Jonathan Zimmerman of NYU has offered a bold proposal: Let’s have affirmative action for hiring conservative college professors. Writing in the Christian Science Monitor, Zimmerman suggested such a program would go a long way to increasing the intellectual diversity of college life. Zimmerman argues as a liberal Democrat, but one interested in promoting true liberal diversity.
As Zimmerman points out, one US Supreme Court justice’s argument in favor of traditional racial affirmative action,
“included the observations of a Princeton graduate student, who stated that ‘people do not learn very much when they are surrounded only by the likes of themselves.’
“That’s exactly right. And it’s also why we need more right-leaning professors, who would accelerate the intellectual variation that Bakke imagined. Race-based affirmative action has made our universities much more interesting and truly educational places, adding a range of voices and experiences that hadn’t been heard before. Hiring more conservative faculty would do the same thing.”
Zimmerman makes a compelling argument. I’m all for authentic intellectual diversity, especially on a university campus.
But there are a couple of points that must be added. First of all, as we’ve noted, at least one prominent public university has initiated a program to bring high-profile conservatives to its famously liberal campus. As critics have pointed out, that program has some of the worst elements of tokenism and political engineering of intellectual life.
More important, the heavy tilt toward political liberalism Zimmerman denounces may not be so heavy at non-elite campuses. Zimmerman notes the profound bias in favor of Democratic election donations among faculty at Columbia, Brown, and Wisconsin. He notes that none of his NYU colleagues seem to tilt Republican. But what about at the schools that actually teach most of the country’s college students? David Long’s provocative ethnography of creationism at a large public university suggests that a substantial proportion of faculty at those schools embrace deeply conservative religious values.
So let’s get a little more specific: What we really need is something beyond a few token conservative faculty. Just as with racial affirmative action, we need to create intellectual and institutional spaces where conservative scholars can thrive, not just survive. And we need this specifically at the nation’s top schools, places that can set the trend for other colleges and universities. Like Professor Zimmerman, I don’t speak as a partisan. I’m no conservative. But I do agree that a truly diverse environment is a compelling goal of higher education. In order to learn about the world, students must be surrounded with people who come from different backgrounds, with different ideas. Hiring faculty with a wide diversity of ideologies would promote that goal.