Balancing beliefs: how faculty politics fit in at Williams

In an era when institutions of higher learning around the nation are focused on maintaining a racially diverse and gender-balanced student body and faculty, a corollary – the lack of political diversity among faculty – has become an increasingly visible issue.

Although political diversity is harder to gauge than race or gender among faculty members, it is common knowledge that college campuses are generally more liberal than conservative.

A 2001 study of available records at the Williamstown Board of Elections, conducted by DoubleThink and published by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), found that only four out of more than 200 Williams professors are registered with a right wing political party.

The finding is only anecdotal, as residents will sometimes register with whichever party dominates in a particular locality, allowing them to vote in the primaries when important decisions are made. DoubleThink also did not have access to all voting records. Even with a significant margin for error, however, the numbers still suggest the Williams faculty is predominantly liberal.

The DoubleThink finding and general observations from their experiences on campus have led some students who attend Williams or its peer institutions to critique the schools for not having faculty that offer a wide breadth of ideologies.

In an opinion entitled, “Impartiality, Debate, Fairness” published in the Jan. 21 edition of the Record, Oren Cass ’05, who is also this paper’s online editor, stated, “Williams is showing itself to be a place where only some ideas are welcome, and some paths of inquiry encouraged. That’s not education – it’s indoctrination, and it will serve us poorly in the vast world of real people with real ideas different than our own.”

J. Ashley Ebersole, an Amherst alum, expressed similar sentiments in a letter which ran in the Fall 2002 issue of Amherst’s alumni magazine: “While the demographics of Amherst’s student body mirror those of the nation in ideology and political bent, the privilege of self-selection in the faculty has produced a politically homogeneous professoriate.”

Hiring a diverse faculty at Williams, or changing the makeup of the faculty body, is largely the responsibility of current faculty members and, more broadly, departments, said Tom Kohut, dean of faculty. “This is a school that’s a democracy,” he said. “The administration does not issue edicts for people to follow. It’s the people who are here; if it is just administrators committed, it wouldn’t work.”

“It’s in the interests of everyone to have a more diverse faculty,” Kohut said, adding that diversity is not about statistics or quotas, but rather about backgrounds and experience.

Indeed, it was largely the work of the small number of female professors at the College and a number of males as well, who encouraged Williams to institute its affirmative action hiring policies in the 1970s.

Nancy McIntire, assistant to the president for affirmative action and government relations, is responsible, in part, for tracking what percentage of the faculty would be women or faculty of color if the College were to hire an entirely new faculty representative of national distributions of new PhDs. By looking at the numbers, McIntire is then able to establish realistic hiring goals for individual departments so they can work towards reflecting the national averages. “I’m talking about race and gender,” she said. “That’s my focus. [Political diversity] is not one of the areas that I work on. Is it important to me as a member of the community that we have a diverse exchange of ideas? Yes.”

If the impetus behind change at Williams is driven by the faculty, however, the question becomes whether faculty consider it important to have colleagues who represent a wide variety of political beliefs. Conversely, political diversity may not be an issue if faculty believe students’ academic experiences are not threatened; if professors have the ability to be objective in class, or can effectively convey multiple sides to any argument, then ideological diversity is not an issue.

“In the philosophy classroom, I’m not interested in promoting any particular political viewpoint,” said Jana Sawicki, professor of philosophy and a co-author of the “Williams Classroom Seminar,” a report that looked at student-to-faculty and student-to-student interactions in the classroom. “I’m most concerned with providing students with the strongest arguments for and against a range of positions.”

“I think it’s important to represent political opinions that are not your own [in the classroom],” Kohut said.

The faculty, though, seem to have a variety of opinions about whether objectivity in the classroom is possible. Robert Bell, professor of English and director of the Project for Effective Teaching (PET), a program which mentors new faculty and helps them acclimate to a life of teaching, said objectivity is becoming increasingly rare in the classroom.

“Teachers disagree strongly on the role of ideology in the classroom. . .Some faculty pride themselves on objectivity and fair treatment of contending positions, and scrupulously avoid advocating any one position,” Bell said. “Some professors believe that advocacy is inappropriate and contrary to a liberal arts education. Others feel it is the most important element of a liberal arts education – that enlightenment can and should lead to action.”

Indeed, the College’s “Hiring and Affirmative Action” report states that diversity is an important factor in education because, “[o]ur graduates will inhabit, contribute to and in many instances, play leadership roles in our richly diverse society.” Given the two positions Bell presents, if Williams faculty do lack ideological diversity, coupled with the belief that advocacy is an important element of a liberal arts education, then Williams students could be receiving a politically skewed perception of the world around them.

And, Bell said, “In recent years more faculty, especially in Division I and II, consider objectivity an illusion, or worse, self-deluding. These teachers might say that we are always, willy-nilly, advocating some ideology, even if we are unaware of it or deny it.”

Learning inside the classroom is only one aspect of students’ education. Outside of the classroom, a more informal environment exists that allows professors to convey their personal beliefs. “I could have a discussion [with a student] about politics, but I wouldn’t be ‘the professor,’” Kohut said. “You have a personal and professional identity.”

“My political beliefs don’t impact my teaching of science,” said Nancy Roseman, dean of the College and associate professor of biology, “but certainly in those moments where you talk to students more informally – in lab, for example – I’m sure that all of my beliefs are being expressed.”

Recognizing the dilemma – “politically, the Williams faculty does not look like the country,” Kohut said – and finding ways of solving it are easier said than done. “Political identity, or identifying it, would be a very contentious issue,” McIntire said. “I don’t think anyone wants Hopkins Hall to start looking at political ideology or persuasion.”

Further, critics of the composition of the faculty say the College’s expanding list of non-traditional areas of study, such as Latino studies and African-American studies, inhibit hiring in traditional areas of study where one might find more conservative faculty. The newer areas of study tend to attract professors who have more liberal views.

“[In the 1970s] there was definitely a political agenda to those courses of study. They were on the left,” Kohut said. “It was a deliberate political attempt to get that part of America that was pushed outside back into the mainstream.”

“The issue of the proliferation of additional areas of study has more impact on the conventional ways departments teach,” McIntire said. But, she said, “Some faculty have argued that the diffusion into new areas of study is a result of what’s happening at the graduate school level.” And although McIntire can track the number of new minority and female doctorates in each field of study, the same is not possible with conservatives given the constraints with obtaining this information.

However, Kohut said, the move towards interdisciplinary teaching has been increasingly embraced by both sides of the political spectrum. Now, liberals and conservatives are recognizing that interdisciplinary approaches are better, he said: “Because of the complexities of the world. . .it’s harder to adopt a purely disciplinary approach.”

Yet, by advocating an interdisciplinary approach to teaching, still a more ardently liberal domain, the College may have sacrificed another aspect of its diversity – its faculty’s spectrum of ideas.