BOSTON - I like the old maxim that academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small. How else to explain the intramural conflicts that erupt over such searing campus issues as tenure and parking? But now it seems there's an extramural furor over politics itself.
Conservatives have long regarded universities as the last spider holes of liberalism. They regard professors as lefty holdouts who spend their days indoctrinating the younger generation on the virtues of Che Guevara. While many of us assume that the right is busily targeting the highest court as their last unoccupied power base, a whole subset of conservatives is after higher education.
Every year, conservative groups put some $20 million into campus politics and publications. While liberal students may organize against sweatshops and sneakers, conservatives organize against campus liberalism. One group led by David Horowitz has been pushing an "academic bill of rights" aimed at what it calls liberal bias.
There is now more ammunition for the battle of the intellectual bulge. Two new studies point to campuses as oases of blue. The first, a survey of 1,000 academics, shows that there are seven Democrats for every Republican in the humanities and social sciences. The D-R odds are 30-1 in anthropology and even 3-1 in economics.
A second study of voter registration records shows that Democrats outnumber Republicans 9-1 on the faculties of Berkeley and Stanford. And as a side dish, the Center for Responsive Politics reports that the biggest donors to John Kerry's campaign were employees from the University of California and from Harvard University. All of this adds to the complaint that conservatives are as marginalized on campus as synchronized swimmers. This in turn is used to back up complaints about discrimination in hiring and teaching and the need for "ideological diversity."
The co-authors of the faculty survey put it this way: "The social sciences are pretty much a one-party system." They add, "A campus that had six males to one female would be universally recognized as very lopsided." So, they infer, is a campus that's 7-1 Democratic.
Well, let us not forget that campuses are still lacking in the old-fashioned kind of diversity. As for lopsided, among full professors, 87 percent are white and 77 percent are male.
What is fascinating is to see how the campus watchers have usurped the language of liberalism for their own. It reminds me of the arguments in favor of teaching creationism in the name of open-mindedness. The conversation about liberal bias on campus is chock full of words such as diversity and pluralism. There is even the hint that universities might need a touch of affirmative action for conservative academics.
The Independent Women's Forum has repeatedly claimed that the reason women don't rise to the corner office has nothing to do with gender discrimination. It's really because, as the IWF president said, "women often make different choices than men." Conservatives also like to talk disparagingly about "victim politics."
But now it appears that the activists on the right are claiming to be victims of discrimination rather than personal choice. No one is suggesting that Republicans with a doctorate might rather work in the free market than teach the free market. Nor are they suggesting that Exxon would profit from a gallon of ideological pluralism.
These surveys don't actually prove that one-party faculties color the classrooms blue. Nor do they prove that students are being wooed leftward. In my experience, professors are more dismayed when their students are labeled "customers" than when they're called Republicans.
Still, I find the attention to campus politics rather charming. The only ones who take universities as seriously as universities take themselves are activists on the right. When Harvey Mansfield, a Harvard conservative, was asked about the difficulty conservatives had getting tenure, he sighed ironically, "Well, I guess they'll have to go to Washington and run the country."
Want to talk real power? If the faculty clubs are blue, corporate management offices are red. In the name of diversity, let's trade some liberal sociologists for conservative oil executives.
And if you want to talk about civility, let's exchange college professors with a median salary of $88,591 for Fortune 500 CEOs with a median salary of $7.1 million. After all, the higher the stakes, the less vicious the politics.
Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun.