Debating the Academic Bill of Rights

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, ellipsing 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 regular academic appointments and “visiting faculty members” is profound.  At most if not all universities, visiting faculty members do not holding 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 be 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 conservative 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 mentions 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, immigrant, Marxist, 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 Business School, 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.


To order a copy of Reforming Our Universities: The Campaign For An Academic Bill Of Rights, Click Here.

  • Chezwick_Mac

    JOHN WILSON: "Intellectual pluralism is important. But achieving it by hiring based on explicitly political criteria is dangerous to the academic mission."

    And of course Mr Wilson, this NEVER happens in the halls of academe today, does it?

    • John K. Wilson

      Yes, it does happen sometime in academia, to both people on the left and the right. But I've never seen a college explicitly favor an ideology at the imposition of president following the demands of political activists, as Horowitz and Balch call for. We need all faculty to be hired based on academic merit, not politics, and condemn anyone who violates this standard. And that's why I'm condemning Horowitz and Balch.

  • John K. Wilson

    This email exchange doesn't include one last response I made to Peter Wood's argument:

    You write, “Your argumentative point seems to be that ‘visiting professors’ are ‘faculty members.’” Yes. That’s because visiting professors are faculty members. That’s not “sophistry.” In some places, “visiting professors” are the term used for most adjunct faculty. It’s true that visiting professors do not have the same power as tenure-track faculty. But it’s the principle of hiring based on merit, not politics, that matters. Low-level college administrators don’t have the same power as faculty, either, but they should never be hired or fired based on their political affiliation.

    Imagine if a college president of a public college in a very conservative area decided that the faculty were too conservative, and therefore the college would hire only left-wing visiting professors and ban conservatives from holding these posts, in order to promote fostering a plurality of views. I suspect that you and Horowitz would be outraged by a president replacing academic merit with political ideology in any hiring decisions, and you would rightly worry about this political hiring carrying over to tenure-track positions. I would be outraged, too. So why doesn’t the same outrage apply to pro-conservative discrimination?

    Now, to the question of anti-conservative discrimination, which I write about at length in my book Patriotic Correctness. Clearly, conservatives are underrepresented in academia, albeit not to the degree Horowitz and some others claim. Like other underrepresented groups, such as blacks and women, this raises the possibility of ongoing discrimination, but does not prove it. Unlike blacks and women, there is no irrefutable historical legacy of past discrimination against conservatives in academia.

    You are right that conservatives are not inherently stupid or anti-social. I’m not so sure about materialism, though. In general, it appears that conservatives are more likely to seek out higher-wage professions. Materialism is not a bad thing; you could argue that only liberals are stupid enough to seek careers in academic fields. For example, in K-12 teaching, there is also a clear liberal tendency among teachers. Yet K-12 has none of the same scrutiny of faculty hires by alleged tenured radicals in higher education which is said to cause underrepresentation of conservatives. But it has a similar result, which indicates that culture and money is a much more likely explanation for conservative underrepresentation in teaching generally than discrimination.

    An example of anti-conservative prejudice, no matter how appalling, is not proof of systematic discrimination. I could summon all kinds of anecdotal examples of sexism in academia, yet you probably believe that women generally receive preferences in hiring. There are ways to try to try to prove discrimination against conservatives, such as by surveying the views of students receiving Ph.D.s and determining who is hired for academic positions. Similar surveys have indicated levels of ongoing sexism in academia. But no one has ever shown this prejudice toward conservatives. Is it possible that conservatives are discriminated against in certain fields at certain colleges? Yes. Is it possible that left-wingers are discriminated against in certain fields at certain colleges? Yes. (I personally doubt that a Marxist would be hired today by the University of Chicago Department of Economics. And I would criticize them for this. But I would oppose any action to force them to hire Marxists.) But we need evidence before we can prove it. And even if we do prove it, then we need to take the appropriate actions to prevent it, and not just start hiring based on political ideology.

    You claim, “Liberals and leftists view it as perfectly acceptable, even moral, to twist the rules of academic appointment to exclude conservatives.” Absolutely not. I’ve never heard anyone defend this idea. It is fundamentally immoral and unacceptable to exclude conservatives or discriminate against anyone based on political views in academic hiring of any kind, whether it’s for tenure-track positions or visiting professors. You and Horowitz are the only two people I’ve encountered in my life who justify this concept. We need to hold academic merit as the basis for academic hiring, and reject political discrimination of any kind. And that’s why I criticize you and Horowitz for demanding conservative preferences in hiring visiting professors.

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