Profs ponder lack of conservatives on college faculties

by Michael Herman | 10/22/03 5:00am

Common stereotypes portray university faculties as "vast left-wing conspiracies," a sentiment most recently articulated by New York Times columnist David Brooks in an attention-getting op-ed piece last month. Brooks' piece, titled "Lonely Campus Voices," criticized university faculties for having a liberal bias and for making it exceedingly hard for conservatives to receive tenure at top universities.

While there is some agreement with Brooks' view among Dartmouth's faculty, most professors here who spoke to The Dartmouth about this issue felt that Brooks inaccurately presented the political atmosphere at most colleges.

In the article, Brooks writes that "faculties skew overwhelmingly to the left. Students often have no contact with adult conservatives, and many develop cartoonish impressions of how 40 percent of the country thinks." Brooks also claims that conservatives face discrimination and resentment when trying to seek tenure.

Among Dartmouth's faculty, especially in the humanities and social sciences, there are a greater number of politically liberal professors than conservative ones, said Linda Fowler, director of the Nelson E. Rockefeller Center. However, she thought that this disparity is most likely due to self-selection.

Liberals, she argued, are more drawn to study topics like history, religion, philosophy and similar disciplines because "they're predisposed to take relativist views -- that's why they study what they study." On the other hand, conservatives who go to graduate school tend to pursue other career paths in the private sector or in politics instead of in academia, Fowler said.

Jeff Hart, emeritus professor of English, took an opposite view. He said that conservatives choose not to go into academia precisely because they fear not receiving tenure because of their political views. "Conservatives don't think they can get anywhere in the academic profession," he said.

But Hart did allow for some exceptions. "A good conservative will get promoted."

Most professors here disagreed with Brooks' claim that conservatives have a harder time receiving tenure. "Political views play virtually no role in the hiring of faculty," chair of the economics department Doug Irwin said, "I would be very leery in the name of diversity to apply a political litmus test for hiring."

Still, Hart contended that liberal professors are more likely to favor a liberal candidate over a conservative one when deciding tenure because "liberals tend to think that liberalism is common sense, whereas there has to be a good reason to be conservative: it might be a psychological aberration or bad character," said Hart.

"Conservatives like to believe they're fighting the good fight against a deeply entrenched enemy," said Fowler, adopting a different stance. "To blame the academy for a dearth of [conservative] people seeking degrees really isn't useful."

While there are fewer conservatives than liberals among Dartmouth's faculty, said English professor Ivy Schweitzer, "the senior faculty tends to be more conservative in general, and as a group, than the younger faculty, and so fewer wield more power." In that sense, it is hard to say if conservatives are really a minority at Dartmouth, she said.

"I think we have a very open forum for faculty to speak, from all sides of the political spectrum," said Schweitzer. "Is the general atmosphere here 'liberal?' Yes, because we are a liberal arts institution, and liberal arts education is supposed to produce 'liberal' attitudes that encourage forward thinking ideas about inclusion, equality and innovation."