On a few occasions over the course of the blog, I’ve mentioned the 2004 Duke Conservative Union survey, which revealed that an 17.75*-1 majority of Duke humanities faculty members were registered Democrats.
Surveying professors’ political registration is, at best, a blunt instrument in determining the pedagogical atmosphere on campus.* (To take an obvious personal example, if I taught at Duke, I would have counted in the overwhelming majority of registered Democrats.) But in a campus environment committed to self-reflection, the overwhelming margin—and those revealed in similar surveys, such as one at the University of Iowa—would have, at the very least, triggered some questions about hiring practices. (Imagine, for example, how people like the Group of 88 would have greeted a survey showing that that the Duke humanities faculty was 18-to-1 male.)
Some questions that the DCU and similar surveys should have generated: Are humanities departments—awash in a groupthink mentality, and hostile to hiring those who might challenge the status quo on campus—abusing the self-governance that the hiring process provides, to screen out qualified candidates perceived to have “undesirable” ideological viewpoints? Or, more likely, have humanities and (some) social sciences departments become so pedagogically top-heavy with devotees of the race/class/gender approach that they have effectively screened out a significant percentage of applicants? John Burness unintentionally conceded as much in 2004, when he rationalized the DCU figures by saying that the “creativity” in humanities and social science disciplines was dominated by issues of race, class, and gender, leading to a “perfectly logical criticism of the current society” in the classroom.
Regardless of the reason for the political and ideological imbalance, the reaction to these figures by defenders of the campus status quo essentially proved the critics’ case. Among the more infamous comments was that of then-Duke Philosophy Department chairman Robert Brandon, who mused, “If, as John Stuart Mill said, stupid people are generally conservative, then there are lots of conservatives we will never hire.” After a torrent of criticism greeted his remarks, Brandon, entirely unconvincingly, claimed he was making a joke.
A reader recently forwarded me the response to the DCU survey from Cathy Davidson. The Group of 88’er’s comments lacked the soundbite quality of Brandon’s statement, and so attracted little attention at the time. But they embodied the same sneering dismissal of those who have exposed the pedagogical and ideological one-sidedness that dominated Duke during the lacrosse case and that dominates so many humanities and social sciences departments today.
Davidson denied that a job candidate’s political or ideological agenda ever had played a role in a personnel decision in which she had participated. (Of course, there’s no way to check this claim, since all college and university hiring decisions are confidential.) So how did Duke get figures like those in the DCU survey? The “pool “of conservative applicants was “too shallow.”
How did Davidson propose remedying the problem? She did not recommend anything, of course, that would prevent the Group of 88 from replicating itself in future hires. Instead, she suggested, the problem was a cultural one: “If part of being a Republican is belief in free market and capitalist values, why would you spend four year of colleges earning straight A's in order to go for six or seven years of graduate school in order to compete with 200-300 other applicants for the rare plum of a tenure-track job in the humanities with a starting salary of maybe, if you're lucky, $45,000 a year. In my years of teaching, I've had many students tell me they would love to be an English major but their parents insist that they go to medical school or law school or into business.”
But, earlier in her article, Davidson had ostentatiously proclaimed, “I've never seen the numbers [about partisan affiliation of Duke students] and I hope never to.” So of what relevance were her stories from students to a discussion of partisan imbalance in the academy? Since Davidson claimed not to know the political affiliation of her students, how did she determine that the “many” Duke students who poured their souls out to her about being pressured by their parents to “go to medical school or law school or into business” were not actually Democrats?
Nonetheless, Davidson offered, she was willing to make some recommendations to address the problem. “Short-term: Heritage Foundation or the American Enterprise Institute can start lucrative graduate fellowship programs for young Republicans.”
And what, precisely, would be the chances of these people getting hired be in departments dominated by people like Cathy Davidson, given—if nothing else—the ill-concealed condescension that she revealed in her comments?
“Long-term: you've got to get them earlier. How about Head Start for Homer? Programs in affluent gated communities so baby Republicans can learn the joy of classics, not the joy of derivatives training.”
Actually, in 2008, Barack Obama outpolled John McCain among the highest-earning voters—suggesting that this scheme would likely increase the number of Democrats in the academy. In any case, had Davidson conducted a survey of “gated communities” to determine that children in such communities had an insufficient appreciation for Homer? If not, on what did she base her recommendation?
Put yourself in the position of a moderate—much less a conservative—applying for a job in the Duke English Department, and discovering that the person who wrote dismissively about “Head Start for Homer” in “affluent gated communities” was one of the three people on the search committee. How likely do you think that this Group of 88’er would treat your application fairly?
And, keep in mind, Davidson is generally considered among the more respectable of the Group of 88.
*--word change to clarify; corrected from 18-to-1