It's bias against conservatives, Republicans and libertarians. But help may be on the way.
Higher education has a problem with prejudice. It’s not the usual racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and xenophobia that colleges are always denouncing. It’s prejudice — sometimes expressed in an ugly and open fashion — against Republicans, conservatives and libertarians. And people are starting to notice.
Speaking at the
Conservative Political Action Conference, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos told conservative students to keep talking, even if faculty and administrators insult them, or treat the expression of politically incorrect views as some sort of “threat.” Her advice: “Don’t shut up. Keep talking. Keep making your arguments. You can do so respectfully and with civility, but I think you need to do so with confidence.”
She’s certainly right that many campuses have pretty openly taken sides in American politics, marginalizing campus Trump supporters and treating Trump’s election more like a terrorist attack — with safe spaces, therapy dogs, and canceled exams — than like the exercise of democracy that it was. And even some professors are noticing the problem.
Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education,
George Washington University professor Nikki Usher cautions her fellow academics not to ignore their Republican students.
Usher writes: “I worry quite a bit for students who I know feel passionately about Republican politics. They, too, deserve to come to class feeling as though they are welcome to share their opinions, that what they have to say matters, and that the classroom is indeed a space for debate and conversation about differing viewpoints. . . . I fear that Republican students will not only self-censor in my course, but also feel even more marginalized on the college campus than they have in the past.”
She’s right to worry. At campuses across America, faculty and administrators act almost as if there are no Trump supporters at their institutions, when in fact, of course, there are plenty of them almost everywhere. They’re usually just, as Usher notes, afraid to speak out.
Maybe DeVos’s encouragement will change things. And, I suppose, that encouragement is an implicit promise that students who are punished or mistreated for expressing the “wrong” views can count on some backup from the Department of Education’s
Office for Civil Rights. A little bit of that sort of attention can probably do a lot to change behavior at universities, which are hugely dependent on federal funding.
Meanwhile, some states are going much farther. Noticing that higher education has a huge political diversity problem — faculties and administrators are far to the left of America generally, and the problem has gotten much worse in recent years — at least two states are pushing legislation to require "partisan balance.”
Universities offer excuses for their leftward skew: Conservatives just aren’t that interested, or aren’t smart enough to be professors, or something. As Bloomberg’s Megan McArdle writes, these excuses aren’t very persuasive: “Politically, academia is about as unbalanced as Norman Bates. Attempts to justify it contain eerie echoes of a 1950s CEO explaining why blacks and women simply weren’t qualified to ever do anything more taxing than make coffee and sweep floors.”
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McArdle also says — and I agree — that political or ideological hiring quotas are probably a bad idea. Quotas in general are a bad idea. We got them in the early days of racial integration because we didn’t trust schools to hire fairly. Will today’s academic administrators stand in the schoolhouse door to keep out Republicans?
But just because quotas are a bad idea doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem, and academia should take it seriously. One argument for racial diversity has been that taxpayers won’t support a higher education system that doesn’t look like them. That’s an argument for ideological diversity, too. As McArdle writes: “The impregnability of the ivory tower is an illusion, because it depends more than ever on a steady flow of government money. If academia defines itself too explicitly as the enemy of the folks controlling that money, the spigot will turn, and the garden inside will rapidly begin to dry up.”
I hope that our higher education leaders will overcome their fear of people who don’t think like them. All of America will be better off if they do.
Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a
University of Tennessee law professor and the author of The New School: How the Information Age Will Save American Education from Itself, is a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors.