american academic politics

A recent Harvard study reported in Inside Higher Ed indicates that a majority of American professors are moderates, rather than liberals. The most unexpected trend within this overall finding is that radicals and activists tend to be older faculty – which may suggest that newer faculty are less political than a 60s generation of profs, and that the academy in general is getting less political. However, it may also mean, as various commenters pointed out, that it’s easier to be an activist once you get tenure, or that you can get more politicized as you get older, or that it’s tempting to call yourself “moderate” in an era when “liberal” is stigmatized.

That’s all on the level of just trying to interpret the survey data itself. It seems to me, though, that Diana Relke, in her comment on the InsideHigherEd story, gave by far the most perceptive critique of the whole project. Initially she says, “I’m still not convinced that you can say anything about an institution by toting up how its faculty votes on particular issues,” since “the sum [of the institution] is always greater than its parts.” Which is exactly right: the politics of the institution and the political effect of the institution aren’t reducible to the ways that faculty consciously choose to classify themselves on surveys. (Case in point: according to the comment by “Unapologetically Tenured,” “people with college degrees vote Republican in higher numbers than their less educated counterparts. Thus, either indoctrination is not occurring, or it is failing miserably.”) On the contrary, all kinds of political dynamics can operate beyond the level of conscious belief – or for that matter, beyond any clearcut political metrics.

And Relke makes another major point, which is that “in my experience, the academy is rivaled in its conservatism only by the Church. And that has nothing whatsoever to do with the voting habits of the faculty.” In other words, even a single person’s politics are highly contextually sensitive — I think of those old white male Marxists who are purportedly committed to revolutionary human liberation but who are deeply authoritarian classroom teachers. One can still ask, of course, whether there are ethically troubling contradictions between their ostensible values and their practices, or whether there’s something intrinsically objectionable about these values or practices.

At any rate, a purely descriptive response to this whole debate would be that the university is complex and politically contradictory, and that those who are trying to find a single coherent political description are doomed to self-deception. And moreover that political descriptions of the university might be context-sensitive too. For instance, sometimes I’m tempted to say that academia really is not very liberal, but other times I freely acknowledge that it does have some thriving leftist subcultures, and obviously much social and literary theory has historical connections to left politics. And there are other times when what most needs saying is that the American university is also an instrument for the reproduction of class status through educational credentials – in fact, this might be its most sociologically important function. But the point is that a political analysis of the university has to account for the proliferation of contextually specific discourses about the university’s politics.

Finally, even if we had a perfectly accurate political analysis of the contemporary American university, the normative implications would remain far from obvious. If universities are dominated by liberals, is that some sort of structural necessity or a  mere historical accident? Would a predominance of liberals be intrinsically bad, and ought the faculty (or students) to be a perfect political mirror of society at large? (Do the likes of Horowitz long for the kind of affirmative action for Republicans that they might reject if it were based on race or ethnicity?) Or if universities are dominated by their donors and boards of trustees, and indirectly by the politics of the status quo and the desire for institutional self-preservation and prestige, then what are the political implications of – in short – depoliticization? What about the politics of academics’ claim to privileged truth, knowledge and expertise? Or the broader politics of “knowledge production,” of academic research into esoteric, unprofitable, seemingly socially useless topics like the structure of dark matter, or the techniques of medieval cathedral building?

If there’s anything I’ve learned from talking about the ethics of education in my own department, it’s that the morality of scholarship is fraught with troubling and only sometimes inevitable institutional compromises. I don’t know where this leaves us, except with the sense that the demographics of the political spectrum aren’t the best place to start thinking about academic politics. That said, however, the actual text of the study is much more analytical and interesting than the news coverage — it analyzes degrees of “cosmopolitanism” among faculty, for instance, and generally conveys a more sophisticated view of faculty politics than the news coverage would suggest. Moreover, it has a fascinating bibliography that I recommend, especially to myself, wholeheartedly.

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