universities, politics, Devoss, and conservatives

Some of my colleagues, like Seth Kahn and Steve Krause, have written about DeVoss’ comments at CPAC. It’s all very much a rehearsal of the same old conservative red meat about liberal professors indoctrinating students. Like many such criticisms, I think they often reveal more about the critic than the object of her criticism. That is, as a conservative ideologue perhaps you could not imagine not insisting that your students thought the same way as you and punishing them if they did not. After all, considering the way the administration treats journalists who ask questions, one could easily imagine how students would be treated. Also, this is the pedagogical operation of religious indoctrination, which is the primary education model of conservatives. So I would guess that conservatives imagine that professors just act the same way as they would but on the other end of the political spectrum.

One of the frustrating things for conservatives is that higher education is a complicated entity. Even one university is a complicated entity. Take UB for example. We have a UB Council, appointed by the governor, and basically these are business people (e.g. the president of M&T Bank). Needless to say we also report to the governor and other elected officials. We’re a tuition-driven university, like most are, which means we largely thrive (or not) by serving students. Many of the things we do institutionally (for good or bad) are based on decisions of attracting, keeping, and supporting students. When you look at the research and curriculum of the university you’ll see several things. First, most of the research grant money comes from the NIH or the NSF. These and related federal agencies go a long way to establishing the research agendas of universities because, at least in STEM fields, you can’t really do research without funding from external sources like this. Similarly the curriculum of universities in many majors is managed by large accrediting agencies that oversee say Engineering or Nursing or whatever. Like many public research universities, we have a lot of Engineering majors. So let’s say you’re studying mechanical engineering at UB.  Driven by accreditation requirements this major requires 111 credits. Then there are 17 additional credits of general education. That’s it. No electives. So maybe “MAE 204: Thermodynamics” is some kind of liberal conspiracy (since evolution and climate change are, I don’t know, maybe), but I would tend to think not. I mean if you think thermodynamics is a liberal conspiracy then do you drive your car Fred Flintstone style? In short, there are a lot of things going on at universities and many different people there, so it’s hard to paint them all with the same brush.

Of course these liberal indoctrination accusations are typically reserved for a particular segment of professors typically on the non-STEM side of the campus. So let’s start with one thing. People, including professors, are allowed to have and express political opinions. It’s against the law to discriminate in hiring based on political affiliations (as some recent crackpot state legislators want to propose). In New York state, at least at SUNY, it’s against the law to advocate for a political candidate in the classroom. I.e., it would be illegal to try to convince your students to vote for Clinton or Trump. Outside of the classroom you’re like any other citizen.

But let’s get down to brass tacks and I’ll give you a personal example. My first job out of graduate school was at Georgia Tech teaching a required first-year writing course all “Introduction to Cultural Studies.” The task really had two parts. One was to teach students how to write academic essays. The second was to introduce them to the field of cultural studies. Undoubtedly cultural studies draws on a body of theories and methods largely associated with the political left: Marxism, feminism, postcolonial theory, etc. Many of the faculty who teach cultural studies are politically active, outside of class, and these theories inform their actions. Also many scholars employ these theories in their research as they see such approaches as producing valuable insight into various aspects of culture. That said, in a class like this one, what the students need to do is demonstrate an understanding of how the theories work on their own terms. They certainly do not need to agree with them. To the contrary, their inclination would more often be to disagree (or to be indifferent). In those disagreements the conversations we would have would often be about refining their understanding of the theories (e.g., explaining how their criticisms were based on faulty understandings, which is not to say there are not legitimate criticisms to make).

Is that indoctrination? I don’t think so. It is an introduction into a disciplinary body of knowledge, which is basically what all college courses do. Every discipline has its own theories, methods, interests, and ways of looking at the world. And I’m guessing this is what pundits imagine is a liberal conspiracy. The idea that the world is complicated, that there are many ways of examining and understanding it, and that there is some fundamental educational value in encountering that pluralism, challenging those ideas and challenging one’s own ideas. I do think there are conservatives who agree with this premise and when one looks at the university there really is a broad range of different ideas going on there, but when it comes to appealing to the base, not so much.