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Professionalism trumps ideology

Stephen Maurer, Adj. Em. Prof. of Public Policy | January 21, 2010

When I was small my parents taught me to avoid making small talk around religion and politics. Yet when I meet new European colleagues these days they almost immediately ask me to condemn Bush and praise Obama.  Maybe they are trying to pick a fight, but I don’t think so. As far as I can tell, they want to make small talk and this is the safest topic they can think of.  The idea that an American academic might have joined the majority which voted for Bush in 2004 never enters their heads.

It bothers me to be so predictable. Still, I have to admit that the average European professor meets dozens of US academics each year. They must be on to something.

Given how diverse American academics are along practically all other dimensions, this political homogeneity is a puzzle.  Probably the simplest theory is that US political parties have fallen into the crazy habit of claiming that Republican voters are “moral” and Democrat voters are “smart.”  Since academics make their living by their reputation for cleverness, doesn’t it seem safer to vote Democrat?

Still, the idea that Democrats are systematically smarter than Republicans is so silly that it’s hard take seriously. But if that isn’t the story, then where does the “Berkeley = Liberal” equation come from? Conservatives tell a very different story.  Insert just one ideologue into a university, they say, and she will make a point of hiring people like herself. Soon there will be two ideologues and then four and then eight…

(There is also variant argument –  call it Stalinism lite – in which people only give lip service to the reigning ideology, but this is even more depressing than the conservatives’ actual story.)

Anyway, the conservatives have a troubling story and it’s sufficiently plausible that we at Berkeley should be careful to shout down any colleague who starts down this road. In the end, though, the conservative narrative isn’t all that convincing.  The reason, as everyone at Berkeley knows, is that talent trumps everything.  When it comes to being unsentimental and ruthless, only professional sports teams care about ability more than we do.  Berkeley can and does hire unpleasant — but gifted — scholars all the time.  Being Republican might make you unpleasant, but we’re willing to overlook that.

But if the Conservative theory doesn’t work either what’s left? Let me close with a fact and a speculation. First, the fact. It turns out that Berkeley has always been radical – but not always leftist.  Indeed, the 1936 Republican presidential (Alf Landon) managed to carry Berkeley while losing his home state of Kansas.  (Landon only carried two states that year, Vermont and Maine.)  In the long view, then, it seems misguided to ask “Why is Berkeley liberal?” Instead, the better question is “Why is Berkeley always (a) uniform and (b) extreme?”

Now for the speculation.  Most people use ideology as a kind of crutch so that they can vote on problems that are too difficult and/or too labor-intensive to work out for themselves. University professors, on the other hand, are paid to solve problems using logic and evidence. For us, falling back on knee-jerk ideological arguments is not only tiresome but embarrassing.  Suppose, then, that a group of scholars disliked ideological arguments and wanted to suppress them. What better way than to adopt an extreme-but-uniform ideology?  Since everyone within Berkeley agrees there’s no point in talking.  And outside Berkeley, nobody wants to talk to us anyway.

I don’t insist that this speculation is right, but I do have one last bit of evidence to put forward.  If a cable news guy asks a Berkeley professor who to vote for, he will reliably endorse the Democrats or at least their agenda.  Pay him to study a subject for six months, though, and he will reliably reach an opinion that angers Democrats and Republicans in equal measure.

Which, after all, is no less than California’s taxpayers expect and deserve.

Comments to “Professionalism trumps ideology

  1. You mention “avoid making small talk around religion and politics.” The alternative, I suppose, is deep logical analysis, based on references, etc. Most of us are not able to perform such analysis outside of our own specialization. For example, I am a physicist, not a historian. But this did not prevent me from self-publishing a book entitled “Hell on Earth: Brutality and Violence Under the Stalinist Regime.” A deeply committed communist professor who defends the ideology of proletarian dictatorship, accused me of practicing “small talk.” Do your own research, he insisted, instead of just quoting other people.

    Ludwik Kowalski
    Professor Emeritus
    Montclair State University (USA)

  2. “The reason, as everyone at Berkeley knows, is that talent trumps everything. When it comes to being unsentimental and ruthless, only professional sports teams care about ability more than we do. Berkeley can and does hire unpleasant — but gifted — scholars all the time. Being Republican might make you unpleasant, but we’re willing to overlook that.”

    Talent trumps everything? What about departments where this is no good metric to measure talent? People get judged on other metrics besides citations, articles, and scholarly research. I think it’s an entirely plausible argument that departments have inner-politics, and tend to hire people who reflect their values.

  3. I agree to your views of avoiding small talks since it produces no results….at times it becomes difficult to come to a conclusion having heard so many people…but this persist to exist and we have to be decisive.

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