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Saturday, May 14, 2016

Class, Politics, and the Academy

I thought Nicholas Kristof's column about the value of ideological diversity in the academy the other day was not worth mention, because it was so unremarkable in its assertions. I do, however, find the letters in response to it quite interesting. One in particular struck me: a response from a law professor at an Ivy League law school (one of my alma maters, as it turns out) who writes: 

It is not the job of the university to represent all the views held in the surrounding society. The commitment to critical inquiry requires it to disfavor some views based on religious dogma, social convention or superstition. The goal of a community of mutual respect requires it to disfavor others, including those that are explicitly racist, misogynist or homophobic. Such views can be expressed in the university, but it is not a cause for concern that academics do not espouse them in their teaching and research. Much of the disparity between views in the academy and in the Republican Party is attributable to their varying social bases. Academics tend to be educated and middle class. The current Republican Party is constituted disproportionately of the undereducated and the wealthy.

That education leads people to different views is neither surprising nor, on its face, disturbing. And if it is a problem that the views of rich people are underrepresented in the academy, they have had little trouble making up for this disadvantage in the media and the political system.

There are a number of interesting things about this response. Although my main interest is in the last few sentences, the opening raises some questions too. Does the professor, who believes (rightly, in my view) that the university is not obliged to represent all views held in the surrounding society, think the university is obliged to represent all groups or individuals in the surrounding society? Or does he think that the commitment to critical inquiry is the university's primary goal and the only proper basis for hiring (or admissions?) decisions? In what circumstances does the professor think that the university should disfavor views based on religious dogma, social convention, or superstition? Very few, surely; in my experience, dogma and social convention are entirely common bases for views held and statements made by academics, critical inquiry is often championed but less often required or exercised, and in any event these things are rarely directly relevant to an academic's discipline and focus. It is possible to teach economics while believing that God was incarnated as a human being, or to teach contracts while believing that genetically modified foods are unsafe or that there is a link between vaccination and autism. One question about ideological diversity in hiring is whether hiring committees, while asserting an interest in critical inquiry, nevertheless pay attention to and disfavor one set of cues about a candidate's disciplinarily irrelevant obedience to certain dogmas and conventions while ignoring or welcoming others--whether, for instance, they are likely to look askance on an English literature candidate who notes in passing her membership in a charismatic church, while ignoring a passing reference by another candidate to Reiki or therapeutic touch. And if or when conservative candidates are disfavored, how often is it because of explicitly racist, misogynist, or homophobic statements, and how often is it because of other cues or views that are not explicitly any of those things, or because of what ought to be irrelevant factors (getting one's litigation experience at a conservative public-interest firm, rather than a liberal public-interest firm or large corporate law firm, for instance)?

I am, however, more interested in the closing arguments in the letter. It is interesting the way the letter pivots sharply and silently from the original column's concern, with liberal versus conservative ideology, to a focus on rich vs. poor. It is equally striking that the writer then describes academics as composed of the "educated and middle class," and Republicans as constituting the "undereducated and the wealthy," and pivots again to the largely irrelevant peroration about "the views of rich people [being] underrepresented in the academy." It's not clear to me whether the writer has a problem with the certainty that the poor, as opposed to the rich, are underrepresented in the academy--a point that takes on added resonance given the many barriers to successful entry into the credentials arms race posed for the poor, and perhaps takes on added weight if, as the writer would have it, giving more entree to the poor and currently undereducated might also give more entree to those holding conservative views. In any event, it should be clear to any academic that the views of, if not the rich, then certainly the more-than-"middle class," are the predominant views of the academy. The average salary for full professors in the United States was around $100,000 in 2007. I cannot begin to estimate the average salary of an Ivy League law professor, although I would take one if offered. At a minimum, I'm guessing that they are in the top ten percent, if this chart is any indication.

Although I'm sure it is unintentional, I think the letter trades heavily on an elision of the difference between being rich and being conservative, and of the difference between views held about the poor in the academy (no shortage, albeit largely of a de-haut-en-bas nature) and views, of whatever political stripe, held by the poor in the academy (heavily under-represented). Of greatest concern to me, however, is that his focus on the "rich" being under-represented in the academy elides the plain fact that the affluent are extraordinarily well-represented in the academy. If having more poor, working-class, and conservative views in the academy meant I would have to put up with more rich people in the academy as a side-effect, or if it meant thinning the faculty ranks of the wildly over-represented affluent members and products of the professional-managerial class, I would consider that a fair trade. And those people will, in any event, have little trouble making up for this disadvantage in the media and the political system, in which their views are also heavily over-represented.       


Posted by Paul Horwitz on May 14, 2016 at 08:29 PM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


I'm curious as to what it even means to "represent" a set of views within academia.

Does it mean something like having advocates for some positions within the academy? Does it mean equitable distribution of the highly coveted tenure seats? Something else?

If we look at view point diversity as simply a tool for producing the best intellectual progress, then I'm not sure how "representation" of views fits in.

Posted by: Derek Tokaz | May 16, 2016 4:35:18 PM

It's unfortunate that the US has no so little and underdeveloped vocabulary to talk about class. What would it even mean for the 'poor' to be represented at the academy? There are adjuncts that are making at or even below the median wage, but even there they are probably no lower than the second quintile.

So change it around and talk about class -- there's almost certainly a shortage of tenure and tenure track professors that are the first in their families to go to college. But even that only gets you so far. Think about a professor (maybe you know someone like this) that grew up in a poor family in Tennessee, worked starting when she was 15, went to UTK, clawed her way into philosophy grad school at Ann Arbor, and now is on the tenure track at a mid range research university in Boston. Perhaps she *understands* the working class better than her Trinity/Princeton/Harvard college but she almost certainly isn't working class anymore. The accent is faded, she doesn't dress the part, her culture consumption has changed, etc, etc, etc.

Getting some more conservative views in the academy certainly seems possible to me, but getting a thorough class mix doesn't seem likely. You can only hire from people applying and that group has spent a decade being enculturated in the existing academy.

Posted by: brad | May 17, 2016 9:27:46 AM


Just to muddy the class distinctions even further, there's two completely different type of people called "adjuncts." There's the person with a successful industry career who also teaches, either because the pay is a nice bonus, or they want the prestige that the university lends, or because they enjoy teaching, or just want something to keep busy with while in semi-retirement. These folk are generally upper-middle or upper class.

Then there's the people who are basically career adjuncts. They're teaching the bread and butter gen ed courses. Their pay is going to be closer to minimum wage than median wage. They're hard to classify on the socio-economic scale though, because while they're very low on the economic end, they're quite high (relative to other min-wage workers) in terms of social status.

Posted by: Derek Tokaz | May 17, 2016 10:41:05 AM

An interesting piece on socioeconomic bias in law faculty hiring: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2007934

Posted by: AnonProf | May 17, 2016 11:31:12 AM

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