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"Liberals" As Faculty

September 19, 2006

A few days ago, the New York Times ran a piece on a perennial topic: the liberal campus elite, especially in terms of faculty.

This has become an amusing topic, but not because I think that the liberal/conservative split has no merit. I’ve been around higher education institutions for years and years, as a student, administrator, and instructor. Plus, a large number of my friends work or teach at universities. All of us have talked about the split and its implications for higher education.

My problem with the article is in the numbers. The article points out that the liberal conservative ratio, according to a recent UCLA study, is about 3:1, respectively. There’s a good summary of these studies here, on Inside Higher Ed news. The numbers on the UCLA study in the latter article are different: “33.3 percent identifying as liberal, 41.1 percent as middle of the road, and 22 percent as conservative.” This seems to be a better approximation of my experience. [Aside: If one interprets the middle-of-the-road numbers as conservative, then the ratio would be 2:1 in favor of conservatives!]

What has become amusing is the bluster, such as that by David Horowitz. One could also write a work about right-leaning academics, one with as much lather and froth. Conservative academics can be as bombastic as any liberal campus elite.

Is it not the point of a college campus to be a place where all points of view co-exist, a uni-versity? Some might reply, yes, but only – and strictly – in terms of each professor’s area of expertise. Does that mean that we are to have no present-day applications forwarded by academics? Or no academic studies of present-day problems? Won’t academics then be accused of living in the ivory tower, of not contributing solutions to everyday problems? But all practical solutions of present-day problems are necessarily political, because politics is ideas in action. I believe that’s the Aristotelian notion of politics, anyway. What is the solution to this dilemma?

In the United States, we demand that the notion of the practical always be addressed by our thinkers, whether public intellectuals or professors. Therefore, we also demand, by the subsidiarity principle, that universities address social and cultural problems. This means that in the U.S. we will always have problems with academics being accused of being political. This is why tenure is crucial in the American system of higher education. With only a few exceptions, all instructors in higher education ought to be protected from accusations of playing politics. – TL

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