Missing Diversity at Colgate

Last fall, Democracy Matters sponsored a panel discussion on the question, “How Diverse is Colgate?” “Not very,” was my answer. “Not very, and certainly not enough for Colgate to fulfill its mission, not enough to foster informed civic engagement, and not enough if Colgate deserves to be America’s leading liberal arts university.” I was speaking, of course, of intellectual diversity–diversity of ideas and ideals.

On demographic diversity, I noted, Colgate has done quite well. More than a generation ago, Colgate set out to build a more diverse faculty, and we have been remarkably successful–in terms of race, ethnicity, and gender. In 1980, women were only 13% of tenure stream faculty; today the figure is 38%. Minorities, in 1980, were only 7% of the faculty; today the figure is 17%. And with an Associate Dean whose job it is to ensure compliance with Colgate’s affirmative action plan, a Faculty Affirmative Action Oversight Committee, faculty workshops on diversity, a rotating Chair for Diversity, a Diversity Initiative, a Council on Diversity and an Executive Committee of the Council, no reasonable person could doubt Colgate’s continued commitment.

But while the diversity of our faculty has been expanding in terms of demographics, I observed, it has been contracting in terms of political perspective. Of our nearly 300 faculty members, I knew of only three who were “openly” conservative. For years, I carried my lamp from one department after another, inquiring, “Any conservatives here?” “No, none here. Not anymore,” was the inevitable response, sometimes followed by a helpful suggestion. “Might try Department X.” Ruefully, I trudged on. Since our political views deeply implicate how we understand ourselves and the world, which questions we think important, what principles we hold as true and right, and more, this contraction of the range of discourse is troubling. It is also ironic, since the only constitutional justification accepted by the Supreme Court for preferential treatment programs in colleges and professional schools hinges on their educational benefits, in particular their contribution to intellectual diversity. “[C]lassroom discussion is livelier, more spirited, and simply more enlightening and interesting,” the Court held, where the participants represent “the greatest possible variety of backgrounds.” How lively, how spirited, how interesting can that be, I wondered, if despite our diversity of background, we’re all singing the same political song?

At the time of the panel, many faculty members dismissed my claim of political imbalance at Colgate. But now survey research by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) of UCLA confirms it beyond doubt. As the reader can see from the nearby chart, according to the HERI survey, 76.2% of Colgate faculty identify themselves as Liberal or Far Left, while only 02.4% of the respondents identify themselves as “Conservative” (none identify as “Far Right”). As a point of reference, in a 2004 Pew survey of the American public, 20% identified themselves as Liberals, 41% Moderate, and 33% Conservative (6% “Don’t Know”); Far Right and Far Left were not included as options.

In the last several weeks, I have shared these results with other faculty members. Self-professed conservatives (the other two) were not surprised. Several other faculty members agreed that the magnitude of the imbalance posed a problem for the intellectual health of the University. But more often, I received one of the following responses:

“The data are wrong.” This response came from faculty members who also believe that most Colgate students are very conservative. (In our 2004 mock election, Colgate students voted 71% percent for Kerry and 23% percent for Bush.) In fact the HERI surveys, ongoing since 1966, are the nation’s most extensive and reliable survey of faculty attitudes on a wide range of issues. Roughly a third of Colgate faculty responded, a very high percentage for this sort of survey. And the results for Colgate are, sad to say, similar to those for other select, private liberal arts colleges.

“The survey is simplistic; we’re too complex to be confined by a label.” Of course this is true. Yet political self-identification is a very revealing form of data compression. Liberals and conservatives today divide along three dimensions: the role of government (the degree of intervention in the economy and social life), social issues (autonomy, family values, abortion, individual versus social responsibility), and foreign policy (how vigorously should the United States fight the War on Terror). Many people do not fit neatly into “liberal” or “conservative” across all three dimensions. Libertarians for instance will be liberal on social issues and conservative on the role of government issues. Within one of these dimensions, one might be liberal on one issue (e.g., gay marriage) while conservative on another (e.g., abortion). And even on a single issue, say abortion, one might take a position that does not neatly fit one side or the other. Yet by selecting one of these labels, one makes a decision about where one stands on balance: the Libertarian may believe so strongly in the importance of limited government that this overrides her reservations about social issues, and so she selects “conservative.” And thus, a survey such as HERI’s allows us to predict with reasonable accuracy the distribution of faculty views across a broad range of issues. I encourage readers to conduct their own investigation and see how many faculty members they can find who oppose abortion or gay marriage or who support the 2001 tax cuts, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, or the USA-PATRIOT Act.

“Okay, but so what? Conservatives are so wrong that we need not hear their views.” The whole point of liberal education, they continue, is to make our students liberal. The image these faculty have of conservatives, ironically, is a person who is close-minded and authoritarian – – the sort that should not be tolerated on a liberal arts campus. It is quite unfortunate that CORE no longer includes John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, in which faculty and students confront a powerful rejoinder to this sort of response:

First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may for all we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility. Secondly, though the silenced opinion be in error, it may, in theory commonly does, contain a portion of the truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied. Thirdly, even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of the prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds. And not only this, but, fourthly the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost, or enfeebled.

“Irrelevant.” Just as it doesn’t matter if a surgeon or a carpenter is liberal or conservative, it doesn’t matter for a professor. In some fields, that is certainly true. As far as I know there’s no liberal or conservative perspective on Wiles’s proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem. And even in fields where the political dimensions are more pronounced, many liberal faculty members do present conservative perspectives fairly and dispassionately and do encourage a free and uninhibited discussion in their classes. Indeed, I know many colleagues who conduct their classes in this way, just as I try to present liberal perspectives in my classes.

But we do not think it sufficient to have the perspectives of minorities and women fairly presented by white male faculty. And there is probably some good reason for this reluctance. It is hard to transcend the boundaries and limits of our own perspectives. Further, I’m not convinced that we should always conceal our perspectives from students. If we always say “on the one hand this and on the other hand that,” we present as a role model someone who can never make up his mind–or reveals it only in the privacy of his home. Or we inadvertently teach a kind of relativism–that all we can really “know” are the facts that people hold these different views, but the choice among them is arbitrary. And most of us do come to our worldviews, our perspectives, only as a result of considerable reflection and mature judgments, not arbitrary preferences. At some point on some issues, it becomes useful to let students know where we stand and, more importantly, why.

Further, I’m afraid that what some faculty present in the classroom too often is not a fair and dispassionate presentation of conservative perspectives, but superficial or strawman arguments. Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter are presented as the model conservatives–not Friedrich Von Hayek or Leo Strauss. To a large extent, I suspect that such bias is unconscious; these faculty members have just never met conservatives in academia.

According to its mission statement, Colgate aspires to provide “a demanding, expansive educational experience” and to develop “wise, thoughtful, critical thinkers and perceptive leaders . . . in a community that values all forms of intellectual rigor and respects the complexity of human understanding.” Can students have an “expansive” educational experience if offered only a restricted range of opinion? Can they become “thoughtful” and “perceptive” if they only hear one side of a debate? Can they become effective leaders if they’ve never heard a sympathetic exposition of the political views of a third of the population? Without genuine intellectual diversity, diversity that seriously explores philosophic and policy differences, we risk promoting intellectual complacency rather than critical thinking, shallow and naive activism rather than informed civic engagement.