When I began examining the political affiliation of faculty at the University of Oregon, the lone conservative professor I spoke with cautioned that I would "make a lot of people unhappy."
Though I mostly brushed off his warning – assuming that academia would be interested in such discourse – I was careful to frame my research for a column for the school newspaper diplomatically.
The University of Oregon (UO), where I study journalism, invested millions annually in a diversity program that explicitly included "political affiliation" as a component. Yet, out of the 111 registered Oregon voters in the departments of journalism, law, political science, economics, and sociology, there were only two registered Republicans.
A number of conservative students told me they felt Republican ideas were frequently caricatured and rarely presented fairly. Did the dearth of conservative professors on campus and apparent marginalization of ideas on the right belie the university's commitment to providing a marketplace of ideas?
In my column, published in the campus newspaper The Oregon Daily Emerald June 1, I suggested that such a disparity hurt UO. I argued that the lifeblood of higher education was subjecting students to diverse viewpoints and the university needed to work on attracting more conservative professors.
I also suggested that students working on right-leaning ideas may have difficulty finding faculty mentors. I couldn't imagine, for instance, that journalism that supported the Iraq war or gun rights would be met with much enthusiasm.
What I didn't realize is that journalism that examined the dominance of liberal ideas on campus would be addressed with hostility.
A professor who confronted me declared that he was "personally offended" by my column. He railed that his political viewpoints never affected his teaching and suggested that if I wanted a faculty with Republicans I should have attended a university in the South. "If you like conservatism you can certainly attend the University of Texas and you can walk past the statue of Jefferson Davis everyday on your way to class," he wrote in an e-mail.
I was shocked by such a comment, which seemed an attempt to link Republicans with racist orthodoxy. When I wrote back expressing my offense, he neither apologized nor clarified his remarks.
Instead, he reiterated them on the record. Was such a brazen expression of partisanship representative of the faculty as a whole? I decided to speak with him in person in the hope of finding common ground.
He was eager to chat, and after five minutes our dialogue bloomed into a lively discussion. As we hammered away at the issue, one of his colleagues with whom he shared an office grew visibly agitated. Then, while I was in mid-sentence, she exploded.
"You think you're so [expletive] cute with your little column," she told me. "I read your piece and all you want is attention. You're just like Bill O'Reilly. You just want to get up on your [expletive] soapbox and have people look at you."
From the disgust with which she attacked me, you would have thought I had advocated Nazism. She quickly grew so emotional that she had to leave the room. But before she departed, she stood over me and screamed.
"You understand that my column was basically a prophesy," I shot back. I had suggested right-leaning ideas weren't welcome on campus and in response the faculty had tied my viewpoints to racism and addressed me with profanity-laced insults.
What's so remarkable is that I hadn't actually advocated Republican ideas or conservative ideas. In fact, I'm not a conservative, nor a Republican. I simply believe in the concept of diversity – a primarily liberal idea – and think that we suffer when we don't include ideas we find unappealing.
After my article on political diversity was published, I received numerous e-mails from students at other schools who spoke of similar experiences. As a result of my research and personal experience, I can now say without reservation that the lack of ideological diversity on college campuses is a dangerous threat to free and open discourse in academia. Sadly, there are few perfect solutions.
One proposal considered by universities is endowing a chair of conservative thought to lure a high-profile conservative scholar to campus. However, this has the potential to exacerbate partisan tensions by sanctioning an explicitly ideological position.
A more draconian option is to enact a political litmus test and mandate that Republicans fill a certain number of positions, but doing so would exclude many qualified professors and be unfairly discriminatory.
The fact is that political diversity, like many diversity efforts, is something that cannot be created through edict, but only by a concerted effort on the behalf of those in power. While hiring on the basis of party affiliation isn't the answer to reducing political discrimination, denying that political beliefs influence pedagogy is simply naive.
Faculties in ideological departments should examine the body of work of a candidate to see if it fills a shortcoming. In a department of journalism or political science, a professor with a right-leaning perspective would not only provide a balance in curriculum, but a potential mentor to conservative students who feel isolated in their beliefs. At left-leaning universities, such professors should be aggressively pursued.
Above all, deans, provosts, and professors must not allow their aversion to conservative ideas to manifest so contemptuously.
Political disagreement is crucial to vibrant discourse, but not in the form of caricatures, slights, or mockery.
Students should never come under personal attack from faculty members for straying from the party line. The fact that they do shows how easily political partisanship can corrupt the elements of higher education that should be valued the most.
Dan Lawton is a freelance journalist and journalism student at the University of Oregon.