Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Student research finds 98% of his faculty are Democrats 

Students are encouraged to think critically. So one student at the University of Oregon decided to do so, and inquired about the political affiliation of his journalism professors. That was not the kind of critical thinking his professors liked. The Christian Science Monitor gave the student, Dan Lawton, an opportunity to write about the experience:

The University of Oregon (UO), where I study journalism, invested millions annually in a diversity program that explicitly included "political affiliation" as a component. Yet, out of the 111 registered Oregon voters in the departments of journalism, law, political science, economics, and sociology, there were only two registered Republicans.

A number of conservative students told me they felt Republican ideas were frequently caricatured and rarely presented fairly. Did the dearth of conservative professors on campus and apparent marginalization of ideas on the right belie the university's commitment to providing a marketplace of ideas?

In my column, published in the campus newspaper The Oregon Daily Emerald June 1, I suggested that such a disparity hurt UO. I argued that the lifeblood of higher education was subjecting students to diverse viewpoints and the university needed to work on attracting more conservative professors.

I also suggested that students working on right-leaning ideas may have difficulty finding faculty mentors. I couldn't imagine, for instance, that journalism that supported the Iraq war or gun rights would be met with much enthusiasm.

What I didn't realize is that journalism that examined the dominance of liberal ideas on campus would be addressed with hostility.

A professor who confronted me declared that he was "personally offended" by my column. He railed that his political viewpoints never affected his teaching and suggested that if I wanted a faculty with Republicans I should have attended a university in the South. "If you like conservatism you can certainly attend the University of Texas and you can walk past the statue of Jefferson Davis everyday on your way to class," he wrote in an e-mail.

I was shocked by such a comment, which seemed an attempt to link Republicans with racist orthodoxy. When I wrote back expressing my offense, he neither apologized nor clarified his remarks.

Instead, he reiterated them on the record. Was such a brazen expression of partisanship representative of the faculty as a whole? I decided to speak with him in person in the hope of finding common ground.

He was eager to chat, and after five minutes our dialogue bloomed into a lively discussion. As we hammered away at the issue, one of his colleagues with whom he shared an office grew visibly agitated. Then, while I was in mid-sentence, she exploded.

"You think you're so [expletive] cute with your little column," she told me. "I read your piece and all you want is attention. You're just like Bill O'Reilly. You just want to get up on your [expletive] soapbox and have people look at you."

From the disgust with which she attacked me, you would have thought I had advocated Nazism. She quickly grew so emotional that she had to leave the room. But before she departed, she stood over me and screamed.

"You understand that my column was basically a prophesy," I shot back. I had suggested right-leaning ideas weren't welcome on campus and in response the faculty had tied my viewpoints to racism and addressed me with profanity-laced insults.

Lawton blogs, and from it I was able to find the "diversity plan" that Oregon signed on to in 2006. In relevant part:
As members of the University community, we take it upon ourselves to protect and enhance all intellectual discourse and to discharge the obligations such investigation requires of us. To that end, we should constantly work to make ourselves more adept at understanding how race, ethnicity, national origin or citizenship, gender, religious affiliation or background, sexual orientation, gender identity, economic class or status, political affiliation or belief, and ability or disability affect the way we live and learn, so that we are better able to respond to intolerance and prejudice, which violate our purpose and mission. (italics added)
I can't say I've ever done an exhaustive search of diversity plans, but I think it's fair to say it's rather rare to find political affiliation in the list of protections. But if Oregon has opened that door, Mr. Lawton seems well within his rights to walk through it and ask "do we really support this which we put in our plan?"

One may find, of course, that all 109 non-GOP say "oh, but my politics never influence my teaching!" For any individual faculty member, that may be true. But faculty meetings and classrooms are two different places. The meetings determine curriculum, distribution of scholarships, and chatter about students that could lead to that odd phrase in a reference letter. A student would be reasonably concerned that being openly conservative is detrimental to his place in a graduate journalism program.

Lawton's blog includes some responses from other students and faculty, including the identity of the journalism prof who equates conservative with Confederate. One hopes for a dean or provost with the courage to hold the diversity plan before the professor and ask for an explanation of his behavior. I won't hold my breath.