IMAM: The weak argument to hire more conservative professors

Adding more conservative faculty won’t make students challenge their beliefs

Two weeks ago, Viewpoint writer Brendan Novak wrote a piece in which he argued that universities should aim to increase faculty diversity in terms of political ideology. Novak states, “when our beliefs and opinions aren’t challenged, society as a whole suffers.” On this, I agree. Engaging with ideas contrary to one’s own is a vital step in coming to an opinion held with conviction and increases respect for and understanding of those with differing opinions — something that often seems to be lacking today. However, purposefully hiring more conservative professors would hardly achieve this and is problematic in its own ways.

Novak’s idea of hiring a more ideologically diverse faculty so students can hear multiple viewpoints and challenge their own presupposes students in their classes are hearing only their take on an issue, and that professors are jamming their views down students’ throats. To start, most classes wouldn’t involve politics or ideology in any way. How is a Republican chemistry professor going to add to intellectual discourse regarding politics? For classes that do discuss political perspectives, the focus should not be on the professors’ ideologies, but on the curricula of their courses. As Senior Associate Editor Matt Winesett recently pointed out, “tradition-oriented conservatives receive substantially less attention” than do liberals and classical liberal thought. Personally, I agree with this observation, but have also benefitted from and enjoyed material that has dealt heavily with Burke, Kirk and DeMaistre and criticized Marxism across classes taught by both liberals and conservatives. While it is no doubt an imbalance in faculty ideology, simply hiring more conservatives is not the answer. Besides, it’d be unfair to surpass hiring a professor who leans far to one side but values discussing and criticizing all sides of an argument or theory. When so much of the candidate pool is liberal, his suggestion of something like affirmative action for conservative candidates most certainly does imply such an effect on liberal candidates.

Furthermore, the political demography of graduate students makes it next to impossible to even out faculty political orientation and still hire only the most capable candidates. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, 31 percent of those with a graduate education of some form consistently hold liberal views, compared to only 13 percent among the total population. As Neil Gross, a sociologist at Colby College, put it, “if a robot with no political bias whatsoever was hiring professors at random, you’d still end up with a highly liberal professoriate.” Since there is no documented systemic bias keeping conservatives out of companies and institutions as there has been against minorities in many ways, the case of affirmative action for minorities does not apply to conservatives graduate students (to be fair, Novak does vaguely allude to this).

Novak also claims that lack of ideological diversity amongst faculty can lead to producing subpar research without sufficient review and that “homogeneity in academia threatens to undermine the credibility and vitality of academia.” This suggests that professors who lean far to one side or another are incapable of criticizing arguments made in favor of their beliefs, an idea that is insulting. In order to be hired, a faculty member would’ve had to excelled at the graduate level, which is something that requires a great deal of critical thinking — a persuasive stance needs to actively address counterarguments. While this doesn’t make their ideas necessarily correct or just, those hired as professors have clearly demonstrated enough ability and willingness to think critically that they are capable of judging works with which they do not agree.

Novak’s argument is further weakened in his citation of an article that discussed one study rather than any showing of an actual trend depicting a majority of liberal professors as a roadblock to quality research. In fact, his cited article never mentions that the study’s factual errors resulted from a lack of conservative professors, and it was the professor that published it himself who retracted his study once he became aware of errors within the data used and confronted his graduate student about it. While it has been speculated that the study’s argument only gained traction because it “flattered the sensibility of liberals,” others have attributed the study’s problems to a competitive culture amongst graduate students vying for a relatively smaller amount of political science academic positions that rewards and encourages provocative research. This shows that improving the quality of research isn’t so “easily solved by requiring a diverse range of critical viewpoints,” as Novak suggests.

Emphasizing the importance of challenging oneself outside of the classroom as students encounter others with whom they disagree is a more effective way to encourage political introspection than faculty ideological diversity. Novak mentions that when all socialization was face to face, “it was impossible to merely avoid contrary opinions,” but humans have always tended to stick with people of similar ideologies. More conservative professors won’t change that, reaffirming the need to instill a value of finding comfort in being uncomfortable outside the classroom. This approach would apply to students not engaged with course material affected by political ideology while also equipping them with critical thinking skills that last beyond college and apply to far more than politics.

Creating an atmosphere that encourages students to question their own beliefs and engage with people of differing opinions while ensuring a more balanced curriculum are more effective ways for universities to ensure a space conducive to the free exchange of ideas.

Alyssa Imam is an Opinion columnist for the Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at a.imam@cavalierdaily.com.

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