Magazine article The American Prospect

Flunking Statistics: The Right's Disinformation about Faculty Bias. (Gazette)

Magazine article The American Prospect

Flunking Statistics: The Right's Disinformation about Faculty Bias. (Gazette)

Article excerpt

WHEN WILLIAM F. Buckley, Jr. launched America's conservative movement half a century ago, the requisite foe came readily to hand. In God & Man at Yale, Buckley identified the university he had just left--and, by implication, the country's entire higher-education establishment--as the driving force behind "agnosticism and collectivism" in American life. The specter of radical leftists in control of the nation's campuses would invigorate Republican platforms and speakers for a generation.

Years later, Richard Nixon, as president, found a fresh antagonist for conservatives to demonize: the liberal media. As with Buckley, the choice had personal roots. The formative battles of Buckley's career had been with the Yale faculty; Nixon's were with the press. In the enemies lists compiled by Nixon's staff, journalists outnumbered all other categories, including college professors, by a ratio of nearly 3-to-1. Elevated by a master to great Satan for the right, the news media retain that status to this day. But now the previous Satan is back as well.

As often happens in Washington, the matter began at a think tank. The right-of-center American Enterprise Institute (AEI), in the August cover story of its American Enterprise magazine, claimed documentation beyond dispute of the left-wing hammerlock on American faculties. AE's editor-in-chief, William Zinsmeister, in league with David Horowitz (best known for his ads in college newspapers calling on black Americans to show "gratitude" for all that white Americans have done for them) of the conservative Center for the Study of Popular Culture, sent student volunteers to boards of election to search out the party registrations of 1,843 college teachers at 21 institutions. For the cover story, Democrats, Greens and "Working Family" registrants were lumped under "L" for "parties of the left"; Republicans and Libertarians, meanwhile, were filed under "R" for "parties of the right." (Independents, who would seem under Zinsmeister's labeling scheme to merit a "C" for "centrist," were ignored.) The overall ratio of L's to R's reflected in the story's bar graphs was dramatic: 11-to-1.

Conservative pundits swiftly pressed Zinsmeister's numbers into service. "Cokie," quipped George Will to Cokie Roberts on ABC's This Week in late August, "Bright college years are here again. Millions of parents will be sending children and a lot of money to colleges this fall. But perhaps parents should cut out the middle men and send the money directly to the Democratic Party." College campuses, said Will, are "intellectually akin to North Korea." The Wall Street Journal followed up on its editorial page a few days later, weighing in with a piece titled, "One Faculty Indivisible--Even the Press Corps Isn't This Uniformly Liberal." And in a September U.S. News & World Report column, John Leo, who had sounded the same alarm months earlier without benefit of the AE numbers, wrote a sequel.

Now, you don't have to be conservative and paranoid to expect that a show of hands between liberals and conservatives among the nation's academics doesn't figure to be close. In politics, college towns are not generally found to be bastions of the right. But Zinsmeister's purported findings were something else again. At none of the campuses--which ran the gamut from Harvard, Brown, Stanford and Cornell universities to 10 state schools and a smattering of smaller colleges--did the parties of the left prevail by a ratio of less than 6-to-1. …

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