Tuesday, February 21, 2017



Mark Chelgren, a Republican state senator in Iowa, has proposed a bill that would force public colleges and universities in Iowa to tailor their faculty hiring so that the percentage of faculty belonging to either of the two major parties couldn’t outnumber the other major party by more than ten percent.

I try to stick to relatively judicious language and thoughtful consideration of ideas, as a general rule.  It’s part of my brand.  But some ideas are so catastrophically stupid that they need to be punched in the face, at least rhetorically.  This is one of those.  No.  Just, no.

The idea is so utterly devoid of merit that addressing it as if it had any feels like lying.  

We have an automotive tech program that trains students to work on cars.  Do Democrats have a different approach to transmissions than Republicans do?  If not, why should I care to which party, if any, the automotive faculty belong?  I neither know nor care, and that seems about right.

The math department teaches hundreds of sections of algebra, pre-calculus, and calculus.  Do Republicans use a different quadratic formula than Democrats?  Is the Pythagorean theorem partisan?  (Hint: it predates our political parties by a couple thousand years…)

This is silly.

And that’s before even addressing the secret ballot.  Did you know that you can register as a Republican, but vote for Democrats?  And vice versa?  It’s true.  Somebody should mention that to Senator Chelgren.  If he wants to abolish the secret ballot, let him say so.  Otherwise, people can easily register one way and vote another.  In fact, they could sabotage primaries in the other party, leveraging their new access to wreak havoc.  Be careful what you wish for...

And that’s without even mentioning third parties.  In Utah last Fall, Evan McMullin (running with Mindy Finn on the “McMuffin” ticket) got a quarter of the vote, and came in second.  Should Utah’s colleges now have a quarter of their faculty registered with whatever party it was that sponsored the McMuffin ticket, assuming it still exists?  Ross Perot got 19 percent in 1992.  If we had staffed up with 19 percent Reform Party folk, they wouldn’t have lasted very long.  Political balances shift.

And what’s so special about higher ed?  Let’s apply the same rule to the police, corporate leaders, and Iowa’s legislature and Congressional delegation.  Fair is fair.  If proportional representation is the goal, let’s move away from winner-take-all districts and allocate seats based on total votes.  If fairness is the actual concern, let’s start there.  I care a lot more about partisan leanings of the legislature than I do about them in the English department.

It also assumes that the existing partisan split encompasses the entire range of possible positions or answers.  It doesn’t.  Part of the point of academic freedom is the ability to follow the truth wherever it leads, regardless of popularity.  If a professor’s research on, say, farm subsidies runs counter to the preferences of the Iowa government, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.  Besides, the political spectrum in America is confined to a markedly narrow range by world standards. (Bernie Sanders would be in the mainstream in Sweden; Donald Trump would have been a familiar type in Italy or Argentina.)  Ruling out any other perspectives ahead of time defeats the purpose of academic research.  If you already know the answers, why ask the questions?

No, the idea amounts to trolling.  It’s somewhere between taunting and censorship, depending on how far it gets.  It’s offensive, impractical, and deeply stupid.  

So, no.  I will not conduct inquisitions as to the political party registrations of the faculty.  I will not be the thought police.  I hope nobody else will, either.

Suppose you had a university where the faculty was overwhelmingly male (80% or more, depending on which survey you look at, and approaching 100% in some departments). Would that trouble you? Why? Does the Pythagorean Theorem change depending on your gender...? Perhaps the school should make some effort for gender equality in hiring, instead of letting the overwhelmingly male faculty continue to hire more men because "they just happen to be better qualified?"

Or is that also a question that's too stupid to even consider, like when Socrates tried to argue that no one knows anything the other Greeks simply punched him in the face because there was clearly no point wasting there time with people like him?
I agree with your overall argument, but have to correct one fact: Evan McMullin came in third in Utah with a (still respectable) 21.54% of the vote:

Students can see if their math professor is male or female. They can't see if their math professor is a Republican or Democrat.

The upshot will be that people will game the system, choose which ever moniker gives them the most advantage. As it usual in these situations, the honest will be the most disadvantaged.

I wonder how people will be forced to disclose?
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This is one of those places where I agree with Dean Dad, but I do see a kernal of something that needs discussion.

Mr. Chelgren is trolling. He's trying to appeal to the popular notion that academics are biased in order to drum up support for whatever his agenda is. And Dean Dad and commenter MPLedger are further right to point out that it would be really hard even to decide who counts as a member of a party. People can affiliate however they want and then vote however they want. They can also presumably donate to whomever they want and write letters to politicians espousing whatever view they want...all without necessarily calling their party affiliation into question. Mr. Chelgren's is a bad idea.

But I believe Dean Dad is mistaken in some of his reasoning and that mistake is what the "anonymous" commenter above is trying to address, although I find that commenter's point unconvincing. No, being a Democrat or Republican doesn't (as far as I know) affect one's approach to transmissions in automotive technology, or affect the way one uses quadratic equations, or affect the validity of the Pythagorean theorem. But it can, on some level, affect how one teaches US history or political science, or sociology, or philosophy, or literature. It's not quite as clear cut as the examples from automotic tech and math suggests. I have anecdotes of instructors, including myself as a TA, acting poorly and in a partisan matter during discussion sections. Those are just anecdotes and oughtn't smear the profession as a whole. But they do happen.

And with all that, Mr. Chelgren's idea is still a bad one. Instructors should be judged on their competency as instructors. Part of that competency involves not using the instrutor's position as a bully pulpit for their pet political projects. But one can do that while being of (almost) whatever party (I'll except certain Godwin-discussion-inducing parties). Purity tests or "representational" tests just won't work.

If Mr. Chelgren is trolling--and, again, I believe he is--then the trolling works because people believe (perhaps mostly wrongly, but also a little bit rightly) that there is a liberal or leftist bias in academe and that taxpayer money goes to support that bias. There's the shell of a legitimate grievance there. Only a shell, but a shell nonetheless.

If that had passed in my home area, would they have had to hire more Democrats in my highly Republican community college? Just a thought.
The bill only applies to universities ("institutions governed by the state board of regents," which in Iowa is the 3 public universities but not the community colleges). Probably for exactly the reason LJL alludes to.

And no, it's not going to pass, and I doubt it'll make it out of committee - it's flagrantly unconstitutional. Whether Chelgren is trolling, engaging in political grandstanding for his constituents, or genuinely thinks it might pass isn't clear to me. He's not the brightest bulb in our state senate.
When I was in high school our history teacher made no secret of his political affiliation: he promised he would do his best to teach in an unbiased manner, but wanted us to know what party he belonged to so we could take that into account. Which seemed an eminently reasonable approach, and still does.

What impressed my young mind was a class discussion after the election of 1980, when one of the older students congratulated him on his party winning, and he revealed that he had voted for the PCs because he believed their leader was an honest man. The lessons I learned that day were that party politics is a means to an end, that people matter, and that integrity is a quality that should be rated highly in considering who to vote for.
I like the anecdote from anonymous @2:44. It reminds me of a professor I had as an undergraduate who was probably very, very pro-choice. But when she talked about the rise of the pro-life movement in the 1970s, gave such a sympathetic account of each side that I realized she wasn't trying to impose her beliefs on anyone.
Of course there are biased profs, and I've no objection if someone wants to try a pilot of peer feedback to address bias in some disciplines.
But until Chelgren and your first anon commenter band together to insist on 50% (or more) of West Points faculty and student body to be female, it's safe to write this off as trollin.
"Do Republicans use a different quadratic formula than Democrats? Is the Pythagorean theorem partisan?"

Yes, and yes.

I thank PunditusMaximus for reminding me that physicists (general relativity) and geographers (map projections) use a different Pythagorean theorem than either Republicans or Democrats: there are situations where the hypotenuse can be the same length as the two sides of a right triangle.

I don't think anyone mentioned Business schools. Although I've never seen any evidence of Marxists or kleptocrats dominating their faculty, the Kock brothers would like a certain type of libertarian (as opposed to Republican or Democrat) added to those departments. Aren't they already predominantly Republican, even if not Trumpian?
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