boston.com News your connection to The Boston Globe

Right, left, and wrong

David Horowitz's latest attack on America's left-leaning college professors doesn't add up

THE resignation last week of Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers is being cited in some quarters as evidence that politically correct professors, like the ones who were upset over Summers's comments on women in science, rule the roost in elite academic institutions. Some conservatives outside the academy, meanwhile, are wondering whether American higher education might be rotten to the core.

Critiques of this sort have a familiar ring. In his 1963 book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, the historian Richard Hofstadter observed that the tendency to denigrate those who spend their lives in ivory towers is a persistent feature of American culture. The phenomenon owed its strength, in his view, to the evangelical Protestantism and pro-business spirit that had helped define our nation almost from the beginning.

Leading the charge against the American professoriate in our day is the leftist-turned-conservative David Horowitz, who heads the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, a Los Angeles think tank. In the 1990s, Horowitz helped whip up conservative opposition to campus speech codes banning demeaning remarks toward members of oppressed groups.

More recently, he has turned his attention to rooting out liberal bias in the academy. Students for Academic Freedom, a group he founded, promotes the cause of ''intellectual diversity" in teaching, faculty appointments, and even research. Horowitz is also the author of an ''Academic Bill of Rights" asserting that students are entitled to an education free of ''political, ideological or religious orthodoxy" imposed upon them by professors. This right, he says, is routinely infringed by liberal academics who voice their politics in the classroom. Legislatures in 17 states are considering making the ''Academic Bill of Rights" law.

In Horowitz's recently published book, The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, he profiles left-leaning scholars who ''appear to believe that an institution of higher learning is an extension of the political arena." His targets range from the obvious, such as MIT linguist and public intellectual Noam Chomsky, to more obscure figures like Oneida Meranto, an associate professor of political science at Metropolitan State College in Denver. Horowitz insists that the professors profiled in the book are ''representative" of the American university as a whole, that liberal bias is ''increasingly widespread throughout the academic profession," and that it's time conservatives did something about it.

The Professors, however, is no exemplar of careful scholarship. Despite his claims, the professors Horowitz discusses aren't representative in any statistical sense. The leading major in American colleges and universities these days is business. Nearly 22 percent of all bachelor's degrees nationwide are awarded in business and business-related fields fields whose professors tend to hold more moderate political views. By contrast, only about 4 percent of bachelor's degrees go to English majors, only 2 percent to history majors, and 2 percent to sociology majors. Yet professors from these three fields together comprise nearly a quarter of Horowitz's sample, while not a single business school professor graces his pages. Nor, except for Stanford biologist and environmentalist Paul Ehrlich, does any natural scientist, computer scientist, or professor of medicine.

The sample is skewed in other ways as well. Scholars Horowitz describes as giving aid and comfort to Islamic fundamentalists make up 16 percent of his sample. While there is no necessary correlation between being a scholar of the Mideast and supporting fundamentalist politics, it's worth noting that the Middle East Studies Association of North America only has about 2,600 members, representing less than 1 percent of all American college and university professors.

Horowitz's portrayal leaves the impression that leftists and other ''dangerous academics" have taken over American higher education. In fact, a relatively small percentage of the instruction given to the average undergraduate is in fields where academics who mix politics and scholarship might presumably be found. Of course, this assumes that most professors of English, history, and sociology do believe it acceptable to bring their politics into the classroom. There is no quantitative evidence of this: Studies Horowitz cites purporting to show that Democrats greatly outnumber Republicans in some fields and institutions don't speak to the question.

Horowitz's individual profiles are a poor substitute for more solid data on professors and their politics. Nor are they really intended to be such a substitute. The Professors is not an objective account written from the standpoint of social science.

Horowitz's book is a one-sided screed that mimics in form the kind of knee-jerk politics he mocks. What really rankles Horowitz aren't professors who bring their politics into the classroom, but professors who hold political views different than his own. Marxists come in for particular attack, comprising 26 percent of his profiles. Needless to say, he doesn't bother to profile any conservative academic ideologues.

Although Horowitz's statistics are suspect, he is not wrong to suggest that, since the 1960s, some liberals have been colonizing segments of academe with political ideals in mind. Now conservatives like Horowitz are trying to do the same. This is a phenomenon that Richard Hofstadter never really anticipated: the university as political battleground. The time may be ripe, then, for a consideration of the role, perceived and real, of politics on campus -- not just at Harvard, but nationwide. But on such a fraught subject as this, there can be no excuse for failing to distinguish partisanship from serious social scientific research.

Neil Gross is assistant professor of sociology at Harvard University.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES
 
Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives