By Robert Weissberg
Fellow co-believers frequently ask me how I, a "notorious" conservative professor, have survived decades surrounded by loony lefties. My answer---it is not nearly as bad as it appears---usually causes surprise. Appearances are deceiving, I say, and even in the social sciences and the humanities, the left's stronghold, the batty left's domination is incomplete---the tip of the contaminated iceberg image is wrong. Unfortunately, the conversation usually stops here; perhaps the upbeat news is not quite believed. It is also a complicated topic, far too involved for lunch-time table talk among university outsiders. But, the seeming contradiction between outward professors-gone-wild appearances and a happier reality is important and deserves a fuller explanation. This is not to say that all goes well within the academy---the oft-discovered abuses are real enough---but it would be a strategic mistake to equate a few loud mouth, often subversive and attention-getting radicals with widespread idiocy. Those wanting to re-capture the academy need to be precise in their surgery.
The primacy of politics among vocal loopy left professors versus and rest of the faculty is fundamental. We are talking about the folk who favor "War in Not the Answer" bumper stickers, plaster office walls with Bush-is-worse-than-Hitler propaganda and consider goofy political buttons and vulgar tee shirts treasured fashion accessories. They are proud of their race/sex/class obsessed lectures and reading assignments. While most professors loath administrative tasks but dutifully shoulder them, radical academics relish this sort of stuff. In a nutshell, they live for in-your-face politics; it vitalizes them and provides meaning to otherwise dreary existences. Attitude towards research is the great divide---serious researchers just lack the time or inclination to save the gay whales. By contrast, among those who find research burdensome, joining the faculty Senate to condemn racism or the Iraqi war is a coveted responsibility. Here they can scheme with ideological fellow-travelers and fill endless hours "helping humanity" while neglecting more scholarly duties.
University rules help fuel this radical clatter. Particularly at research-oriented institutions where a full teaching load is two courses per semester (about six hours or less of actual classroom time), and the same courses are regularly repeated, the activist-minded professor might enjoy 50 hours per week (plus ample vacation time) to agitate. To be sure, his or her non-radical colleague who has likewise abandoned research enjoys comparable leisure, but lack of ideological urgency typically means more time for family, hobbies or just lolling about. As is true for certain evangelical religions, save-the-world radicalism must be expressed energetically; liberals might send checks off to the ACLU or Common Cause but this is weak tea for those frantically rescuing humanity. The urge to propagate the faith is irrepressible.
And now to be a bit more controversial: boisterous campus radicals are, on average, less intelligent than their more moderate colleagues and willingly display this cognitive deficiency. For them, great wisdom resides in facile slogans---"no blood for oil" is serious foreign policy analysis. Brains do not follow the ideological spectrum; it's usually the outspoken airhead radicals on one side versus everyone else. Many are affirmative action hires whose appointments reflect lowered academic standards or, more commonly, reside in departments hardly demanding genius level IQs, e.g., education, ethnic studies departments, even, on occasion, English. A theoretical physicist might be a strident Marxist but with few exceptions, his or her cognitive ability dampens public stupidity. Not even decades of explicating Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle could inspire this physicist to announce that there is no such thing as objective truth and that all reality is socially constructed, so all differences are just arbitrary and meaningless.
Lesser intellectual ability when combined with the "productivity" mentality commonplace in today's top universities can produce nightmarish unintended consequences: the manic manufacture of ideologically tainted rubbish so as to succeed academically. This is what outsiders often see and mistakenly conflate with "the university." Consider, say, an ambitious not-too-bright radical professor of Education. Genuine, scientific research not only detracts from revolutionary activism since it can eat up every hour of the day, but more telling, it is probably beyond the professor's ability. Substituted instead is far easier ideology mongering. Why master statistics or tediously collect data to explain varied educational outcomes? It is just more expedient to regurgitate accusations of sexism or racism, quote a radical "theorist" or two, add a few cliches, stir and voila, one has a book needed for tenure. Even if authoring a book is beyond reach, promotion might be secured by organizing a media attended conferences where resume building radical mumbo-jumbo is "shared" with fellow babblers and, with a little luck, conference proceedings will be published and everybody marches on to tenure.
What facilitates promulgating foolishness is that universities demand it by embracing publish-or- perish, even if this guarantees nonsense. Universities are under crushing pressure to enhance diversity, and when these "historically under-represented" recruits are required to produce, their musings must be certified as a "valid scholarly contribution" to sustain this diversification. Hard-nosed negative judgments, including those at the initial hiring stage, can bring grave legal consequences. Administrators know full well that to demand solid research in "real" fields like biology and economics would be "exclusionary." No doubt, many university departments exist largely to satisfy diversity. Thus, while an administrative review committee might express doubts about a wild-eyed screed demanding massive wealth redistribution to rescue black students from educational failure, those inclined to deny promotion will be advised that a "no" risks expensive litigation, and the university it will probably lose the suit anyhow, and if they think this stuff is awful, next year's crop is even worse. Just bite the bullet. The message for airhead radicals is thus obvious: just churn out the nonsense and thrive.
This is further assisted by opportunists who undoubtedly know better. Administrators with a knack for boosting minority recruitment and retention will be richly rewarded, and this means helping to generate even more publically visible tripe. It is safe opportunism since ambitious bureaucrats correctly know that nobody but nobody will peek behind the curtains---who has the stomach to peruse this stuff, so publication itself painlessly certifies worthiness. Even if it is read, what faculty member has the guts to make waves? Actually, down deep nobody really cares---the charade is just comparable to recruiting semi-literate athletes and keeping them academically eligible. Recall Queen Victoria's supposed advice to her daughter prior to her wedding night---lie back, close your eyes and think of England. Nor are there any institutional costs if professors harangue undergraduates that, for example, abolishing poverty will heal the sick. Horrible public policy is irrelevant collateral damage. Universities need not worry that victims of pedagogical irresponsibility will see a subway ad asking, "Has your child been debilitated by wacky Ed School concocted pedagogy? Last year the lawyers at Blindem and Robbem sued Columbia Teachers College and won $5 million in damages for such a case, so call our toll-free number now!" Imagine if professors and colleges were held to the same liability standards as pharmaceutical firms?
Important lessons reside here for academic reform. Most clearly, the outrages drawing publicity do not indicate an epidemic, so cures must be precise. I'd estimate that less than 10% of the faculty are "infected" with the lunatic leftish virus and it is concentrated in a handful of departments (i.e., Education plus anything ending in "Studies"). This is not to minimize the possible damage as students read Noam Chomsky to grasp US foreign policy. Still, prescriptions such as abolishing tenure, publicizing course content or ideologically balanced hiring are misguided. Nor are the usual university governance reform proposals, e.g., greater trustee power, relevant to finding a cure. All far too heavy-handed and impractical.
The university does not, at least officially, intend to recruit these energetic zealots and few top administrators (including liberals) respect their "research." Pressured administrators desire selective diversity---more women, more African Americans, more Hispanics, even a few gays for Queer Studies, but, unfortunately, this physical trait-based recruitment at the expense of merit brings along the loathsome, noisy ideological baggage. These professors must peruse an ideological agenda since this is all their modest abilities permit when universities demand "production." When Larry Summers told Cornel West to do serious scholarship, not record rap music, Cornel fled to the more forgiving Princeton. A cynic might suggest hush money to cure the claptrap epidemic---keep quiet, get a check. The pattern is hardly inevitable---some "diversity" hires are capable of legitimate scholarship but in practice recruits just tote easy-to-master radical ideological baggage. And once in place, it becomes self-perpetuating. Those worried about the university's soul have to reverse the pressure to hire more professors from officially "under-represented" groups regardless of intellectual talent. In sum, the problem is lower standards coupled with pressure "to produce," not hoards of professors gone wild.
Robert Weissberg is Professor of Political Science, Emeritus at The University of Illinois-Urbana, and occasionally teaches in the NYU Politics Department MA Program.