Protect and defend viewpoint diversity

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Photo Credit: Zoe Fu | Daily Texan Staff

Amy Wax, an accomplished University of Pennsylvania law professor, quickly found out that her op-ed “Paying the price for breakdown of the country’s bourgeois culture” would incite harsh blowback from many, including 33 of her own colleagues. She said the dean of Penn Law asked her to take a leave of absence. Professor Wax wasn’t fired, but many others have been for their political beliefs. Higher education is supposed to be an essentially limitless exchange of robust ideas and expression, but time and time again, right-leaning professors are being singled out around the country.

Keith Fink, a part-time UCLA lecturer whose free speech classes were popular with students, was released from his contract with the university, a move he claims is because of his conservative views. Towson professor Richard Vatz stated in an article that “it is difficult for conservatives to get hired, and once hired, it is difficult for them to get promotion and tenure — particularly in the humanities and social sciences.” These examples only tell a part of more widespread problem: the slighting of conservative candidates and faculty.

Political ideology comprises a deeply personal set of values, similar to religious views. And while religion is a protected class in nondiscrimination laws at the local, state and federal levels — including per Austin’s Public Accommodations Ordinance, Texas’ Labor Code and the federal Civil Rights Act — very rarely are protections afforded to individuals on the basis of political ideology. When it comes to higher education institutions receiving public dollars, that must change.

A 2011 study by George Yancey found that nearly a quarter of sociologists would disfavor hiring Republicans, while two in five surveyed said they’d be more likely to disfavor an evangelical Christian, ostensibly one of the more conservative demographics. Both secret and obvious prejudices are influencing hiring decisions, leading to underrepresentation.

Sixty percent of college and university faculty identify as far left or liberal according to the Higher Education Research Institute, nearly double the three in 10 Americans in the general population who would identify as such. The blatant readiness of academics to discriminate on the basis of views must have contributed to this liberal-conservative viewpoint gap, which means that new ideas, experiences and perspectives are severely lacking in academia.

Many conservatives struggle to even make it through the door. John Hasnas, Georgetown University associate professor, shared that his experience on faculty search committees has been one characterized by viewpoint bias and of moving the goalposts. He states that he has been involved in searches in which the chairman stated no libertarian applicant would be considered as well as searches in which job descriptions were altered when too many right-leaning applicants applied. Sometimes applicants were simply dismissed for being conservative all together. This conscious exclusion is reprehensible.

These are the few who have spoken up about viewpoint discrimination. 

As politics continues to become polarized at the state and national levels, we must do more to preserve a culture of academic freedom, critical inquiry and substantive disagreement in education. Codifying public college and university faculty members’ ideology as a protected class of nondiscrimination laws in Texas would protect and enhance our lacking ideological diversity in higher education. Conservatives want a seat at the academic table, and it’s time we guarantee them more than just elbow room.

Verses is a Plan II and environmental engineering freshman from San Antonio.