26 May 2008

With a little trepidation, I'm wading into the wars over the supposed "liberal bias" of today's academy. Stanley Fish blasts the University of Colorado over its plan to endow a Chair of Conservative Thought and Policy. While I agree with Fish that it's a silly idea, I disagree with some of his reasoning.

It's a silly idea, to me, because the academy should strive to describe the world in (we hope) useful ways. The manner (or subject) of inquiry should dictate how the academy is structured - not the normative conclusion to be reached. Professors should be selected based upon the quality of their research, not upon their political views. Problems arise, however, when faculty politicize their positions - either by blocking new faculty hires who are talented but who have minority political views, or by using their teaching positions to indoctrinate new students. If these practices are going on, then administrators should address them directly, instead of further politicizing the university by expressly hiring faculty based on their political views. Fish spends a bit of time on this point.

Where I disagree with Fish is where he argues that a politically slanted faculty has no bearing on the quality of the university. As I mentioned above, politically slanted faculties can create problems - for instance, they might influence the hiring process by blocking candidates based upon politics. This can create a chilling effect that can only be detrimental to the free pursuit of knowledge - the world is deprived of talented scholars whose only fault is their political persuasion, and young scholars might alter their research queries to avoid politically unpopular results.

I'm not saying much of this is happening - at least not yet. And it's surely less likely to be a problem in less-politicized disciplines (the field where I have the most experience, the law, is probably the most politicized of all). But I'm not ready to say that political homogeneity is problem-free.

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