On Campus, a Culture of Conformity

By Gary A. Tobin

Published November 10, 2006, issue of November 10, 2006.
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It is a well-known fact that professors lean to the left. According to a recently released study by the Institute for Jewish & Community Research, professors are more likely to identify as liberals than as conservatives by a ratio of 3-to-1. In the social sciences and humanities the figure is 5-to-1.

These findings were not particularly surprising. More interesting are the effects of this overwhelming ideological uniformity. According to our survey, 63% of American faculty members say that their colleagues are sometimes reluctant to express their true opinions when those opinions contradict dominant views on campus. In institutions whose very reason for being is to promote free inquiry, that number should be zero.

If most American professors — even those protected by tenure — feel constrained in speaking their minds, then American campuses are going to be poor places to learn. Consider the state of campus debate over Israel — its right to exist, its right to security and its role in the Middle East. Jewish campus activists report routine harassment. Even moderately pro-Israel speakers are heckled. Anti-Israel flyers on campus revive the blood libel. Campus newspapers compare Israel’s leaders and security tactics to those of Nazi Germany. The attacks are by now familiar; the perpetrators, however, are not just a bunch of unruly students, but include many professors as well.

Anti-Israel professors post maps of the Middle East in their classrooms that do not have Israel on them — as if the country did not exist even to cartographers. Students who speak up on Israel’s behalf in class are silenced. It has gotten so bad that the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights recently recommended that the Department of Education take action to protect Jewish students on campus.

There is some comfort for those students arguing on Israel’s behalf: You are not alone. Intimidation, willful ignorance and refusal to engage in honest and truthful debate are not the exclusive domain of anti-Israel students and faculty. The situation is identical when it comes to a whole array of campus orthodoxies.

The problem isn’t liberalism itself; liberals are a famously quarrelsome and fractious bunch. And in its classic form, liberalism has been quite conducive to the aspirations and interests of Jews. On campus, however, a pernicious type of leftism, masquerading as liberalism, has all too often become dogma — unchallenged and unchallengeable, the closest thing to faith itself.

Along with the antipathy toward Israel, comes reflexive anti-Americanism. On America’s campuses, one-third of faculty cited the United States among the top two greatest threats to international stability — well behind North Korea, but second nevertheless. Israel, incidentally, was not much further down the list. Imagine that: Professors living and working in the United States, enjoying the freedoms of speech, press and the relative comfort of campus life, ranked their own country as a greater disrupter of world peace than either Iran or China, where professors are often jailed and beaten, or Pakistan, where professors and their families are threatened with physical harm.

The prevalence of views of this sort — and they can be called prevalent only on college campuses — not only defies common sense; it makes our institutions of higher learning into objects of derision and easy targets for those with their own ideological agendas. Indeed, some critics have responded to the excesses of the academy by demanding affirmative action programs for conservative scholars. Force university administrators to hire Republicans, they say, and the problem will be solved.

But such a solution would merely replace one form of ideological favoritism with another. The answer should not involve ideological quotas. One ideology should not simply be replaced with another. If professors were aligned to the right, the threat to higher education would be identical.

The proper solution is to return universities to their first mission: maintaining the highest standards for scholarship and teaching. Faculty — no matter whether they are liberal or conservative — must take seriously those who see similar facts and reach different conclusions, and then honor those views by disagreeing with them seriously, and with respect.

This demands a fundamental shift in worldview for the varied constituencies of our universities and colleges. It will require professors, deans, presidents, alumni, trustees and others to open themselves up to intellectual and cultural reform. They must come to see that ideological uniformity of any kind is dangerous. They must view groupthink as antithetical to the campus mission. They must realize that a lack of real debate ultimately leads to a lack of curiosity, which is the very foundation of all academic endeavors.

And what if universities fail to adopt such a program of reform? Then they should not be surprised by the consequences.

They may find that they can no longer count on the public tax dollars upon which they depend, nor donations from major philanthropists and their own alumni. They will no longer be able to use the First Amendment as a shield, having shown that they do not subscribe to its spirit. Most of all, they will have ceded the public trust to teach our brightest young minds what it means to inquire, debate and, ultimately, to learn from others.

The stakes are clear: If universities do not rescue themselves, they will lose their relevance and fail in their vital mission. If they take the necessary steps, the public will cherish them, not only for the opportunities they afford students, but for the creativity they nurture.

Gary A. Tobin is president of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research in San Francisco. He is the co-author of “The Uncivil University: Politics & Propaganda in American Education.”

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