A Duke Professor’s Questionable Memory

One of the reasons why the liberal-bias-in-higher-education argument has continued over the years in spite of various denials by college professors is because too many of those denials appear squishy and loose and smug and dubious. 

A revealing case occurred a few years ago at Duke University after the Duke Conservative Union published the results of a survey of political affiliation among the Duke faculty. The expected numbers came up, an extraordinary lean of Democrat over Republican.  No surprise there, of course.  Still, Duke University responded by hosting a symposium on the issue, with full transcripts appearing here

Michael Munger’s speech is witty and incisive, and deserves a close hearing, but Cathy Davidson’s is the focus here. It marks a signal moment in faculty thinking.  

Davidson concludes her response to the survey with some mocking advice to get more conservatives interested in academic careers in the humanities. “How about Head Start for Homer Programs in affluent gated communities so baby Republicans can learn the joy of classics,” she says, “not the joy of derivatives training.” Such observations perhaps pass as humor in the enclaves of English, but the stereotype they offer is one reason why academics appear so out-of-touch in public debate.

What is really striking about Davidson’s talk, however, is a sincere declaration a few paragraphs earlier. There, she offers a solemn pledge:

“Either as a department member or a member of the APT committee, I’ve not encountered any Duke faculty member being harassed or discriminated against because he or she is conservative.” (“APT” stands for Appointments, Promotions, and Tenures.”)

This is an odd statement, for one of the better-known cases of discrimination against conservatives during the academic culture wars of the late-80s and early-90s took place precisely at Duke University not far from her office.  It surfaced when some Duke folks started up a chapter of the National Association of Scholars on campus and several professors reacted with alarm.

The most prominent example was a letter to the Provost and five others, including the President, by Duke’s most famous professor, English Department chairman Stanley Fish. The letter stated, “I am writing you to say that in my view, members of the National Association of Scholars should not be appointed to positions on key university committees such as APT, Distinguished Professor, or any other committee dealing with academic priorities and evaluations.” (The letter is housed in Special Collections and Archives, University of California, Irvine Library, Stanley Fish Papers ; the archivists have granted permission to quote from it).

Obviously, Fish’s request marked a patent act of discrimination on ideological grounds, and the Provost wrote back saying that Duke couldn’t deny any professor the chance to serve on committees solely because of membership in a professional organization. But the matter didn’t end there. The letter was made public and a storm of controversy broke out, most of it running against Fish’s blackballing.

This brings us to Davidson’s denial. She arrived at Duke in 1989 while Fish was chair. She certainly followed the NAS episode as it unfolded, as did most everybody across the campus. We know Davidson paid particular attention to it because six weeks after Fish wrote his letter Davidson penned a letter of her own to the president with copy to the provost. It is also in the Fish papers at Irvine. In it she said:

“Although I do not agree with the tactics that he (reportedly) suggested with respect to the NAS debate, I also do not at all see him speaking for me in this matter and find it curious that, in the name of free speech, his voicing of his views is being condemned.”

Note how after trying to keep NAS-ers’ voices out of the committee room, Fish becomes in Davidson’s eyes the victim of suppression. To bolster him up, she concludes with an effusive endorsement:

“I am therefore writing to you . . . to express my admiration for the vision and ability that Professor Fish has displayed as a chair and to voice my hope that the current climate of pronouncement will in no way lead to any devaluation of his accomplishments and effectiveness.”

The exchange sets Davidson’s “Duke-has-never-discriminated” avowal in a disturbing light. Even though she dissents from his “tactics,” she was aware of the action. Even though the administration declined the request, conservatives across campus felt the pressure. Indeed, in the NAS file in the Fish papers are documents from other professors at Duke expressing their contempt for and hostility to the NAS effort.  And President H. Keith H. Brodie answered Davidson with commiseration: “I am appreciative of your comments, for he has clearly been maligned in the matter of the NAS in ways which are both unfortunate and unfair.”

When Davidson gave her talk at the Duke panel, then, did she just forget about the whole episode?  Does she believe that Fish’s letter did not constitute discrimination? Fish has devoted many years since then to issues of free speech, academic freedom, and bias, and I wrote a piece last month to applaud his work. Professor Davidson’s brief entry into such matters in the symposium stands in unflattering contrast. I invite her to clarify her position.

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