Why My Apolitical Column About Law Schools Is Politically Relevant

by Neil H. Buchanan

The Republican-dominated state legislature in Idaho "scrubbed all mentions of human-caused climate change from the state’s education standards last year," and even after a backlash, it has now approved revised standards that remove all but a few references to the human role in global warming.  Idaho is the most extreme case, but multiple Republican-led state legislatures have also been pursuing this anti-science path, mirroring the Trump Administration's climate denialist efforts.

With the conservative attack on scientific reality continuing apace, Republicans nationwide are also resolutely pursuing their assault on the judiciary, including -- among many other matters -- attacks on courts that try to rein in partisan gerrymandering.  Imbued with a fervor fueled by Donald Trump's shameless denigration of "so-called judges" and other libels, Republicans are trying to impeach judges who rule against them even as they prevent judicial seats from being filled by Democratic appointees -- an obvious homage to the successful effort by Republicans in the U.S. Senate to steal a Supreme Court seat.

Meanwhile, Trump and congressional Republicans are doing everything possible to undermine the public's confidence in law enforcement and intelligence operations, successfully convincing their voting base that the FBI -- an organization run and supervised by lifelong Republicans and populated by an overwhelmingly Republican-voting work force -- is in cahoots with Democrats to frame Trump for treason.

It has become so bad that two passionately nonpartisan analysts have recently written that Republicans who care about their party and about conservatism itself must now decide to reflexively vote for Democrats, because that is the only way that genuine conservatism can regain a hold on America's right-wing party.

New York Times columnist David Leonhardt helpfully clarifies that this is not just about Trump but about the entire direction of the Republican Party over the past generation.  To amplify his point that this is not a Trump-only phenomenon, consider that the Republicans have become so habituated to dismissing the legitimacy of their opponents that they insist on referring (possibly unthinkingly at this point) to the "Democrat Party" rather than the "Democratic Party."  Such pettiness communicates disrespect.

Meanwhile, my latest column discusses none of that, focusing instead on an almost laughably narrow question that continues to fascinate law faculties: When we hire colleagues, should we hire the best scholar available or must we also take into account their teaching interests?  As I was writing that column, I knew that even the vast majority of people who have been to law school would not understand why that question is so important to people like me.

What does my column -- which has no apparent political valence and discusses matters that even law professors find tiresome -- have to do with the political debates in this country?

The examples that I offered above -- of Republican attacks on science, the judiciary, law enforcement, and the intelligence agencies -- are only a sampling of Trump/Republican assaults on key institutions of society.  Trump built much of his campaign around the idea that the news media is hopelessly corrupt, which as usual was not a new line of attack but merely a more open and brutish extension of the Republicans' decades-long attacks on the press.

And then there is academia.  Although the number of incidents of harassment of professors is thankfully still relatively small, there has been a worrisome increase in right-wing social media attacks on professors (not coincidentally mostly professors who are female and/or people of color) who have spoken out on matters of bigotry and systemic oppression.  The American Association of University Professors has felt compelled to organize what is likely to become a permanent unit to respond to such harassment.

Those are the extreme cases, but the fact is that conservatives have been attacking the legitimacy of universities for decades.  In what has now become a self-reinforcing loop, Republicans dismiss evidence and attack professors as pointy-headed pinkos, and even professors in apolitical fields like the sciences respond by rejecting the party that fails even to accept the basic point of academic inquiry (unless, of course, it supports conservatives' preconceived notions).

The right-wing media universe has now fully institutionalized its attacks on universities.  Some cable news shows feature daily "alerts" about supposed outrages on American campuses, and students and professors alike are now disparaged as "snowflakes" -- the latest variation on a line of mindless insults that amount to calling everyone connected with higher education "commie intillekshuls."

Worse, nonacademic liberals are all too willing to believe the worst of American universities, with left-leaning columnists even from The Washington Post and The New York Times indulging in what can only be described as hippie-punching.  Attempts to prove that they are open-minded cause them to accept as fact the right-wing fantasy of "pitchfork-wielding lefty students and cowardly administrators."  Apparently right-wing hype works, especially on columnists who are willing to think "[m]ore anecdotally."

This is by no means to say that universities are perfect or that there are not examples of incidents that could be handled better.  But there is a new mythology that depicts universities as being full of people who spend their days undermining America through lefty conspiracies.  That is nonsense, and it always has been.

Yes, some of us do become what we self-aggrandizingly call "public intellectuals" by writing and speaking on policy matters.  My writing falls clearly on the left side of the partisan divide, but I have colleagues who are on the right side.  The idea that American universities do not employ articulate (and well publicized) voices for conservative ideas and causes is simply false.

But most professors, even those who have registered as Democrats based on their personal political beliefs (or, as noted above, perhaps out of disgust with the anti-intellectualism of the modern Republican Party), simply do not spend much time thinking about political issues.

I can write column after column about tax policy or budget deficits or deregulation, because that is what I like to write about -- and because enough people find those columns interesting for me to continue to write them -- but I assure you that a vanishingly small number of my academic colleagues has read any of those columns.

What does get professors worked up?  Not surprisingly, we care about the things that affect us, from salaries to the quality of our students to the condition of our buildings to the future of our institutions.  And that is why my column about law school hiring is more likely to find its way onto professors' iPad screens than anything else I write.  A non-professor will understandably not see why, but this is the bread and butter of what professors care about.

Those who read my column will note that I am not talking about the kind of ideological battles over hiring that occasionally make news.  (Harvard Law School's gridlock in the 1980's was an especially famous case.)  We are not fighting over ideology but over the timeless teaching-versus-research balance that is at the core of a modern university.

In fact, this fight is not even about whether teaching is more important than research or vice versa.  It is about whether a law faculty needs to hire the "best athlete" (a humorously weak attempt to make effective scholars look non-nerdy) or should instead employ a colleague who fills a curricular need such as tax law or criminal procedure.

Even those who occupy one side or the other of that either-or question find ways to further disagree and debate, because there are always sub-issues that deserve scrutiny.  (What is "effective scholarship"?  What is a "curricular need"?  How narrowly should we define sub-specialties?)

And I guarantee you that every one of my colleagues (within my home institution and nationally) has an opinion on those subjects.  These are not, moreover, mere proxies for hidden political agendas.  Colleagues whom I know to be conservative have split on this question, and so have the liberals and the large number of professors whose politics are simply unknown.

Some professors do still have time to engage in political advocacy, of course, but for people outside of the academy who are either convinced or at least wonder whether professors are spending their time undermining America, the answer is a resounding no.  We are pretty boring (as our students will certainly tell you).  We care about things that truly do matter for the future of our universities and thus for the country as a whole, but the vast bulk of our battles are decidedly not driven by politics in the sense that the public uses that word.

Henry Kissinger reputedly said that "academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small."  He was wrong if he meant that the choices that professors make about whom to hire, what to teach, and so on are of no consequence.  But he would be right if he meant that the stakes are often not obvious and that even when the issues are explained, they are not self-evidently important to people on the outside of the universities' walls.

In an era in which the important role of the modern university has itself become a political issue, it is important to take a breath and realize that what is happening inside our universities is both passionately debated and generally non-ideological.  What we do matters, but we are frankly too interested in minutiae to deserve this kind of attention.