8 margin among university deans as well as faculty members of eight liberal arts departments. The numbers apparently startled some alumni-donors, which provoked President Keohane to publish a soothing article declaring that the near monopoly Democrats enjoy in the humanities, of course, in no way implies any insincerity regarding her oft-stated commitment to intellectual diversity.

When President Keohane wanted to demonstrate her support for racial diversity following the publication of an anti-slavery reparations ad at Duke, she allocated hundreds of thousands of dollars to expanding the African-American Studies program, creating yet another new multicultural center, implementing additional affirmative action schemes, and funding even more diversity initiatives. Lately, to demonstrate her commitment to intellectual diversity in light of the revelation of a massive political imbalance in professors and deans, President Keohane…revealed that she had once suggested that a "small group" of students and professors be gathered to discuss questions of bias in a "relaxed and thoughtful session." Racial diversity problems require six-figure solutions, while intellectual diversity gets an unrealized proposal for an Oprah episode.

Professors and administrators, caught off guard by the sudden publicity of the DCU ad, scrambled to downplay or disregard the findings. President Keohane led the charge to dismiss the survey's saliency by claiming in her article that political party affiliation is unimportant because professors would never, ever allow their personal political views to enter the classroom. She declared there is "ample evidence" that this is the case-apparently she was so overwhelmed with the abundance of evidence that she felt relieved of the need actually to cite any. President Keohane's faithful favorite, Duke VP John Burness, dutifully followed the party line, declaring that he is "struck repeatedly" by the shocking success professors have in removing their personal politics from the classroom.

Let's pretend for a moment that entire programs like Women's Studies and African and African-American Studies were not established specifically to propagate left-wing social and historical theories in the classroom. If we are to believe that professors never politicize the classroom, then we can expect to find a general agreement among professors that this is the case. It is illuminating, then, to read the January 24 New York Times editorial column by Connecticut College Professor Rhonda Garelick in which the author bemoans her students' resistance to her repeated attempts to instill in them "'wakeful' political literacy," "feminist awareness," and "literacy in sexual politics." She finds it inexplicable that her introduction of "contemporary politics into classroom discussions," such as the Iraq war, only provokes "paralysis and anxiety, plus some disgruntlement over my deviation from the syllabus." This is indeed a real headscratcher, but perhaps the problem lies in the fact that Professor Garelick teaches French literature, and her recalcitrant students may, for some bizarre reason, have failed to grasp the colossal impact the Iraq war has had on the allegories underlying Les Miserables.

Professor Garelick's solution, incidentally, is increasingly to "look beyond my syllabuses" and devote more classroom time to contemporary politics. She evidently missed the memo explaining that professors never do this. I suppose it is possible that the New York Times printed her column in order to highlight the rare exception to academia's iron-clad rule that professors don't politicize the classroom. Maybe President Keohane will convene a small, relaxed group of students to study Professor Garelick's position.

Several other Duke professors attacked the DCU survey's methodology from other angles. English Department Chairwoman Maureen Quilligan declared party affiliation to be "a very odd way of sampling" intellectual diversity, since "there are many differences within Republicans and within Democrats, and Republicans certainly are not the only conservatives." Likewise, The Chronicle related the view of History Department Chairman John Thompson thus: "'The interesting thing about the United States is that the political spectrum is very narrow,' he said, noting that other countries, such as Canada, represent a much broader sampling of political leanings. As such, he said, the question of political affiliation in the United States becomes relatively trivial." Professor Thompson also criticized the survey's methodology for failing to include "three or four" history professors who are foreign citizens and therefore not registered voters.

It is certainly true that Republicans are not the only conservatives, and if we surveyed every Democratic professor and administrator at Duke, we might even find one that voted for Bush. We wonder, however, what possible evidence these professors could cite to support their counterintuitive implication that there is little meaningful correlation between political party affiliation and political conviction. Democrats will be much more likely to subscribe to a set of core beliefs that favor an active government role in redistributing society's resources and securing "social justice," while Republicans will be more receptive to marketbased solutions. We would even dare to suggest that this axiom generally holds true regardless of the political leanings of Canadians.

While not all Republicans can be classified as conservative, it's pretty unlikely that a Republican would have invited the bomber of the U.S. Capitol building, Laura Whitehorn, to speak at Duke. It's unlikely that if the Cultural Anthropology Department were dominated by Republicans, it would continue to actively support Duke's leftist political magazine, Thread. And it's unlikely that if the Duke administration were led by Republicans, it would have decided to force the Duke chapel to perform gay wedding ceremonies in violation of North Carolina law.

As for the History Department's foreign professors, let's assume there are four, and that all of them are raving rightwing members of the John Birch Society's foreign legion who, through their connections within the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy, have surreptitiously registered under false names as Republicans. This would change the History Department's Democrat-to-Republican ratio to 32-4. How this would refute the DCU's claim of a political imbalance is not entirely clear.

Unlike Professors Thompson and Quilligan, VP Burness acknowledged the predominance of liberals in the surveyed departments, which he explained by citing the need for "creativity" and "innovation" in the humanities, qualities that are apparently in short supply among conservatives. Philosophy Department Chairman Robert Brandon voiced a similar explanation, although in less diplomatic terms: "If, as John Stuart Mill said, stupid people are generally conservative, Editorial 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. Players in the NBA tend to be taller than average. There is a good reason for this. Members of academia tend to be a bit smarter than average. There is a good reason for this too."

There are so many ways to attack Professor Brandon's petulant arrogance and snooty elitism that one hardly knows where to begin. We could point out that his factitious premise, that stupid people are generally conservative, does not even lead to his conclusion that many conservatives are stupid. We could question whether Mill would have approved of liberals' current agenda of multiculturalism, speech codes, and reverse discrimination. But why make life even harder for Professor Brandon? His comments were ridiculed across the nation (see pages 21 and 22). The publicity turned the DCU survey into a national news story while provoking what Professor Brandon described as "two days of venomous, hate filled e-mails." These were his fifteen minutes of fame, and it sounds like he didn't particularly enjoy them.

The ultimate irony is that by uttering such inane comments and thereby turning himself into a national laughingstock, Professor Brandon undermined his essential point that academics are smart. Thus, he cleverly managed to disprove his own argument merely by stating it. In fact, the entire argument, coming from a hiring committee member, that few conservatives get hired not due to any bias in the hiring process, but rather because many conservatives are stupid, also serves to refute itself. Professor Brandon apparently does not realize the difficulty of agreeing with a person who doesn't even agree with himself.

So let's compare the overall arguments put forward by both sides. The DCU claims the overwhelming imbalance in political party affiliation among faculty members and deans is evidence of a lack of intellectual diversity that needs to be addressed. The other side claims this is not true because:

A. Professors never bring their politics into the classroom, even though they admit that they do.

B. Political party affiliation is not a meaningful indicator of a person's politics.

C. The American political spectrum is more narrow than Canada's.

D. In its survey of 163 registered voters, the DCU failed to include three or four foreign citizens who are not registered voters.

E. Conservatives are too stupid and uncreative to be widely successful in academia.

The DCU survey makes Duke's lack of intellectual diversity clear enough. What we need to discern are the reasons behind it. Perhaps there is a bias in hiring, or maybe conservatives simply don't apply for positions in academia. Maybe conservatives avoid academia because they fear, for some reason, that their views will be reflexively dismissed as "stupid." Who knows? What's clear is that the present administration has pledged a commitment to racial, gender, and intellectual diversity, but actual resources are only dedicated toward the first two components.

The publication of an ad opposing slavery reparations and anecdotal reports that women feel underappreciated on campus provoked a galaxy of gender and racial diversity initiatives, while the revelation of the near absence of Republicans in the humanities is met with glib dismissals and dissembling denials. As they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, the first step is to admit that you have a problem.