By Debra J. Saunders
Political activism has drawn the University of California into an academic death spiral. Too many professors believe their job is to “advance social justice” rather than teach the subject they were hired to teach. Groupthink has replaced lively debate. Institutions that were designed to stir intellectual curiosity aren’t challenging young minds. They’re churning out “ignorance.” So argues a new report, “A Crisis of Competence: The Corrupting Effect of Political Activism in the University of California,” from the conservative California Association of Scholars.
The report cites a number of studies that document academia’s political imbalance. In 2004, for example, researchers examined the voter registration of University of California, Berkeley faculty. They found a ratio of 8 Democrats for each Republican. While the ratio was 4-to-1 in the professional schools, in more political disciplines, the ratio rose to 17-to-1 in the humanities and 21-to-1 in social sciences.
Over the past few decades, the imbalance has grown. The report noted, “The most plausible explanation for this clear and consistent pattern is surely that it is the result of discrimination in the hiring process.”
UC Berkeley political science professor Wendy Brown rejected that argument. (Yes, she hails from the left, she said, but she doesn’t teach left.) The reason behind the unbalance, she told me, is that conservatives don’t go to grad school to study political science. When conservatives go to graduate school, she said, they tend to study business or law.
“If the argument is that what is going on is some kind of systematic exclusion,” then critics have to target “where the discouragement happens.”
OK. Freshmen sign up for courses that push an agenda of “social justice.” Most professors may try to expose students to views other than their own, but others don’t even try. The message could not be clearer: In the universe where politics and academia converge, conservatives are freaks.
That’s how ideologues self-replicate.
The fallout isn’t simply political. The association scolds argue, “This hiring pattern has occurred just as the quality of a college education has sharply declined.”
Campus reading lists require trendy books instead of challenging authors, such as William Shakespeare, who can draw students deeper into the English language. Teach-ins are notoriously one-sided. College graduates today are less proficient as readers than past graduates. The National Center for Education Statistics found that only 31 percent of college graduates could read and explain a complex book. In 1961, students spent an average of 24 hours per week on homework; today’s students study for 14 hours per week.
At the same time, grades have risen. “Students often report that all they must do to get a good grade is regurgitate what their activist professors believe,” quoth the report.
Though she had not read the report, Brown didn’t dispute that today’s students have trouble writing a “deep, thoughtful essay” about a passage from Thomas Hobbes or Milton Friedman.
“If Shakespeare were required, I would be thrilled,” Brown stressed. But: “Don’t pick on liberals for this.” Universities have cut back on core requirements because students, parents and alumni revolt.
That may be, but in ideologically lopsided academia, there aren’t enough voices to stand up for educating students about, say, the U.S. Constitution. Besides — this is me, not the report — in pushing protests, faculty members essentially have assured students that they already know enough to occupy Sacramento. Only a third of them can read and explain complex material, but students already know better than lawmakers and voters how best to pay for education. Why study?
The proof is in academia’s acceptance of this imbalance. The old, discredited excuse about why women didn’t work in management that I heard when I was young — because they didn’t want to — now somehow works for the left when it comes to conservatives and academia.
As for UC administrators, “A Crisis of Competence” concludes, “far from performing their role as the university’s quality control mechanism, (they) now routinely function as the enablers, protectors, and even apologists for the politicized university and its degraded scholarly and educational standards.”
Like those in so many other ailing institutions, they don’t know how to change to save themselves.
Debra J. Saunders is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.