In "A Golf Story," which appeared recently in the Claremont Review of Books, I questioned whether President Barry Mills is serious about wanting more intellectual diversity at Bowdoin. The essay generated mostly smoke, but amid the smoke there lie important questions.
How intellectually diverse is Bowdoin today? Not very, if political party affiliation is any indication. Only Professor of Social Sciences Jean Yarbrough in her April 22 op-ed "Bowdoin should examine its lack of diversity" challenged my claim that no more than 4 percent of the Bowdoin faculty is Republican. She thinks my figure is probably too high.
But perhaps there is no need to count Republican noses, for, as a number of my critics pointed out, party affiliation may not be the best measure of what I am calling "intellectual diversity." OK. So what then do we mean by the term and how might it be measured?
I mean this: Is there, within the community, a range of views on "foundational" beliefs and assumptions, such as: whether there is such a thing as human nature (or gender differences determined by nature); whether there are moral truths or just contingent values; whether tolerance is the highest virtue; whether America is a mosaic of groups or a collection of individuals joined by creed and culture; whether America should strive to transcend race or celebrate it; and whether America and the West have been, on balance, a source of good or evil.
I suspect that among Bowdoin faculty there is a great deal of uniformity on matters of this sort. But these "suspicions" don't count for much. They ought to be put to the test by further study of the curriculum, student life, faculty attitudes and the like.
Some students and faculty did acknowledge the very liberal perspective of the faculty, but denied it infected the classroom. I wish I could be so sanguine. Where opinions are universally shared, they ever so easily become invisible assumptions. Mills's convocation speech is a good example: it is full of liberal assumptions of which he seems blissfully unaware. All that said, I readily concede that the question of whether bias is communicated (and if so, how) remains unsettled.
I did offer one specific, and I think glaring, example of liberal bias infiltrating the classroom: Bowdoin's American history courses. For this charge, I was rather roughly handled. Yet I'm not at all persuaded that the criticism met my charge, which is that all American history at Bowdoin is taught through a very narrow and limited social/cultural perspective, and most of that through the even narrower perspective of race, class and gender. To confirm this, one has only to refer to the Bowdoin course catalogue.
"No," cried one of my critics, the course catalogue, which carries only brief summaries of course content, is not a basis for making such an assessment. Others claimed that I had failed to include relevant courses in other departments. Fair enough. But then what would a full assessment reveal?
Why are there so few conservative professors at Bowdoin? Be careful, warns Yarbrough, not to simply assume that none are available. One correspondent asked the same question but in a more exacting form: Would Bowdoin's history department hire a professor who believed in "American Exceptionalism" or some other "conservative" idea? And if faculty holding such conservative ideas would not be hired, as the correspondent and I suspect, why not?
And how exactly are conservatives kept off campus? There are no "Conservatives Need Not Apply" signs at Bowdoin, but bias, as we have learned from other contexts, often operates by means that are subtle and indirect—sometimes even unconsciously.
Is there a free exchange of ideas at Bowdoin? I accused Mills of trying to silence me (or the point of view I represented) by implying that I was racist. The charge of racism (and homophobia) is radioactive; its silencing effects are lethal and very long lasting.
Is Mills serious about remedying liberal bias? I said he is not. Perhaps I am selling him short. One could inquire.
Even if Mills is serious, does he have the power to effect change? College presidents do not rule by fiat; they are not corporate chief executive officers. Still, I suspect Mills has the muscle should he choose to use it. But here too, more investigation is required.
I sharply criticized Mills because I thought that if I got his (and Bowdoin's) attention there was a chance that it might encourage the Bowdoin family to take steps to increase intellectual diversity. This, of course, is up to Bowdoin, but I remain ready to support such an effort in any way within my means.
Thomas Klingenstein is chairman of the Claremont Review's board of directors and authored an essay on President Barry Mills in the latest issue of the Claremont Review.