Friday, December 24, 2010

My Debate with Peter Wood on Affirmative Action for Conservatives

David Horowitz's website has published (with our permission) an exchange via email I had with NAS head Peter Wood about his fawning review of David Horowitz's book that he printed on David Horowitz's website, focusing on the question of whether conservatives should receive hiring preferences for visiting professor positions, an idea that Horowitz proposes and Wood, to my great surprise, also endorses.

The exchange omits an additional comment I had in response to Peter Wood that I reprint below:

You write, “Your argumentative point seems to be that ‘visiting professors’ are ‘faculty members.’” Yes. That’s because visiting professors are faculty members. That’s not “sophistry.” In some places, “visiting professors” are the term used for most adjunct faculty. It’s true that visiting professors do not have the same power as tenure-track faculty. But it’s the principle of hiring based on merit, not politics, that matters. Low-level college administrators don’t have the same power as faculty, either, but they should never be hired or fired based on their political affiliation.

Imagine if a college president of a public college in a very conservative area decided that the faculty were too conservative, and therefore the college would hire only left-wing visiting professors and ban conservatives from holding these posts, in order to promote fostering a plurality of views. I suspect that you and Horowitz would be outraged by a president replacing academic merit with political ideology in any hiring decisions, and you would rightly worry about this political hiring carrying over to tenure-track positions. I would be outraged, too. So why doesn’t the same outrage apply to pro-conservative discrimination?

Now, to the question of anti-conservative discrimination, which I write about at length in my book Patriotic Correctness. Clearly, conservatives are underrepresented in academia, albeit not to the degree Horowitz and some others claim. Like other underrepresented groups, such as blacks and women, this raises the possibility of ongoing discrimination, but does not prove it. Unlike blacks and women, there is no irrefutable historical legacy of past discrimination against conservatives in academia.

You are right that conservatives are not inherently stupid or anti-social. I’m not so sure about materialism, though. In general, it appears that conservatives are more likely to seek out higher-wage professions. Materialism is not a bad thing; you could argue that only liberals are stupid enough to seek careers in academic fields. For example, in K-12 teaching, there is also a clear liberal tendency among teachers. Yet K-12 has none of the same scrutiny of faculty hires by alleged tenured radicals in higher education which is said to cause underrepresentation of conservatives. But it has a similar result, which indicates that culture and money is a much more likely explanation for conservative underrepresentation in teaching generally than discrimination.

An example of anti-conservative prejudice, no matter how appalling, is not proof of systematic discrimination. I could summon all kinds of anecdotal examples of sexism in academia, yet you probably believe that women generally receive preferences in hiring. There are ways to try to try to prove discrimination against conservatives, such as by surveying the views of students receiving Ph.D.s and determining who is hired for academic positions. Similar surveys have indicated levels of ongoing sexism in academia. But no one has ever shown this prejudice toward conservatives. Is it possible that conservatives are discriminated against in certain fields at certain colleges? Yes. Is it possible that left-wingers are discriminated against in certain fields at certain colleges? Yes. (I personally doubt that a Marxist would be hired today by the University of Chicago Department of Economics. And I would criticize them for this. But I would oppose any action to force them to hire Marxists.) But we need evidence before we can prove it. And even if we do prove it, then we need to take the appropriate actions to prevent it, and not just start hiring based on political ideology.

You claim, “Liberals and leftists view it as perfectly acceptable, even moral, to twist the rules of academic appointment to exclude conservatives.” Absolutely not. I’ve never heard anyone defend this idea. It is fundamentally immoral and unacceptable to exclude conservatives or discriminate against anyone based on political views in academic hiring of any kind, whether it’s for tenure-track positions or visiting professors. You and Horowitz are the only two people I’ve encountered in my life who justify this concept. We need to hold academic merit as the basis for academic hiring, and reject political discrimination of any kind. And that’s why I criticize you and Horowitz for demanding conservative preferences in hiring visiting professors.

Why does all this matter? The Chronicle of Higher Education (Dec. 3, 2010) recently did a story (registration required) about what happened last year to 29 Ohio State Ph.D.s. It found that 13 got jobs as "visiting faculty" and only 8 as tenure-track faculty. So the proposal by Horowitz and Wood to favor conservatives in hiring visiting professors would have a dramatic effect on stifling the academic careers of non-conservatives at the start. The most likely effect, if I may perversely quote Stanley Fish here, will be that "we're all conservatives now," at least when trying to get a job.

The first comment on the Wilson/Wood exchange on Horowitz's site is this:
JOHN WILSON: "Intellectual pluralism is important. But achieving it by hiring based on explicitly political criteria is dangerous to the academic mission."
And of course Mr Wilson, this NEVER happens in the halls of academe today, does it?
Here's my response:
Yes, it does happen sometimes in academia, to people on both the left and the right. But I've never seen a college explicitly favor an ideology at the imposition of president following the demands of political activists, as Horowitz and Wood call for. We need all faculty to be hired based on academic merit, not politics, and condemn anyone who violates this standard. And that's why I'm condemning Horowitz and Wood.

UPDATE: The NAS has also published the earlier version of the exchange. And on this blog, I've corrected my mistaken reference to Steve Balch, another NAS leader whom I was arguing with at the same time on a related topic. I meant Peter Wood, of course.

1 comment:

Philippines Outsourcing said...

Whoever won the debate, I am still going against the conservatives...