Written by: Nancy Duchesneau
Iowa State Senator Mark Chelgren (R) has proposed legislation that would require “partisan balance” of the faculty employed at state universities. An excerpt of the proposed Senate File 288 explains that a “person shall not be hired as a professor or instructor member of the faculty at such an institution if the person’s political party affiliation on the date of hire would cause the percentage of faculty belonging to one political party to exceed by ten percent the percentage of faculty belonging to the other political party.”
According to the PEW Research Center, individuals with a post-graduate education are much more likely to identify as Democrat than Republican. In 2015, the analysis showed that 56% of those with post-graduate experience are Democrats or lean Democrat whereas only 36% are Republicans or lean Republican. While there hasn’t been a focused analysis on the partisan gap among post-graduates with regard to this past election, there is some evidence that the difference in voting patterns between individuals who attained at least a college degree and individuals who had not achieved that level of education widened sharply. This may be due in part to the contentious circumstances of the political climate in the past election leading to changes in political affiliation. It is therefore possible that since the 2015 PEW analysis, the partisan gap among post-graduates has widened even further, making Democrats the large majority and Republicans a political minority in higher education faculty positions and in the pool of applicants for these positions.
On the surface, Senator Chelgren seems to be making a plea for a balance of ideas in higher education institutions. He was quoted in The Des Moines Register as saying, “I’m under the understanding that right now they can hire people because of diversity. They want to have people of different thinking, different processes, different expertise. So this would fall right into category with what existing hiring practices are.” In other words, Senator Chelgren is in favor of including political beliefs in higher education affirmative action policies.
The problem with this argument is that affirmative action’s purpose is to ensure historically marginalized populations receive equal opportunity for equal representation. Ethnic and religious minorities have a long history in the United States of experiencing discrimination in gaining employment. Where is the robust evidence that Republicans face the same hiring discrimination? While it may be true that Republicans are a political minority among higher education faculty, there is no evidence to suggest that they have been marginalized in such a way that would call for a policy of this nature. In other words, it’s simply not the case that Democrats are given an unfair advantage in higher education hiring practices and there is therefore no merit to enforcing a policy that exclusively benefits Republicans – And make no mistake, this would exclusively benefit Republicans given the political makeup of post-graduates.
Diversity in perspectives is without question healthy for a learning environment. However, merely arguing for a balance of the perceived dichotomous viewpoints of liberals and conservatives fails to recognize the multidimensionality of perspectives. What being a Democrat means to one person may not be the same as it means to another, let alone a Democrat with a completely different topic of expertise. One may be a Democrat for social reasons while the other is a Democrat for fiscal reasons. The variation within political parties is overlooked by such a facile law that demands equal proportions of Democrats and Republicans. Is it acceptable to have a 50/50 Democrat/Republican faculty if all of them believe abortion and gay marriage should be legal, but differ in preferences of tax codes? This is not a proposition for diversity in perspectives, but a demand for more academics to label themselves as Republicans (which would certainly happen if it would increase their job prospects).
More important than “balancing” the political ideologies in higher education is the need to hire various experts in a wide range of content areas who can dissect their own viewpoints on their own fields of study. Yes, this includes experts who can speak from their own experiences of being marginalized, being privileged, being conservative, being liberal, being religious, being agnostic, being gay, being straight, being in power, and being empowered. It’s not just about hiring individuals with different ideologies; it’s about making sure multiple dimensions of thought are addressed by hiring individuals whose varying experiences bring real and difficult conversations to life. Affirmative action exists to push back on the very real discrimination that occurs against certain groups of people. Higher education institutions take this further by seeking out individuals of various groups that can significantly contribute to the broader context of their fields. This is diversity of perspective. A requirement for half of the faculty to be Republican, frankly, is not.
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