Preposterous Universe

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Brian Leiter has a quote from the blog of Lawrence Velvel, who is the Dean of the Massachusetts School of Law:
[W]hile I have always been in favor of diversity of viewpoints on a faculty, and our own faculty ranges from very liberal to quite conservative -- although we see no need to hire the right wing kooks who seem to be taking over the world -- I have lately begun to wonder about the intellectual diversity argument. The right wing has taken over the government, radio, part of television, a significant part of the newspaper world, and certain religiously based universities. Having taken over much of the world, is it really necessary that they be given a major voice in universities too? They’ve done pretty well without a major foothold at lots of universities. Why give these nuts still more power?
That's an astonishingly stupid comment, especially from the Dean of a law school. (Leiter characterizes the quote as "memorable.") The problem is the gentle glide from "conservative" to "right wing" to "nuts." I would hope that, even in these times when liberals are incredibly frustrated at the damage that the nuts in power are doing to our country, we are able to acknowledge that being conservative doesn't automatically make you nuts (even if the examples are depressingly numerous). We honestly do need intellectual diversity in universities, and there is no question that such diversity should include conservative viewpoints. I don't have to agree with people who believe in a strict constructionist interpretation of the Constitution, or were in favor of the war in Iraq, or think that an unfettered free market would ultimately benefit people in poverty -- but I certainly want people who believe those things to be present at my university, just as I think cosmologists should explore both inflation and the ekpyrotic universe. We're supposed to be in favor of the free interplay of ideas, remember?

Don't get me wrong -- there is a line to be drawn, and it's not always obvious where to draw it. Physics departments should consider people who work on both string theory and loop quantum gravity, but needn't bother with astrologers. Biology departments don't need to hire creationists, and no departments need to hire racists, fascists, misogynists, anti-Semites, and so on. But you can sincerely believe that affirmative action is harmful to minorities without being racist. There can be policy disagreements about extremely difficult questions among legitimate scholars working in good faith. We don't need to go out of our way to hire more conservatives as professors -- we should hire people who are smart and make real contributions, and some of them will end up being conservative. As a liberal, I am idealistic enough to think that (at least in the context of universities) our ideas will win out through the simple force of reason, not because we give in to the right wing's paranoid fantasies and start explicitly excluding competing views.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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