Columns, Opinions

Mitra ’18: Welcome to 1984

By
Staff Columnist
Sunday, February 26, 2017

Amidst the incessant focus on President Trump, a terrifying bill in the Iowa legislature has flown under the radar. Last week, the Iowa General Assembly tabled legislation that could dramatically alter the faculty composition in state universities by “balancing” the registered political affiliations of staff members. Under the proposed bill, universities are required to consider political ideology in the hiring process and favor candidates with underrepresented political beliefs. Put simply, this would mean favoring right-leaning applicants.

The bill, Iowa Senate File 288, is pitched as a means of “promoting diversity of thought” in universities and colleges. Essentially, any state university whose faculty leans Republican or Democrat by a margin over 10 percent cannot hire any more faculty members from the majority party. The sponsor of the bill, Republican Iowa State Senator Mark Chelgren, argues that it will preserve ideological diversity and ensure students are exposed to “different thinking, different processes, different expertise.”

At first glance, this act might seem innocuous — after all, diversity of thought seems an admirable goal. But in reality, all it will do is construct a system of ideological discrimination that favors Republican professors and lecturers.

As the conservative media has repeatedly bemoaned, modern-day academia is overwhelmingly Democratic. According to the Higher Education Research Institute, over 60 percent of professors are liberal. By comparison, approximately 38 percent are moderate and only 12 percent are conservative. In some fields, the numbers are even more skewed: A recent study of voter registration data shows that there are 11.5 registered Democrats for every registered Republican in the social sciences. With liberals outnumbering conservatives by a ratio of at least five to one in academia, most university faculties would naturally lean to the left. So Chelgren’s bill doesn’t promote academic diversity; instead, it disproportionately stifles Democratic professors by creating a thinly-veiled quota system that prioritizes conservative views. If that isn’t reminiscent of Orwellian thought policing, I don’t know what is.

Though the bill is unlikely to be passed, it still poses a grave concern for students and universities across the country. It represents just one part of a broader movement to curtail academic freedom in liberal institutions. A similar bill was introduced in North Carolina last week, while other bills in Iowa moved to end tenure in public universities and limit faculty bargaining rights. A new website, ominously titled “Professor Watchlist,” lists out faculty members who publish liberal articles — or in the website’s words, “leftist propaganda” — opening up professors to online intimidation and harassment. The Trump administration has also signaled that it could selectively defund universities, spurring concerns that federal funding could be used to influence public institutions.

Yet all of these actions are based on a flawed premise. While professors are more likely to be liberal, studies have proven that they very rarely coerce or brainwash students toward a particular ideology. There is also little evidence that suggests university administrations disproportionately favor liberal academics.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m all for political diversity among faculty members. Given the rise of political “echo chambers,” it is important that students are exposed to views from different parts of the political spectrum in classrooms. But we should not seek political diversity at the cost of academic and political freedom. Moreover, political affiliation seems like an arbitrary criterion that doesn’t really promote true academic diversity. It may be more effective to seek diversity in experiences, backgrounds, research areas and teaching styles when recruiting faculty, all of which could implicitly lead to greater political diversity in the long run.

The Iowa bill is a timely reminder of our tenuous grasp on academic freedom. So far, Brown has been relatively untouched by governmental backlash against liberal institutions. But we need to be mindful of the myriad ways that the Trump administration and its allies could influence higher education. In a world full of “alternative facts” and fake news, the Thought Police feel like a not-too-distant reality.

Mili Mitra ’18 can be reached at mili_mitra@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.