Blogs > Cliopatria > More Iowa Rationalizations

Dec 13, 2007 9:58 am

More Iowa Rationalizations

Professors in the University of Iowa's History Department have had some unusual explanations about the department's partisan imbalance. Several weeks ago, for instance, department chairman Colin Gordon cited the registration figures for Johnson County (home of the University) to account for the fact that his department has no registered Republicans. The University, I assume, has a policy of actively recruiting its membership from beyond county lines.

One of Gordon's colleagues, History professor Sarah Hanley, was quoted in a recent article by the Iowa City Press-Citizen, which examined registration figures for all academic departments at the University of Iowa. The paper discovered that the University hosts 21 departments of 10 or more professors with one or fewer registered Republicans in their ranks. Seven of these departments (including History) had no registered Republicans.

The statistics: 1775 University of Iowa professors were registered in Johnson County, where the University is located. Of that total, 66.1 percent were registered Democrats, 22.4 registered without party affiliation, and 11.5 percent were registered Republicans.

As I've noted before, partisan affiliation is a crude measurement to determine bias in personnel patterns. Yet a gap of 55 percent between the two parties, along with a multitude of departments that don't even have at least one representative of both major parties, seems somewhat troubling. At the least, it should raise questions as to whether departments at the University have devised lines in such a way to skew the faculty so far to one side politically.

P-C reporter Brian Morelli interviewed one History professor who demonstrated no concern with such matters. Sarah Hanley dismissed suggestions that the department is skewed. Said she,"I have great faith in the integrity of faculty members to not put political views on students. I just had a Western civilization class where I could have hammered away on politics, but I didn't. In the history department, you don't talk about politics."

It's reassuring to know that Hanley behaved professionally in her last class. That she did so, however, isn't much of an explanation one way or the other as to whether the department has tailored lines in such a way that its membership has skewed so far to one side.

According to Morelli, Hanley also mirrored Gordon's assertion on why the department had no Republicans—the breakdown of their county's registration figures."To participate politically here, you have to be a Democrat, she said, noting that most local public officials are Democrats."

This is an odd claim indeed: it would suggest, of course, that History Departments in Republican counties (say, Arizona State University) would be likely to include no Democrats among their ranks. It also suggests an odd view of politics: Hanley appears to believe that people develop an abstract desire to participate politically, and then choose the party based on the likelihood of success.

(And the numbers from Hanley's own county don't quite support her argument: while UI profs registered in Johnson County have a Democrat/Republican ratio of 66.1/11.5, or roughly 6-to-1, the county ratio is 43.9/19.4, or around 2.25/1. Why faculty residents of Johnson County would be so much more Democratic than everyone else in Johnson County Hanley didn't say.)

Hanley further told Morelli that ideological one-sidedness wasn't a problem for her—or any—academic department."I don't think," said she,"there is a downside." Hanley added a bizarre analogy:"If it is a downside, then it would be a downside to have states to be so-called blue or so-called red. It would be casting a pall on the democratic system where people are free to choose."

I can only hope that Hanley offers a more sophisticated interpretation of politics in her classes.

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Ralph E. Luker - 12/20/2007

Such inquires during a hiring process are illegal. Nonetheless, party registration data is public information. KC isn't the person who gathered the data, but no one as ever challenged its reliability. So, the question is: What, if anything, does it mean that the history department at Iowa has no Republicans in it? KC admits that it's, at best, a rough measure of things and may not have any definitive meaning.

Dennis Barbour - 12/20/2007

Does one normally ask propective faculty members their political affiliations?

I suspect that one doesn't, so how do you know who is a Republican and who is not?

Alan Allport - 12/14/2007

Given that the differences between most Democrats and most Republicans seem to be (from an outsider's point of view) more rhetorical than real, why not survey which end the faculty crack open their eggs instead?

Sherman Jay Dorn - 12/14/2007

Your explanations are plausible, but some of the details of previous voter registration studies of faculty make me rather skeptical of any that appear these days. As a social historian, I'm cautious in reading the older record-linkage studies, and I think we need to apply the same skepticism redoubled with the same attempt at analyzing faculty partisanship. There are much better ways of looking at these issues, and I'm surprised that no one has explored other and much more appropriate research methods.

On the other point, defensive faculty responses (even if quoted accurately by reporters) don't make much of a case, one way or another. I agree with the quip commonly attributed to Philip Graham, that journalism is the first rough draft of history, and you know what first drafts are like!

Robert KC Johnson - 12/14/2007

This issue was discussed in the article--one professor hypothesized that some of the unregistered would have been foreign nationals, and therefore couldn't vote. And, obviously, not all UI professors live in the county (I assume the P-C just looked at county registration for time purposes).

I would agree that if 30 percent of UI professors who were U.S. citizens weren't registered to vote, that would be remarkable, but it doesn't seem to be the case.

And, as I noted in the article (and in response to Ralph's comment), I think registration studies are very crude ways to manage departmental hiring patterns--but the wideness of the gap, coupled with the very peculiar rationalizations of the UI professors, should at least raise some questions. This is especially true at UI, which has an odd diversity policy explicitly stating that candidates who enhance the diversity of ideas on campus should be given an advantage in hiring.

Robert KC Johnson - 12/14/2007

In this case, however, we're talking about a congressional district whose population center (Johnson County) elected a Republican to Congress (Jim Leach) from 1976 through 2006. This isn't exactly one-party Brooklyn or Provo, Utah.

Hanley's argument would have been more compelling if she had cited one or two UI professors who were Republican-inclined but had switched to the Democrats so they could be active locally, or why this pattern doesn't seem to have occurred at universities in Republican counties.

Jonathan Dresner - 12/14/2007

I honestly can't tell, Mr. Fahey, if you're at all serious or if you're trolling for conflict. I don't know you. I'm inclined to believe the latter, but I'm open to evidence either way. The following is what makes me think you are:

That few history faculty members are Republicans may mean no more and no less than that few career military officers are Democrats.

There's no good way to even begin that conversation.

Sherman Jay Dorn - 12/13/2007


By failing to note the complete stats, your entry is a bit misleading. As the linked file indicates, fewer than 50% of UI faculty were registered Democrats in Johnson County. A good bit (around 30%) simply weren't found.

So should we worry more that 46% of faculty are Democrats or 30% aren't registered at all?

David M Fahey - 12/13/2007

Dresner's response is a thoughtful one, but the problem remains how to identify and define relevance. Being Republican? Being Hispanic? Being gay? Being .... The assumption that research will be more or less autobiographical complicates hiring. By what standard do we say that a person's perspective is relevant or not? Relevant to what? Are we really asking is the person relevant? We need such and such! Another problem is how to create relevant representation within departments much smaller than, say, UCLA. Few history department have many more than 20 faculty members, and quite a few are much smaller. Judging the needs of the discipline is a heavy burden for small departments. Hiring is an imperfect process, but I am impressed with how departments are willing to change, that faculty members eagerly hire people who aren't their clones. That few history faculty members are Republicans may mean no more and no less than that few career military officers are Democrats.

Jonathan Dresner - 12/13/2007

There are two seperate and unequal components to the diversity debate. The first, which is mostly represented in Mr. Fahey's comment, is the Affirmative Action/social responsibility sort which posits that opportunity should be presented equally to all comers, with adjustments as necessary to those with disadvantages, both for their own benefit and so that everyone can have an affinity with some of those in positions of influence and be inspired thereby. There's a little bit of this in the conservative attacks, but they won't admit it because it leads to the possibility that affirmative action might be the solution.

The second sort strain has to do with the question of the relationship between personal views/status and historiography/pedagogy (aka professional practice), the theory being that a lack of diversity in the profession, subfield, or departmental subset thereof -- political, racial, gender, class -- creates historiographical gaps or pedagogical biases. This is what KC is addressing, and the only real solution -- insofar as it is a problem -- is a long-term program of undergraduate and graduate recruitment combined with increasingly agressive post-tenure review.

David M Fahey - 12/13/2007

To what extent should faculties be "representative" of their district, state, region, or country? There seems to be a consensus that departments should be alert to under-representation of certain categories, notably, women and African Americans, and to over-representation of other categories, notably, men and whites. Should there also be political representation? religious and non-religious representation? sexual orientation representation? handicap representation? Ethnic representation? Family origin "class" representation? Few of us object to diversity, but I doubt that many of us regard creating diversity in ALL categories as practical or desirable.

Ralph E. Luker - 12/13/2007

I agree that the history department members' rationalizations aren't very convincing. Still, when KC posts something like this, I think he ought to acknowledge that, even if Iowa hired KC Johnson, it wouldn't shift the D to R ratio in its history department or the University faculty one iota.

Jonathan Dresner - 12/13/2007

The idea of using local demographics to justify nationally-based hiring decisions is definitely flawed, but worse, it's self-justifying and circular as an argument. If History, and the other departments cited, had been hiring more equal numbers from the parties, it's entirely plausible that the local demographics would also now be different. Professors are not a huge population, but they have families, and influence.

David Lion Salmanson - 12/13/2007

The former local head of the Philly Republicans who also was a former statewide official switched to the Democrats this year and was trying actively to get other Republicans to switch because the only way they could influence the mayoral race was to vote in the democratic primary.

David J Merkowitz - 12/13/2007

"It also suggests an odd view of politics: Hanley appears to believe that people develop an abstract desire to participate politically, and then choose the party based on the likelihood of success."

I must say that happens more often than political scientists (historians) are willing to admit, most predominantly at the local level. If one is really only interested in local politics which many people (if not enough) are, then yes I might join the party of power to be involved in politics. One examples where that is case: Philadelphia where being in the GOP is the death-knell (and before that the GOP served as the catch-all party). There are plenty of Philly Dems that in a competitive environment would likely be in the GOP.