The National Association of Scholars (NAS) is a group for which I have considerable sympathy, and I’m glad they’re around, although I’m not a member. However, I’m not very comfortable with a recent essay by the association’s president, Steve Balch.
He notes that:
Conservatives are drastically underrepresented within faculties also without anyone (except other conservatives) appearing much to mind. Yet unlike males, conservatives are not official objects of disfavor, discrimination against them having no rationale that the academy is willing openly to embrace. Simply treating their underrepresentation as a non-problem is therefore not a feasible option. Instead, despite an overabundance of the kind of evidence generally thought damning, discrimination against conservatives is stoutly denied. In the eyes of academe’s defenders, less than conservatives’ numeric due is not less at all, merely a result of natural processes, to which no culpability attaches, and for which no exculpation is necessary.
He goes on to suggest that it might be useful to apply a disparate impact standard to the hiring practices in academia as a way of demonstrating liberal bias, and this in turn would shift the burden of proof to the institution accused of discrimination — in this case academia. This is where I part ways with the author, not because I doubt his contention that conservatives are underrepresented in the academy, but because I don’t want to emulate the oppressor.
One of the things we’ve seen in recent years is that claims of unfair discrimination (most notably in racial matters) are commonly used as a means of short-circuiting discussion. When that is combined with the idea that one must prove one’s absence of bigotry, it’s a “When did you stop beating your wife?” situation. It’s reprehensible when the Left does it, and it would be wrong for the Right to use it as well.
Another problem I have with this “sauce for the gander” approach is that, just as the Right has argued that affirmative action results in unmerited achievement by favored groups, conservatives who benefit from a similar approach would face similar skepticism about their abilities. The English Department here in Mondoville is split pretty evenly between the Left and Right. We respect one another because we know we’re each good at the things we do. If other factors — such as political leanings — became dispositive, I think that respect would be tainted by distrust of the process. I’m tenured because I’m good in the classroom and I do my part for the campus community. What makes me value it is that I know I earned it.
But if we eschew Balch’s approach, where does that leave conservatives in academia, and particularly in the humanities, which has a strong tilt to the Left? Well, the answer isn’t a comfortable one, but I think it’s the most respectable. It’s often said that minorities can’t settle for being good enough — they have to be better; they have to be no-doubters. If that is the challenge that conservatives face, it’s the one we have to accept.
The professors at my Ph.D. institution knew my political leanings. However, they were intellectually honest, and I was willing to let my work speak for itself. Did my work have to be better than that of my more “mainstream” peers? I give my professors and mentors more credit than that — but if that’s what it would have taken, that was what I would have done.
How long should conservatives be willing to labor under that burden? I can’t speak for everyone, but I think there’s a factor that Balch ignores in his essay. Higher education faces a crisis of public trust, caused in great part because of a growing perception of ideology trumping traditional ideas of what higher ed is supposed to be and do. I would argue that while we can’t count on the good will of liberal academics — who may well believe, as Balch says, that error has no rights — we may put more faith in their sense of self-preservation. If the members of the academy are wise, they will eventually see that they have to rebuild their reputation for intellectual honesty, which of course is done by practicing that virtue under public scrutiny. I believe that in an intellectually honest setting, the disparity under discussion will disappear. Perhaps that’s naivete on my part, but I believe it’s our best hope, and one with which we can live more easily than the one offered in Balch’s essay.