Monday, October 16, 2006

Homophily in the Academy

After 11 years as a professor, one of the most disappointing things to me about life in the American university is how much like-mindedness there is among our faculty. Homophily, the phenomenon that people are drawn to others like themselves ("birds of a feather flock together"), has of course existed throughout human history. And it is no surprise that professors tend to share with one another views such as the importance of scientific research and the value of government funding for this research.

I'm thinking about something much broader, though. All over campus--at committee meetings, at cocktail parties--there is this unstated assumption that lingers in the air wherever faculty meet. The assumption is that everyone in the room (unless and until otherwise disclosed) is politically liberal. From this, it can be deduced that we all share the following opinions--the Bush administraton is an abomination, Roe v. Wade must not be overturned...you get the idea.

Big deal, you say. Homphily occurs everywhere--in police stations, at neighborhood meetings, in government agencies, on our playgrounds (among both adults and children!).

I find it particularly sad and troubling, though, when it comes to institutions of higher education. The academy is supposed to be a place for the unfettered expression of ideas. Yet a political orthodoxy rules the day. Many professors, I'm willing to bet, don't count as a close friend anyone who didn't vote for John Kerry in the last presidential election. These same professors view it as their job, through the tools of their discipline, to enlighten students, to open young minds to new ways of thinking...so long as these new ways are consistent with and reinforce the dominant academic predispositions and viewpoints of the day.

I'm afraid that, as a rule of thumb, our university faculties value diversity only when they are the ones creating it and when it comes to them on their own terms.