Back in 2004 the Duke Conservative Union (DCU) looked up the political party affiliation of 178 Duke faculty members in the humanities and then took out an ad in the Duke Chronicle announcing that the vast majority were registered Democrats. Only 8 were registered Republicans. A day later the paper ran a lengthy piece with the reactions of faculty and administrators. Reporter Cindy Yee sampled a fair range of opinions and wove them into a solid, informative article. But it was the quote from philosophy department chair Robert Brandon that people really noticed.
“We try to hire the best, smartest people available,” Brandon said of his philosophy hires. “If, as John Stuart Mill said, stupid people are generally conservative, then there are lots of conservatives we will never hire.
“Mill’s analysis may go some way towards explaining the power of the Republican party in our society and the relative scarcity of Republicans in academia. Players in the NBA tend to be taller than average. There is a good reason for this. Members of academia tend to be a bit smarter than average. There is a good reason for this too.”
From the comments posted after the article you can get a pretty good sense of how that went over, or google “Robert Brandon” Duke stupid for a broader sample. Reflecting on the remark after “two days of venomous, hate filled e-mails from self-described ‘conservatives,’” Brandon said, “In my response to The Chronicle reporter I gave a quote from John Stuart Mill that I thought was quite funny. I now see that the humor is not much appreciated in this context.” In writing, at least, the remark strikes me as arrogant and not very funny, and I’m not sure that even sympathetic readers picked up much humor. But as a smoking gun in the crime of liberal bias the remark was very much appreciated—the Google search above calls up a little feeding frenzy of critics who were, on the whole, remarkably uncritical and opportunistic in their approach to such a useful quote. Recently it’s cropped up again as part of a minor farce.
[Here’s more about Mill’s theory of conservatives.]
It seems pretty obvious (to me, at least) that Brandon’s comment is just a pretentious version of the kind of reflexive, snarky put-down that each side of the political spectrum is constant throwing at the other. It takes a pretty shallow or self-serving perspective to assume that it’s deeply revealing of how he approaches decisions or interactions involving conservative students or faculty. That’s the sort of spin you’d expect from a partisan rag, and sure enough Rachel Zabarkes Friedman, writing for the National Review, put Brandon’s remark on her list of “five of the most outrageous campus incidents of the last academic year.” Her paragraph about it ends with a little idle speculation: “So why aren’t there more Republicans in academia? Maybe it’s because even the capable ones have been kept out, by the likes of Robert Brandon.” Unless she did a whole lot more investigating than it seems, she’s in no position to make generalizations about “the likes of Robert Brandon.” She has an uppity liberal-professor sock puppet who can mouth the words, though, and that suits the National Review just fine. But here’s one from a professor, Erin O’Connor, and she doesn’t do much better: “It says something about a department—if not the university as a whole—when its leader will come right out and say that the reason there aren’t more conservatives teaching college is that conservatives are stupid.” The claim about his department is especially empty. Other than the emphasis on philosophy of biology it looks like a pretty traditional philosophy department. It’s not clear how you’d find out if the chair’s comment about stupid conservatives really says something about them. It would definitely take some work, so why not just say it?
It’s a tedious and often disingenuous habit to treat attempts at humor, even those that bomb, as revelations of the real beliefs that the joker would otherwise deny or keep under wraps. All the conservative tut-tutting about Brandon’s remarks suggests that feminists aren’t the only ones who can’t take a joke (I’ll hand that off to the fabulous Nellie McKay at the end of the post). Joke or not, a quote relayed by a reporter is not the same as a first-person written statement. If Brandon had written the bit about Mill and stupid conservatives in an op-ed, presumably he would have made sure that his meaning came across in print, and it would make sense to treat it as a serious opinion. He may well be arrogantly clubby about the predominance of liberals in the humanities faculty, or he may be inclined to bullshit when he gets a question that he hasn’t thought much about, or he may have been blowing off steam after reading the ravings of some fringe professor pushing “Intelligent Design” as science. There are plenty more possibilities—I don’t know Prof. Brandon so I’m not suggesting any particular interpretation. My point is that the quote got the play that it did because it was useful—it’s actual significance is uncertain but was probably vastly overstated by his critics. It doesn’t say much for the seriousness of the cause of “intellectual diversity” that a glib remark to a campus newspaper has to be overinterpreted and oversold to make the case for it.
When it comes to using quotes for impact, with little regard for either their significance or their context, KC Johnson is hard to beat. About a year and a half after Brandon made his infamous comment, Johnson used it in an editorial for the Chronicle of Higher Education, a critical look at the explanations and justifications given by the “academic Establishment” for its leftwards imbalance. In retrospect it reads like a warmup for the anti-academic crusade he piggybacked on the lacrosse case—the narrowly-framed issues and boilerplate rhetoric were ready and waiting for the “listening” statement to come along. The editorial is a mix-and-match of quotes framed as evidence of bias but otherwise largely unanalyzed—The Cigarette Smoking Blog (!) has a handy list of some of them. I haven’t checked to see whether there’s any of the misrepresentation that he indulged in while writing about the lacrosse case. But even without digging through his sources it’s clear that he makes no meaningful distinction between George Lakoff speaking to the New York Times, Brandon joking to a student reporter, and some random professor blogging about who’s “f-ing smarter.” They’re treated as equally significant and representative—a fair sign, I think, that Johnson’s main interest is in what sounds good and makes points for his side.
Brandon’s quip about conservatives being stupid is circulating again because of a little farce that Inside Higher Ed recounts in a recent article—“In Culture Wars or Duke-Bashing, Do Facts Matter?” They didn’t to Edward Bernard Glick, an emeritus professor of political science at Temple University, when he wrote an editorial that ran in the Jerusalem Post and, with a somewhat different ending, on the website American Thinker. It’s an especially cranky and slapdash version of the formulaic rant about how everything’s going to hell (aka the academic declensionist narrative). Evil Bender goes into the gory details of Glick’s “logical fallacies, lack of evidence, lack of proper attribution, and… burning desire to pin all of society’s ills on the academy.” What I find interesting is that what drives the reasoning (such as it is) is assumptions about the people responsible for the decline.
He brings the anonymous bad guys on stage as protesters at the ‘68 Democratic national convention in Chicago. “[W]hat did these Marxist demonstrators and their cohorts elsewhere do next? They stayed in college. They sought out the easiest professors and the easiest courses.” Safe from the draft, they whiled away the Vietnam war lowering academic standards, and when the war was over they had nothing better to do than get tenure and transform the university into “the most postmodernist, know-nothing, anti-American, anti-military, anti-capitalist, Marxist institution in our society.”
Thanks to this takeover by ignorants, college graduates these days are “well trained, but badly educated”—they’ve been trained “to feel sad, angry or guilty about their country and its past” in an intolerant atmosphere in which “politically-correct feelings are now more important than knowledge,… logic, and critical thinking.” When it comes to Darfur, Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “Muslim hatred,” gas prices and the energy supply, they have everything completely wrong. The professors responsible for all this miseducating don’t make much money but they get “huge psychological incomes in the form of power.” They “shape the minds of their students” and control hiring, promotion, tenure, etc., so naturally they pack the faculty with like-minded comrades. (Facetiously, I think, John K. Wilson flips the point about income on its head—it’s the liberals who are stupid for going into such a low-paying profession).
Duke University is a case in point. Some time ago, a department chairman* was asked in an interview on NPR if his department hired Republicans. He answered (I paraphrase from memory): “No. We don’t knowingly hire them because they are stupid and we are not.”
If I were a in his field, Duke would never hire me, for I am a Republican, and a Jewish one at that. Moreover, when I was an active academic during and after the Vietnam War, I audaciously taught politically-incorrect courses: civil-military relations and the politics of national defense.
*Correction: The author initially identified the speaker as the chairman of Duke’s psychology department. This was an error of memory. The author and American Thinker apologize to the chairman in question and to readers for this error.
That’s the end of the article, and he really outdoes himself—not only casually misremembering Brandon’s remark but also slipping in a gratuitous suggestion of anti-semitism, a pat on his own back for bravely carrying the torch for some very conventional subjects, and a wonderfully inadequate correction. If that’s any indication of the quality of his work, it wouldn’t be his politics that kept Duke from hiring him.
[July 18: I pulled the above quote about a week ago—between July 11 and 14, I’m guessing. As of a day or two ago, American Thinker had lopped off the ending and expanded the correction. Today it’s reverted to what I quoted. Gotta wonder what’s up with that.]
Glick’s editorial reads like a feeble parody of Alan Kors’ much more articulate meditation “On the sadness of higher education” from a couple of months ago. Kors gives an especially eloquent account of the academic values he first encountered as an undergraduate, while Glick honors what’s been lost only in strident negatives. But both of them pin the decline on a bunch of ideologues who apparently have nothing to say for themselves that’s worth listening to. For Glick, it’s wild-eyed, wooly-headed “Marxists.” For Kors, it’s “careerist” administrators who have “given over the humanities, the soft social sciences and the entire university in loco parentis to the zealots of oppression studies and coercive identity politics.” In both cases it’s an intellectual cop-out—dismissive characterization in place of an argument. Johnson has given himself the space to take a more creative approach—misrepresenting, exaggerating, and “perfecting” the “race/class/gender extremists” on the Duke faculty to suit his self-righteous crusade. It’s as if, after playing the same video game for two years, he’s still perfectly content on level one, where he can effortlessly mow down the gangs of slow-moving evildoers.
I don’t dismiss concerns about intellectual diversity on campus (“ideological diversity” would be a more accurate term, though). The self-appointed conservative advocates of it—the ones I’ve been coming across—seem to be much more intent on discrediting and denouncing the left/liberal Establishment than on making a case that they represent valuable diversity. They suggest the opposite, in fact, with their willingness to cut corners intellectually. But I know of two professors who, by example, make good cases for the conservative contribution to intellectual diversity. The first is Michael Gustafson, an engineering professor at Duke who, during the lacrosse scandal, managed to be a voice of moderation while also speaking up for the lacrosse players and questioning the judgment of some of his colleagues. He seems to have been among the first to notice Glick’s sloppiness, and there’s a series of posts on his blog that traces his investigation. When he calls it “another unfortunate case of distortion being touted as fact in order to oversell a point…,” I’m guessing he’s looking back to the self-serving distortions that have been a staple of lacrosse-case debate (it’s all too easy to find the same thing elsewhere, of course).
Farther from home, there’s Matthew Woessner, an assistant professor of public policy at Penn State and the subject, along with his wife and professional collaborator, April Kelly-Woessner, of an engaging profile published in The Chronicle of Higher Education early this year. With respect to the debates about intellectual diversity, what sets both conservative husband and liberal wife apart is their committed empiricism—they don’t just debate their disagreements, they go out and do a study. One of their studies documented an effect, generally negative, of professors’ overt politics on students’ engagement and appreciation. Another found that differences in interests and personal values seemed to go a long ways towards explaining why liberals are more likely to pursue PhD studies than conservatives. That doesn’t settle the issue, but it’s a refreshing change from dogma and tribalistic rhetoric.
Woessner also defies the conventional wisdom from the Right that surfaces, for instance, in most any comment thread where academic political bias is in play. For instance: “I was a university faculty member for 14 years and I can absolutely confirm what happens to faculty when they have a difference of opinion with the prevailing groupthink.” I don’t doubt that some people are effectively drummed out of academia for not toeing the liberal line. It’s sure not Woessner’s experience, though—he says “he never confronted intolerance in the classroom. Even some of his most liberal professors went out of their way to solicit his views.” That may not be typical or even common—I really don’t know. I do know that some of us are thrilled to have students who are willing and able to articulate a perspective that contrasts or conflicts with our own.
Gustafson and Woessner show in practice how valuable conservative voices can be to a left-leaning university faculty. But what they bring to the table is more than a party affiliation. There’s a willingness to engage with and respect the other side, and a real commitment to honest, constructive debate. To some extent it probably comes down to personality, and I don’t want to suggest that the only good conservative academics are the ones who make nice. Looking at the opposite extreme, though, Glick’s article is neither constructive nor very honest. If that’s what conservatives have to offer—more right-wing noise trying to drown out the prevailing left-wing noise—it’s not much use as diversity (I should note that it’s not an issue Glick takes up). It seems to me that many of the advocates of intellectual diversity are much closer to Glick than Gustafson, too ready to engage in all-out rhetorical warfare, letting the ends justify the means. A little more leading by example might be nice.
Speaking of people who can’t take a joke, Nellie McKay has something to say…