Sundberg: Universities must diversify their ideas

Universities have been shown to discriminate against those without left-leaning political views. (Anders Sandberg/Flickr)

By Mateo Sundberg

Over one year ago, the Black Student Task Force released a list of twelve demands for the University of Oregon administration to address campus issues surrounding diversity and tolerance. One of the demands, demand number six, was a request for the University of Oregon to commit to hiring more African-American professors, specifically in areas outside of the humanities and the social sciences, to encourage diversity in our university’s faculty.

However, this demand, and many other similar demands for diversity by means of race and ethnicity in higher education, fails to reach its goal of creating a space of intellectual rigor, debate and ideological diversity.

Commentators on both the political left and right have highlighted how academic departments value diversity in the form of race and ethnicity over diversity in thought. Few people would try to argue that having an entire faculty of white, middle-aged, straight and upper-middle class professors would create a campus climate that was diverse and inclusive. Sadly, this line of thought does not ring true when applied to faculty having diverse political ideologies. In the 2006 Politics of the American Professoriate survey, researchers found that amongst American social science faculty only 4.9 percent consider themselves conservative compared to 17.6 percent who considered themselves Marxist. When looking at faculty in other departments, the picture does not get much brighter as only about 6 to 11 percent of faculty in the humanities consider themselves to be Republican.

What explains this trend of conservative and republican ideologies being in the insanely small minority? Perhaps it is because there has not, and will not be, enough conservative scholars up to par with a university’s intellectual standards — yet trends show that in the past there was a more equitable share of liberal and conservative faculty, and in the past 20 years there has been a sudden and inexplicable rise of liberal faculty; additionally, the most cited legal scholar of all time, Richard Posner, was a conservative, proving that scholars on the right end of the political spectrum can be the most respected in their respective fields.

Maybe there is a disproportionate share of liberal professors in the humanities and social sciences because conservatives are more likely to pursue higher paying jobs outside of academia. This idea would fail to explain why there are a fair share of right wing faculty members in the natural sciences, mathematics, and business departments, and not in the humanities and social sciences.

Seeing that these counter arguments do not hold up well when examined more closely, it suggests that there is a bias, even discrimination, against prospective conservative faculty. There have been examples of this type of discrimination amongst faculty search committees across the nation, including one example at Georgetown University, where a search committee member attested that the chairman of the committee stated that, “No libertarian candidates would be considered,” or that job descriptions would be changed when it became apparent that the most qualified candidates were found to be conservative.

If liberal faculty believe that higher education requires a robust exchange of ideas that is enhanced by having faculty and students of diverse backgrounds, why is there not a push to hire faculty that have different ideological viewpoints and are not liberal?

The University of Colorado-Boulder has begun the process of trying to undo the homogenous ideological space that has been created by creating a Visiting Scholar in Conservative Thought in 2013. Bringing in a top scholar from an opposing viewpoint strengthens the legitimacy of the ideas that come from the university since they have been tested and debated against. What do liberal faculty members have to fear about having conservative ideas floating around campus? As shown by the University of Colorado, having faculty of conservative ideology does not subvert liberal ideas — if anything it strengthens its legitimacy since it was not created in an ideological vacuum.

The University of Oregon should continue to pursue faculty candidates of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds because the life experiences and worldviews of minorities are important and valuable for intellectual debate.

However, if the universities do not diagnose and fix their ideological bias problem, they will become an echo chamber of only liberal ideas and thought, which would result in the failure of our universities duty to be a space of intellectual rigor that is full of debate. Universities do not have a monopoly on knowledge and intellect; they need to hire more faculty members of diverse ideological and political thought before universities render themselves obsolete.