Zimmerman: Give Us Affirmative Action for Conservative Professors

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.

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  1. Jojo

     /  December 14, 2012

    That’s a really silly proposal. And then what, college will have to hire David Barton’s fan base for the good sake of diversity ? And creationists will be hired to teach biology class for the good sake of diversity too ? Maybe there is not a handfull of republicans in the academy (at least in some place and fields) because the current republican party does not care at all with facts and intellectual honesty. But if you are pleased with the idea that denying facts is not a big deal and if you are pleased with the idea that diversity should trump intellectual honesty, then why not ; it will make a nice new chapter in a future edition of the already classic “On bullshit” written by Harry Frankfurt not so long ago.

    • For the record, Prof. Zimmerman did not want to establish quotas, any more than SCOTUS has for affirmative action in admissions. But I think your reply demonstrates the possible value of a more intellectually diverse faculty. David Barton does not represent the thinking of all conservatives any more than Richard Dawkins represents all scientists. Some “creationists” likely already teach college biology at elite schools, whether as theological evolutionists or simply religious scientists who do not think their science interferes with their religious commitment to divine creation. Perhaps a more complex intellectual environment on college campuses (and elsewhere) would allow us to imagine an intellectual conversation between conservatives and liberals, scientists and theologians, secularists and religious folks…a conversation in which neither side fought against a straw man of the other.

      • Jojo

         /  December 14, 2012

        I was joking a little bit, that’s why I took Barton as an example. I do know Barton does not represent the thinking of all conservatives, and I also know that some of his more potent critics come from the evangelical intellectual elite community ; like Warren Throckmorton, who do a really good job at debunking Barton’s claims (but we can also think of John Fea and some others, who are also really critical of Barton), just like George Marsden and Mark Noll were really critical of Francis Schaeffer when Schaeffer made strange or inaccurate claims about history. But those scholars, Throckmorton, Marsden, Noll, and others, were (and are still) able to have a place at the table because they are doing a good job, as scholars and as teachers, even if they are conservative, evangelical, et cetera, what counts is the quality of their works. And I am not even sure they had suffer discriminations because of their conservatism (theological or political conservatism, or both). I also know that really good criticism of strict Young Earth creationism or Intelligent Design come from religious scientists : here you can name a lot of good people, from Ken Miller to K. Giberson and a lot of others. And I am also well aware that one of the best and informed criticism of the current evangelical subculture came from R. Stephens and K. Giberson (The anointed, 2011). There is something I find really strange with your attitude and the attitude of prof. Zimmerman : a kind of overindulgence with some sorts of conservatism and fundamentalism, overindulgence that both of you try to describe as being true to liberal principles. I am puzzled by that.

      • This is one I’ve wrestled with, too. Obviously, I can’t speak for Prof. Zimmerman, but I often think of the many academic audiences I’ve spoken with whose members do not share your knowledge of the background and subtleties of conservatism. For instance, at one academic talk, one audience member asked me why I wasted my time studying “these people.” She didn’t think she was being dismissive or patronizing. She did not understand that there were lots of differences among conservative religious people. She assumed that any conservative religious person was either a victim of brainwashing or an active brainwasher. Perhaps the “overindulgence” you speak of results from my efforts to explain conservatism and fundamental to imagined audiences such as this.

  2. Jojo

     /  December 15, 2012

    You are quite right, and you are doing a really good job in explaining conservatism and fundamentalism to uninformed audience. But I wonder if you should also try sometimes on your blog to speak about other kind of religious protestant communities and their own view on faith in the public square. I think that David Hollinger is right when he says that the academic community has a tendency to forget what he calls the “Ecumenical” protestantism (I guess you know his wonderfull article “After cloven tongues of fire”). Forgeting this kind of religious view tend to equate the christian faith with fundamentalism and evangelicals, which is precisely what fundamentalism wanted to achieve back in the days (during the period your book covers really well). And in a sense, it succeed, at least for quite a lot of non religious people, and that’s a problem because it means a fringe of rightists believers was able to capture the public and stereotypical meaning of christianity, making their own extremist claims as a litmus test for what religion is and should be.


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