Do we need affirmative action for conservative professors?

Jim Huffman Dean Emeritus, Lewis & Clark Law School
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The Wall Street Journal reports that Steven Hayward has been appointed as the first visiting scholar of conservative thought and policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Hayward is an outstanding selection for the position. He has written on a wide range of policy questions, is a dynamic and entertaining speaker, and is the author of a two-volume biography of Ronald Reagan. But a visiting scholar of conservative thought and policy? The campus of 32,000 students and 3,800 tenured and tenure-eligible faculty could use a resident scholar of conservative thought and policy — maybe two or three.

It’s easy to understand the motivation of the generous individuals who have funded this three-year experiment. At most universities, only a tiny fraction of the faculty identify as conservative. The Journal reports that a survey conducted at the University of Colorado found only 23 of 825 faculty respondents self-identified as Republicans. Of course, this is not news to any objective observer. The leftward tilt of the academy — really more of an avalanche of liberal thinking — is widely recognized by students and parents, though seldom acknowledged by the institutions or their faculties.

It’s hard for university officials to look a gift horse in the mouth in these tough economic times. Nonetheless, Colorado deserves credit for agreeing to host a scholar of conservative thought and policy. It can be risky business even hosting conservative speakers on many college campuses, so allowing Hayward official status as a faculty member, albeit a temporary one, could be viewed as an act of courage on the part of the powers that be at the university.

On the other hand, it may be that the folks at Colorado see conservative thought and policy as a sort of historical artifact — something that will help students understand why almost all of their professors have embraced progressive ideas and liberal solutions to our personal and social challenges.

Or maybe it reflects new insight into the challenge of achieving diversity on campus. The university does have a diversity mission and associated apparatus prominently featured on its website. Although nothing on the website speaks to diversity of political or philosophical viewpoint, this could be a pilot initiative to address the reality that almost half the country voted for Mitt Romney and at least some of the children of those folks are likely to be in the student body. Surely it won’t hurt to toss them a bone.

Regrettably, it is likely that Hayward’s classes will become a refuge for conservative students in search of relief from the liberal condescension that rolls effortlessly off the tongues of many faculty members. But liberal students of a truly liberal mind will not be disappointed if they register for a Hayward class. They might be challenged, they might be outraged, but they will not be disappointed. Unfortunately, whatever Colorado accomplishes with this little experiment, it is a blip on the radar screen of the national academy.

The reality is that liberal thinking dominates at almost every university and college in the nation, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, and professors routinely disparage conservative ideas and conservatives. Worse, most faculty reject that there is a liberal bias and honestly believe that, if there is a problem, they are not part of it.

Sometimes bias is blatant and intentional. But for most faculty, it is expressed in offhand and subtle ways. As a lifelong, lonely conservative in legal education, I suggest a simple test for demonstrating liberal bias among the legal professoriate. Ask students or law grads how often they heard their professors speak with admiration of Justice Scalia or Justice Thomas, and now Justice Alito. Scalia sometimes gets credit as an accomplished writer, but all three, and Rehnquist in my day, are constantly and consistently disparaged as right-wing nuts. To test for bias in other departments, I suspect a similar question naming George Bush or Ronald Reagan will yield similar results.

So maybe a little affirmative action for conservatives is in order. And good for one of America’s renowned bastions of liberalism for leading the charge. Well, one guy, even Steven Hayward, is not a charge. Maybe we should think of it as fledgling guerrilla warfare, and a perhaps clumsy acknowledgement that there is a problem.

Jim Huffman is the dean emeritus of Lewis & Clark Law School, the co-founder of Northwest Free Press and a member of the Hoover Institution’s De Nault Task Force on Property Rights, Freedom and Prosperity.