Good Intentions? Maybe. Probably Not.

By Inbal Marilli via Unsplash.

By Inbal Marilli via Unsplash.

I ran across this Des Moines Register article today tweeted by Sara Goldrick-Rab. It struck me as rather odd. Let me tell you why.

Because of ... recent events, shall we say, I've found myself wanting to give others the benefit of the doubt more often than I do. I'm fairly cynical, generally speaking, so I immediately thought, 'I wonder if this is just good intentions gone wrong.'

I don't think it is. The crux of this piece is that an Iowa senator wants to stop hiring faculty based on political affiliation until equilibrium between parties has been achieved. Yes, you read that right: prevent the hiring of potentially fully- or exceptionally-qualified applicants because of political affiliation.

Let's look at some of the material in the article:

"I'm under the understanding that right now they can hire people because of diversity," said the bill's author, Sen. Mark Chelgren, R-Ottumwa. "They want to have people of different thinking, different processes, different expertise."

That's right and pretty standard. We shouldn't discriminate when hiring and we absolutely should be looking to add people to any given faculty who can improve it in any number of different ways, from broadening the areas of expertise to improving teaching excellence to strengthening the program's research lines. All of this should be done without any negatives regarding demographics. (I sometimes think even names should be removed from the post-HR minimum-requirement screening to make the process as blind and equal as possible, but I digress.)

Iowa City representative Mary Mascher agrees:

"We do have a Constitution and it's there for a reason, and it's to try to protect equity and to make sure that we don't judge people on the basis of their race or religion, their creed, their political beliefs," she said. "We never ask that question when someone's hired: Are you a Republican, Democrat, or independent, or Green Party or socialist or any of that. And I think that would be clearly discriminatory."

So, you think, 'Seems like we're on the same page,' right? Not so much. Let's break it down.

"A bill in the Iowa Senate seeks to achieve greater political diversity among professors at the state's Board of Regents universities."

Okay, increasing diversity is a good thing, so how do we go about this?

A symbol written on applications at the BBC, "refer upstairs" was a secret way of sending 'undesirables' to another review process.

A symbol written on applications at the BBC, "refer upstairs" was a secret way of sending 'undesirables' to another review process.

"Senate File 288 would institute a hiring freeze until the number of registered Republicans and Democrats on the university faculty fall within 10 percent of each other."

Wait, what? So, if it's 65% Democrat and 35% Republican (nevermind the fact that there are more than two parties), there would be a freeze on Democrat hires until the numbers "are within 10%." If it's against the law to ask questions regarding political affiliation, how exactly do you enforce this?

Chelgren, the Republican senator and author of the bill, says that professors could claim "no-party" and wouldn't be included. And the kicker: "Chelgren said professors who want to be hired could simply change their party affiliation to be considered for the position." So, essentially, hide who you are and you might get the job.

"We have an awful lot of taxpayer dollars that go to support these fine universities," he said. "[Students] should be able to go to their professors, ask opinions, and they should know publicly whether that professor is a Republican or Democrat or no-party affiliation, and therefore they can expect their answers to be given in as honest a way possible."

I think this demonstrates a tremendously poor view of professors and their ethics as educators. Are some faculty impossible ideologues that treat students differently based on their political affiliation or ethical worldview? Sure, as Chelgren says, you'll always have "extreme views on either side." But let's take this to the logical conclusion while absolutely ignoring the fact that Democrats can be conservative and Republicans can be liberal:

So Chelgren gets his way (he won't) and the bill passes (it won't) and hiring committees are now asking faculty applicants about their political party affiliation. Chelgren says this is to ensure "[students] have the ability to ask questions of professors of different political ideologies." What about sexualities? Do we need to make sure that faculty have their sexual orientation displayed publicly so students can do the same with that? How about religious affiliation? Geographic or national origin? Feelings about The Big Lebowski?

Obviously, this entire thing is ridiculous and, as Mascher points out, would never actually happen. It does, however, shed light on just how tone-deaf and uninformed some politicians can be. 

So as I said at the very beginning: I'm willing to give Chelgren the benefit of the doubt and accept that he has good intentions with this train wreck of a bill but I can feel my cynicism bubbling up like acid reflux. I just hope the folks of Iowa shut this down as easily as it seems it deserves.