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What liberal academia?

SO WHO'S MORE BIASED? The conservatives who look at academia and think they see rampant discrimination against their kind? Or liberal professors who tell you that in their whole careers they've never once seen anyone's politics brought up, directly or indirectly, during a hiring or promotion decision?

On Sept. 27, David Brooks, The New York Times's brand-new op-ed columnist, opened another inning in the long-running "tenured radicals" debate with a piece titled "Lonely Campus Voices." In it, he explained -- with a little help from Robert George, a politics professor and Princeton's most outspoken conservative -- the grim fate awaiting right-leaning scholars who dare to embark on a quest for a doctoral degree.

"If the kid applies to one of the top graduate schools, he's likely to be not admitted," George told Brooks. "Say he gets past that first screen. He's going to face pressure to conform, or he'll be the victim of discrimination." George's dire tale continued until the hypothetical conservative brainiac faces unemployment in his mid-30s, at this point with a wife and two hungry kids. Brooks advised conservatives to go to graduate school, read the books they want -- and then flee to Washington to run the world.

Are things really this bad? Eric Foner, a professor of American history at Columbia -- and, yes, a leftist -- thinks not, and he fired off an e-mail to Brooks to tell him so. "Frankly," Foner says by phone, "I'm always encouraging conservative undergraduates to continue if they're very good, because I think the writing of history needs as many approaches as we can get. Uniformity of outlook is stultifying. I have no interest in that."

Of course, it's probably impossible to come up with a perfectly neutral and nonpartisan answer to the question of the politics of academia. Brooks speaks broadly of bias in the "humanities or social sciences." But what about, say, economics departments? If you wander from a meeting of the Modern Language Association to an economics conference, you exchange a world in which "market logic" is a punchline for one in which it's mostly an article of faith.

The state of the job market these days makes things especially hard to pin down. Ayn Randian, liberal, Marxist, conservative: In most fields, there aren't jobs for anyone.

"I try to discourage all graduate students from academia as a career path," says Peter Wood, an anthropologist at Boston University and author of "Diversity: The Invention of a Concept," which criticizes the "pasteboard stereotypes" of ethnic difference he sees championed on campuses today.

But at BU, his life as a critic of the left "isn't the least bit hard," he says. "I've never had a run-in with faculty colleagues. I feel I'm treated with respect by the people I work with." Still, he says, his argumentative writings have "probably foreclosed any opportunity to go elsewhere," especially as an administrator.

A survey carried out by the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute in 2001-02 identified a distinct leftward tilt in academia, but a smaller one than you might expect. Surveying scholars in all fields at all the nation's two- and four-year universities, it found that 5.3 percent described themselves as "far left," 42.3 percent as liberal, 34.3 percent as middle of the road, 17.7 percent as conservative, and .3 percent as "far right." Others have tried to assess scholars' work. In 2001, Richard Redding, then a graduate student in psychology at the University of Virginia, shook up the field with an article in Psychological Review arguing that 30 of the 31 articles published by the journal from 1990 to 1999 touching on social issues made liberal arguments or relied on liberal assumptions. (He had three "coders" of varying political beliefs analyze the pieces.)

Stanley Kurtz, a Harvard-trained anthropologist who now has a post at the Hoover Institution, is making a federal case out of faculty bias. He argued this summer before a House subcommittee that university-based "area studies" programs -- Middle East studies, African studies, etc. -- have become bastions of anti-Americanism.

Unless they change, he says, Congress should find a new home for the $27 million in federal money that goes to these centers each year to promote language training and the study of foreign countries. The centers say Kurtz's complaints bear little relation to reality.

Many professors agree with Foner that academia is generally meritocratic: People with good ideas can get ahead. "I hate to say it, as a nonbeliever in the free market," Foner says, "but in the marketplace of ideas the cream does rise to the top."

Christopher Shea's column appears in Ideas biweekly. E-mail: critical.faculties@verizon.net.

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