Blogs > Cliopatria > The Cole Thesis

Nov 30, 2004 7:55 pm

The Cole Thesis

I’m a great believer in Alan Charles Kors’ argument that “sunlight is the best disinfectant”; in his column this week, George Will became the latest high-profile figure to endorse a call for greater intellectual diversity in the academy. Borrowing heavily from what he accurately terms Mark Bauerlein’s “dazzling essay” in the Chronicle of Higher Education, about which I commented a while back, Will concludes, “Many campuses are intellectual versions of one-party nations -- except such nations usually have the merit, such as it is, of candor about their ideological monopolies. In contrast, American campuses have more insistently proclaimed their commitment to diversity as they have become more intellectually monochrome. They do indeed cultivate diversity -- in race, skin color, ethnicity, sexual preference. In everything but thought.”

As this issue assumes an increasingly high profile, defenders of the status quo will have to move beyond what could be deemed the Brandon/McClamrock approach (named after Duke philosophy professor Robert Brandon, who maintained, “If, as John Stuart Mill said, stupid people are generally conservative, then there are lots of conservatives we will never hire” and SUNY-Albany’s Ron McClamrock, who reasoned, “Lefties are overrepresented in academia because on average, we're just f-ing smarter.") One such attempt comes from University of Michigan professor Juan Cole, who, as my colleague Ralph Luker noted, has issued a “spirited reply” to what he terms the “ridiculous and pernicious line” that major universities need greater intellectual diversity.

I agree with Cole on one major point: we need more data. And not just party registration of professors, but, far more important, descriptions of new lines over the last decade, and research interests of those faculty hired to fill these new lines.

Some of Cole’s arguments come across as red herrings. He chastises the currently existing studies for failing to include “Economics Departments, Business Schools, Medical Schools, Engineering schools.” As far as I know, the highest-profile studies (those at Duke and Stanford/Cal) did include economics departments. Meanwhile, the debate centers on the question of whether ideological bias in the hiring of faculty is affecting the quality and type of education that college students receive. Whether the nation’s business, medical, and engineering school faculties are 100% Republican, 100% Democrat, or 100% Green is irrelevant to that question.

Cole also challenges the idea that party affiliation predicts general ideological perspective, since, “What is a ‘liberal?’ If [Will] means they vote Democrat, then so did, until recently, Zell Miller.” I think we’ll all be waiting a very long time for Cole to identify the long list of Zell Miller Democrats on the faculty at the University of Michigan. And he dismisses the studies that have suggested ideological imbalance as coming from “the same people who assured us that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and was 2-5 years from having a nuclear bomb.” Hmmm.

Cole does, however, make two serious arguments—one cultural, one structural. On the cultural front, he notes, “I have been in a major history department for 20 years, and have served on innumerable search committees, in my own department and in other units on campus. I have never, ever, even once, heard any search committee member broach the political party affiliation of a candidate for a position.” I have no reason to disbelieve that statement. Although I’m sure there are a few other cases, I’m aware only of two recent instances (one at Smith, one at Brooklyn) in which candidates were asked about their political beliefs. (The responses of the two institutions then differed: at Smith, the president conceded that the comments violated the candidate’s academic freedom and ordered a re-evaluation of his tenure decision; at Brooklyn, the president used his Bylaws power to place the questioner on the department personnel committee, so she could ask future conservatives the same question.)

The fact that few candidates are asked about their political affiliations, however, is irrelevant to the basic issue. That college faculties are imbalanced between Democrats and Republicans is not a problem in and of itself. It is, rather, a symptom of the problem: the academy increasingly crafting new lines in such a way to skew ideologically, with a strong emphasis on positions that stress race, class, or gender.

Cole’s structural analysis therefore also comes up short. The search committee process, he contends, is inherently decentralized, and “there would be no way to stack this process politically.” But this simply isn’t the case, as Cole’s own department at Michigan demonstrates. As I’ve noted previously, this is a department that has crafted recent job descriptions in U.S. history to hire its 9th, 10th, and 11th specialists in race in America, even as it has hired no professors in U.S. diplomatic or military history, fields perceived (sometimes inaccurately) as more conservative. That job descriptions have been crafted to stress not a department’s curricular needs or intellectual balance but instead fields considered ideologically acceptable by the department’s majority means that the critical decisions have been made even before the search committee first sits.

Moreover, Cole’s own concession of the subjective nature of the search process, when combined with some of the rhetoric he employs in his article, suggests that this tried-and-true process isn’t up to the task of creating intellectually diverse environs. The search process, he notes, revolves around not political issues but answering such questions as,"Is this an interesting mind?""Is this person's methodology sound?""Has this person mastered the relevant literature (i.e. has read the other articles and books on the subject)?"

Everyone, however, determines what constitutes an “interesting mind” or “sound methodology” in different terms. In Cole’s case, his hypothesis as to why conservatives are under-represented in the academy hardly gives comfort that his is a mind who would find a conservative “interesting” or “sound.” If candidates are not queried about their political affiliation, and if the time-tested search committee processes produces the best candidate free from the application of ideological litmus tests, why, he asks, does the partisan imbalance cited in study after study exist? Greed by potential academic conservatives: “Someone who has academic skills but is a Republican would just have enormous opportunities and could easily become a multi-millionnaire. In contrast, academics on the Left would not be welcome in corporate boardrooms or at a think tank funded by Richard Mellon Scaife, and wouldn't be comfortable in such a position.”

His evidence for this sweeping assertion? The career of William Bennett, who demonstrated how someone with a Ph.D. in political philosophy was confronted with lucrative opportunities in the provided sector—since he was “willing to oppose affirmative action and support increasing inequality of wealth and bash unions.” If you were politically conservative, would you think that Cole could give your application an impartial read? And in humanities and social science departments—in which evaluations of candidates are inherently subjective—where figures like Cole form the ideological majority, is it possible for someone with moderate or conservative beliefs to receive an unbiased hearing?

[Update, 11-30, 7.57pm: Adam Kotsko, who graciously deems me his"my twelfth favorite writer for Cliopatria," dismisses calls for greater intellectual diversity in the academy as irrelevant, on the grounds that diversity of race, sex, or ethnicity produces sufficient intellectual diversity."I'll admit," Kotsko notes,"that this is a completely political decision on my part and that the individual conservatives who are being discriminated against (and I'm sure this happens to at least some extent) are perhaps objectively better scholars than the leftists -- but please, tenured radical professors of literature, hold on." At least he gets credit for his candor.]

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David Lion Salmanson - 11/30/2004

But methodological diversity does not cover KCs favorite whipping boy which is topical diversity. For example, Michigan has a Diplomatic Historian who deals in Diplomacy with Native Americans during the earliest periods of US history. He uses a multi-archival approach (as opposed to a history of foreign relations approach). But I don't think that is who KC had in mind to replace Brad Perkins. (Incidentally, my original dissertation topic had been something along those lines, and Brad would have been my advisor. He really liked the topic and thought it was high time good Diplomatic History was done in this area. He had devoted only one paragraph to Native American US diplomacy in his volume of the Cambridge series because of the paucity of work in the area. Then Richard White's Middle Ground came out and Michigan hired Susan Johnson and it was back to the drawing board and on to uranium mining).

Robert KC Johnson - 11/30/2004

As Ralph notes, I never advocated "kicking" Cole off anything; and, as far as I know, I never have written that more "conservative" faculty should be hired. I have written that the overwhelming ideological and partisan imbalance revealed in surveys among the nation's faculty suggests that merit is not always the predominant concern in hires, and I have--repeatedly--advocated the hiring of more faculty in fields, such as political, legal, and diplomatic history that are often (incorrectly) perceived as "conservative."

As Chris notes, "everyone applies their own ideology to hiring procedures." If evaluation is that subjective, then Madison's lesson from Federalist 10--creating a process in which no ideological faction dominates--is well taken.

Carl Patrick Burkart - 11/30/2004

OK,y'all convinced me that the hiring process works without reference to the supply of Ph D's in a given subfield. And perhaps that is the easiest place to concentrate efforts to broaden the base of methodologies in individual departments. However, I would suggest two things:

(1.) methodological diversity should be divorced for calls for enforced political diversity which rightly raises suspicions in otherwise potential allies.

(2.) That an intellectual case be made for the value of institutional history, perhaps an essay in the JAH or OAH. And I don't mean essays that simply denigrated the use of theory, but essays that point to the positive contributions of institutional history. I know their are plenty of these kinds of essays in labor history, for example, but what about other fields? Can anybody point to cites?

Ralph E. Luker - 11/30/2004

Chris, This strikes me as a completely unfair and inaccurate reading of what KC actually said. Where's the argument for "kicking" Cole off of anything? Where's your argument that conservative perspectives ought _not_ be represented in the humanities and the social sciences? The argument isn't about black kettles and black pots but about symmatries and asymmatries.

chris l pettit - 11/30/2004

I suppose you should be left off as well KC...given your comments made against Dr. Cole. Since you want to kick him off for his "intolerant" views that you think cannot be impartial...what to say of yours openly advocating for more conservative faculty....clearly not impartial in its own right. it is a case of the pot calling the kettle would you be willing to give up your seat as well? Since everyone applies their own ideology to hiring procedures (we are all human after all), should we have computers make the decision? Oops...people with ideological bents program the computers so that won;t work...maybe we shoud just draw names of applicants out of a hat and let the laws of probability take control...


chris l pettit - 11/30/2004

Just as they want to destroy it for students and acceptance procedures...what a hoot!


Robert KC Johnson - 11/30/2004

Perhaps true on the subjective nature, but still, when evaluating two clearly first-rate dissertations in a search, say, in Latin American history, where the topics, chronology, and source material can differ across the continent and centuries, assumptions about what constitutes "good" history have to play some role.

I was on three search committees when I taught at Williams, and never witnessed bias against conservatives there, although, looking back, there might have been some of what Bauerlein calls groupthink. In all three cases, however, the candidates hired were first-rate.

At Brooklyn, obviously, it's been much different, though I wouldn't say that Brooklyn is in any typical of History Departments around the country.

Robert KC Johnson - 11/30/2004

On Miriam's point, I would argue that it doesn't matter if methodological diversity doesn't produce political diversity, since the methodological diversity is what historians should desire.

I'm inclined to agree with Jon's points on the pools: that in US history, it's very rare (in any subfield) have a search in which there are too few applicants, so the choice of subfield in which to hire does matter. Ditto for most aspects of European history. That's obviously less the case for Asia, Latin America, or Africa

Miriam Elizabeth Burstein - 11/29/2004

But would greater methodological diversity produce greater political diversity? This doesn't seem to follow. In the "science wars," for example, some of the highest-profile "conservatives" (in the sense of being against science studies, poststructuralism, rampaging psychoanalysis, etc.) have been hardcore leftists--Alan Sokal, Frederick Crews, and, if I'm remembering correctly, Norman Gross. (It's either Gross or Paul Levitt.) And in some fields, it's pretty impossible to guess anything about someone's politics from their dissertation--medievalists, for example, are often linguists and history of religion types. I've been on the receiving end of enough stupid assumptions about my own political beliefs to think that this sort of filtering-by-interest doesn't work very well.

Jonathan Dresner - 11/29/2004

I don't know about that. We're talking about US history here, for the most part, and it's not unusual to get over a hundred applications (it used to be more than that) for a relatively open field search. But in other fields, like my own Asian history, searches with 20-40 candidates are common and run perfectly well. I've seen smaller, for more specialized positions, too, and you have to discount the size of the applicant pool somewhat in some cases because many will not actually meet the minimum criteria for the job on the first pass.

Generally, if a department sets a field as a priority, it's not the size of the pool that's going to be a problem. If a department sets a field as a priority it is because they see either student demand, curricular pressure or historiographical coverage as important. It's those factors, not pool size, which drive hiring decisions.

Here's a theory, based on my experience. Most failed searches result from one of two factors: competition for highly desirable candidates (which is absurd given the size of the pool, which is absurd) and failure to resolve tensions within the committee about direction and emphasis.

Carl Patrick Burkart - 11/29/2004

I doubt there is an absolute shortage of new military historians (to take one example), but I'm willing to bet there is compared to other historical subfields, particular for Ph Ds from big name departments (from which so many new hires are recruited). Still, any attempt to tackle the issue of methodological diversity must look at the process by which the profession reproduces itself. Not that the hiring process isn't key to this, but if a department has an unsucessful search due to a small or weak pool, they are likely to change their criteria next time they have a new position.

Jonathan Dresner - 11/29/2004

This is only a very weak factor. Departments can advertise for anything they want, though they can also settle for what they can get. Military and diplomatic and political history are clearly interesting to a lot of students and to a lot of people; if dissertations being produced in these areas lag then that's worth examining. It may be temporary, it may be the result of the rise of political science as an alternative route for examining these questions, or it may be a form of social reproduction which requires some corrective attention.

Carl Patrick Burkart - 11/29/2004

I'm not convinced that Michigain is ill served by their hires in the history department, however, I think that Dr. Johnson is right to shift the focus from the number of Republicans in academia to that of methodolocial diversity that would include more historians of institutional structures like electoral politics, the legal profession, or the military.

However, before setting out down this track, we would need to know something about supply. That is, we would need to know the dissertations topics of potential hires. If enough new historians aren't studying military history or what have you, this could help explain the dearth of this sort of historian. Perhaps we could begin by looking at how students of people like Gary Gallagher or John Lewis Gaddis have fared over the years. Are they researching "traditional" topics? If not, why not? If so are they getting jobs?

Brian Ulrich - 11/29/2004

Knowing what I know about Michigan's MES personnel, I'm convinced that conservatives could get a fair hearing from most of the faculty. But I don't know about history.

Jonathan Dresner - 11/29/2004

I haven't been on as many committees as Juan Cole, or yourself, probably, but I'm averaging over one hiring committee per year of full-time teaching, most in History, and this is the first year in which I'm NOT on an active committee. I've seen candidates dropped for being too liberal (mostly feminist) (I've also seen candidates dropped because they were clearly too good for the schools doing the search; is that bias?), but I've never seen evidence of bias against conservatives. I've seen politically conservative and religiously active candidates get very serious consideration entirely worthy of their accomplishments.

No, my anecdote doesn't prove anything by itself. But it's part of the much larger data set we need to make some headway on the question of the source of the phenomenon.

I disagree, by the way, about the "inherently subjective" nature of candidate evaluation even in humanities and social science fields. That's a much longer post, but I would argue that the subjective component of evaluation is not that much greater than it is in "hard" sciences (and possibly less so than in business/economics) where hiring committees still have to make judgements about fit, teaching quality (not quantity), and the importance and viability of research programs.