Over at the Chronicle of Higher Education, Jarrod Kelly chides the Right for pushing back on accreditation. While the headline is a bit aggressive (“The Right-Wing War on Accreditation”), authors generally don’t get to choose their headlines, and the piece itself is quite measured.
While the ostensible focus of our disagreement is accreditation, I think the root cause concerns faculty.
Kelly comes back again and again to the role of faculty. He argues that faculty should lead in educational decisions, but that some conservative trustees and boards of governors are interfering with their control. Accreditors, he argues, are merely protecting the faculty.
But he only begins his argument after the faculty are already in place. In contrast, conservatives take a step back and see huge problems with the faculty-selection process. If that process is broken, faculty shouldn’t be in sole control of educational matters because they will abuse their position to push an ideological agenda.
To conservatives, the faculty-selection process is clearly broken. There has long been a leftward drift among faculty. Samuel J. Abrams and Amna Khalid found that in 1990, “42% of faculty identified as being on the left, 40% were moderate, and another 18% were on the right.” By 2017, “60% of the faculty identified as either far left or liberal compared to just 12% being conservative or far right.” A generation ago, there used to be two liberal professors for every conservative. A few years ago, there were five liberals for every conservative.
Discrimination was at least partially responsible. On paper, the hiring process was nondiscriminatory. The biased decisions took place behind closed doors or inside the minds of individual hiring committee members. Occasionally, the bias became so widespread and entrenched that faculty would admit on surveys that they discriminate against conservatives when hiring. This is utterly astounding, as swathes of the professoriate have essentially declared that you can’t be a conservative and a legitimate academic at the same time, a remarkably closed-minded and blatantly partisan position for those who claim to think for a living.
But now, colleges and universities don’t even go through the motions. Instead, they’ve adopted explicitly political litmus tests. Consider recent hiring practices at the University of California, Berkeley:
Typically, a candidate for a faculty position would have her research assessed by a departmental search committee … In what they have admitted is a “dramatic change” from the typical hiring process, diversity, equity and inclusion administrators have been given veto power over which candidates the departmental hiring committees are able to consider. The scale of the resulting purge would make Stalin blush. Of 893 nominally qualified candidates, 679 were eliminated solely due to insufficiently woke diversity, equity and inclusion statements. In other words, Berkeley used a political litmus test to eliminate over three-quarters of the applicant pool.
This is why I think faculty are at the root of our disagreement. Kelly assumes the existence of a legitimate faculty, which should then be entrusted with educational matters. But from the conservative perspective, faculty hiring is thoroughly corrupted, so the resulting faculty cannot be trusted to be non-biased.
Trustees and boards of governors should (and have the authority to) repair the faculty-selection process. Since existing faculty play such a large role in hiring new faculty, this will have to involve starting new schools and colleges that do not give the existing partisan faculty the ability to influence hiring for the new school or college. This is precisely what the University of North Carolina is trying to do. And its accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), is trying to stop it.
To progressives, this looks like SACSCOC protecting faculty dominance to prevent the politicization of higher education. But to conservatives, higher education has already been politicized, and SACSCOC is simply protecting the (progressive faculty–dominated) status quo because it aligns with their political preferences. Consider the following history:
• Like many accreditors, SACSCOC takes the existence of racial disparities as proof of racial discrimination. Yet in the face of a large and growing political imbalance in the professoriate, with liberal faculty outnumbering conservative faculty 5 to 1 in a nation split 50–50 (and with confessions of discrimination against conservatives in hiring), SACSCOC does not object.
• If an institution imposed a political litmus test to ensure that only conservatives could be hired, I have no doubt that SACSCOC would revoke its accreditation. Yet colleges and universities routinely impose political litmus tests to ensure that only progressives can be hired, and SACSCOC does not object.
• Then along comes the University of North Carolina with plans to “hire professors from across the ideological spectrum … to end ‘political constraints on what can be taught in university classes’ … [and] build a syllabus free from ideological enforcers.” To this, SACSCOC strenuously objects.
From a conservative perspective, SACSCOC’s objection is just another case of blatant political bias. SACSCOC did nothing for decades as tens of thousands of conservative faculty applicants were discriminated against at the institutions it accredits, but UNC’s plan to hire 20 faculty without letting woke administrators filter out non-progressives is enough to threaten the college’s accreditation? You’ll have to forgive conservatives for not believing this is a justified and non-partisan action by SACSCOC. But just because conservatives are finally fighting back doesn’t mean they started the war. That distinction belongs to those who politicized the academy in the first place, including accreditors like SACSCOC.