The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Georgetown University professor John Hasnas writes in the Wall Street Journal of his experience with faculty candidate searches over the past twenty-plus years. Not only is there rarely any effort consider ideological or viewpoint diversity, but in some cases there have been efforts to squelch it.
in my experience, no search committee has ever been instructed to increase political or ideological diversity. On the contrary, I have been involved in searches in which the chairman of the selection committee stated that no libertarian candidates would be considered. Or the description of the position was changed when the best résumés appeared to be coming from applicants with right-of-center viewpoints. Or in which candidates were dismissed because of their association with conservative or libertarian institutions.
Most folks who have been in the academy for a significant period of time are aware of such stories (or have seen them first hand). And given the nature of faculty hiring, it is generally easier to sink a candidate than to see them through. So if one member of a faculty committee refuses to hire someone because the candidate clerked for Justice Clarence Thomas (true story) or refuses to admit a graduate student because he had received an Olin fellowship (another true story), that's often enough to end the candidacy.
As Hasnas notes, institutions have a tendency to replicate themselves. A white male faculty with a dominant political or ideological viewpoint—left to its own devices—is likely to replicate itself, hiring people with similar experiences, backgrounds, research interests, and ideological views. If a more diverse faculty is desired, there must be a deliberate effort to expand the pool of eligible candidates, and not tacitly exclude those that do not fit the mold. That is, if viewpoint diversity is important, it must be made important in the hiring process. Given how rarely this occurs, one suspects that, at many universities, diversity of viewpoint does not matter all that much, and that is a shame.
The advocates of diversity in higher education claim that learning requires the robust exchange of ideas, which is enhanced when students and faculty have the greatest possible variety of backgrounds. They argue that exposure to people from different backgrounds breaks down unfair stereotypes and promotes understanding of those who come from different circumstances than oneself.
It is also claimed that being in a diverse academic environment better prepares students for an increasingly diverse workforce, and that this preparation can only be developed through exposure to people of diverse cultures, ideas and viewpoints. And a diverse faculty provides students with role models who demonstrate that people from all backgrounds can achieve intellectual excellence and are worthy of respect.
These are good arguments. But surely the robust exchange of ideas is enhanced by exposure to and interaction with people who have diverse political and philosophical viewpoints, not only cultural or ethnic backgrounds. Actually engaging with those with whom one disagrees can break down stereotypes and promote understanding across ideological divides. And if students see faculty members who share their unpopular viewpoints, they may be more inspired to pursue intellectual excellence.