Alf Seiwers | email@example.com
“See something, say something” is important good advice with regard to reporting incidents of bias on campus in Bucknell’s new reporting system.
But can someone file a bias-incident report against the whole university for its ideological culture?
At Bucknell, 74 percent of faculty are registered Democrats, 70 percent identify as liberal or “far left.” Only 6 percent are registered Republicans, only 9 percent identify as conservative, and 0 percent are “far right.” That’s according to a report in The Bucknellian on 9/11/15, with figures for party registration taken from Union County records.
The same report cited survey data indicating that student political views are far more evenly spread.
But the decidedly un-diverse snapshot of faculty at Bucknell spotlights an invisible elephant on campus: Political diversity is not a category recognized by university policy. While diversity of thought is recognized, it is not strongly evident within the faculty overall when it comes to political orientation.
“People tend to search for evidence that will confirm their existing beliefs while also ignoring or downplaying disconfirming evidence,” warns the summary of a new study of academic bias by social scientists writing in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences.
Social scientists have even used the acronym WEIRD to describe this type of academic bias: Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic (the latter in the generic sense but apparently at Bucknell potentially in the partisan sense as well).
Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University’s Stern School of Business, summarizes in this way the above-mentioned study of psychology on campuses nationwide, which he co-authored:
“Before the 1990s, academic psychology only LEANED left. Liberals and Democrats outnumbered Conservatives and Republican by 4 to 1 or less. But as the ‘greatest generation’ retired in the 1990s and was replaced by baby boomers, the ratio skyrocketed to something more like 12 to 1. In just 20 years. Few psychologists realize just how quickly or completely the field has become a political monoculture….
“The lack of diversity causes problems for the scientific process primarily in areas related to the political concerns of the Left – areas such as race, gender, stereotyping, environmentalism, power, and inequality – as well as in areas where conservatives themselves are studied, such as in moral and political psychology.”
One solution, Haidt and his team argue, is classifying political diversity as an explicit goal in university diversity policy. That’s something that Bucknell has not yet done but should.
Elizabethtown College political scientist April Kelly-Woessner in another 2015 study found that “young people are less politically tolerant than their parents’ generation and that this marks a clear reversal of the trends observed by social scientists for the past 60 years.”
What does she argue is lost in this lack of campus political diversity? “Listening to viewpoints that contradict our own makes us more tolerant. In this way, the lack of ideological diversity in higher education contributes to intolerance, especially among leftist students.”
George Yancey, a University of North Texas sociologist, recently has called this “education dogma.”p
“The conclusions drawn from those with education dogma are not necessarily the natural conclusions one must draw with more knowledge gained from academic study,” he wrote. “Instead higher education occurs in a specific social institution that promotes certain subcultural values and beliefs. Participants in these institutions are expected to accept these values and beliefs without question. These beliefs are not the result of gaining more facts but instead are the dogmatic adaptation of certain social values provided to them by this subculture…. [not] looking for more information to make accurate assessments, but simply look to affirm previously accepted beliefs…..The dissenters are seen as having nothing of value to say and it becomes permissible to dehumanize them.”
Among a dozen or more education dogmas of secular higher education listed by Yancey (which he claims should be critically argued), are: “Religious freedom is not as important as acceptance of sexual minorities,” “Society would generally be better if traditional religion disappeared,” and “Political conservatives are either greedy manipulators exploiting the marginalized or sincere dupes voting against their own economic interests.”
He adds that it’s not problematic that students on campuses hold such beliefs, but it is a problem when “they are unable to entertain alternative perspectives,” to understand “there are arguments opposing these statements that are not tied to evil motivations.” Instead, alternative views become excuses for “stigmatizing and silencing the heretic,” and for not engaging those with different world views through critical thinking skills.
Because what Yancey calls “education dogma” functions in para-religious ways, it’s not surprising that it hurts religious diversity, which indeed is a specifically protected area of diversity on our campus. Bucknell prohibits religious bias and harassment and specifically promotes religious diversity. Yet the faculty political monoculture arguably encourages secular privilege, given today’s American tendency for liberal politics to be identified with secularism.
No faculty or student diversity education program of which I’m aware at Bucknell addresses the twinned issues of political diversity and secular privilege on campus.
When a staff member of color a couple years ago told how student believers felt marginalized and ridiculed on campus by both faculty and peers, an administrator responded: “Maybe such students should consider going to a bible college.”
A believing student of color described struggling with suicidal feelings at Bucknell because of the weight of continual pressure from secular privilege on campus. Should he have just been told to leave? Or should “believers need not apply” be a stated Admissions policy?
It seems an issue in hiring and retention of staff. When a leading candidate of color for an administrative position here was turned down, some faculty opposed to the hiring said it was because of his religious beliefs, while agreeing that it was best to say it was for other reasons. When an administrator of color was forced out of a campus position, it was called a situation of “not being a good fit,” but the religious beliefs that were a major source of dislike directed against the staffer were not discussed.
All of which is not even to mention openly degrading or condescending comments about religion, and potential ostracism, faced by faculty and staff of faith on campus regularly. Or the acceptable campus discourse of ridiculing the beliefs held by many local people, often of lower socioeconomic and educational status, who nonetheless fill positions on campus that support the faculty’s work.
With the backdrop of massive persecution of religious communities globally, especially Christians, which has affected Bucknell international students directly, the recent hate-crime shooting of Christian students at Umpqua College in Oregon reminds us in tragic microcosm of how secular American campuses are not immune from harmful bias of all types.
The intersectionality of political monoculture and privilege is rich. But it usually goes unrecognized here, because it’s too much a part of our institutional culture. Our university, in a small town in central Pennsylvania, easily acts as an echo chamber for its own faculty monoculture, even provincially so by comparison with other American institutions of higher education of a similar bent. Historically, as a Baptist city on a hill, it seemed for the most part to ignore the plight of the nearby coal country that helped generate our region’s wealth, but whose residents were of different faiths than Bucknell’s.
Bucknell’s history of established White Anglo-Saxon liberal Protestantism, which became closely allied to secular liberal faith in American progress in the early-twentieth-century progressive era, proved a good incubator for today’s academic monoculture.
Doug Sturm, the late professor of Religion and Political Science, who did much to develop a campus ethos of social justice from Bucknell’s liberal American Protestant roots, wrote in his Solidarity and Suffering that “creative expression” must be a pillar of social justice: “Individuals and groups should be empowered to give free play to their sensibilities and inspirations in diverse forms, cultural and organizational. This principle stands opposed to ‘cultural imperialism,’ the sometimes but not always subtle subjugation of the Otherness of the Other through the ‘gaze’ or normality and assumptions of respectability.”
Following Sturm’s wise prescription, the Bucknell ethos of a liberal education should take care not to become a parody of itself. We don’t need to become unintentionally yet one more source of “subjugation” and “cultural imperialism,” a new variant of Western neoliberal neocolonialism. Rather, in our academic culture we should exemplify that to which certainly all the faculty aspire: “We Do Diversity.”