Friday, December 02, 2005

Campus Pluralism For Conservatives And Others: A Plea For Affirmative Action

Rick Garnett examines a topic near and dear to my heart: conservative presence in academia. He links to an essay by Yale Law Professor Peter Schuck:
What can be done," Schuck asks, "to make professors practice what they preach on diversity? Alas, no easy remedy exists. The tenure system and the lack of mandatory retirement will project existing faculty bias far into the future. Moreover, the elite schools recruit new law teachers mainly from the top ranks of their recent graduates, whose own predominantly left-liberal views are fortified by their professors. And adopting affirmative action for conservative viewpoints would be odious and, for public law schools, almost certainly a First Amendment violation.

In my campus political journals I have specifically advocated for political affirmative action, at least at Carleton. We are an overwhelmingly liberal college, and I think that's bad for open debate and pluralism. But I offered it explicitly as a trade--conservatives who are agitating against liberal bias at schools (but rarely able to point to explicit practices with intent to discriminate, the threshold for litigating discrimination in racial contexts) would have to admit an equal standard for minority applicants as well. Some conservatives (like, apparently, Schuck) wouldn't take the trade because they find AA morally wrong in any case. But I'd like to think that this may be an opening toward a broader acceptance of the principles of affirmative action--especially a culture pluralist defense.

From the start I drew a comparison to racial affirmative action--saying that both could be justified on the grounds of including hitherto excluded voices in the academic environment. As always with a critical position, the key is context. Nobody can seriously argue that conservative Christians are an "excluded voice," historical or otherwise, in American society writ large. But there is a compelling case that they are very much outsiders in the academy. A well-known study by Northwestern Law Professor James Lingdren (cited by Schuck) notes that the most excluded sub-group in academia, proportionally, is white Christian women. They are even less likely to be present on tenure ladder posts than groups who have faced overt societal discrimination, such as Blacks or Hispanics. This should alert us to the fact that, just as individualist indicators of racism can mask the way that structures can oppress, too rigid a focus on solely the super-structure can cause us to ignore how "mid-range" institutions (universities, or perhaps cities) can have power dynamics that both work within but are also independent of the broader social trend. This is how a conservative can feel isolated at, say, Oberlin, even though she lives in a country with a Republican President, Senate, and House, two Republican Senators, and a spot in the GOP column in the 2004 Presidential race.

I've discussed this position with my (mostly liberal) friends at school, and they've generally come down against. This isn't surprising--it's a novel argument and it's facially harmful to liberal interests. However, the objections they made were not too compelling. I'll address them (and other potential pitfalls) here.

First, they argue that while race is immutable, politics is a matter of free choice, thus, colleges should feel no qualms about prioritizing some over others. I'd respond that a choice may be technically "free" but still not something that should be institutionally sanctioned--consider my choice of religion. I'm not immutably Jewish, but I don't really consider it a "choice" either. People may feel similar about their political opinions--I don't view opposition to genocide like a melon that I prefer at the grocery store. I view it as a core facet of my ethical personhood; a position that, if I abandoned, would make "me" unrecognizable to myself. Furthermore, at some level the benefit of political views is in their pluralism and contestability. A college can qualitatively say that a "belief" that 2+2=4 is objectively better than the belief that said equation equals 5. There is no benefit to hosting that debate on campus. But a vibrant political atmosphere on campus requires not unity but division and pluralism--it requires a variety of political positions beyond those that might be gotten naturally. If Carleton "on its own" gets a mostly liberal student body and faculty, then it should reach out for more. Clearly there are outward limits--we don't need a debate that the Nazis were justified on campus either. But ultimately, in terms of benefit I see political position as the type of identity that is valuable in its diversity, not singularity, and it should be treated as such.

A pragmatic objection was also made: it's far easier to falsify political beliefs than, say race. In otherwords, if I said I was black and show up for my interview with glow-in-the-dark-pale skin, the admissions staff is likely to notice. But the odds they'd catch a political slight-of-hand is slim--and even if something did come up, I could always claim I've changed my mind (who knows, I may even really change my mind). I'll concede these raise some pragmatic difficulties (though this doesn't dilute the moral force of my argument). However, I think it can be overcome. For one, the people who we're really concerned with--politically active students, are unlikely to sacrifice their souls on an admissions applicant. Think about your average Kossack. Do you really think they'll be able to bring themselves to write "conservative" on an application, even at the prospect of a marginal benefit? I'm skeptical. Furthermore, we can buttress the applicant's credibility by looking out other activities. If someone writes "Young Republicans Club President" and worked in Tom DeLay's office, we can assume they're being truthful. Since these qualities are indicators of the type of political activism we're looking for anyway (a politically passive conservative, or liberal, does little to add to the intra-campus debate), we can minimize system gaming.

Some people conceded that such a program might be useful for faculty recruitment, but not for student admissions. The justification for this was that while it's somewhat easy to divine a professor's political leanings based on her scholarship, there are relatively few opportunities for a college to find out what party their applicants adhere to prior to them entering the college. Because of this, bias is most likely not present for student admissions and thus requires no remedy. This I think looks at the problem to narrowly. Even without knowing the political affiliation of a prospective student, there are still subtle ways a college can send out signals to the effect of "Republicans Not Wanted." Any decent research on Carleton will inform a would-be student of our extreme liberalism. A visiting student may hear derogatory remarks that all Republicans are racist or evil or warmongers. There may be small or non-existent conservative programs and organizations on campus. These together can lead to a hostile environment that will drive off conservative prospies before they even apply. And given the existence of (and liberal response to) parallel problems with regards to race and gender that also exist in the pre-application stage, I believe that these harms rise to the level of discriminatory conduct that should be combated.

I'll admit that the constitutional objection (in public schools) that Schuck made is not one I had thought of, and could be problematic. I'd have to see the precedents on the matter, but acting on a blank slate I think that a political AA plan is constitutionally defensible, again, on much the same grounds racial AA is--if racial AA can be constitutionally justified on pluralism grounds as opposed to merely reparative ones. Ultimately, I think a political AA program can live or die on the same issues that racial ones face. The goal isn't to discriminate in favor of particular viewpoints, but to improve institutional vitality, a clearly legitimate interest that isn't being met by "neutral" criteria. It also is vulnerable to the same particular challenges AA has faced. For example, a program by an already conservative campus to recruit more conservatives would be suspect for the same reasons the Court outline in City of Richmond v. J.A. Croson Co., 488 U.S. 469 (1989) (holding unconstitutional a racial affirmative action program enacted by a black-majority city council in a black majority-city). The one area where a political AA program would be vulnerable where racial AA is strong is the existence of significant past discrimination, which is not present. But I don't think that's the only way to justify AA, so I don't think that should be dispositive.

I can't speak for conservatives as to whether or not they can, on a philosophical level, accept an affirmative action program for themselves (though I am curious what they would like university deans to do about the bias problem if that solution is off the table). But as liberals, I think we should support efforts to create a more diverse and pluralistic campus environment on all fronts--racial, sexual, religious, and political.


Anonymous said...

neat post, david. in my own department, we have a lot of ideological diversity, which is surprising and quite refreshing (especially given that i recently transferred from another much more liberal department). and as a liberal, i love engaging with more conservative students, especially those who are smart in their arguments and generally nice people.

i plan to comment later - after i finish a paper - but overall a good post and i enjoy reading your blog :)

Stentor said...

though I am curious what they would like university deans to do about the bias problem if that solution is off the table

I think this is the heart of the matter. By complaining about ideological diversity, conservatives are open to being asked to either accept AA, or think of another good way to correct bias (which could then be applied across the board). As someone supportive of AA (including for conservatives) in principle but skeptical of most of the implementation policies available, I'm definitely interested in getting new ideas.

In some cases, though, I think this misses the real reason that anti-conservative bias is raised -- so that conservatives can 1) make liberals look like hypocrites, and 2) say "look, we're oppressed too, but we don't expect AA to fix the problem, so other minorities shouldn't either."

pacatrue said...

Just a couple thoughts on this. for now...

1) When to use AA-type actions depends both on what the purpose of the action is and which community one is trying to effect. What I mean by this is that one of the rationales for AA - racial, gender, orientation, etc. - is not just to create a certain positive environment on a college campus, it is to use the campus to create a certain environment at large. So Harvard Law School is interested in having a diverse campus for the benefits to Harvard Law School, but the society is interested in it as well because we want more people with Harvard Law degrees out there. I got in an argument with my old college roommate once (at Carleton as you know) because I wanted to read both his liberal Nation and something conservative like the National Review, or whatever, to make sure I was getting more than one opinion. My roommate thought that was a waste of time because I will spend more of my life in a generally conservative environment. I don't agree, but I get his point. If you consider a college campus by itself, such as Carleton, you can make an argument for a dominant liberal environment, where other opinions are not always considered. But if you think of a liberal college as part of a larger conservative society, then the society is actually being served by the college's liberal bent. What is a more diverse society? Having liberals and conservatives? Or having all moderates?

2) One thing that often is not discussed is why universities through-out history and cultures are so often more liberal than conservative. Socrates was put to death for corrupting his students. Students lead May 4th movements in China in the .... 20s? Basically, students are always getting up to crazy stuff. Why? I don't think this is the old tripe that a good liberal trots out to claim that educated people are liberal and uneducated ones not. But there is something going on. If conservative generally means a greater appeal to tradition, then the university environment is naturally going to be opposed to that. First, you have young people trying to find their own way. Secondly, one of the main points is to "broaden the mind" so that you don't only hear the opinions you grew up with. If that is the case, some larger than otherwise percentage of people is going to adopt those non-conservative views. There's also probably something of an Ivory Tower thing that happens. Part of the point of being in a school is to be able to think relatively unconstrained - to be idealistic and impractical for a bit. All virtues have their vices.