Flunking Statistics

When William F. Buckley Jr. launched America's conservative movement half a century ago, the requisite foe came readily to hand. In God & Man at Yale, Buckley identified the university he had just left -- and, by implication, the country's entire higher-education establishment -- as the driving force behind "agnosticism and collectivism" in American life. The specter of radical leftists in control of the nation's campuses would invigorate Republican platforms and speakers for a generation.

Years later, Richard Nixon, as president, found a fresh antagonist for conservatives to demonize: the liberal media. As with Buckley, the choice had personal roots. The formative battles of Buckley's career had been with the Yale faculty; Nixon's were with the press. In the enemies lists compiled by Nixon's staff, journalists outnumbered all other categories, including college professors, by a ratio of nearly 3-to-1. Elevated by a master to great Satan for the right, the news media retain that status to this day. But now the previous Satan is back as well.

As often happens in Washington, the matter began at a think tank. The right-of-center American Enterprise Institute (AEI), in the August cover story of its American Enterprise magazine, claimed documentation beyond dispute of the left-wing hammerlock on American faculties. AE's editor-in-chief, William Zinsmeister, in league with David Horowitz (best known for his ads in college newspapers calling on black Americans to show "gratitude" for all that white Americans have done for them) of the conservative Center for the Study of Popular Culture, sent student volunteers to boards of election to search out the party registrations of 1,843 college teachers at 21 institutions. For the cover story, Democrats, Greens and "Working Family" registrants were lumped under "L" for "parties of the left"; Republicans and Libertarians, meanwhile, were filed under "R" for "parties of the right." (Independents, who would seem under Zinsmeister's labeling scheme to merit a "C" for "centrist," were ignored.) The overall ratio of L's to R's reflected in the story's bar graphs was dramatic: 11-to-1.

Conservative pundits swiftly pressed Zinsmeister's numbers into service. "Cokie," quipped George Will to Cokie Roberts on ABC's This Week in late August, "Bright college years are here again. Millions of parents will be sending children and a lot of money to colleges this fall. But perhaps parents should cut out the middle men and send the money directly to the Democratic Party." College campuses, said Will, are "intellectually akin to North Korea." The Wall Street Journal followed up on its editorial page a few days later, weighing in with a piece titled, "One Faculty Indivisible -- Even the Press Corps Isn't This Uniformly Liberal." And in a September U.S. News & World Report column, John Leo, who had sounded the same alarm months earlier without benefit of the AE numbers, wrote a sequel.

Now, you don't have to be conservative and paranoid to expect that a show of hands between liberals and conservatives among the nation's academics doesn't figure to be close. In politics, college towns are not generally found to be bastions of the right. But Zinsmeister's purported findings were something else again. At none of the campuses -- which ran the gamut from Harvard, Brown, Stanford and Cornell universities to 10 state schools and a smattering of smaller colleges -- did the parties of the left prevail by a ratio of less than 6-to-1. At 86 percent liberal on the Zinsmeister scale, the University of Texas at Austin (on whose board appointees of George W. Bush still reign) trailed by only a tad the University of California, Berkeley (91 percent liberal).

The findings look pretty compelling -- but not when you look at them closely. In the University of Texas sample, for example, 28 of the 94 teachers came from women's studies -- not exactly a highlight of any school's core curriculum or a likely cross section of its faculty. At the same time, none of the 94 was from the university's huge schools of engineering, business, law or medicine -- or from any of the sciences. At Cornell University, it's the same story: 166 L's by the AE bar graphs, and only 6 R's. But not one faculty member in the entire sample taught in the engineering, business, medicine or law schools, or in any of the sciences. Thirty-three, on the other hand, were in women's studies -- more than any subject, save for English.

The methodology employed is similarly slapdash at the other chosen campuses. Harvard's faculty of more than 2,000 is represented by 52 members from just three academic disciplines, all in the social sciences. More than half of the University of California, Los Angeles sample comes from just two disciplines: history and, once again, women's studies.

Issues of methodology, however, are really beside the point when it comes to finding demons for a movement to exorcise. What's required is a program for doing it. In Buckley's case, the program, at least with respect to private universities such as Yale, was simple: Let the rich alumni who fund the schools put their money on strike until the scorners of God and untrammeled private enterprise are eased out and no longer hired. The rich alumni, however, never got with the program. In the pages following its August cover story, AE provides one for the times. Attorney Kenneth Lee, a stalwart of the conservative Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, argues, "The simple logic underlying much of contemporary civil-rights law applies equally to conservative Republicans, who appear to face clear practices of discrimination in American academia that are statistically even starker than previous blackballings by race."

It isn't often you hear one of the Federalist Society's strict constructionists embracing, with relish, a case relying on the "logic" of contemporary civil-rights law. But it gets better. After acknowledging a legal problem with his case -- the 1964 Civil Rights Act does not specifically outlaw discrimination based on political party or ideology, as it does with respect to race and religion -- Lee says the absence of statutory support doesn't bother him at all. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, he points out, seldom wins a case in court, but he "regularly bludgeons opponents with the specter of exorbitant legal fees, a potential lawsuit loss and heaps of negative publicity unless they cave." Why shouldn't conservative thinkers on college faculties do the same? Jackson may have lost some of his luster as a role model for the left. Now he may be about to find a new role in life as a tactician for the right.