Leave politics out of faculty hiring choices

Published March 10, 2006

Propelled by the half-truths and unsubstantiated accusations of David Horowitz and others, state legislatures across the country - 17 at last count - are looking for ways to redress "political imbalance" in college and university classrooms. This idea is about as bad as it gets in a democracy.

To suggest that any individual or legislature would improve the world's finest system of higher education by deliberately injecting politics into considerations of who should be hired to teach (and tenured) is folly. Smart men and women work all their lives to become competent in one of the hundreds of sub-fields into which higher education is now divided (e.g., bioinformatics, medieval French history, architecture). Political leanings have no place in recruiting faculty in any college or university known to me. Nor have I found, in my nearly 30 years as an administrator in four colleges and universities, public and private, evidence of classroom proselytizing or intimidation. Of course, faculty occasionally comment about presidents - Democratic and Republican - and about current events and popular culture, too, but only in passing, not to sway students to a particular point of view.

Now, I have no doubt that most colleges have more Democrats than Republicans on the faculty, and more liberals (if that means those who question the status quo) than conservatives (if that means those who would maintain the current order). Faculty members are generally more liberal than they are conservative - though not always by a long shot.

Why is this so? Because, faculty members - especially those in the humanities and social sciences - have the responsibility to help their students develop "critical thinking," thinking that questions nearly everything and poses arguments for how the world does work and should work. Such teaching inevitably questions the status quo.

In addition, the teacher is committed by his or her profession to act as if each individual has the capacity for scholastic success. That kind of task, that commitment - hope, if you will - is often accompanied by an egalitarian approach to matters of civil polity. You see the same commitment among public health workers, for example, and among journalists and often lawyers.

So, what should we do? How can we keep our young from being brainwashed by liberal faculty?

In fact, this is an invented crisis, not a real one. No student, no parent, no alumnus at Eckerd College or anywhere else has ever complained to me that they were subjected to propaganda or political manipulation by biased professors. Most faculty are too independent, too diverse in their thinking, too focused on their disciplines and their responsibilities as teachers to indulge in tub-thumping in the classroom. They have too much respect (and hope) for their students to do so. Nor would today's students have the patience for it.

No, let's invite the faculty - liberals and conservatives - to do what they do best without the silliness of thinking that we who know better should balance them out. Passing a law to that effort is fatuous. It would take what works well and make it worse.

Donald Eastman is president of Eckerd College, a national, private liberal arts college related by covenant to the Presbyterian Church (USA) in St. Petersburg.