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Why Faculty Preference Is for No Preference

By Sanford Pinsker / December 2, 1996



A recent poll by the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research finds a majority of the nation's higher-education faculty opposed to racial and gender preferences in student admissions and faculty employment. Even more surprising, nearly two-thirds of 800 faculty members interviewed would support a ban on preferences similar to the recently passed California Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI), Proposition 209.

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The higher-education establishment would have us believe otherwise. Not only did organizations such as the American Council of Learned Societies make their principled opposition to CCRI widely known, but the American Association of University Professors took the unprecedented step of an expensive lobbying effort to defeat CCRI - bankrolled by the same dues-paying members who feel themselves increasingly uncomfortable about preferences in higher education. Much the same is true of university and college presidents who rushed to judgment about CCRI without accurate data about the faculties they represent. Apparently the rank-and-file just don't matter.

What the poll makes clear - often by wide margins - is a yawning gap between views faculty members are supposed to have and those they actually hold. When asked if they believed their own institutions had formal or informal policies that grant preference to student and faculty applicants on the basis of gender, race, or ethnicity, 80 percent of those familiar with their institutions' internal procedures felt "preference" played a significant role.

Interestingly enough, these same professors suggested such preferences made "no difference" - in terms of improvement or decline - at their institutions. So their opposition to preferences was not based on the usual litany of fears about declining standards or hopes about improvement via diversity that are often at the center of public debate. Rather, the professors registered their sense of fundamental fairness - along with increasing discomfort about Draconian measures that sometimes move equality of opportunity to equality of result.

In the privacy of a polling interview or secret ballot, faculty members - across the political spectrum - express an uneasy sense that preferences are at best problematic. Why, then, haven't they said all this in more public forums? Or put another way, how did people who are not normally shy about professing all manner of opinion suddenly become a silent majority?

The answer that pops to mind is the skittish atmosphere of political correctness. As Arnold Binder, president of the faculty senate at the University of California, Irvine, explains: "If you say you're for CCRI, you will be called a racist or sexist." Nor is this chilly condition limited to southern California; faculty members in Minneapolis or midtown Manhattan are equally concerned, and just as anxious not to find themselves caught up in grief - whether it be name-calling or intimations of much worse.

Meanwhile, if most faculty members had their druthers - their "preference," if you will - they would be happy to see institutionalized preferences go the way of the dodo. There was a time, after all, when colleges and universities could make their goodwill known as "equal opportunity employers," which meant no one would be excluded because of race, gender, or national origin.

It soon became clear - at least to some administrators - that equal opportunity was not sufficient, and ads "especially welcomed" applications by women, minorities, and an ever-growing list of the fashionably victimized. As George Orwell famously put it in his "Animal Farm" novel: "All the animals are equal, but some are more equal than others." In our own time, some people are more preferred than others. What remains constant is the absurdity - and unfairness - of such positions. And it is this unfairness that prompted 64 percent of the faculty members in the Roper survey to vote preferences thumbs-down.

*Sanford Pinsker, Shadek Professor of Humanities at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., is editor of the quarterly Academic Questions.