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NYU professor admits colleges need to have more conservative professors

Jonathan Zimmerman, professor of history and education at NYU. Photo courtesy NYU School of Education

Christian Seicne Monitor

Bill O’Reilly is right. As a devout Democrat and a frequent O’Reilly critic, I never imagined I’d write that sentence. But last week, the conservative Fox news talk-show host said something that makes real sense to me: Universities should institute affirmative action for conservative professors, so all the professors don’t think the way I do.

No, we’re not the wild-eyed Marxists that Mr. O’Reilly and other right-wing pundits sometimes make us out to be. But we are overwhelmingly liberal, as the recent national elections confirmed. At the eight Ivy League schools, for example, a whopping 96 percent of faculty and staff who made campaign donations gave to President Obama’s re-election bid.

At Columbia University, 650 employees wrote checks for the Obama campaign, while only 21 made donations to Mitt Romney. And at Brown, 129 faculty members gave to Mr. Obama, and just one staff member – that’s right, a single individual – donated to Mr. Romney.

It’s not just an Ivy League thing, either. At the University of Wisconsin, only 4.5 percent of faculty and staff donations since 2011 have gone to Republicans. At the University of Connecticut, just 3 percent of campaign donations went to the GOP.

Is this a problem? I think it is. And might a conscious hiring effort on the part of universities – that is, an affirmative action program – help remedy it? I think it would.

To see why, have a look at the Supreme Court’s landmark 1978 affirmative action decision, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. The ruling barred such quotas for minorities, ruling that race and ethnicity could be used as a “plus” factor – but never as the only factor – in university admissions. The Bakke decision upheld special consideration in admissions for racial and ethnic minorities, on the grounds that “diversity” would enhance universities’ intellectual life.

In his opinion, Justice Lewis F. Powell quoted the Court’s 1967 ruling in Keyishian v. Board of Regents, which struck down mandatory loyalty oaths for public school and university teachers and other state employees. “The Nation’s future depends upon leaders trained through a wide exposure to that robust exchange of ideas which discovers truth ‘out of a multitude of tongues, [rather] than through any kind of authoritative selection,'" the Keyishian decision declared.

Powell also cited in his ruling a 1977 article by William G. Bowen, the then-president of Princeton University and one of the nation’s most articulate defenders of affirmative action. According to Mr. Bowen, as quoted by Powell, a racially diverse university would help students “to learn from their differences and to stimulate one another to reexamine even their most deeply held assumptions about themselves and their world.” The passages from Bowen that Powell references included the observations of a Princeton graduate student, who stated that “people do not learn very much when they are surrounded only by the likes of themselves.”

That’s exactly right. And it’s also why we need more right-leaning professors, who would accelerate the intellectual variation that Bakke imagined. Race-based affirmative action has made our universities much more interesting and truly educational places, adding a range of voices and experiences that hadn’t been heard before. Hiring more conservative faculty would do the same thing.

Have right-wingers suffered historic discrimination like ethnic and racial minorities? Of course not. But the Bakke decision explicitly rejected prior discrimination as a rationale for affirmative action. By compensating minorities for the sins of our past, the Court warned, we would cause “innocent persons” – that is, members of the white majority – “to bear the burdens of redressing grievances not of their making.”

Indeed, it's not even clear that “discrimination” against conservative professors exists today. As surveys of undergraduates have confirmed, conservative students are about half as likely as their liberal peers to express interest in an academic career.

But that’s all the more reason we should try to expand this pool, just as we do with minority students. And the more conservative professors we manage to hire, the more likely it will be that other right-leaning students will follow them into the academic profession.

I am not suggesting schools should have any kind of numerical quota for conservative professors, which every department or institution would have to reach. The Bakke decision clearly outlawed such quotas. We should simply take political leanings into consideration, just as we do with racial background, when reviewing candidates for academic positions.

Finally, I don’t envision affirmative action for conservative professors continuing indefinitely; once we’ve achieved a better kind of ideological balance, I would want the program to end. And that’s precisely what the Supreme Court said about race-based affirmative action in Grutter v. Bollinger, its 2003 decision upholding Bakke.

“It has been 25 years since Justice Powell first approved the use of race to further an interest in student body diversity,” Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote. “We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary...”

I hold positions in two different academic departments, with a total of about 60 colleagues. As far as I know, not a single one of them is a Republican. The only way to change that imbalance, for the moment, is to actively and affirmatively seek out conservative faculty. And a quarter-century from now, I hope, we won’t have to.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory” (Yale University Press).

December 13, 2012 - 12:50pm


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