Another Round of Professor-Bashing from the Right

-- by Neil H. Buchanan

Donald Trump's recent attacks on the press -- calling the news media "the enemy of the American people" -- are appalling and Stalinesque, and people are right to criticize him harshly for taking his attacks as far as he has.  The degree to which he is willing to vilify a free press is indeed alarming.

Degree does matter, but we must not forget that none of this is new as a matter of kind.  Indeed, this is simply another example of Trump doing what Republicans have been doing for years.  It is just that he is willing to do so at a higher volume and even more crudely.

Republicans have been attacking the press for decades, perhaps out of a group-reinforced belief that the press is truly biased but also because they have found that they can "work the refs" and constantly succeed in securing generous coverage from cowed reporters who bend over backward to prove their open-mindedness.

This is all part of a larger strategy in which Republicans have been busy demonizing all institutions that present any opposition to their agenda.  In the 1970's and especially the 1980's, they went after labor unions, shamefully abetted by the Bill Clinton-led triangulators.  At this point, the Republicans are trying to finish off the job by attacking public employee unions and civil service protections.

Beyond the press and labor, the Republicans are also frothing against the universities with ever-increasing intensity.  From perpetual-candidate Rick Santorum's claims about "liberal indoctrination" of our gullible youth to tallies of the party affiliations of university professors, there is a well financed army of people whose job it is to claim -- loudly and repeatedly -- that universities are illegitimate because they are too liberal.

The most clumsy Republican responses to this claim include recent proposals in some state legislatures to dictate quotas of Republicans that must be hired to teach college classes.  This idea has already been widely mocked, so here I will simply note how odd it would be to serve on a hiring committee in which the conversation included something like this: "OK, so we're hiring three people this year, all of whom have to be Republicans.  Let's take out our lists of Republican physicists, Republican English literature scholars, and Republican forensic anthropologists."

Or we can come at this from the opposite direction.  If the idea is that the academy is an essential institution in any modern society -- certainly a claim with which I enthusiastically agree -- and thus that we must have ideological balance in terms of partisan politics (which is not true, but bear with me here), I propose that we require similar partisan balance in the hiring and promotion of military officers, FBI agents, CEO's of publicly traded corporations (which benefit from laws limiting their legal liability and so on), and members of the clergy (another institution with important social influence).  (See the letter from John A. Mazis here, who makes this point.)

Can you imagine the fun in watching the board of XYZ Corp. as it tries to hire a new chief executive?  "We need someone who knows our business and is a turnaround expert for companies with aging product lines.  But remember that there are too many Republican CEO's nationwide, so let's go out and get the best Democrat we can find!"  For the same reason that Eastern State U.'s Sociology Department should not be required to inquire into the political affiliation of applicants for an opening in Comparative Development, XYZ's new CEO candidates should not be judged by their partisan leanings.

Part of the problem, I think, is that conservative professionals have long felt resentment at the social isolation that their political views created for them when they were in college.  A recent profile of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, for example, noted that he was a committed conservative on his Ivy League campus who felt so stung by the resulting social rejection that he founded a conservative campus newspaper and sought out like-minded friends.  (He put himself, if you will, in a bubble, yet I have not heard any conservatives chiding him for doing so.)

Such groups frequently complain that their rights are being trampled by "political correctness" on campus.  But that attempt to claim victim status does not work, because the right to hold unpopular views is most definitely not the same as the right to be liked in spite of your views.  If you want to mock environmentalism and denigrate people who are struggling for their civil rights, you can do so.  You are also going to be widely seen as a jerk or worse.  That is how life works.

In a column last month, I noted that the new all-purpose conservative insult -- calling liberals, especially college students, "snowflakes" who cannot stand the realities of life -- actually applies best to Trump's voters, who are sure that the world is against them and that they deserve not to be called racists even as they voted for an openly bigoted candidate.

This applies more broadly to the supposedly hard-nosed conservatives who constantly complain about how unfair life is to them.  Jeff Sessions said during his confirmation hearings to become Attorney General that his feelings were hurt by accusations of racism.  Some (but not all) conservative professors complain that campus culture is unfair to them, because they are not cheered when they speak their minds.

If anyone should have some sympathy for these conservative academics, I am probably the prime candidate.  As a left-leaning economist who later moved into legal academia, I certainly know what it is like to feel stifled by a professional culture that rules certain ideas and approaches out of acceptable conversations, journals, and departments.

In economics, an ideological purge took place starting in the 1970's (or perhaps a bit earlier).  In a short span of time, it became impossible to publish -- and thus to hold jobs in even lower-ranked economics departments -- unless one accepted a very narrow methodological approach to economics.  That approach was, moreover, inherently conservative.

The process was sometimes anything but subtle.  Some universities went through very public spectacles in which they drove those who rejected the new orthodoxy out of the academy.  Some, like the University of Notre Dame, actually created new economics departments to fill with true believers, shunting the apostates aside into underfunded and unsupported programs that were then supposed to die quietly.

Most economics departments, however, simply took what they surely viewed as a sensible I-see-the-trees-and-it's-not-my-job-to-care-about-the-forest approach to hiring and promotion, knowing that a job candidate who rejected rational-choice theory would never be published, which meant that there was no point in hiring her.

Graduate students quickly adapted to the new reality, and by the 1980's, we all knew the paths to professional success.  Required courses in economic history and "history of thought" (that is, economic methodology) became electives or were dropped outright.  Anything viewed as "soft" -- economic development, gender issues, and so on -- was dead in the water.  As one example, Harvard's only tenured "radical" economist in all of those years had been tenured before he rejected the professional orthodoxy.

In 2014, I wrote a series of columns about how economics was overrun by this new conservative wave.  (The last of those columns is here, with links to early columns in the series.)  When I say "conservative," however, readers might be confused, because nearly everyone is aware that New York Times columnist Paul Krugman is politically liberal even as he is the most highly decorated mainstream economist of his generation.

Krugman's existence, however, does not disprove the claim that economics was taken over by an inherently conservative dogma.  Yes, there are still economists who identify as Democrats and whose work can support liberal-ish policies.  But the implicit political requirements of modern economics are still deeply conservative, with liberal results viewed as "special cases" that must be justified by extraordinary steps and additional work in order to pass professional muster.

So, do I think that academic decision-making processes can be overtaken by non-merit-based group-think?  Absolutely.  I have seen it up close.  And the conservatives won in a rout.  When I was a graduate student, those of us on the outside of the new orthodoxy accurately complained about the anti-intellectualism and narrowness of that dominant approach.  It is no fun to be a part of a disadvantaged minority.

Does something like this happen in fields outside of economics?  I suppose that there must be examples, but we are not going to be able to identify them merely by counting party affiliations of professors.  And we will similarly not be able to say that there is a problem simply because people in the non-dominant school of thought complain about the dominant school of thought.

Consider my current field, which is law.  Despite the wailing from some of my conservative colleagues, it is not difficult to find conservative professors who are quite successful in the legal academy.  Unlike economics, where heretics were effectively dispatched to a tiny number of low-ranked universities, we can find prominent conservatives in every law school in the country, including the highest-ranked ones.

And this is nothing like tokenism.  Campus-level "federalist societies" -- a national conservative coalition that is heavily funded by right-wing foundations -- do not lack for potential faculty sponsors.  The right-leaning faculty themselves are able to publish in all of the top journals, to be hired and tenured and promoted by higher-ranked law schools, and to serve in Republican administrations.

Again, I am sure that conservative law professors grind their teeth when the general conversation among their peers leans to the left.  (Which is not to say that we sit around talking politics all the time.  Mostly, we are just teaching our classes and writing our articles.)  But that is not the same as being systematically discriminated against.

I doubt that most Republican legislators who are attacking academic freedom are doing so because they have had conversations with conservative law professors.  More likely, theirs is a simpleminded response to the conservative mythology in which all professors are Marxist crazies.

Certainly, a large chunk of the hate mail that I receive derives its energy from a belief that I must be bad simply because I am a professor.  Emails arrive that begin, "Only someone who is ensconced in a communist university ... "  (For some reason, enraged emailers particularly like the word "ensconced.")  It is as simple as professor = liberal = evil.

Even so, I am frequently surprised by my conservative colleagues' attempts to foment the anti-university backlash on the right.  In any working environment, it is not as pleasant to hold minority views as it is to be roughly in sync with one's colleagues.  But the American university -- and especially the American law school -- continues to be a place where minority views are present.  The only exception to this statement with which I am familiar is in economics, and that is an example of conservatives systematically driving out nonbelievers.

In any event, we need to remember the context in which all of this is taking place.  Republicans are feeling the wind at their backs, and they sense that they can now even more fiercely attack the institutions that do not reliably support their programs.  Academia has always been one of their most important targets.  Turning universities into Republican-friendly spas is one more way in which they intend to consolidate power.