The university’s primary objective has traditionally been, and should still be, the quest for knowledge and truth, with the purpose of bettering ourselves and our society within it. The fundamental goal of the university, as an academic institution, would be rendered ineffective, fruitless and frankly dangerous with the betrayal of its prime academic purpose. Even Harvard University’s motto is ‘Veritas’: Latin for truth. The troubling truth, however, is that recent trends in partisanship within the university structure suggest that dramatic changes since the 1990’s are threatening the university’s ultimate goal of the attainment of truth.
I’ll start with a brief explanation of ‘peer-review’. The practice of peer-review, as it should be conducted, is designed that: as an academic article is to be published in a selected journal, other academics will review the findings in order to concur or disagree with the authors conclusions. The idea here is that when an article undergoes the peer-review process successfully, the findings can be deemed of significant standards and of reputable quality. Academics are not immune to the rest of us and have political biases; the process is designed so that enough academics will cancel out each other’s biases and arrive at a general agreement on the validity of the author’s findings. However, problems arise when those reviewing the academic articles are overwhelmingly biased.
Almost all professors within academia have a political leaning, which is not necessarily a bad thing. For most of the 20th Century political affiliations within academia in the US stood somewhere between 2:1 and 3:1 left-right leaning. For the peer-review process to work effectively, one doesn’t have to have a complete equality of political affiliations within those reviewing academic works, one simply needs a sufficient number of those from each side of the playing field to cancel each other’s biases out. Highly respected social psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls this process ‘institutionalised disconfirmation’. Haidt suggests that the peer-review process can work effectively at maximum of about 3:1 against any political ideology. The troubling truth suggests that current academics have gone past that limit, way past.
Statistics show that in the US, which can be judged not too dissimilar from Ireland and the UK, the left-right ratio has increased to somewhere between 5:1 and 6:1 overall, which surpasses Haidt’s proposed limit for the effectiveness of institutionalised disconfirmation. The worst affected academic fields are in the Humanities and Social Sciences, with almost all scoring above 10:1. The notable exception is the field of economics with a comparatively low 4:1 ratio. The field of psychology in the US has skyrocketed to 17:1 in 2016, something that proves very troubling indeed for the validity of politically-based psychological research. Rapid changes in academia since the 1990’s has left concerned academics stumped on how to save the university institution from rendering itself politically biased and therefore academically ineffective.
The societal repercussions of an unreliable and faulty centre for learning would prove devastating, not only to academics and students alike, but to the wider population too. One shouldn’t picture a university campus in disrepair and dismay when visualising a continuation of these trends, but rather an institution that attempts to provide answers to the burning questions of humanity without any accuracy or resolve.
Furthermore, it should be noted that this piece is not overtly anti-leftist. The prime goal of this article is in pursuit of academic harmony and not of the downfall of left-leaning political ideologies. The ongoing phenomena of conservative university professors being outnumbered by liberal ones would be just as dangerous should the ratio be reversed.
It’s a difficult task to anticipate the society wide repercussions with the continuation of these trends, but we can already see some negative results. Campus-wide witch hunts have swept US college campuses since 2013 and increased steadily in frequency. When academics and students are provided with a singular partisan view of the world, any dissent can cause uproar and outrage. Multiple examples of these witch hunts have resulted in academics being forced to resign their positions for something as small as providing an alternative view to the dominant held belief on campus. Ireland is not exempt from these kinds of phenomena. I’m sure we could debate all day whether or not the ‘Ascough Fiasco’ in 2017 could be constituted as a university-wide witch hunt, but there is certainly a strong case to be made in favour of such a claim. With regards to the applicability of these trends to UCD, you need only talk to a student in Newman of their experiences and it’s likely they haven’t had many overtly conservative professors. The picture I have painted is a dim one: the downfall of the university as a functioning centre of academic progress, it’s all very dramatic I know; but underestimate these dangers at your peril, for if we haven’t already, we will start paying the price sooner or later.
By Conor Capplis – Features Editor