A Response to Jerome Parent’s “Political Parity Goes to College”

In his U.S. Represented article from earlier this week, Jerome Parent discusses recent legislative initiatives in Iowa and North Carolina that would mandate public colleges and universities “only hire conservative Republicans until political balance is achieved.” Parent writes that such hiring practices are “a bad idea” and amount to “affirmative action for conservatives.”

I share many of my colleague’s concerns about this proposed legislation and agree with other points he makes about tenure and adjunct faculty. I disagree, however, with his general characterizations of Republicans and conservatives. I also take issue with his position that it is only necessary for Republicans to “get themselves elected to state boards and invite conservative speakers to campuses” to create a campus environment where all political ideologies can be debated openly, without threats of violence and intimidation. Reform from inside academia—particularly at elite institutions that often drive policies and “best practices” elsewhere—is long overdue. Without change, demagogic politicians will continue to force-march higher education faculty through more regulatory and accountability reforms, to the detriment of student learning and faculty working conditions.

The current initiatives in Iowa and North Carolina—perhaps prompted by recent violent incidents where conservatives were prevented from speaking at UC Berkeley and other institutions—actually trace their origins to the early 2000s with the call for campuses to accept the Academic Bill of Rights, the brainchild of author and activist David Horowitz. The Academic Bill of Rights was a document promoting “intellectual diversity” and the principle that “no faculty member will be excluded from tenure, search and hiring committees on the basis of their political or religious beliefs.”

 Horowitz’s personal story is fascinating. His parents were high school teachers and members of the American Communist Party in the 1930s, but they became disillusioned and renounced communism when they learned of Stalin’s brutality in the USSR. Horowitz, once a member of the New Left, rejected the liberal views he held as a young man and became a conservative after a close friend was murdered (he believes by a member of the Black Panthers).  

Activists and intellectuals like Horowitz offer thought-provoking ideas for public discourse. (Todd Gitlin, one of Horowitz’s New Left compatriots, penned a critique of progressives called “Blaming America First” for Mother Jones right after 9/11, which led to my own break with the Democratic Party.) Unfortunately, while the Academic Bill of Rights was well-intentioned, many groups that opposed it (like the American Association of University Professors) were correct that one of the unintended consequences of ABOR was to provide a political pretext to regulate higher education. While ABOR called for no political litmus test for hiring, this point has been lost on political crusaders who, despite their claims to the contrary, wish to impose their own ideology on academia.  

Ironically, these political ideologues are often aided and abetted by professors and protestors who generate controversy and engage in provocative, sometimes violent, behavior at high-profile academic institutions. The result is the rest of us in higher education are tainted by association. Ultimately, this serves to undermine the positions of other college and university teaching faculty throughout the country. The workload and employment conditions are drastically different at smaller state schools and community colleges than at UC Berkeley (or even UC Boulder), yet faculty across the country are often judged by the firebrands’ conduct. Quite often, the less prestigious two-year and four-year institutions suffer punitive consequences after violent, intolerant incidents occur on certain campuses. Case in point: Berkeley riots, but it’s low-key Iowa—Iowa!—that experiences the policy effects of the chaos.      

Tenure is a good example of a beneficial policy that is gradually being eliminated because of outside pressure to rein in “radicals.” I’ve earned tenure (or its equivalent) three times in my career (in the Alabama, Missouri, and Colorado community-college systems). Nevertheless, Parent is correct that tenure-track positions are becoming increasingly difficult to obtain. Institutions are opting for more full-time temporary positions, which may or may not lead to the tenure-track. At the very least, many faculty are working more years for a modicum of job security, and those of us with tenure are being asked to do more administrative and clerical duties that shift our focus from the classroom.

As a former officer in two teachers’ unions, I know that tenure simply provides faculty members the right to due process. Unless a professor poses an immediate threat to the health, safety, and overall well-being of students, it is not unreasonable to expect that he or she will receive a fair hearing before being summarily dismissed. RIF (Reduction in Force) policies already exist to deal with layoffs in times of severe economic crises. Likewise, policies that require institutions to document carefully the reasons for terminating a faculty member are reasonable as well.

Politicians who criticize tenure refuse to acknowledge that other professions also offer highly-qualified professionals perks and benefits commensurate with their education and experience. Some academics may be granted tenure, but this is a small benefit compared to the huge severance packages in the corporate world, paid sometimes to people who have actually bankrupted their companies and undermined the pensions of thousands of workers. (Think Enron.) These individuals often negotiate lucrative contracts even before they’ve performed satisfactorily, simply on their record at another company.

In contrast, unless the professor is a scholarly superstar, tenure is awarded only after the faculty member has demonstrated merit and worth to the institution. Without question, sometimes incompetent people slip through the cracks, but that is the case in every field. If supervisors are doing their duty, the pre-tenure years should provide enough information about the character and work ethic of the individual to evaluate the candidate thoroughly. Moreover, if people’s work performance declines after the tenure process, it is incumbent upon management to document the reasons the faculty member is not performing to standard. If this does not happen, then it is management, not faculty, that is failing in its obligations to the institution. Ward Churchill may have been a fraud, but he is no worse than the administrators who neglected to vet his credentials and job performance properly.  

 Parent is also correct about academia’s reliance on adjunct faculty, which is the dirty little secret of higher education. Most students would be shocked to learn how little money their professors earn if they work part-time and how little job security they actually have. Ironically, many prominent academics across the country are the first to hit the protest lines about low wages at Walmart, conveniently ignoring that many of their colleagues across the country with their same level of education and experience barely earn enough to survive. At the college level, adjunct positions are generally filled by two types of professionals: Those who have retired from other positions and take on a course or two every semester to supplement their retirement income, or those who actually earn their livings from part-time work. The individuals in the latter group often teach at two or three institutions just to get by or languish at institutions for years, applying for full-time openings every time one becomes available. Sadly, they are routinely passed over for “fresher” faces from outside the institution. They often receive no retirement or health benefits and may even fall below the poverty line.

The tenure and adjunct problems have only been exacerbated over the last few years by the perception that academics preach tolerance and diversity but do not practice these behaviors themselves. In short, a few troublemakers make it more difficult for the thousands of academics—full-time and part-time—who do good work. The more that outlandish behavior makes headlines, the more college and university administrators feel no remorse for running academic departments with skeletal staff or using adjuncts to trim their budgets. In addition,  more legislators feel justified to intervene and crack down on “radical” faculty—in hotbeds of unrest like Iowa.

That said, the perception that conservative views are marginalized and caricatured on college campuses is valid. Certainly, the degree to which this is true or false depends on the institution or region of the country. However, when major universities (particularly one that supposedly gave birth to the free speech movement) tolerate and condone threats against people simply for speaking, it is time for academics across the country to condemn these actions loudly and demand reform. If more academics would stand up and denounce—without qualification—the violence and intimidation at institutions like Berkeley, the prospect of professional ostracism and a loss of reputation might convince institutional leaders to make some changes.  

When Parent says, “Republicans in general are suspicious about the academic world,” I don’t know what he means. Is he referring to my Republican friend from high school who is a rocket scientist, or his wife who is a neo-natal nurse? Does he mean my military officer friends and acquaintances who have Ph.D.’s?  Republicans, just as everyone else, must move through the ranks of higher education if they wish to pursue most professions. They have just as much of a right to be treated with dignity and respect as anyone else. Perhaps it’s less that they are “suspicious” of academia and more willing to acknowledge problems that insiders would prefer to ignore.  Furthermore, who is suspicious of whom? From appearances, it’s possible to conclude that those who refuse even to give a hearing to an opposing view, choosing to riot instead, are actually the individuals who inhabit a world of distrust and suspicion.  I’ve spent many rewarding professional years in academia. However, I am not oblivious to the serious need for change. In fact, it was my experiences within higher education that led me to align politically more with conservatives than with liberals.

Parent also claims that Republicans “cite statistics that people with college degrees are more likely to vote for Democrats.” I don’t think it’s Republicans who are citing these statistics. I’d say it’s more likely that Democrats are doing so to say, “Ha-ha, we’re smarter than you!” Crowing about having more college graduates on their side is something Democrats have embraced only recently. Some time ago, Democrats actually bragged about their ties to the “common man” and were proud that rural and urban voters without college educations were part of the New Deal coalition.

Parent argues that Republicans imagine some concerted effort, a “socialist conspiracy” to “brainwash” students. Actually, the term conservatives might use is indoctrination, but most don’t imagine progressives meeting in secret to undermine conservative values and traditions. During the early debates over ABOR, Mark Bauerlein, a conservative history professor at Emory University, addressed this issue in a Chronicle of Higher Education article entitled “Liberal Groupthink is Anti-Intellectual.” Bauerlein suggests that it’s not some conspiratorial enterprise, just that progressive bias simply is “embedded” in many disciplines. As the title of his article suggests, it’s groupthink that is the problem, not a progressive cabal. Many academics, according to Bauerlein, exist in a bubble of like-minded professionals and are rarely challenged by dissenting views. Furthermore, he argues that “on campuses, conservative opinion does not qualify as respectable discourse.”

 Bauerlein’s position almost seems evident in Parent’s own statement that conservatives tend to rely on “binary” and “black-and-white” thinking.” On one hand, Parent is arguing that it’s important to recognize complexity, yet he reduces conservatives to the most simplistic terms. One of the reasons Todd Gitlin’s Blaming America First” resonated with me in 2002 is that he identified what he called “left-wing fundamentalism” and the tendency of “hard-line” progressives to “disdain complexity.” Both conservatives and liberals can be guilty of binary thinking, as is evident from the conservative politicians eager to promote “affirmative action for conservatives” that Parent rightly criticizes and the radical leftists willing to burn down Berkeley in the name of tolerance. In terms of the literal and figurative “black-and-white thinking” Parent suggests conservatives indulge in, I would simply state that in the academic arena, where racial and identity politics are all the rage, conservatives are not the ones preoccupied with “black and white.”

Ultimately, Parent’s argument that conservatives should “get themselves elected to local boards” ignores the underlying issue at hand. Republican politicians don’t have to get themselves elected to local boards if they wield enough power in state legislatures to compel changes in academia. Academics need to clean their own houses and stop turning a blind eye to unacceptable totalitarianism at elite schools. We don’t need to provide politicians with any more ammunition to erode academic freedom even further.

Respectfully,
Dana Zimbleman
The Academic Redneck