"Targeted Discrimination": What to Look for When Investigating Ideological Bias in Academic Hiring

Steve Balch

That “politics is a struggle among minorities” is a political science adage as true on campus as in the world at large. Yet it has been generally overlooked by those investigating charges of discrimination against academic conservatives – to the detriment of full enlightenment about the nature and significance of the problem.

The minorities in question are, of course, activist rather than ethnic, atypical individuals who have the temperament and time to enter political arenas large and small, and to whom, rare episodes of mass mobilization notwithstanding, the rest of humanity concedes political decision.

Like other citizens preoccupied with the rounds of daily existence, the majority of faculty members prefer work to causes. They research, they teach, they counsel, they endure the tedium of university housekeeping, and through it all remain thoroughly and traditionally academic. But within their ranks is an activist cadre, relatively few in number but full of passionate intensity, for whom ideological vision lies at the core of professional mission.

These are the folks whose energies have channeled so much of university life into varied projects of social transformation. Under different circumstances their intellectual passions might have proved a net plus, the humanities and social sciences having a long history of being enriched by visionary imagination, but, as it is, in a system of discourse drastically askew, where passion has hardly more than a single polarity, and where irresistible forces rarely meet immovable objects, they’ve too often fostered a transformation of education into something akin to advocacy and agitation.

Academic readers will know where these types of faculty members (and administrators) are most likely to be found. They are numerous among progressive, feminist, and critical theorists of sundry types; among those in programs in gender, ethnic, and cultural studies; among champions of diversity, sustainability, and “otherness”; within the circle of mentors and managers of multicultural centers, institutes, and offices; in short, among the leaders and rankers in the now sizeable army of faculty members and university staff who see the life of the mind more as a struggle for social change than an opportunity for intellectual discourse.

Generally speaking, theses breed antitheses, activism of one stripe producing counter-activism of another that affords it a salutary and sobering check. This is now clearly happening in the freewheeling domains of national policy debate, where the Brie and Chablis soirees of blue state sophisticates have, through twists and turns of social and political history, given birth to the tea parties of the red. But few mirror images of the progressive faculty activist have appeared on America’s campuses to check their excesses (and have their own potential excesses checked in turn).

And this is the crux of the matter when it comes to charges of discrimination. It is not the garden variety conservative any more than it is the garden variety liberal – workaday scholars who may vote Republican or Democratic and harbor “traditionalist” or “advanced” opinions – who conjure the reigning spirits of academic life, or are likely to be exposed to their furies, but only those whose depth of conviction reaches heart and soul. Quiet conservatives, whose number survey research suggests ranges from about fifteen to twenty percent of our faculties, largely come and go to their jobs in engineering schools, chemistry departments, even humanities programs, without anyone being much aware of their inmost political thoughts, and certainly without the ideological status quo receiving the slightest shake. The likelihood of their being targeted for discriminatory treatment, particularly in the non-politically relevant fields where most cluster, is quite small. Indeed, it would be entirely gratuitous – though such things do occasionally happen – since they constitute little threat to anyone else’s agenda in those areas.

Unfortunately, it is within this extended population, that is to say the total academic population, that seekers after evidence of anti-conservative discrimination have thus far chosen to hunt. Their samples span the disciplines, and the number of conservatives, let alone vocal ones in sensitive humanities and social science disciplines is, within such vast ensembles, too small to be meaningfully analyzed. Any correlation between ideology and career success is diluted beyond easy recognition. It is not surprising then that, at the most, they find but small sign of ill doing.

I’m not by any means disparaging these investigators. Research into a complex phenomenon is never a one-off affair. It’s a learning process whose trial and error only gradually clarifies what really needs to be examined. Moreover, in standard survey research, substantial numbers of respondents are necessary before results are likely to be statistically significant. Given the need to dot all the methodological “i’s” and cross all the methodological “t’s,” discovering the fates of tiny minorities, however important these may be, presents abundant difficulties. It’s not surprising that up to now it has not been seriously attempted.

Still, it must be. For if there is an antidote to the excesses of political correctness that naturally flow from the passions of academic believers on the left, it will be the countervailing passions of academic believers on the right in fields where these passions have real relevance. And outside a few exceptional disciplines like economics, such faculty members are now but a thin scattering.

Why is that? Is it merely a consequence of intellectuals being less attracted to conservative ideology (probably part of the answer), or does it also reflect “targeted discrimination” not at faculty conservatives per se, but at those academic conservatives, in politically sensitive disciplines, who ascendant left activists fear will make ideological waves?

Stating the latter “targeted discrimination” hypothesis somewhat more formally might yield the following set of propositions. 1) The boundaries of political correctness are primarily patrolled by excluding from employment, hampering the academic careers of, or thwarting the professional organizing efforts of the passionate mirror images of left faculty activists in those fields where worldview matters. 2) The exclusionary pressure is generated among left activists who, though usually a minority in their departments, are precisely the kind of vocal and zealous minority that tends to dominate decision-making systems, or at least exercise effective vetoes, in the cases about which its members care. 3) They do this largely unaware of breaking any rules of academic fair play. Having equated their causes with their scholarship, they often simply conclude that conservative ideas reflect a lack of professional sophistication.               

To be significant, “targeted discrimination” would hardly have to account for the lion’s share of the vast discrepancy in number between zealous faculty on the left and the right. Threshold effects should be kept in mind. When a modest knot of dissident faculty can coalesce around a common purpose, or within a programmatic frame, it may be able to exercise an outsized impact on institutional climate as in the early history of the women’s studies movement, or currently, the intellectual reverberations conservative scholars have been making through Princeton’s James Madison Program. To be of consequence, “targeted discrimination” would only need to hold passionate conservatives below whatever numeric threshold, or threshold of organization was sufficient for their emergence as a confident, vocal, and self-protecting minority at a given campus or department. Having followed attempts to quash such emergences at institutions like HamiltonCollege, the University of Texas, and the University of Illinois, that’s how, I suspect, much of “targeted discrimination” in fact operates. At some institutions, or in some departments, the “targeted discrimination” may be so intense that even lone dissidents are absent.

In order to detect “targeted discrimination” forms of micro-analysis are called for, involving, perhaps, interviews with carefully defined faculty subsets, thereby tracking the career experience not of nominal dissidents, but of those scholars who actually want to walk the heterodox walk. Broad gauge sampling across the disciplines using measures of conservatism appropriate for Gallup polls simply lack the powers of resolution required to isolate this very select population.

One doesn’t have to be a nuclear physicist to understand the capacity of small reactions to generate outsized force. Something similar might happen on our campuses were certain intellectual tendencies allowed to attain critical mass. Not only would fresh ideas be propelled into campus discourse, but its greater balance would remind proponents on all sides that scholarly citizenship requires both measured thought and behavior. If “targeted discrimination” is, as I strongly suspect, working to throttle this development, it should be uncovered and ended. To do that will entail a kind of inquiry that the subject has not heretofore received.

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