The Truth, Mainly - 09/29/2003

Why faculty liberals outnumber conservatives
by Leon Satterfield

Look out. Something scary is coming this way.

It's a guy named David Horowitz from California and he's apparently working his way east. He's got Colorado all discombobulated with a proposal he calls an "Academic Bill of Rights," and it's only a matter of time before he shows up in Nebraska.

So, you may ask, what could be scary about an "Academic Bill of Rights"? I'll tell you.

Horowitz is upset because there are far more liberals than conservatives on most college faculties. The Denver Post this month reported that a "survey of political science departments in four-year state schools found five Democrats for every one Republican."

And if you think that's lopsided, try English departments.

Here's the scary part. Here's what Horowitz proposes to do about the imbalance—at least according to Gail Schoettler, once the Democratic nominee for governor of Colorado. She writes in the Sep. 14 Post that:

"What is perhaps most alarming is Horowitz's effort to shove political partisanship into college hiring. His website tells students how to investigate their universities for political bias. It specifies which departments to attack, how to find the political affiliations of faculty and administrators at the county clerk's office, how to create a spreadsheet documenting professors' politics, and how to report back to him."

Diane Carmen, a Post columnist, calls Horowitz a "thought cop" who maintains that studying "works by John Steinbeck, Nelson Algren, Stephen Crane, Alice Walker, Richard Wright and others, reflects 'the Stalinist grip on American universities.'"

(Confession: I taught works by Steinbeck, Algren, Crane, Walker, and Wright, and I didn't even know I was in the Stalinist grip. But as a pre-modern English teacher, I also didn't know what the Stalinist grip felt like.)

But here's what I think I do know: that Horowitz is in another world if he thinks he can get something like an equal balance of liberals and conservatives on college faculties.

Here's why: he'd be fighting a self-selection process whereby a disproportionate number of liberals migrate to college faculties and a disproportionate number of conservatives go to jobs that pay a lot more.

Conservatives are hard-wired to make lots of money. They see a campus as a loony bin where the loonies are running things and making fun of people pulling in ten times what the loonies are pulling in.

Liberals, among whom I guess I count myself after 40 years of teaching, are hard-wired to lead lives of shabby gentility—which makes us think we're somehow better people for it.

That's because while most conservatives are very smart about money, most academics aren't.

A case in point: my starting salary as a teacher in 1960 was $4,800 a year. My previous job had been reporting and editing for a weekly newspaper in Omaha for $7,200 a year. My friends on the newspaper thought I was crazy to take a job for two-thirds of what I had been making.

My wife and I had one baby when we came to Lincoln. Within four years, we had two more. We wrote hot checks to Hinky-Dinky the day before payday, then raced them to the bank the next day.

But I had no regrets. I thought a college campus was a wonderful place: free ballgames to go to, stimulating people to talk to, hilariously witty discussions about how little money we were making.

And in my experience, that's the way most faculty were. When our parents asked us when we were going to get real jobs with real salaries, we'd quote Pascal at them: "The heart has reasons which reason knows not of."

Then we'd sigh nobly and stare off into the middle distance at something our parents couldn't see.

Hard to put a price tag on something like that. But most conservatives could do it.

And when they did, and we saw how much more money we could have made had we followed their route, we'd tell them that the nobility of our calling was somehow related to the paucity of our paychecks.

Still that paucity was inconvenient and a bit irritating. We were like the ne'er-do-well title character in E. A. Robinson's poem, "Miniver Cheevy":

Miniver scorned the gold he sought,

But sore annoyed was he without it;

Miniver thought, and thought, and thought,

And thought about it.

But our irritation never got much beyond that passive resentment. By and large, faculties are happier than real people.

And here's my point: Horowitz is on a fool's errand if he thinks he can get hard-headed conservatives to replace soft-headed liberal faculty for anything like the same amount of money.

Think Dick Cheney teaching English for $40,000 a year.


Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail address is:

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