Debating Party Parity in Faculty Population

Panel on politics: from left,  Lange, Van Alstyne, Munger, Schlesinger, Adcock,  and Davidson

 Panel on politics: from left, Lange, Van Alstyne, Munger, Schlesinger, Adcock, and Davidson. Photo: Jim Wallace


Controversy erupted after the Duke Conservative Union (DCU) published a full-page "open letter" to Duke President Nannerl O. Keohane as a paid advertisement in The Chronicle on February 9. The advertisement reported a disparity in the political affiliations of university administrators and faculty members, offering a breakdown of the number of Democrats and Republicans who teach in each department. An overwhelming number of faculty members are Democrats, according to the group, and this, the DCU argued, was evidence of Duke's lack of intellectual diversity.

A Chronicle story on the advertisement quoted John Burness, senior vice president for public affairs and government relations, who said that political affiliation is never used as a "litmus test" for potential professors. But Michael Munger, chair of the political science department, said, "In at least one case, a department chair has said they thought the function of Duke was to rid conservative students of their hypocrisies... If that attitude were widespread, then yes, we would need to hire more conservatives." Munger went on to say he felt the problem was not widespread.

Robert Brandon, chair of the philosophy department, told The Chronicle that "we try to hire the best, smartest people available.... If, as John Stuart Mill said, stupid people are generally conservative, then there are lots of conservatives we will never hire. Mill's analysis may go some way towards explaining the power of the Republican party in our society and the relative scarcity of Republicans in academia. Players in the NBA tend to be taller than average. There is a good reason for this. Members of academia tend to be a bit smarter than average. There is a good reason for this, too."

Response to Brandon's comments came swiftly, including a Chronicle letter from a Duke parent, claiming Brandon misinterpreted what Mill was actually saying. After what Brandon called "two days of venomous, hate-filled e-mails from self-described 'conservatives,' " he wrote a follow-up column in The Chronicle, clarifying his comments. "I did not say that all conservatives are stupid, nor even that most conservatives are stupid," he wrote. "I will go on the record as saying that some conservatives are stupid, but so are some liberals; there is plenty of stupidity to go around. The serious and interesting issue is how do we explain the surplus of liberals in academia." Brandon went on to hypothesize that "there is a statistical association between the qualities that make for good academics and those that lead to left-leaning political views. But, stated this way the hypothesis still remains incredibly vague."

In a Chronicle letter to the editor on February 12, Keohane acknowledged that the DCU "raised a question that deserves a thoughtful answer.... For me, the question is not the personal political views of members of our faculty or their party affiliation, it's the quality of their scholarship and the strength of their teaching, which includes ensuring that classrooms are open to diverse, often contrary, views."

Keohane added that she believes that "no single political perspective has a monopoly on intelligence" and that classrooms are impoverished if they "become sterile forums where only bland views can be expressed and everyone is overly careful not to offend. Clear statements of well-articulated, provocative views stimulate deeper thought, and more discussion, than the cautious expression of ideas designed not to make anyone uncomfortable."

In response to the controversy, the Provost's Office, along with Duke Democrats and Duke College Republicans, held, on March 1, a panel, "The Politics of Academic Freedom: Does Political Affiliation Matter?" Playing to an almost packed auditorium, five panelists from different disciplines and across the political spectrum weighed in on academic freedom, what makes a good professor, and whether or not there are hiring biases at Duke when it comes to political affiliation.

"Professors, no matter what their personal views...need to ensure that students are exposed to a wide range of conflicting views on subjects for which that is appropriate," said Provost Peter Lange in his introduction. Arguing that a "neutral or opinion-less classroom is likely not the best environment for active learning," Lange called for "high standards of debate and strong expectations that all will strive for those standards, regardless of the professor's, or the student's, viewpoint."

Law professor William Van Alstyne, a leading scholar on free speech and academic freedom, said party affiliation has no place in the faculty hiring process. "The suggestion that one would have to submit a party affiliation as part of identifying one's interest in a department or university itself would immediately raise hackles and suspicion as to why that's deemed to be an appropriate datum to consider at all," he said.

University Counsel David Adcock, who identified himself as a conservative and a former campaign manager for Jesse Helms, called the issue of party affiliation "almost trivial and certainly banal" and "very, very limited" as an indicator of political ideology. He also argued that in two decades at Duke, "I have never encountered one incident where the senior administration of this university has expressed any but sentiment of the highest respect--even almost sacred and aggressive respect--for principles of free speech." He said the key question is whether faculty members, regardless of their own beliefs, do their "duty" of maintaining an open learning environment.

Political science's Michael Munger, however, questioned whether Van Alstyne and Adcock were in a position to witness faculty bias affecting conservative undergraduates. He also said statistics showing a large preponderance of Democrats among faculty in certain Duke departments could not be explained without considering the possibility of bias, even if inadvertent. "The policy is for openness," he said. "The actual expectation is that we'll generally hire liberals."

William Schlesinger, dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences, said that in his four-year tenure on Duke's appointments, promotions, and tenure committee, he never saw a case in which a candidate's politics affected the tenure decision. "The process of getting tenure at Duke is based on pure scholarship and its impact in the field," he said. "Politics doesn't play a particularly prominent role in the published scholarly work of cell biology, art history, or English literature."

Vice provost and professor Cathy Davidson asserted that "I've not encountered any Duke faculty member being harassed or discriminated against because he or she is conservative. Nor have I ever heard of students being so discriminated against or harassed." She also said that no one should be surprised if Republicans--known for their belief in the free market and capitalist values--gravitate to fields that pay better than academic careers. "If there were an enormous infusion of capital into education, such that salaries for the nation's very, very best college teachers rival that of our nation's top lawyers or doctors or CEOs or stockbrokers, we well might have more Republicans teaching French," she noted.

During the question period, a few students spoke of times when their professors articulated their political views in a way that made them feel uncomfortable. Faculty members expressed concern about proposed national legislation that might limit academic freedom, and several people reminded the audience that party affiliations can include more than Democrats and Republicans.

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