Debating the Academic Bill of Rights

Peter Wood

This discussion was originally published by FrontPage Magazine.

Editor’s note. The following exchange illuminates the on-going debate over David Horowitz’s campaign for the Academic Bill of Rights.  Does it amount to “affirmative action for conservative faculty,” or is it an appeal to colleges and universities to end discrimination on the basis of political views?   Following the publication on Frontpage of his review of Horowitz’s new book, Reforming Our Universities, Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, received an email from John K. Wilson, who blogs about academic freedom at Wood responded, and Wilson wrote again.  With the permission of both, we reprint the dialogue below.

(1)   John K. Wilson to Peter W. Wood

Peter, I was just reading your review of Horowitz’s new book.

You argue:

“It got the rap of being some kind of trick whereby state legislatures would muscle aside faculties to impose ‘affirmative action for conservatives.’ If this were indeed Horowitz’s intended trick, he ought to have changed his name to Houdini. There really is no plausible reading of the Academic Bill of Rights that bears this interpretation. A document that begins by declaring that no faculty member should be hired, fired, promoted, or granted tenure on the basis of ‘his or her political or religious beliefs’ is simply not a mandate for hiring conservatives to the faculty or displacing liberals.”

Actually the line right before the one you quote in the Academic Bill of Rights does call for “fostering a plurality of methodologies and perspectives,” but only in the humanities, social sciences, and arts. That certainly is a plausible reading for affirmative action for conservatives. Moreover, in his book which you’re reviewing, Horowitz explicitly calls for this on page 67, as I note in my interview with Horowitz:

JKW: You recount your conversation with Elizabeth Hoffman, president of the University of Colorado: “I was quick to point out that I was not asking her to hire conservative faculty. I said the university could insulate itself from an attack by…bringing conservative academics to campus as visiting professors.”(67) Isn’t hiring conservatives as visiting professors precisely a demand to hire conservative faculty?

DH: “Hardly. A visiting professor is a visiting professor. He or she is brought to a university to provide a fresh or unrepresented perspective or experience, and is not brought in as a permanent member of the faculty.”

I’m curious to know if you agree with Horowitz that visiting professors aren’t faculty, and that hiring conservatives in preference to liberals is a good idea. Even if you disagree with Horowitz, don’t you have to admit that this shows his critics were right, and Horowitz is demanding affirmative action for conservative faculty, despite pushing for a Bill that seems to prohibit this?

And don’t you have to admit, then, that the attack on Horowitz was not “bad faith,” but a healthy suspicion of his real goals and how the Academic Bill of Rights could be manipulated by those like Horowitz? You might think that the Academic Bill of Rights is an absolute ban on affirmative action for conservative faculty, yet here Horowitz manages to find a way to demand it.

(2) Peter W. Wood to John K. Wilson:

You write, “Actually the line right before the one you quote in the Academic  Bill of Rights does call for ‘fostering a plurality of methodologies and perspectives,’ but only in the humanities, social sciences, and arts.”   The full sentence reads:

“All faculty shall be hired, fired, promoted and granted tenure on the basis of their competence and appropriate knowledge in the field of their expertise and, in the humanities, the social sciences, and the arts, with a view towards fostering a plurality of methodologies and perspectives.”

I gather your suggestion is that a commitment to fostering “a plurality of methodologies and perspectives” is equivalent to calling for “affirmative action for conservatives.”  That seems way off base to me.  The humanities, the social sciences, and the arts are distinguished from the sciences in (among other things) their lack of consensus about the basic parameters of what their subject is, how scholarly research and exposition should proceed, and what students should be taught.  The classic answer to this pluralism of ends is a pluralism of means.  Students need to know the controversies; faculty members need to teach them.  The sentence says no more and no less than that.

The statement is pretty close to the position enunciated by the American Council on Education, which has ranked intellectual pluralism along with academic freedom as central values of American higher education.

I re-read page 67—twice—trying to find where Horowitz calls for anything that could be plausibly called “affirmative action for conservatives.”  It looks to me that you have allowed your enthusiasm for the hunt to get ahead of text.  You quote a passage from his account of his conversation with President Hoffman, ellipting a clause.  The full passage is:

I was quick to point out that I was not asking her to hire conservative faculty.  I said the university could insulate itself from attack by embracing the idea of intellectual diversity first by adopting the Academic Bill of Rights, but also by promoting a conservative lecture series, and bringing conservative academics to campus as visiting professors.

Your argumentative point seems to be that “visiting professors” are “faculty members,” ergo Horowitz is calling for “affirmative action for conservatives.”

This is a pretty anemic argument.  The distinction between faculty members who have regular academic appointments and “visiting faculty members” is profound.  At most if not all universities, visiting faculty members do not hold voting positions, don’t serve on search committees, don’t participate in shared governance, and have no interest in the long-term affairs of the institution.  I doubt very much that those who argue in favor of affirmative action for women, African-Americans, or members of other minority groups would consider a bunch of “visiting appointments” as satisfying their definition of affirmative action.  Indeed, I doubt very much that you yourself would dare make the argument that a university policy limited to the steps Horowitz outlines in this passage would constitute “affirmative action” applied to any other group.  If you did, you would risk being laughed off campus for promoting tokenism.

You can content yourself with the sophistry that visiting faculty members are “faculty members.”  They are indeed, in the sense that foreign diplomats are “residents” of the country they are stationed in, even though they are not legal residents of that country.  Words often have more than one meaning and when they do, we have to distinguish.

The problem in your interpretation of Horowitz’s views and the Academic Bill of Rights runs still deeper than your straining to see what isn’t there.  You simply blind yourself to the reality that in many areas, particularly the humanities and the social sciences, the university has become a closed shop, in which conservative academics are actively excluded.  Calling for fairness towards conservative academics is not the same as demanding affirmative action for them.  It is, to the contrary, a way of saying, ‘Quit engaging in discrimination against this class of people.”

I am familiar with a couple lines of argument against this point.  I don’t know whether you subscribe to any or all of them.  One line of argument is that the exclusion of conservatives is mere fiction.  The statistics on party registration, voting, financial contributions to political parties, self-identification, etc. are all lies.

Another line of argument is that universities exclude conservatives because there are hardly any conservative academics whose scholarly work merits university appointment.  That’s because conservatives are—the argument branches—(a) stupid, (b) materialistic and therefore drawn to fields where they can make a lot more money than they can in academe, or (c) anti-social and therefore antagonistic to standards of scholarship that now reign in many disciplines.

And yet another line of argument is that universities are by their nature progressive and it only makes sense to maintain barriers against the appointment of those who would undermine its core values.  This last version is less a denial that discrimination takes place than a validation of it.

These are all false arguments.  The discrimination is real.  Conservatives are not as a class stupid, more materialistic than anyone else, or anti-social.  And conservatives care deeply about the core values of the university.

Horowitz has called on universities to take a good look at themselves in the mirror.  Liberals, if not radicals, espouse a belief in the need for a social order in which principles of fairness apply to every important public decision.  But the liberal order of the contemporary university patently betrays this principle by engaging in widespread discrimination against people on the basis of their real or alleged political views.

As I was writing this, I got an email from an old friend who in passing mentioned an acquaintance who has a Ph.D. from Brown University; did his dissertation under one of the nation’s best-known historians; published a book with Princeton University Press, and then, unable to find an academic position, became a practicing lawyer instead.  The sort of thing that happens all the time, to liberals as well as conservatives?  Maybe.  But the rest of the story is this.  The head of a search committee who received a letter of recommendation for this man from the famous historian who had been his doctoral advisor mentioned to my friend, the candidate “has a first rate mind, is a gifted writer, but he is a conservative.”

Substitute the words black, gay, Jewish, immigrantMarxist, or half a dozen others, and no self-respecting person would utter anything so bigoted.  But this is how it is.  Liberals and leftists view it as perfectly acceptable, even moral, to twist the rules of academic appointment to exclude conservatives.

And if someone complains about it, well there is always the canard of, “Oh, you want affirmative action for conservatives!”  The accusation is really one of supposed hypocrisy.  Conservatives are known for criticizing affirmative action for minorities but they supposedly want it for themselves.

I doubt that there are very many conservatives who are in fact guilty of that hypocrisy.  Conservatives want fairness for everyone, and no rule-bending special privileges.  It is a mere step toward fairness to ask universities to be mindful that they are systematically excluding from whole departments and colleges highly-qualified candidates for appointment merely because of their political views.  Horowitz has asked universities to be mindful in that way, and then consider what they can do shake themselves out of a pervasive prejudice.  I think he is right to do so.

(3) John K. Wilson to Peter W. Wood

Considering the call by Horowitz (and you) for pro-conservative bias in hiring visiting professors, I do think that “fostering a plurality of methodologies and perspectives” seems to invite affirmative action for conservatives. Otherwise, what you and Horowitz propose would be completely prohibited by the Academic Bill of Rights.

I strongly support “fostering a plurality” of ideas, but I worry about having it as a distinct criteria for hiring and firing faculty, especially when the only faculty it would seem to apply to are the faculty in liberal-oriented fields. (Surely there is no scientific consensus in a BusinessSchool, is there?)

Actually, the American Council on Education’s Statement on Academic Rights and Responsibilities says exactly the opposite of what you claim: “Neither students nor faculty should be disadvantaged or evaluated on the basis of their political opinions.” Intellectual pluralism is important. But achieving it by hiring based on explicitly political criteria is dangerous to the academic mission.

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