People Like Me: Conformity in Higher Education

I’ve been wanting to address this topic for a long time.

As a regular reader of higher education news, patterns of what political candidates call “political correctness” seem to be running rampant across American colleges and universities. Concerns are raised about whether certain speakers should address campus gatherings, about the extent to which faculty members should question (even in private) their institution’s actions, whether board members should quietly support whatever political positions the college president advocates.

Add to this the ongoing issues about “trigger warnings”, counter-protests at political rallies, sit-ins in administration buildings, and “God’s Not Dead” philosophy professors.

KristofToday, Nicholas Kristof posted a story that will appear in tomorrow’s New York Times. Titled “A Confession of Liberal Intolerance“, it examines the assumptions behind faculty hiring. Why is it, Kristof wonders, that there is such ideological and religious conformity in American institutions of higher education?

He reported what happened when he posed the question on his FaceBook page yesterday. The comments run the expected gamut — from those who describe their isolation because they are Republican or Evangelical to those who assume that anyone who is either has no business in higher education.

Kristof reports on research done by my friend George Yancey that describes some inherent biases among hiring committees. He also cites a well-known article by Jonathan Haidt that questions the political uniformity among social psychologists. Kristof shares what may at first glance seem like shocking data:

Conservatives can be spotted in the sciences and in economics, but they are virtually an endangered species in fields like anthropology, sociology, history and literature. One study found that only 2 percent of English professors are Republicans (although a large share are independents).

In contrast, some 18 percent of social scientists say they are Marxist. So it’s easier to find a Marxist in some disciplines than a Republican.

So how do we understand this enforced conformity?

First, some methodological issues. When we speak of institutions of higher education, it’s important to evaluate what kinds of institutions we’re talking about. News reports often highlight egregious examples in elite institutions or a misrepresented case in a particular class. Some of the research is arguing from a particular perspective (the “one study” mentioned by Kristof is a working paper on the website conservativecriminology.com). There may also be questions about how various questions are interpreted by different disciplines. The working paper shows that over a quarter of sociologists identify as Marxists. But within sociology that may mean using Marx’s analysis of class structures and not a political identifier.

That leads me to my examination of the conformity.

First, while not determinative, I do think there are some screening factors going on in terms of pursuing a doctorate and a career in higher education. This may be part of what happens in the 2% English Republican figure. Not only are there economic considerations involved in pursuing a PhD in English (the market has been rough for over thirty years), but there are theoretical limitations as well. Given the role of deconstruction in modern literary analysis, it’s not the kind of field where some conservatives are comfortable — to say nothing of biblical literalists.

Second, there are some distinctive disciplinary dynamics that come into play at the point of hiring. Pursuing a career in cultural anthropology when one disparages other cultures is not likely to be productive. One may argue that rejecting ethnocentrism shouldn’t be a job requirement but it’s hard to imagine teaching in the field with that view. I knew of a case where a Christian college released a cultural anthropologist for not holding a young-earth line but looking at ancient cultures is an essential part of the field.

If a sociologist applied for a position and made it clear that she believed that race was essentially a determinative biological feature without social context, I’d have reservations. Similarly, a sociologist who held a view of a purely autonomous individuality would have a hard time passing muster.

Third, George Yancey’s work is instructive. If a search committee suspects the candidate is an evangelical Christian, there may be a real temptation to assume the worst in terms of how that candidate would fit into the institution. It’s possible that this is a byproduct of news reports about evangelical outrages (such public perceptions also relate to Gabe Lyons and David Kinnaman’s Good Faith). It’s also possible that it’s the result of what I call the “crazy cousin” phenomenon among evangelicals — everybody seems to know that one cousin who started the big fight at Thanksgiving by telling everyone they were going to hell.

Fourth, study in a field has sensitizing features. Spending time studying sociology leads one to become more attuned to the nature of inequality, the structural barriers to social mobility, institutional biases against certain segments of the society. I’ve written before about the central argument of Robert Putnam’s Our Kids:  If one really understands that the family of origin is heavily determinative of the possibilities of advancement, it’s harder (not impossible) to support political policies, and the parties that advance them, that focus solely on individual responsibility and meritocratic advancement.

In spite of these forces that make political and religious alignment understandable, we still need to be sensitive to forms of censorship. A sociologist out to be able to examine the inefficiencies of certain social safety net programs without being ostracized. Another should be able to examine the impacts of same-sex adoption without being accused of homophobia.

Another factor to consider is the way a faculty member deals with his or her students. Indoctrination is problematic whether at a Christian university or an Ivy League school. If a student must toe the line with the professor’s view in order to do well in the class (a la GND), that’s a professional breach by the professor. It’s one thing for the professor’s views to be known, but students should never be belittled for not agreeing.

We also have to careful about conflating political perspective with bad behavior. There is currently a case in Wisconsin where a faculty member was suspended because he castigated another instructor (a grad student) in a public blog. The fact that he is conservative and she was talking about same-sex marriage is only indirectly related to his professional breach. (There may be some significant due-process issues in how his suspension was handled by the university.)

This brings me back to the issues I started with — why we can’t have divergent voices on college campuses. I’m not a fan of the label “political correctness” but there does need to be some ground rules for how we deal with differing views. It’s perfectly fine to have a speaker from the Wall Street Journal at Virginia Tech and he should be able to speak without heckling or protests. Allowing space to hear differing views is part of the university experience, but the university should be clear not to be endorsing the speaker’s views and should also provide mechanisms for fulsome campus discussions following the event. Of course, that principle applies equally to a SSM-affirming speaker at a Christian university.

Two weeks ago, I covered Jurgen Habermas in my sociological theory class. I spent that weekend skimming his two-volume, 800-page Theory of Communicative Action. Habermas distinguishes between strategic communication and communication for understanding. The former is designed to pursue a particular goal (winning a party nomination, for example). The content of the communication is not as important as its impact. On the other hand, communication for understanding assumes that the speaker are navigating a common meaning system, can understand the rationale for various truth claims, and can agree on a logical course of mutual action.

As a sociologist who has spent my career in Christian universities, it’s incumbent on me to make sure my political and social positions are sufficiently grounded in good research, that I can explain those positions clearly to those who don’t share their implications, and remain committed to a shared understanding even if we vote for different candidates come November.

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