Thursday, July 16, 2009

Student At The U of Oregon Wonders Whether It Matters That All His Profs Are Democrats;
In Response, Liberal Professors Ridicule and Scream At Him

Niiiiiice. (At the Christian Science Monitor.)

I've had similar experiences, actually, though the psychotic reactions have normally come from the far left--and I wonder whether the loony professors in this story might not actually be farther left than liberal. Just a hypothesis, of course. Some liberals are loony too.

Note the extra bonus anti-southern comment by one of the profs in question. Lord knows we is all ignernt racists underneath that thar Manson-Dixie whatsis. Why, the average street person in Eugene Oregon is actually notably more intelligent than tenured professors at our best universities. True fact.


Blogger Joshua said...

How long until we learn that this kid just made the whole thing up, though?

12:16 PM  
Blogger Jim Bales said...

The use of profanity by the one Professor was both wrong and counterproductive. It is interesting to note that Mr. Lawson generalizes this one person's words into an indictment of every professor at UO:
"... in response the faculty had tied my viewpoints to racism and addressed me with profanity-laced insults". [emphasis added]

Mr. Lawson does himself no favors by such exaggeration.

The other professor was wrong to tell Mr. Lawson to go to Texas if he wanted conservative professors. We are (as educators) obligated instead to accept our students, regardless of their beliefs. We are obligated to engage our students, to help them test and challenge those beliefs.

Note, that the professor in question went on to do just that. Mr. Lawson writes:
He was eager to chat, and after five minutes our dialogue bloomed into a lively discussion. ... [W]e hammered away at the issue ..."

Mr. Lawson claims to be shocked by the comment about a statute of Jeff Davis, claiming it was "an attempt to link Republicans with racist orthodoxy." Mr. Lawson's response is perplexing. The entire "Southern Strategy" of the Republican party -- which has been critical to its political success over the last 40+ years -- is precisely that, a linking of the Republican party with racist orthodoxy.

If Mr. Lawson doubts this, he is welcome to explain why he doubts it. However, it is perfectly reasonable for the faculty member to make the assertion. Mr. Lawson had nothing to be shocked about in this regard.

In short, one Professor reacted in a grossly inappropriate way. A second, after one inappropriate comment, engage Mr. Lawson in spirited academic debate. We have no idea of what the rest of the faculty did or thought.


1:53 PM  
Blogger M Groesbeck said...

There is a proud conservative and right-wing tradition of manufacturing incidents of "brainwashing" in attempts to push people out of one of the few careers where being on the left won't get you fired. It's not even like academia as a whole is open to people of political orientations outside the right and center; economics and business are conservative occupied territory, politics departments go either way, and even science departments are under increasing pressure to keep corporate interests primary in their research. The humanities and some of the social sciences branches of academia do see a higher proportion of people on the left than the general population -- because it's one of the few kinds of work where keeping one's job doesn't require staying in the political closet. Academia, especially the parts dealing with rhetoric and cultural power, also tends to be suspicious of the demand that all lecturers pretend to "neutrality" -- which in practice is a demand that any ideas outside those supported by the economic and political powers-that-be are suppressed.

2:09 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...


I think you're being a little too easy on the profs in question. I don't see that professor A gets many points for engaging the student in dialog--that's what we're supposed to do. That's SOP. That's the default position. And I don't see that professor A's go-to-TX-you-Confederate-sympathizer comment can be defended by referring to the Southern strategy.

Professor B, of course, is way the hell out of line.

It's true that we don't know how many profs the author interacted with, so we don't know what the average response was like. Me, I think that professors ought to be sane, reasonable and adult enough to reliably deal with reasonable questions in a reasonable way.

You get to blow up at fascists, for example, but you don't get to blow up at mainstream conservatives.

The fact that 90% (or whatever) of profs are Democrats should worry everyone, IMHO. (And I say this as mostly a Democrat.) Academia is approximately the last place in the world that should be politically biased.

7:53 AM  
Blogger Joshua said...

Should we be worried that 90% of blacks are Democrats, as well?

Honestly, this is the bed that the Republicans made, and they'd damn well better be prepared to lie in it. The whole party infrastructure is racist and anti-intellectual. Unless they reform themselves, they have no right to expect that groups they openly discriminate against should support them. Period, end of story.

Assuming the professors in the story A) actually exist and B) actually said the things they allegedly said, then they were clearly out of line in saying those things. They have a responsibility as teachers to tolerate a diversity of viewpoints from their students.

They emphatically don't have a responsibility to vote against their and the country's interests just to satisfy some twisted sense of fairness on your part.

8:58 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...


This is absolutely the right way to approach things like this, I say: that is: settle the question of principle ahead of time, in a cool hour.

It's a *little* late for that, now, but still, recognizing that there is something of a history of doing what's technically known as "making shit up" on the other side of the aisle, let's remain agnostic about whether this really happened, and happened as he said it did.

So: *suppose* these things actually happened as the author claims: what then?

Bad, I say. His original letter (link in link) is perfectly reasonable. That anyone--especially a faculty-member--would blow up at him as professor B allegedly did would be extremely FU.

If we can all agree on that, then we just have to ask whether the facts are right.

I've advocated this kind of strategy in the past (many times), though noted that unfortunately we can't forsee all relevant cases ahead of time.

To point to bigger issues: it seems to me that, vexed though SOME questions about torture may be, everyone should be able to agree that there is no justification whatsoever for, say, torturing prisoners after the invasion in order to bolster claims about Iraq-al Qaeda links. There is simply NO plausible justification for that. That would be an utterly inexcusable action. If we can agree on that (and we should), then the only question is: did anyone actually do that?

9:19 AM  
Blogger Jim Bales said...


We all seem to be in clear agreement that Prof. B's response was totally untenable.

Prof A, started out (IMHO) wrong with the "go to Texas" comment. However, Prof. A ultimately did the right thing, rather than compounding the error (as Prof B did).

Suppose that Prof A had said: "You know, the Republican party has a decades-old "'Southern Strategy' which exploits racism, particularly in the old confederacy, to enhance their political power. This behavior is not consistent with the standards of honesty and integrity of academia, and thus (I suspect) it has a lot to do with the fact that so few academics consider themselves Republicans and/or conservatives."

Would that have been a reasonable response?


2:49 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Well, there seem to be two issues here: first, the tone of the original response, and second its content. I think you agree that the tone was problematic. Profs can, IMHO, get angry at their students and so forth, but I don't think they get to be contemptuous of them in this way and for this reason.

But what about the content?

Do you really think that the Southern strategy explains the fact that there are only two registered Republicans at UO?

11:23 AM  
Anonymous Lewis Carroll said...

"The fact that 90% (or whatever) of profs are Democrats should worry everyone, IMHO. (And I say this as mostly a Democrat.) Academia is approximately the last place in the world that should be politically biased."

Actually Winston, in 2009, I'm not necessarily worried that 90% of profs are Democrats, but I am worried that the % of them that are Republicans is > 0. Even if a large % was Independents, that wouldn't worry me.

My opinion is that an institution that is committed to the search for knowledge and truth, a place where people go to learn, and especially a place that values empiricism, is no place for a Republican in 2009. A *conservative*, certainly; and I wouldn't be concerned about even a 50/50 split between liberals and conservatives at any campus.

However, the 2009 Republican Party is better thought of as an organized crime syndicate or cargo cult than anything resembling a legitimate political party. The fact that respectable people like, say Richard Lugar, are still a small part of it gives me hope that a worthwhile version of the party may yet re-emerge some day.

But until then, any person that aspires to be a pursuer of knowledge and wisdom and someone from whom something valuable can be learned, needs to pull a John Cole or Andy Sullivan, and disown the rancid US Republican Party.

Just my opinion. YMMV.

9:46 PM  
Blogger Jim Bales said...

I wrote the following last night, then let it sit for later review today. Lewis Carroll, in that interim, posted his comment which (I believe) makes a similar point, albeit a little more bluntly! -jb


I definitely agree that Prof A's tone was problematic (at best), which is why I am pleased to see that he came around and engaged the student.

As to why Republicans are rare in academia, I think it is because the Republican Party has put gaining and holding power far ahead of actually governing.

I think the Southern Strategy is a prime example of the Republican Party abandoning principle for power. The Southern Strategy panders to bigotry and racism, with the sole goal of getting Republicans in office. This modus operandi reached its logical extreme with the administration of G. W. Bush.

The Reagan&Bush I administrations, and then the Bush II administration, made it clear that there is no core set of beliefs behind today's Republican party, aside from the well being of the party.

The Republican Party is not about preserving individual freedoms (for it attacked them under G W Bush). It is not about fiscal responsibility (as the explosion of the US deficit under Reagan and Bush II shows). It is not about effective government (consider, e.g., Katrina). It is not about shrinking the US Government (in fact, Bill Clinton did more to shrink the federal workforce than any Republican did).

The Republican Party is about itself. It is about taking care of its corporate and religious sponsors. The Republican Party fundamentally lacks intellectual honesty, and intellectual honesty is the bedrock of academia. Why should academics embrace the Republican party?

The Southern Strategy is simply a well-known example of the intellectual rot that permeates the Republican Party. (If you have any doubts as to that rot, consider the approach by the Bush administration and Republicans in general to the issue of climate change.)


7:47 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Note to other commenters: Winston is pointing out that 90% of the professors are Democrats, and that this is likely to be a problem independently of how many are Republicans. I would have expected that a plurality of professors were politically unaffiliated. (Many thoughtful conservatives no longer call themselves Republicans. The same holds to a lesser degree for liberals and Democrats. But I would expect it in a university, to minimize the effect of partisan politics on supposedly disinterested research. )

11:11 AM  
Blogger Jim Bales said...

Pete Mac notes:

I would have expected that a plurality of professors were politically unaffiliated.

I have the same expectation. The figure of ~90% democrats is quite surprising.

The figure of 98 out of 111 is interesting. Note that the 111 is not the total number of faculty at the university. (The University claims to have 1,714 faculty.)

It is merely the number of faculty in five departments (journalism, law, political science, economics, and sociology) that Mr. Lawton was able to determine to be registered voters in Lane County. (I don't know the geography well enough to ask if some faculty might reside in other counties.)

Why those departments? Mr. Lawton does not say. What is the total number of faculty in those departments? Mr. Lawton does not say. Did Mr. Lawton conflate non-faculty instructors (e.g., adjunct professors, instructors, lecturers, etc.) into his count? We do not know. Would a broader measure have given a substantially different result? We do not know.

But, there seems to be a presumption that:
1) Faculty should be diverse in their political affiliation (Mr. Lawton tells us that this is a goal of the University).
2) Faculty should have a bias towards not affiliating with a political party, else there may be an appearance of partisan politics tainting their research.

I can't say that I find either of these to be self-evidently true. My gut reaction is that I would, in general, prefer a wider range of political affiliations in a faculty. However, the current political climate may be so anomalous that the general preference does not hold.

As to 1), I would expect faculty to tie their political allegiance to the party(ies) that best support their interest -- supporting universities in their educational and research efforts to pursue the truth. (I expect the same of any other identifiable subculture, e.g., hunters, bus drivers, ethnic or religious minorities, farmers, World of Warcraft players, etc.). Of the two major political parties, the Republicans are antagonistic to academic research (e.g., the silencing of James Hansen of NASA by the Bush administration), the Democrats are much more supportive. It seems quite rational for a faculty member to choose to be a Democrat.

As to 2), what evidence exists that, on the whole, political affiliation correlates to bias in research? Why should we expect that simply masking one's political affiliation removes such bias? If masking one's belief does not remove the bias, then is it not better for the belief to be public knowledge so that all can examine the work to see if the bias is there?

Furthermore, if a person studies the society we live in and its culture (a common thread to the five departments Mr. Lawton considered), then is it unreasonable to expect them to take an active role in our society's political processes? Isn't that role aided by joining a major political party? Would we find that (say) the Physics Department has more unaffiliated faculty instead?


3:32 PM  
Anonymous Lewis Carroll said...

Actually Pete, given the current state of the US Republican Party, the fact that we are stuck with a two-party system, and the relative ideological diversity of the Democratic Party, I'm not worried at all about any effects on universities or research.

But if you could give a plausible explanation of how this is a problem, I'm willing to listen. I mean, it's been well know that academia leans left/Democratic for some time, and has there been any discernable problem with research?

5:49 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

pete mac:
"Note to other commenters: Winston is pointing out that 90% of the professors are Democrats, and that this is likely to be a problem independently of how many are Republicans."

Nice point--wish I'd thought of that.

I dunno, man... I'm worried you may be lawyering this a bit. Do you really think you'd be this sanguine if the shoe were on the other foot and Republicans made up 90% of the faculty?

I mean: would it matter if he was including lecturers, adjuncts, etc.? I don't see how that would make things any better.

As for 1: I would actually hope (and perhaps even expect) that faculty might not merely vote their self-interest. But that point aside, it just doesn't seem that the GOP is SO antagonistic to research across the board that this can explain the phenomenon.

I suppose your general point is: the facts about party affiliation are not that surprising when you look at facts about faculty interest, GOP hostility to science, etc. I'm not convinced. The facts still seem anomalous to me.

8:04 PM  
Blogger Jim Bales said...

WS asks if I might be lawyering this a bit too much.

I may, indeed, be lawyering this a bit too much.

At the core, I believe that their are fundamental differences of kind between the ideologies of the two parties. I note that WS does not consider all political ideologies to be equal, posting in a comment:
You get to blow up at fascists, for example, but you don't get to blow up at mainstream conservatives.

So, why is it we get to blow up at fascists, but not mainstream conservatives? And what, BTW, is a mainstream conservative? (Mr. Lawton treats it as equivalent to being a Republican.)

Certainly, mainstream conservatives were strong supporters of the worst excesses of the Bush administration. I believe any definition of a mainstream conservative today must acknowledge that they:
1) Supported Mr. Bush’s contention that the President can declare a US citizen to be an “enemy combatant” and hold them without trial indefinitely;
2) Supported enacting and maintaining massive tax cuts, particularly for the wealthy, despite rapidly growing deficits
3) Supported the invasion and occupation of Iraq without substantive cause
4) Turned a blind eye to systematic torture by the US in violation of our law and international treaty (such treaties are, by Article VI of the Constitution, “the supreme Law of the Land”.)
5) Denied the scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change, and delayed taking steps that might help reduce the damage to our world and our lives
6) Placed the political fortunes of the Republican party far ahead of the nation’s security (e.g., outing Plame)
7) Engaged in illegal and unconstitutional wire-tapping of US citizens,
8) and more.

Why are we obligated to treat these actions and positions as worthy of reasoned consideration?

Somehow we are to believe that mainstream conservative postions must be presented to balance the liberal/progressive positions (although we are not obligated to present fascist positions as a balance).

I ask, "Precisely which 'mainstream conservative' positions must our students contemplate? Why do we believe these postions cannot be fairly presented by Democrats?"

(We get to blow up at fascists, IMHO, because there are no beliefs or positions exclusive to fascists that has any pretense to correctness or relevance. I can't think of a position or political belief exclusive to "mainstream conservatives" that has any pretense of correctness or relevance. Feel free to point out what I am missing!)


12:34 AM  
Blogger Jim Bales said...

WS asks (I paraphrase), Why do we care if Mr. Lawton conflates non-faculty instructors with faculty? Well, if pete mac is correct, and professors tend to be politically unaffiliated, to "minimize the effect of partisan politics on supposedly disinterested research," then we might expect non-faculty instructors to be more likely to have political affiliations. If Mr. Lawton's numbers conflate the two groups then the result will appear that faculty appear be more politically partisan than they really are.

I keep coming back to Mr. Lawton's numbers because they are the only data we have. The figure of ~90% democrats is surprising. In general, such a disparity should cause concern. (In fact, I did post that “My gut reaction is that I would, in general, prefer a wider range of political affiliations in a faculty. However, the current political climate may be so anomalous that the general preference does not hold.”)

That is, it is not clear that the general expectation (i.e., that a diverse range of political affiliations is necessary in a faculty) apply here and now, given how irrational the
Republican Party's positions have become.

To answer another question of WS’s, I would be very worried if 90% of academics were Republicans -- because of the strong anti-intellectual bias of today's Republican Party -- a bias inconsistent with academia. It would be a qualitatively different thing than if 90% of academics were Democrats.

Of course, we don't know that 90% of academics are registered Democrats. We know that Mr. Lawton claims to have counted that 98 of the 111 faculty (88.3%) in five departments at U. Oregon who are registered to vote in Lane County are registered Democrats. I don't know enough to generalize that result to all US academics.

For example, here in Mass it was the case until recently that if you were registered as an independent, you could choose to vote in either party's primary on the day of the primary election. Having done so, your affiliation changed to that party from Independent. You had to fill out a form to change back to independent.

Does Oregon work that way? If so, might this perturb Mr. Lawton's results?

In short, I am reluctant to generalize Mr. Lawton’s result, not knowing more about the data and how he selected it.


12:54 AM  

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