The Liberal Academy
In recent decades, Republicans have developed a strong distaste for higher education. They criticize it at every turn, complaining about the liberal bias of universities. And they do seem to have a point; study after study has pointed to a strong tendency for liberal arts programs to hire mostly liberal professors. This fact has generated barrels of ink on forests worth of paper, decrying the propagandizing of our youth, and the refusal to hire conservative thinkers. Many liberal pundits and journalists appear to agree with them, chastising their own for the terrible refusal to allow conservative thought to get a hearing. I would like to join my voice to the noisy throng.
It is terrible, isn’t it, how Republicans just don’t go into the liberal arts? Isn’t it a shame how there are so few of them willing to commit their life to a field of study that pays poorly and gives little to no prestige? Not to mention power! The power of a liberal arts professor is…is…well, actually, it’s almost zero. Not totally zero, you understand, because they do have a bit of power over that slacker freshman in the third row who has slept through all their classes and didn’t turn in any homework. They have the power to flunk his ass. Beyond that, no power. So, I give them, on the power scale, about a 0.5 out of 10. Obviously their power isn’t really all that great, since so many slacker Republicans have managed to get through their classes and graduate with big shiny degrees that allow them to make large amounts of money on the open market.
One thing I would like to note, though. The studies of liberal bias in the universities always focus on one thing: liberal arts departments. Why? Because that is the area where liberal thought is guaranteed to predominate. Not because universities refuse to hire conservative thinkers, but because conservatives prefer to cluster in another part of the university. I’m waiting for the day when someone actually does a study of the university as a whole, then breaks it down by department. What do you think they’ll find when they survey the Economics department? The Business department? Possibly even the medical school? Those are areas that appear to be dominated by conservative thinkers. I am, of course, speaking only from my own experience, as the pollsters seem intent on focusing on the liberal arts, with an occasional swipe through the hard sciences (also strongly liberal - about 75% of scientists identify as Democrat).
The other question that is never asked: what about the administration? Ah, that’s an interesting question. Like journalism, like Hollywood, universities tend to have liberal people in the trenches doing the work, but often have conservative thinkers at the head of the ship. And in the end, it is the driver of the boat who decides which direction the boat eventually goes. While all these institutions tend to tolerate quite a bit of autonomy in their underlings, the general direction of the institution itself tends to be in one direction only – toward the money. In short, in the direction of the free market. Yes, education, even public education, is driven as much by the almighty dollar (more, in fact) as it is by the desire to create an educated citizenry. College presidents tend to be money men, who are better at schmoozing than administrating, because their role is to persuade people to give money to the institution. Professors spend much of their time on research, because research brings in grant money, and teaching classes tends to be done mostly by their assistants, because tuition really doesn’t bring in that much money. Students spend a surprising amount of their time calling alumni to ask them for donations. In short, the university is a business, not a liberal meat grinder designed for turning out liberal zombies that are exact replicas of their instructors.
In fact, most of the things the conservatives complain about are actually evidence of the conservative bias of the school. Jeb Bush, you know why we don’t have classes on Friday afternoon? It’s called the Free Market. Students don’t take them. So schools stopped offering them because it was not cost effective. You know why there are so many puff classes, and why even gatekeeper courses are being pressured to "dumb down" so students can pass? It’s called the Free Market. Students are now referred to as "consumers" or "customers". They are no longer learners, they are buyers. And what are they buying? Not an education, if they have their way. They are buying their way to future wealth, preferably with as little work as possible on their part. Now, this isn’t meant to be a crack at the current generation. This is a time honored tradition. The only thing new is the attitude at the top, that the customer is always right, and should get what they want. Oh, and one other thing that has perhaps driven education in a downward direction as far as rigor: do you honestly believe most of these powerful Republicans, many of them legacy admissions, would have been able to pass their liberal arts classes if there weren’t some of them that didn’t require real thought?
So here is my proposal. I think we should change the way higher education operates. First, reduce administration by about 75%. This would save money and time, and would streamline the school into the higher efficiency everyone claims to want. Then, require that all administration and support staff (well, not administrative assistants – they are already overworked and underpaid) have no fewer than five years of teaching experience before they are eligible for the position. Once they are on board, they should be teaching at least one class every semester. This applies also to the IT staff, who need to be end users of the programs they select for the instructors to use.
Next, get rid of adjuncts. All faculty should be full time. The money you save cutting out unnecessary administrators should cover at least part of that. Use adjuncts only in emergency situations, such as sabbaticals or emergency leave for instructors. Make the teachers teach their own damn classes, and hire them for their teaching ability, not their ability to attract research grants. In short, hire them the way the community colleges and small regional colleges do; this will improve the student’s educational experience immensely, and might even help that slacker in the third row stay awake, if the teacher is interested enough in the subject to keep the students interested.
Then, do away with the Ivy League. You heard me, I said, get rid of that monstrously bloated money machine, and all the other private colleges. Streamline the system, make all colleges public, and give the students a free bachelor’s degree. If you’re worried that this will make them stay in school forever, well, that’s easy. They have to have the degree in six years (give a bit longer for students who have to be part time). Quit referring to two year and four year colleges, and start structuring the degree around what the student needs to learn, not how many hours they need to have. This will lead to a better, more rounded education, and students might feel free to take courses they “don’t need” but would like to take.
One last thing: stop polling liberal arts professors about their political beliefs. This information is useless in evaluating the quality of an institution – unless you believe that college is simply about creating conservative zombies who are exact clones of the people doing the complaining. College should challenge our cherished beliefs; if you are never upset or offended while you are in college, the institution has failed to do its job. If you never change a single belief while you are in college, you have failed to learn anything. No one goes into college with all the answers; no one comes out of college with all the answers. The best we can do is introduce the students to as wide a variety of thought as possible, and hope they will be engaged enough to try to glean something out of all the chaos.