November 29, 2004

See George dissemble

No, I'm not talking about our president but George Will, whose November 28 column on academe repeated the distortion of the American Enterprise Institute's Karl Zinzmeister that our campuses are one-party operations. If you look at the graphs from this "study," it appears as if American academics have only a left wing, because—gasp!—there were five Brown University economists who were registered Democrat and one registered Republican. Oh the horrors!

University of Michigan historian Juan Cole has written a rebuttal of Will's column based on general principles. But let's look at the actual Brown University economics department, shall we? Admittedly, in the fall of 2004, there will have been some turnover over the past few years, since the "research" was done. According to the department's listing of faculty, there are more than 30 tenure-line faculty in the department. Sure, some of them aren't American citizens, but that should leave about two dozen faculty members who are eligible to vote in the U.S. So why didn't the article by Zinzmeister report the registrations of the vast majority of the faculty? Maybe most of them are registered as a member of no party or of minor parties. Maybe the majority are too apathetic about public policy to register to vote (now, wouldn't that be a real scandal!). Or maybe the "study" was just plain full of baloney.

Now, the fact that neither George Will nor the American Enterprise Institute can get the facts straight on academic's political inclinations isn't too surprising. Nor does it eliminate the fact that there are political leanings in any department. But that doesn't mean that academics as a whole are more liberal than similarly-educated residents in their surrounding communities. (Testing that would be a challenging study.) And while hydrophobic folks like Zinzmeister and David Horowitz blather on about the most well-known universities, the vast majority of faculty and students are at anonymous public 2- and 4-year institutions.

(Horowitz, in particularly, has been on a raging crusade over the past few years about the evils of campus liberals. I wonder what he thinks the appropriate solution would be. But we know already from Horowitz's claims of a campus blacklist: mandate "balance" in every single syllabus and department meeting. So does Horowitz want ideological quotas? Hmmn...)

There is a serious argument to be made about the failure of academics to live up to their obligations as public intellectuals. Russell Jacoby made that case in The Last Intellectuals (1987). On that score, regardless of one's political inclinations, you'd have to admit that the public face of most campuses is in the football or men's basketball team, not the faculty. I don't know how much of that is the fault of faculty and how much is the public-relations trap colleges and universities find themselves in. But I wouldn't expect George Will to write about that any time soon.

Listen to this article
Posted in Random comments on November 29, 2004 11:22 PM |