Readers of The Chronicle, Duke University’s student newspaper, read on Feb. 9 an advertisement from the Duke Conservative Union. The DCU’s ad was an open letter to Duke President Nan Keohane, questioning the university’s commitment to diversity and offering statistics showing a wide disparity between Democrats and Republicans among Duke faculty.
According to the DCU ad, among select departments and Duke deans, registered Democrats outnumbered registered Republicans by 142 to 8. Unaffiliated voters also outnumbered registered Republicans 18 to 8. Many departments did not have even a single Republican on the faculty.
The ad cited quotations from Keohane about the importance of diversity to Duke, and asked her, apropos of “the lack of intellectual diversity on our campus” that the statistics suggest, “Is this ‘diversity’? Is this the best way to challenge the ‘prejudices and assumptions’ students maintain when they enter college? Or is your notion of “diversity” tantamount to a smokescreen for ideological conformity?”
Keohane responded in the Chronicle Feb. 11, writing that the DCU’s question “deserves a thoughtful answer” and said that the issue “is not whether a faculty member belongs to one or another party, or where in the political spectrum his or her views are, but whether the faculty member provides a classroom environment that supports learning across a wide range of views.”
“No single political perspective has a monopoly on intelligence, on any topic, and our classrooms are impoverished if the expression of diverse views is discouraged, either by the faculty member or by fellow students,” Keohane wrote.
“But we are also impoverished if classrooms become sterile forums where only bland views can be expressed and everyone is overly careful not to offend. Clear statements of well-articulated, provocative views stimulate deeper thought, and more discussion, than the cautious expression of ideas designed not to make anyone uncomfortable.”
Keohane’s response focused on whether Duke faculty nurtured the expression of ideas within the classroom. For some other Duke faculty who responded to the issue, however, the question was one of nature, not nurture.
Robert Brandon, chair of the Philosophy Department (12 Democrats, three unaffiliated voters, and zero Republicans), said in the Chronicle Feb. 11 of his department, “We try to hire the best, smartest people available. If, as John Stuart Mill said, stupid people are generally conservative, then there are lots of conservatives we will never hire.”
“Mill’s analysis may go some way towards explaining the power of the Republican Party in our society and the relative scarcity of Republicans in academia. Players in the NBA tend to be taller than average. There is a good reason for this. Members of academia tend to be a bit smarter than average. There is a good reason for this, too,” Brandon said.
“Such an inference would be a formal fallacy,” said Duke parent Mary Bejan in the Chronicle Feb. 12. “Even if this were not the case, the meanings of the terms ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ have changed since the time of Mr. Mill, as I am sure Professor Brandon knows, however entertaining he may find Mill’s observation to be in the present context. Many of today’s so-called ‘conservatives’ would not be conservative in Mill’s sense, but ‘liberal’ in the classical sense of the term.”
Bejan wrote that “[i]t is not difficult to draw the conclusion that [Brandon] would assume an individual to be stupid if he knew him or her to be conservative and therefore would not consider hiring that person, perhaps without even considering the value of their scholarly output.”
Herb Childress of the University Writing Program postulated Feb. 11 that the reason Duke has hired so many leftist professors is because of self-selection owing to the fact that university teaching requires someone with “communitarian rather than individualistic concerns.”
Brandon and Childress both sounded themes similar to those voiced in The News& Observer Sept. 23, 2002, by Lawrence Evans, Duke emeritus professor of physics. Evans had written in response to John Leo’s column about a similar concern to the DCU’s (the column was called “Faculties in need of balance”).
Writing about Leo’s citation of “poll numbers [that] show Republicans are a small minority of the professoriate,” Evans said, “True, and rightly so.” As he explained, “universities want people of some depth, subtlety and intelligence. People like that usually vote for the Democrats. So what?”
Jon Sanders is assistant editor of Carolina Journal.