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How to Write an Editorial about Higher Education

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This op-ed in today’s Washington Post recycles all the unpersuasive anecdotal and statistical complaints usually raised by conservatives when moaning about the liberal bias in higher education. The piece is miserably composed, but it’s bound to assume its rightful place in the anthology of right-wing arguments on the subject of “intellectual diversity” in the nation’s universities.

After dispensing with the obligatory mention of Lawrence Summers — who is, objectively speaking, the greatest intellectual martyr since Socrates — Robert Maranto applies the usual paint-by-numbers methodology that characterizes this particular genre of lament:

Step 1. Describe the heart-rending case of an anonymous, conservative friend who — unable to withstand the daily teasing and groin-punching from his liberal fascist colleagues — finally decided to take his ball and go home:

A sociologist I know recalls that his decision to become a registered Republican caused “a sensation” at his university. “It was as if I had become a child molester,” he said. He eventually quit academia to join a think tank because “you don’t want to be in a department where everyone hates your guts.”

This is almost too silly for comment. Every university department on the planet includes someone whom the rest of the group loathes; in nearly every instance, this is because the people in question are insufferable monsters who badger their colleagues, drive students from the program, refuse to pull their service weight, and extend already pointless meetings with pedantic detours about things of interest only to them. Not to put too fine a point to it, but Maranto’s friend was probably that guy.

Step 2. Bitch about that department that refused to hire you at some point in your career, and insinuate a political motive to explain the unthinkable slight.:

Everything seemed to be going well until I mentioned, in a casual conversation with department members over dinner, that I planned to vote Republican in the upcoming presidential election. Conversation came to a halt, and someone quickly changed the subject. The next day, I thought my final interview went fairly well. But the department ended up hiring someone who had published far less, but apparently “fit” better than I did. At least that’s what I was told when I called a month later to learn the outcome of the job search, having never received any further communication from the school.

I, too, am stunned that nearly every school with whom I’ve ever interviewed refused to hire me. Indeed, many of them even chose to hire candidates who’d published and taught less than I had at the time. When I figure out the reason for this, you will surely read about it in the Washington Post or FrontPage Magazine.

Step 3. Invoke seemingly non-partisan data to buttress your anecdotes; downplay the fact that that the data have not come from peer-reviewed sources but instead from “scholarship” funded and/or published by the American Enterprise Institute, the Hudson Institute, and A-List wingnut foundations.

[A]cademic job markets seem to discriminate against socially conservative PhDs. Stanley Rothman of Smith College and S. Robert Lichter of George Mason University find strong statistical evidence that these academics must publish more books and articles to get the same jobs as their liberal peers. Among professors who have published a book, 73 percent of Democrats are in high-prestige colleges and universities, compared with only 56 percent of Republicans.

A few observations on the source here. For starters, Maranto chooses to identify Lichter and Rothman by their university affiliations rather than by the right-wing research group — the Center for Media and Public Affairs — which they founded in the 1980s and through which their “scholarship” is usually channeled. Lichter and Rothman are probably best known for their laughably skewed studies of “media bias” in (to cite one example) which they completely disregarded over 98 percent of the sample data to reach a prearranged conclusion about the liberal slant at PBS. I haven’t read the study to which Maranto refers, but if the similarly-themed past work of Lichter and Rothman is any guide, it will likely please their financial patrons at the Scaife, Coors and Smith Richardson Foundations, which have offered them hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years. Maranto’s other sources of data are all connected to one another through the American Enterprise Institute, which recently hosted them at a conference and is, moreover, publishing their work as a collection of essays next year.

Step 4. Conclude with some bland observation about “intellectual diversity” while claiming to have no interest in ideological quotas; publish your work with an institution that exists for no other reason than to shape public policy along conservative lines.

Ultimately, universities will have to clean their own houses. Professors need to re-embrace a culture of reasoned inquiry and debate. And since debate requires disagreement, higher education needs to encourage intellectual diversity in its hiring and promotion decisions with something like the fervor it shows for ethnic and racial diversity. It’s the only way universities will earn back society’s respect and reclaim their role at the center of public life.

I won’t even bother with Maranto’s implication that “ethnic and racial diversity” has nothing to do with “intellectual diversity.” But if anyone believes this op-ed — and the “research” it touts — won’t prove useful to the Academic Bill of Rights community, they’re simply too credulous for this world.

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  • Franklin

    The link from the words “laughably skewed” is broken. It was trying to point to this location:
    http://www.fair.org/reports/lichter-memo.html

  • Tom

    Thanks for the takedown. I was suspicious of this op-ed, naturally, but it’s nice to know exactly where the smell was coming from.

  • American universities have been hospitable to conservatives since at least the 1930s. Prof. Maranto should familiarize himself with the Southern Agrarian Movement. Recent conservatives who have done very well are John Yoo and Condi Rice. I would add Richard Pipes, his son Daniel, F. A. Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Richard Weaver, Leo Strauss and Wilmoore Kendall.

  • Incontinentia Buttocks

    Though Steve J. is entirely correct that many prominent conservatives have been very successful in the academy, it’s just as (if not more) important to point out that entire disciplines are dominated by conservatives, most notably economics.
    Most “studies” of the relative lack of conservatives in the academy focus on humanities departments.

  • Frankly, I love the idea that there is no reasoned inquiry and debate – or even disagreement that borders on hostility – between fellow liberals. Because, you know, they are all pod people who mindlessly agree on everything.
    There is plenty of disagreement in the halls of academe. There is no need to add false controversy whipped up by the types of conservative thinkers (and I use the term loosely) who complain about being treated unfairly by universities.

  • mjd

    I was hoping someone from LGM would take him down. A guy who thinks the plural of anecdote is data complaining about not getting a social science job.

  • bryan

    did he mention he was voting republican in the following manner: “I ain’t voting for one of those nancy boy dimokrautzis!”
    cause sometimes the simple communication of a preference can be taken soo out of context.

  • Great takedown–
    once every couple of months they have to run one of these pieces. It will confirm in the minds of the predisposed that their view of academia continues to be true. The funny thing for us academics of course consists in the self-refuting nature of such arguments–perhaps, and this is just a gentle suggestion, Maranto ought to focus on having well founded beliefs rather than unverifiable speculation about other people’s political motivations.

  • it’s just as (if not more) important to point out that entire disciplines are dominated by conservatives, most notably economics.
    If you want to find conservatives outside the Business deparments, visit the Engineering colleges. They aren’t as dominated as econ departments, but they’re there in decent numbers.
    These discussions about “anti-conservative bias” in academia almost always seem to revolve around the History and Poly Sci departments at universities. I always wonder if this has anything to do with the fact that the writers of these op-eds got degrees in History and Poly Sci and weren’t able to find jobs with them. And rather than blame it on the market (heaven FORBID that anything BAD come out of the hand of the Invisible God) or blame themselves for choosing to place themselves on a really difficult career path (because heaven FORBID that anyone take responsibility for their own choices) they blame the “evil liberals” in the History and Poly Sci departments for not hiring them because of their politics.

  • Uncle Kvetch

    Discussing who you plan to vote for with your prospective employers, however “casual” the context, and whichever party you’re supporting, strikes me as just plain Really Fucking Stupid.
    But it’s nice he managed to work in the classic trope of “Innocuous expression of conservative views at dinner causes supposedly open-minded liberals to lose their shit.” I’ll bet there was some smelly old Marxist at that table who was so shocked and appalled that his monocle fell into his vichyssoise, just like in the 3 Stooges.

  • anon

    What I love about these guys who claim to know all about academia is that they don’t understand that having a negative article about a college president appearing in Institutional Investor magazine is fatal. The other stuff was just part of his “charm.”

  • Fats Durston

    Heh, indeed, Kvetch.
    That ‘spilled-I-was-Republican’ anecdote stinks. Lemme guess, it was at Forward Operating Base Falcon U. No, wait, you got that mixed up, Maranto, it was at University of Kuwait, right?
    I have in my sandbox, a 1/32 model of a search committee, and there is no way in hell the mini-job candidate mentions his political affiliation…

  • If I were at a dinner with a job candidate and he took the time to announce his party affiliation and who he was going to vote for, the party preference of the job candidate wouldn’t be the issue. I would just find that weird, an indication that I was dealing with someone a little unstable or inappropriate, and on two levels. First is just that seeking employment is normally a context in which people are pretty discreet and careful about how much of their personal character and life they reveal. Someone who isn’t may just be delightfully uninhibited, but they’re more likely to be someone with impulse control problems or are painfully tendentious in everything they do. Second is that when you’re meeting strangers in a social but not intimate context for the first time, someone who blurts out things like their religious identity, political affiliation, views on controversial social issues, least favorite artistic forms and so on without being asked about their opinion are folks who have some real issues with human interaction.
    I’m trying to imagine a scenario where I’m talking with a candidate for a European history position where, when that candidate suddenly says out-of-the-blue, “I’m a registered Democrat and I plan to vote for Bill Richardson!!!! I’m a liberal!”, it doesn’t come off as weird and off-putting and make me wary about the candidate. I can’t really imagine one. But that’s pretty much the scenario being described in the article.

  • Danton

    Business schools teach practical capitalism; they don’t touch the practicalities of socialized economies, except to assert that they’re not capitalistic.

  • Davis X. Machina

    …the liberal bias in higher education
    How many B-schools are there? How many undergraduate majors.
    How many labor studies majors are there? How many schools of industrial relations?
    When those numbers are 100-1 the other way, then come back and complain….

  • Let me third (or fourth, or whatever) the general weirdness of the search-committee-dinner anecdote. My very few experiences with those situations is that they are so incredibly awkward and socially scripted that only someone utterly convinced of his own political righteousness, or someone with an immense chip on his shoulder, would declare his political views so specifically as to indicate his vote for a specific candidate. Of course, he may have been asked outright– academic search committees have been known to ask candidates even more intrusive things– but he didn’t have to take the bait!
    My money’s on the “chip on shoulder” explanation. My conservative colleagues all seem to have an immense one, even in cases in which I am inclined to be convinced by their arguments. Of course, that’s just anecdotal counter-evidence to Maranto’s anecdotal evidence, but even so.

  • Incontinentia Buttocks

    Of course, he may have been asked outright– academic search committees have been known to ask candidates even more intrusive things– but he didn’t have to take the bait!
    This doesn’t sound like the situation in the op ed (about which I entirely agree with what’s been written above), but when search committees do ask inappropriate questions, it’s usually necessary to take the bait…otherwise you come across as diffident and difficult.
    Usually the inappropriate issue is marital status, an ethical (and legal) no-go zone in academic job interviews. When I first went on the market, I always dodged this question when it came up. But it later came back to me that I was coming across as aloof. So I began to just answer the inappropriate question. And I did much better.
    I’ve only once had my politics come up in an interview. During an informal moment (actually two informal moments during the same job visit) my interlocutors (three engagee scholars) “foregrounded” their own politics in relation to their scholarship and then hit the ball into my court. Using my general rule about inappropriate questions–the least bad option is to answer them and pretend they’re appropriate–I did what was expected of me.
    FWIW, I got the job (though I didn’t end up taking it).

  • “He eventually quit academia to join a think tank”
    I’m headed to lunch and haven’t read the rest of the post, let alone the comments, but doesn’t this mean “He took a big pay raise to devote all his time to research rather than teaching”?
    [I love teaching mind you. Grading not so much.]

  • Always with the dinner parties.

  • Barry

    Matt, it meant “he took a big pay raise to devote his time to advocacy and propaganda”. Although he might be able to squeeze in some genuine research. Of course, for the rest of his life he’ll have the problem that a search of writings under his name should include a number which would be embarassing, simply from a viewpoint of facts and judgement.


  • [I love teaching mind you. Grading not so much.]

    ‘Tis the season for this kvetch, certainly.
    I too find myself trying to imagine the dinner confession, and assume that the auditors thought, “the last thing this department needs is one more asshole.”

  • cause sometimes the simple communication of a preference can be taken soo out of context.
    …still laughing…

  • Among professors who have published a book, 73 percent of Democrats are in high-prestige colleges and universities, compared with only 56 percent of Republicans.
    Also, the mere fact of having published a book by itself is hardly an indicator of intellectual merit. Who published the book? What was its argument? How was it received by the appropriate academic community?
    Anyone whose published work advocated for ID creationism, for instance, would quite rightly be denied advancement in any reputable biology departmentnot for ideological reasons, but for simple incompetence.

  • Hogan

    I too find myself trying to imagine the dinner confession, and assume that the auditors thought, “the last thing this department needs is one more asshole.”
    I’ve been told that the basic question in any departmental vote on tenure is “Do I want to see this person at the mailbox every morning for the next twenty years?”

  • lightly

    Alright then.
    Instead of going on the defensive why not go on the attack from a whole new direction.
    Starting today, let’s all start complaining at the top of our lungs about how many bankers are Republican. Let’s start blaming all the problems with the economy on the over-representation of Republicans in financial circles.
    Fire with fire and all that.

  • pennyjane

    at the risk of sounding callous, that is laughing at someone just because they might not be too bright, HA HA HA! this encounter with the search committee reminds me of a snipet from “one flew over the choo coo’s nest.” can’t remember the charaters by name so i’ll just relate the jest. two patients were sitting at a table discussing who might be the crazier. the first patient relates that he is so crazy he voted for eisenhower. the second patient surmised that to be pretty crazy but goes him one better. “i voted for him twice!”
    “you’re a crazy sob.”

  • slavdude

    Ultimately, universities will have to clean their own houses. Professors need to re-embrace a culture of reasoned inquiry and debate. And since debate requires disagreement, higher education needs to encourage intellectual diversity in its hiring and promotion decisions with something like the fervor it shows for ethnic and racial diversity. It’s the only way universities will earn back society’s respect and reclaim their role at the center of public life.
    “Diversity”, eh? So there should be affirmative action for conservatives? My irony meter is starting to overload.

  • aimai

    That 73 percent and 56 percent is a really bizarre number in another way. How many professors have published “a book” and how many have published more than one?What percentage of democratic have published books vs republicans? If their numbers aren’t comperable in the academy why would we expect that their publication records would be identical? How would you even know since as far as I know there is no comprehensive, authoritative, NSA sponsored list of voter ID crossed with publication record?
    aimai

  • FireWarrior

    Among professors who have published a book, 73 percent of Democrats are in high-prestige colleges and universities, compared with only 56 percent of Republicans.
    What does this mean? At least 129% of professors publish books?

  • libarbarian

    D-
    1. I’ve been in Academia long enough to verify that there is a liberal bias, but I’ve never seen anything like serious discrimination. I know it occasionally happens from places like the thefire.org but look at any given year and you might see only a dozen or so cases worth condemning and almost all of these are cleared up and corrected once the spotlight is shown on them. Verdict: Hardly an epidemic and no more than would be expected by the natural tendency of groups to prefer to hire like-minded individuals
    You forgot to mention that these “I had a friend…” stories happen disproportionately to conservatives who, for unknown reasons, desperately want to enter fields already well known to harbor a liberal bias. Who knew there were hordes of conservatives who both (1)want to devote their lives to “Queer Studies” but (2) had absolutely no idea that such departments filled with people who react angrily when told they are abnormal freaks who need ask Jesus to fix them?

  • libarbarian

    D-
    1. I’ve been in Academia long enough to verify that there is a liberal bias, but I’ve never seen anything like serious discrimination. I know it occasionally happens from places like the thefire.org but look at any given year and you might see only a dozen or so cases worth condemning and almost all of these are cleared up and corrected once the spotlight is shown on them. Verdict: Hardly an epidemic and no more than would be expected by the natural tendency of groups to prefer to hire like-minded individuals
    2. You forgot to mention that these “I had a friend…” stories happen disproportionately to conservatives who, for unknown reasons, desperately want to enter fields already well known to harbor a liberal bias. Who knew there were hordes of conservatives who both (1)want to devote their lives to “Queer Studies” but (2) had absolutely no idea that such departments filled with people who react angrily when told they are abnormal freaks who need ask Jesus to fix them?

  • Maurice Isserman

    Very perceptive, esp. your skewering of Rothman (my old colleague at Smith) and Lichter, the pair of whom once undertook a study funded by the nuclear industry to see if reporters were biased against nuclear power (guess what they found?) Given an interested funder, I’m sure they could find a radical left bias among senior US Army officers, Alabama state troopers, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

  • aimai

    Its all a lie. Do you know how I know? Because the stories begin “I had a friend once…” Either these guys never had any friends, or they lost their friends because of their horrific political views. What on earth is wrong with that? Only republicans would think that the universities are responsible for an affirmative action program that will give social pariahs *friends* when they aren’t capable of making or holding onto them themselves. Talk about your dreams of a nanny state! What’s next: will conservatives start complaining that the kid who sat next to them on the bus in grade school didn’t bring enough gum for everyone and that *the government should offer a stick of gum* to every little joey who couldn’t make friends in second grade?
    aimai

  • rm

    I’ve had the hardest time on the academic job market. I just can’t figure out what’s wrong with all those search committees.
    At one dinner, I told them all about my strongly-held political opinions, and they acted all awkward! What’s up with that?
    Then at another job interview, I innocently explained the theology of my religion, and everyone just coughed and changed the subject!
    At another interview, I had my spouse sit in, and they acted like that was wrong somehow!
    I just can’t figure out what is wrong with all those academics.
    Seriously . . . we had a job search once where a candidate told us all about his/her political opinions . . . and we agreed with them . . . and we still found it weird. All that personal stuff is taboo in a job search.

  • baba durag

    “Slow thinkers keep right” as the saying goes.
    “A guy who thinks the plural of anecdote is data complaining about not getting a social science job.” — mjd | 12.10.07 – 8:00 am
    heh. great line.

  • BushYouth

    American Power (Donald Douglas) “administering a decisive smackdown” certainly expands “the marketplace of ideas on campus”.
    If it talks like a dick, it probably is one.

  • ewan

    No matter how you spin it, the nations’ campuses are rife with the socialist Democrats and they do, indeed, suppress others from those they work with to the guest speakers invited there.
    Those that can do…

  • Kip W

    No matter how you spin it, gravity makes things rise, and a dropped object will always fall upwards. Happened to a friend of my cousin.

  • Mike

    And at the lunch interview, where we had a really cute little waitress, they acted all embarrassed when I flirted with her. Obviously, the whole search committee was gay.

  • I used to be a liberal college professor, but What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? changed everything for me. Now I’m really outraged by these Rothman and Lichter studies!
    And also Chappaquiddick. I can’t believe that when I mentioned this at dinner, I was met with this weird liberal-bias silence.

  • Or maybe it was the strange characters in my last name.

  • d

    I’m of course going to kick myself if you wrote about Lichter and Rothman in WLALA?
    If so, my only excuse is that I thought blogging meant I no longer had to read actual books.

  • OB-GYN Kenobi

    This pitiful, whining piece of crap appeared in yesterday’s op-ed page in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. No doubt there will be all sorts of letters from mouthbreathers on the op-ed page today praising its accuracy, even though, as we all know, most mouthbreathers fear colleges and universities unless a football or basketball game is involved.

  • I’m of course going to kick myself if you wrote about Lichter and Rothman in WLALA?
    Let the kicking commence! I used FAIR’s research, too.

  • Barry

    “Given an interested funder, I’m sure they could find a radical left bias among senior US Army officers, Alabama state troopers, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.”
    Maurice Isserman |
    Sheesh. I can do that, without funding;
    1) Senior US Army officers: unhappy with how the administration handled Iraq, wimping out at the sweet, sweet chance to invade Iran. Expressed preference for wounded ‘slacker’ vets to get high quality medical care – on the government’s dime! Frequently possess edumacation beyond a BS.
    2) Alabama state troopers: uh….
    3) Mormon Tabernacle choir members: refused to watch secret Abu Grhraib/Gitmo torture tapes (with Dolby surround sound!). Some expressed treasonous opposition to torture. Some claimed that muslims were people too, and that God cared about them. Some suggested, treasously^2, that there was somebody called ‘God’, who was actually *above* our Deciderer In Chief!

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