Friday, July 15, 2005

Asking questions you can't ask 

Many years ago I had a friend, a political science professor with whom I would jog in the mornings, and Mrs. and I visited with them often. He is Jewish. One time while running he tells me the story of visiting a state university in the South. Now, my friend certainly looks Semitic -- think Dolph Schayes with a beard -- and his last name doesn't disguise anything. But still they are curious. Obviously you cannot ask straight out the question, so he tells me they hem and haw a little bit until someone gets a bright idea. "So, what do you do on Sunday mornings?" they ask. He says he reads, and, understanding that they want this information and not wanting it to get in the way of his interview, he tells them he's Jewish. "Oh? We have a Jew here in [name of town]. We'll introduce you to him." So sure enough, the next day they introduce him to "the town Jew."

I was laughing so hard I could not run any more. (He does a much better job telling this story and, like me, when he jogs and tells a story his hands are absolutely everywhere at once.) The punchline: They offered him the job. Unsurprisingly, he turned it down. I guess he didn't want to ruin the fame of the town Jew.

The same sort of thing happens to conservatives, though it's not quite so funny. FIRE's David French explains:
I spent two years as a lecturer at Cornell Law School. During my second interview with the director of the program I was applying to join, she asked the following question: �I note from your CV that you seem to be involved in religious right issues. Do you think you can teach gay students?� How many gay applicants at Cornell have been asked: �Do you think you can teach Christian students?� The question (coming from someone I came to deeply respect and admire) came not malice but from ignorance � both of the legal standards governing hiring and of the beliefs of evangelical Christians.

Nor was my experience with ignorance and prejudice limited to faculty hiring. One of the most disturbing aspects of my experience at Cornell Law School was the year I spent on the school�s admissions committee. I saw a Christian student once almost get rejected despite tremendous academic qualification because members of the committee were wary of his �God-squadding� and �Bible-thumping.� He was admitted only after I raised strong objections to the committee�s obvious anti-religious prejudice. I also saw some Latino and African-American candidates receive less affirmative action assistance because their perceived politics or career interests (such as an interest in finance) were deemed �less diverse� than other applicants with an obvious interest in �social justice.� Moreover, some applicants of color who indicated interest in the world of commerce were said not to have �taken ownership of their racial identity.�
I agree with French in this regard: Most of the reaction I get to being a right-libertarian on campus isn't malicious but ignorant. Not to say prejudice doesn't exist against conservative, but it's limited, particularly when one is open about his political views and able to defend them with both vigor and humor or grace. One of my best friends here at SCSU has said more than once he likes talking politics with me because he "gets a unique perspective." Well, why do you suppose that is?

Two side points, quickly. First, we should keep Dan Drezner's caveat about being untenured in mind when deciding to leave your conservative bona fides out for all to see. And second, sometimes one's openness leads to use as a "token conservative" on academic committees. I'm on a committee looking at academic freedom at SCSU right now. I've not felt in any way a token on that committee -- the people on there, who probably have voted against me in every election since 1976 if they were old enough, are very good people. But there's a nagging sense that whatever comes out of that committee, some will say "it must be ok if Banaian's on the committee," or "what are you complaining about? King says it's OK." This has happened before.

"Oh, you're a conservative? We have one of those. We'll have you meet him." People with a diveristy mindset, sometimes, just can't help themselves.