December 13, 2016

ANDREW SHI | On Hiring Conservative Faculty

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Re: “What Kind of White Faculty Should We Hire?,” Sunspots, Dec. 10

Christian Brickhouse recently penned an ambitious essay in this newspaper. Amongst other things, the author argued against the idea of creating a political diversity initiative in campus-wide faculty hiring. This “Republican Affirmative Action” as he coins it does sound counterintuitive, if not offensive. After all, CS majors or sociolinguists or behavioral psychologists are no more likely to better understand concepts taught by a Republican professor. The author observes, “diversity of thought within the field can operate independently from the political affiliations of faculty members.” But one has to wonder if this general principle holds true for all fields. Allow me to suggest a more palatable proposition: Cornell should consider how to be more conscious of hiring professors of different political ideologies in the Humanities, such as Government and History. This proposition would surely affect the diversity of scholarship and teaching.

The scholarship argument is pretty straightforward. Professors publish papers and write books and travel to give lectures. Hiring a few more conservative-leaning professors in the Humanities would incorporate their work into the department’s body of scholarship. This may lead to more interesting mailroom conversations and panel discussions. The hope is that diversity of political thought produces better political thought for all involved. The author contends that many conservatives choose to opt out of academia, which would explain the present ideological disparity (read: lack of any conservative Government professor). But surely there are highly qualified conservatives who do not apply for faculty positions at Cornell for other reasons. Perhaps they do not feel welcome here. Perhaps they see the department’s reputation for hiring liberals and do not think they have a real chance. Whatever the case, it is at least reasonable to infer that a political diversity initiative in hiring for the Humanities may send a message to conservative scholars that there is a place at Cornell for them too.  

The teaching argument is more relevant to me as a student. I am a Government major and it is widely acknowledged that my department is liberal. I wonder how the readings would change if a conservative—rather than a liberal—professor released a syllabus for a class on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict or Modern Political Economy or The Politics of Poverty in the U.S. Admittedly, most of my professors attempt to maintain a level of neutrality on issues we discuss. But the whole idea behind bias is that one may not even be aware of prejudicing one side over another. One class I took recently focused on mass incarceration and criminal justice reform. Despite the fact that this is one of the very few issues that has nationwide bipartisan support, the class seldom closely examined the merits of the conservative position. As someone who agrees with liberals on this issue, I was curious as to what conservative scholars had to say, besides the voices of the (loudest) conservatives I found on the web. What are the core weaknesses and assumptions with the liberal position? The class didn’t think that was a worthwhile starting point.

Beyond the selection of course readings, Humanities professors wield tremendous influence in discussion-based seminars. How professors choose to facilitate conversation and what questions they raise frame the boundaries of discussion and what points are “safe” to raise in class or in assignments. We all admire the professor who challenges us to argue from the other side. But even the best professors don’t do this for every issue. Again, no one is immune from bias. The question is not how to eliminate bias but how to provide room for not just one kind of bias. In our justice system, there is a reason why trials do not feature only one attorney who argues for both sides. People who do not have a personal investment in the other side have a hard time making it look really good.

The question is not how to eliminate bias but how to provide room for not just one kind of bias.

I also want to address the idea of affirmative action in general. Like the author, I too agree that racial diversity in faculty hiring should be more of a priority than political diversity. But I don’t think these two agendas are strictly zero sum. One key principle behind affirmative action is that we are not choosing less qualified people. Rather, we are being conscious of meeting a certain quota of equally qualified people who identify with a certain minority group. The idea that Cornell’s faculty will inevitably be less racially diverse if it attempts to be more politically diverse is a valid concern. But it is unclear that this dichotomy is unworkable. What if both are prioritized? Suppose, as the author did, that nearly all of the conservative candidates were white and all of the liberal candidates were people of color. If candidates from both groups are to be picked, this just means that the department would hire fewer white liberals. Neither racial diversity nor political diversity needs to be sacrificed for the advancement of the other.   

I want to conclude with one last point. Brickhouse clearly demonstrates the thought he put into these issues and I commend him for writing from a position of conviction. Yet at times I felt that the tone of his essay lost itself in smugness. Regarding his opponents, he concludes, “In short, their arguments lack any kind of nuance, critical thought, or evidence.” Even if this is true, I wonder why the author was content to stop here. The true mark of winsome writing is not how effortlessly it dismantles opposing views. An essay that genuinely seeks to move the conversation forward is charitable to opposing views. It considers the opposition’s best arguments—and if the opposition was so helpless as to provide none, it raises and addresses them in the spirit of debate.