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As a Republican, I'm on the Fringe

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There are numerous examples of this ideological isolation from society. As political scientist Steven Teles showed in his book "Whose Welfare?," the public had determined by the 1970s that welfare wasn't working -- yet many sociology professors even now deny that '70s-style welfare programs were bad for their recipients. Similarly, despite New York City's 15-year-long decline in crime, most criminologists still struggle to attribute the increased safety to demographic shifts or even random statistical variations (which apparently skipped other cities) rather than more effective policing.

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In my own area, public administration, it took years for bureaucracy-defending professors to realize that then-Vice President Al Gore's National Performance Review (aka Reinventing Government) was not a reactionary attempt to destroy government agencies, but rather a centrist attempt to revitalize them. Most of the critics of the academy are conservatives or libertarians, but even the left-of-center E.D. Hirsch argues in "The Schools We Need and Why We Don't Have Them" that academics in schools of education have harmed young people by promoting progressive dogma rather than examining what works in real classrooms.

All this is bad for society because academics' ideological blinders make it more difficult to solve domestic problems and to understand foreign challenges. Moreover, a leftist ideological monoculture is bad for universities, rendering them intellectually dull places imbued with careerism rather than the energy of contending ideas, a point made by academic critics across the ideological spectrum from Russell Jacoby on the left to Josiah Bunting III on the right.

It's odd that my university was one of only a handful in Pennsylvania to have held a debate on the Iraq War in 2003. That happened because left-leaning Villanova professors realized that to be fair they needed to expose students to views different from their own, so they invited three relatively conservative faculty members to take part in a discussion of the decision to invade. Though I was then a junior faculty member arguing the unpopular (pro-war) side, I knew that my senior colleagues would not hold it against me.

Yet a conservative friend at another university had an equal and opposite experience. When he told his department chair that he and a liberal colleague planned to publicly debate the decision to invade Iraq, his chair talked him out of it, saying that it could complicate his tenure decision two years down the road. On the one hand, the department chair was doing his job, protecting a junior faculty member from unfair treatment; on the other hand, he shouldn't have had to.

Unfortunately, critics are too often tone deaf about the solutions to academia's problems. Conservative activist David Horowitz and Students for Academic Freedom, a group he supports, advocate an Academic Bill of Rights guaranteeing equality for ideological minorities (typically conservatives) and ensuring that faculty are hired and promoted and students graded solely on the basis of their competence and knowledge, not their ideology or religion. That sounds great in theory, but it could have the unintended consequence of encouraging any student who gets a C to plead ideological bias.

Ultimately, universities will have to clean their own houses. Professors need to re-embrace a culture of reasoned inquiry and debate. And since debate requires disagreement, higher education needs to encourage intellectual diversity in its hiring and promotion decisions with something like the fervor it shows for ethnic and racial diversity. It's the only way universities will earn back society's respect and reclaim their role at the center of public life.

robert.maranto@gmail.com

Robert Maranto is an associate professor of political science at Villanova University and co-editor of "Reforming the Politically Correct University," to be published in 2008.


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