Unconventional Wisdom

College campuses are far from radical

Time to let go of the fantasy of the liberal university.
Unconventional Wisdom

College campuses are far from radical

Time to let go of the fantasy of the liberal university.

Challenging those faux-profound bits of knowledge so often taken for granted

The 2014 right-wing fever dream of a film God’s Not Dead, a fantasy version of higher education for young adults raised on the Left Behind series, is a comic masterpiece, at least to me and my fellow college faculty. Kevin Sorbo (of Hercules: the Legendary Journeys fame) stars as a philosophy professor who believes — get this — there is no God. And he insists his students believe the same. He really insists. He insists with a passion that could only exist in the imaginations of people who have never taught, and perhaps never stepped on an actual college campus.

In the mind of the American conservative, this is precisely what happens in college: Professors stand before students and scream the correct beliefs at them. When the students don’t reprogram quickly enough, we punish them.

In reality we don’t get paid enough to do the hard work brainwashing would require. Political indoctrination? I can’t even get students to read the syllabus.

The American right is so heavily invested in the fantasy of radical leftist professors that no evidence can convince them otherwise. Many of them draw that conclusion without any contact with academia whatsoever. Turning Point USA frontman and diaper enthusiast Charlie Kirk, for example, spends his days spamming Twitter about left-wing bias on campus despite not having attended college.

There is no point denying the fact that most professors are liberals. This is no great shock given intense anti-intellectualism and Choose Your Own Reality nature of modern conservatism. But to draw from this data the conclusion that academia is rife with Marxist gate-crashers is as stupid as most arguments repeated as articles of faith on Fox News. The Ivory Tower Leftist Radicals fantasy requires conflating the center-left liberalism of the Democratic Party with hardcore communism — something conservatives are only too happy to do. Sure, professors look like radical leftists if your definition of radical leftist is any person who doesn’t consider Ben Shapiro an intellectual giant. If you’re not that stupid, though, in real life academia is populated heavily with people whose platonic ideal of a politician is someone like Tim Kaine. Faculty make the Democratic National Committee look like the Shining Path.

I’m in political science, a field that would be on the forefront of any plot to radicalize students. Our conferences would be such a disappointment to the Fox News crowd. You’ve never seen so many pleated Dockers in your life. You’ll find more political extremism at a Scrabble tournament. If all the evidence you need to declare academia lousy with Chomskyites is more faculty calling themselves liberals than conservatives, congratulations. You did it. But it takes very little scratching beneath that surface to see how little universities and faculty conform to the right-wing delusions about academia.

Faculty make the Democratic National Committee look like the Shining Path.

Cherry-pick an issue carefully, hold it at the right angle, and you can make academics look like the vanguard of progressivism. For example, academia has made legitimate and commendable strides in the 21st century toward addressing persistent problems with diversity; it has been, and in many areas stubbornly remains, a majority white male profession. Faculty are, on the whole, seriously enthusiastic about righting these wrongs and about creating an inclusive environment for all students. This is, if anything, long overdue.

Yet these strides coincide with the profession becoming more economically exploitative and unequal than ever. That receives very little attention. Confronting the lack of diversity in the profession makes faculty feel good, so they do it with gusto. Confronting the fact meritocracy remains the dominant view of a profession with staggering economic and status inequality… kind of a downer. Inequality is seen as the natural order of all things academic; some people get huge salaries, great benefits, light teaching duties, armies of graduate research assistants, and big budgets because they earned it. If you are not similarly rewarded, it is because you have not. And no matter what, we mustn’t question why the circles of those deemed good enough and academics who attended a handful of elite institutions for graduate school overlap so significantly. Obviously not every academic can be a professor at Stanford but it is possible, were anyone interested in pursuing it, to treat the itinerant and temporary labor pool in the industry better. Adjunct positions could pay better (administrative salaries give the lie to the claim that colleges can’t afford it) and the institution could be more sensitive to the pressures of doing more work, earning less, and being under the constant stress of trying to find a permanent position. Instead, the cold market logic that so many Ph.D.s are looking for work that someone will be desperate enough to take any job, no matter how poorly paid or miserable, prevails. Higher education relies heavily on underpaid and insecure labor beneath a class of Star Researchers reluctant to discard the Horatio Alger narrative central to the profession. Success is a product of talent and hard work; ergo lack of success means you’re missing one or both.

What’s radical about that? Nothing. It demonstrates that academia differs little from any other profession. The big research school faculty with tenure only challenge power structures that don’t question the unequal system that places them on top. The only issue they are radical about is parking.

If you wish to see just what kind of leftists run universities, go to the graduate school and propose unionizing Research Assistants, Teaching Assistants, and other itinerant quasi-employees.

If you have considerable time on your hands and wish to see just what kind of leftists run universities, go to the graduate school and propose unionizing Research Assistants, Teaching Assistants, and other itinerant quasi-employees. You’ll discover quickly that senior faculty — the same ones who can’t wait to show you their picture with Tom Hayden or some other talisman of progressive cred — turn into staunch capitalists in a hurry.

For the less adventurous, skip grad school and read up on the last two decades in which universities have been forced into the same “run it like a business” model that ruins every public good in this country. This is usually, if not exclusively, driven by GOP political appointees (as trustees) or vengeful GOP state legislative majorities looking to cut spending and score cheap political points with their constituents by showin’ them college boys the what-for.

Administrative bloat — the plague of Dean-lets with highly-paid, nebulous titles like “Associate Dean of Library Engagement” that materialize out of nowhere — is real, and decision-making has become increasingly autocratic. Higher ups push for short-term results like CEOs trying to juice a quarterly earnings report, long-term consequences be damned. “Consultants” making twice faculty salaries for a few weeks of work appear and disappear mysteriously. Constant campaigns for “retention” — a code word for keeping students enrolled and paying tuition at all costs — push faculty toward grade inflation and dumbing-down. Expenses (read: labor costs) are forever squeezed, and demonstrably inferior products like online courses taught by some adjunct paid $2000 per semester are offered to Student-Customers happy to have them so long as they’re easy. More money is spent on administration and less is spent on instruction.

Not quite the organizing principles of an egalitarian commune. Sounds more like the business model of any mundane corporation in America.

Which brings us to the creep of corporate money into every aspect of university research and administration in the 21st Century — a fact that deals the Campus Commies premise a fatal blow. Nothing says “leftist hotbed” quite like Department of Biology, a Proud Partner of Monsanto. The cause for alarm, in fact, is that the direction of university teaching and research increasingly is dictated by donations from politically motivated billionaires and big corporations. If you believe that billions in donations from the Koch Brothers, Silicon Valley tech billionaires, and petrochemical companies is turning campuses ultra-liberal, you are beyond help. I don’t think Marx listed “aligning with corporate interests” as the final ideological step toward communism. None of this is to suggest that professors as a group should be more or less liberal, or that universities should be run more or less like businesses with corporate partners. The point is simply to illustrate the stupidity of the caricature of universities, faculty, and students as a barely-controlled gang of wild-eyed leftists. Were any of the incessant accusations from the right about the Ivory Tower true, campuses would be very different places to work and study. It is a febrile fantasy peddled to people who really enjoy yelling about things they don’t understand and who believe Kevin Sorbo films are documentaries.

Ed Burmila is an assistant professor of political science.