Among the full-time faculty of the University departments of journalism, law, political science, sociology and economics, there are 111 registered Oregon voters. Two of them are Republicans.
That’s what I discovered last week, via the public voting terminal at the Lane County Voting Office. I spent two hours there, with a spreadsheet full of names generated from the various department Web sites. It was a laborious process, but I was in no hurry. In fact, I even took a break to eat a sandwich and muse on the gorgeous summer weather outside. There would be plenty of time to continue the long, winding procession of faculty down the screen.
When I finished, there were 98 Democrats, nine Independents, two Republicans and two members of the Pacific Green party staring back at me. Both of the two Republicans were in the School of Law, and one of them was University President Dave Frohnmayer. I wondered, as I came across his name marked red in a sea of blue, if he was aware of the monolithic politics of University faculty. Did it irk him? Did it belie the diversity standards that his tenure had ushered in?
The Diversity Plan that Frohnmayer signed off on in May 2006 was a massive effort reviewed by more than 1,000 people, and will remain a prominent feature of his legacy. Contrary to popular belief, it is not just dedicated to increasing racial and ethnic diversity, but takes a broad-based approach to helping “the individual learn to question critically, think logically and communicate clearly.” In addition, it explicitly includes political affiliation as one of the elements of diversity it intends to promote.
Three years later, it’s hard to give the University’s efforts on political diversity anything besides a failing grade. Not only do voting statistics reveal political uniformity, but the checkbooks of the faculty members are just as indicative. Ninety-six percent of political contributions made by faculty to presidential candidates in 2008 went to Democrats. In 2004, it was 100 percent.
As a student with liberal social viewpoints and a middle-of-the-road economic philosophy, I didn’t expect to feel out of place at the University. I assumed the faculty would be primarily left-leaning, but that there would be a small yet formidable cadre of intellectual conservatives to provide the other side of the spectrum.
That’s not to say there isn’t a range of political viewpoints on campus. But those on the right of University faculty are basically Social Democrats, with the left represented by an anti-capitalism that flirts openly with Marx. When conservatism does enter the picture, it’s only as a punching bag for students and professors, a tired act that became all too frequent during the presidential election.
“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to reflect,” Mark Twain once said. I spent my first few months as a graduate student here doing just that. I came back to school to prepare myself for a career in which I would be expected to defend my convictions. I matriculated seeking discourse and found conformity, and as I realized there would be little intellectual challenge going left, I drifted right.
In part, I believe this transformation aided my intellectual and professional development. Liberal journalism is so normative that it’s difficult to stake a claim. But if your politics are independent enough that you can occasionally gravitate across the aisle, there’s an expanse of fertile ground waiting. From this realization I have profited, but, in general, the dearth of conservative viewpoints damages the experiences of University students, regardless if they acknowledge it.
The lifeblood of learning is exposure to a diverse and combative set of viewpoints. This sort of framework allows students to sift through ideologies and compose their own independent belief systems. The concept of “diversity” and the “marketplace of ideas” shouldn’t just act as convenient adages for progressive grandstanding, but as a philosophy that operates at the core of higher education.
There needs to be movement – along with intellectual consistency – on the issue of political diversity by faculty and administrators. If queried, most professors would likely agree that a university with only 2-percent Democrats would be inadequate. However, when the discrepancy is in their favor, they appear uninspired to act.
As a student, I want a campus full of professors not only from different ethnic and racial backgrounds, but different political backgrounds as well. I want Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Marxists, Independents and anyone with a halfway decent idea that doesn’t incorporate hate. That’s what true diversity means to me. I want that more than free football tickets, a new basketball arena or pretty much anything else a University could offer. In exchange for paying $20,000 in tuition a year, I think I deserve it.