Last week the Chronicle of Higher Education wrote a lengthy report on the curious case of Keith Fink, a part-time lecturer at the University of California, Los Angeles. UCLA refused to renew his contract, writing in a letter that his teaching did not “meet the standard of excellence.” Fink cried foul, arguing that his free-speech classes were popular with students and that he was really fired for his pointed criticisms of the university and his stalwart defense of free speech on campus.
And, in fact, he was popular. As the Chronicle notes, “Student evaluations of the free-speech course Mr. Fink taught this year . . . mostly paint a picture of Mr. Fink as an engaging teacher and his course as stimulating and interesting.” His faculty evaluators, however, believed that there was “more to it than what the students think.” They took issue with his Socratic method of teaching (common in law schools), believed that he pushed his own point of view too much, and raised concerns about the “climate” in the classroom.
As I read the story, I had an immediate sense of déjà vu. I’ve litigated cases like this before, I’ve evaluated cases like this before, and I’m familiar with the extraordinary double standards that define how academic freedom works in modern higher education. Perhaps UCLA is right. Perhaps it has even-handedly applied its alleged “incredibly high” standards and has fired popular left-wing lecturers in part because they’ve pushed their views too much on their students. Perhaps it routinely fires even popular teachers for poor teaching performance. In other words, perhaps it’s different from the vast majority of colleges and universities — schools that have consciously and unconsciously created entire systems of anti-conservative discrimination.
First, let’s discuss the challenge of even finding a job in higher education. It’s difficult enough for even well-qualified leftists, but often academic departments define academic positions in such a way that effectively excludes the conservative point of view. Look at this current job posting at Harvard’s divinity school. It’s for a tenure-track professor of “religion, violence, and peace-building.” There’s nothing inherently conservative or liberal about the topic. Indeed, it fascinates me, but hidden within the job description is this gem of a sentence:
It is understood that applicants will employ forms of analysis that address race, gender, sexuality, and/or other intersecting forms of social power, such as womanist, feminist, and/or queer approaches. [Emphasis added.]
Ahh yes, “intersectionality” rears its radical head. While this posting is extreme (though at an important institution), it perfectly illustrates a long-building phenomenon. Academics have redefined and refocused disciplines to such an extent that they essentially exclude conservative inquiry. Thus, they can honestly say they’ve never discussed politics in hiring decisions because the discipline itself has narrowed so much that it closes itself to conservatives.
Consider this statement, years ago, from the American Association of University Professors’ Roger Bowen. He was defending universities from the charge of ideological discrimination in hiring. First, he said this:
I’ve been a department chair, I’ve been a college president. I’ve conducted more searches than I can begin to describe, and I can tell you I have never asked a candidate what his or her party identification is, and I don’t know of a search committee in the country that would do that.
I’d agree with Bowen. In all my years representing conservative professors, I’ve never seen questions regarding party identification. But that’s a red herring. Search committees aren’t that blatant. They don’t have to be. Here’s the key quote:
Anthropologists — which apparently, according to the study, Democrats far outnumber Republicans [among anthropologists] — what do they do? Anthropologists, the discipline itself is focused on questioning religious and cultural myth, particularly myth that celebrates national, cultural or racial superiorities. That in many classrooms will be a shocker for a lot of students.
Sociologists tend to inquire on the origins of inequality as a source of alienation: new concepts to many college students that will seem, I imagine, given illustrations using the American example, rather shocking.
Political scientists, they focus on questions of legitimacy. . . .
Historians, they look at progress frequently in terms of overcoming inequalities of the past, sometimes inequality is endorsed, even embraced by conservatives.
Leftist academics are often the proverbial fish who don’t know they’re wet. They’ve created and inhabit a world that by its very terms and definitions is inhospitable to conservative thought.
Well, if you frame scholarship primarily in leftist terms and limit inquiries to more left-leaning areas of interest, it should shock exactly no one that mainly leftists apply. Leftist academics are often the proverbial fish who don’t know they’re wet. They’ve created and inhabit a world that by its very terms and definitions is inhospitable to conservative thought — especially socially conservative thought.
But that’s not all, of course. Those conservatives who do apply often find that they have to clear a higher bar for hiring, retention, and promotion. A study published early last year in Harvard Law School’s Journal of Law and Public Policy found that conservative and libertarian law professors are “cited more and publish more than their peers,” and they “they tend to have more of the traditional qualifications required of law professors than their peers.” While these findings of course didn’t prove systematic discrimination, they were certainly — as the author noted — “consistent with” a pattern or practice of exclusion.
To this study, I can add my own anecdotal experience. In case after case, I’ve seen conservative professors fired or punished in spite of possessing superior academic credentials. In one case, an untenured conservative professor was fired after publishing more (and more consequential) scholarship than even some of the tenured professors who evaluated him. In another, the department rejected a conservative professor’s promotion in part for poor scholarship even though he’d published more than most of his peers and in spite of the fact that key members of the department didn’t even bother to read his work.
In fact, you’ll often find an odd kind of political affirmative action. Because so many departments view themselves as cultural revolutionaries, they’ll tolerate and encourage enormous amounts of shoddy research and scholarship so long as that scholarship is sufficiently radical. It’s as if some faculties take pride in housing leftist fools and cranks.
The cumulative effect of all these factors renders conservatives rightly suspicious when they see any university summarily fire or otherwise punish the few conservative scholars who’ve made it through the hiring gauntlet. Students know full well that they’ll spend part of their academic careers sitting in classrooms taught by hectoring leftist ideologues. Students know full well that teaching quality is wildly inconsistent. They also know full well that far-left scholars often attack their own universities with unrestrained ferocity. Yet they not only soldier on, they gain tenure and lead academic departments.
Students know full well that they’ll spend part of their academic careers sitting in classrooms taught by hectoring leftist ideologues.
I’ll follow Keith Fink’s case with interest, and I look forward to seeing more evidence emerge. But here is a key question in his case: Was he treated the same way that his department treats teachers with far-left views? Does the university hold left-wing ideologues to the same “standard of excellence?” Perhaps it does, but decades of bitter experience have taught conservatives to be skeptical.
There is no easy answer to academic discrimination. I’ve talked to numerous outstanding conservative law students who’ve wondered if it’s even “worth the effort” to try for a teaching career — and the legal profession is more open to conservatives than most of the humanities are. In some places, there is reason for hope. Conservatives such as Princeton’s Robert George have not only made it past the gatekeepers, they’re thriving even as they challenge academic orthodoxy. But Professor George is the exception, not the rule. In academic departments across the nation, the message is clear. Conservatives need not apply.
— David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and an attorney.