The Ivory Tower's Blue-Collar Misfits

The first three years went off without a hitch. I had come up from pretty much nothing to having three letters after my name, finishing my Ph.D. at 26. I landed my first, and what would turn out to be my only, job at a religiously-affiliated university in a large Midwestern city. The money was good and my departmental colleagues were exceptional: they were dedicated to teaching; they were accepting and open to all views, from free market to Marxist; and they never put on airs that the professoriate made us somehow better. I immediately felt I belonged in academia and that my low income, blue-collar background was irrelevant, both to them and to me. That changed when my experience expanded from this small group of economists to the academy-at-large. Alas, not everyone was so down to earth.   

My first clue that pedigree matters, maybe more so than performance, was when I was tapped as an untenured 30-year-old to be the sole associate dean in a college of thousands of students and over 100 full-time faculty. In those first three years it had become clear that I had a knack for getting things done. With gusto I moved from a small shared office near the basement into my new office in the Dean's Suite. First task: set up my new, large office. Going through my few academic possessions I came across my college diploma and thought it fine to display on my bookshelf. The Dean walked in, saw it, and asked what it was. I told him, he read it, and asked, "you aren't going to leave that out, are you?" I was crushed; he was embarrassed by it.

His obvious embarrassment was because the degree of his new Associate Dean (AD) was not from some well-known institute of the highbrow, but from Slippery Rock State College. How was I to know I should hide my background? Where I came from, on the "Nort' Side" of Pittsburgh, finishing college was quite an accomplishment, let alone a Ph.D. I promptly put the diploma away and never spoke of my undergrad years again.

I went on to have, so I am told, a very successful five-year stint as a paper pusher, earning tenure along the way. That same Dean, about one year into my appointment, told me that in his many years of Deanship at several universities he never had anyone come in and make the job of AD his own the way I had. I'm sure he does not remember the diploma incident and when it came to performance I was not an embarrassment to him or my colleagues. In spite of this, I had a nagging suspicion that I was not a true academic, coming as I did from that school with the funny name. Pedigree is important to the academics who see themselves as the champions of the "little people" -- except folks like me.

The gulf between my fellow academics widened about two years into my AD term, but this time the emerging difference was lifestyle (or in today's parlance, class). I was a guest at dinner in a swank restaurant in the city with the Dean and three or four department chairmen. Conversation turned to what we had done the past summer and I heard tales of Africa and climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, of Japan and kimonos and obis, and traveling through Europe trying the various cuisines and wines. All eyes eventually turned to me. My answer: my family and I went camping alongside the virgin timbers of Pennsylvania as we did every summer. You could have heard a pin drop. Moments later one of the other diners broke the discomfort by continuing his tale of travel, and I was relegated to bystander for the remainder of the evening. No discussions of the challenges of towing a camper up hills, hiking, canoeing or just sitting around the campfire learning from my in-laws the trials of growing up poor in rural Pennsylvania. My administrative colleagues clearly had no interest in things so pedestrian. I realized that night I am more comfortable around plain folk who do things like camp than I am in the company of academics. It seemed I would forever remain the plumber's son, a white-collar wannabe.

In the 28 years since those episodes my status as misfit remains intact. My colleagues talk of going to see films (with subtitles no less!); I go to movies. They try the latest, trendy restaurant; I eat at home. They speak of ski trips in the Rockies or vacations on "the islands," my trips are to NASCAR tracks to watch cars go fast and turn left. And I would never consider discussing my Glock 17. It is not that I embrace some reverse snobbery that what they do is wrong or what I do is superior. (I am not what journalist Eric Alterman dubbed a "fucking NASCAR retard.") To the contrary, I could not be happier for them. I respect their choices; yet, I detect my academic brethren do not respect mine.   

Recently, my status as a campus misfit has become about more than my vacation destinations or food tastes. Surveys of faculty point to a distinct drift leftward in the political and social philosophy of the professoriate over the years (See, for example, Neil Gross's Why are Professors Liberal and Why do Conservatives Care?). With the rise of the tenured radical, many departments of the social sciences and humanities are devoid of Republicans and conservatives. When I entered academia I was what some might call a conservative Democrat, as were so many of my fellow Pittsburghers. Over time my politics became more and more Republican, in part due to the Democratic Party's move to the left, and in part due to my own reading and reflection on the human condition.   

There should be no reason why this drift to the left would necessarily worsen my alienation from my colleagues. We could all be just as open as my home department was and continues to be. But, in addition to the polling evidence on the dearth of conservatives in academia, we can add the derision that comes of inbreeding. Many articles have been written on the lack of conservatives and Republicans in academia on websites such as InsideHigherEd, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and MindingTheCampus. The reasons given by members of departments barren of intellectual diversity in the comments sections of these postings are especially telling. Conservatives are first and foremost stupid, precluding them from having the credentials to even apply for academic positions; they are money grubbers who go to the business world rather than academia; or they are just not interested in the profound questions of the human condition as are progressives. And when attention turns to matters of immigration or affirmative action or crime, accusations of racism and white privilege cannot be far behind. Conservatives just don't have the right dispositions. This, from the intellectual movement that warns us never to invoke stereotypes.

A few years ago I was asked by a conservative student group to be its faculty mentor. The pickings were slim for the students because there are so few conservatives on the faculty, and some of my conservative colleagues would rather keep a low profile rather than open themselves up to the condescension that comes with the territory. I happily agreed, not entirely expecting the kind of controversy that awaited me. The student organization, under the leadership of a brash but well-read and competent undergraduate, had arranged an information-table event critical of illegal immigration, a visit by loud-mouthed, provocative former pro wrestler, and, saints forfend, an Affirmative Action Bake Sale stationed across from the university's Cultural Center. This, for such a sensitive campus, was the trifecta of conservative insolence.

The fallout was immediate and long lasting. Among the reactions to these events was the creation of an activist faculty group to deal with such "difficult dialogues." The students behind these events had committed the academic mortal sin of hate speech the group said, and therefore must be punished. Keep in mind that pretty much any conservative view on social issues is essentially hate speech since it does not toe the academic lines drawn by multiculturalism, diversity, and class/gender/race. Rather than chronicle the details of the punishments and travesties that followed, I will share the text of an email from the university conservative alliance requesting a sit-down meeting with the aggrieved faculty.  This email expresses well the nature of the ultimate gulf that exists between the progressive faculty and their conservative inferiors:

We would like to discuss why being against affirmative action in higher education admissions (the AA Bake Sale) is "hate speech." Rejection of AA in higher education is, in our opinion, not some hate-driven slap at minorities, but rather a defensible rejection of discrimination. Black commentators and scholars such as Ward Connerly, John McWhorter, Walter Williams make reasoned and sound arguments that add to the social debate on this unsettled issue; to call it hate is to deny, and not embrace, dialogue. The same would be true of immigration: we reject illegal immigration while embracing legal immigration. Members of our student group were derided for holding an information table on illegal immigration, presenting a view that is embraced by a large percentage of the American population (and for that matter large percentages of populations in many countries facing illegal immigration). You likely disagree with us on many social issues. We don't consider your opinions hateful, but rather assume you have come to your conclusions based on sincere thought and reasoning. You, however, do not grant us the same courtesy; you brand us hateful as opposed to sincere. We would like to discuss why this is so. We also would like to discuss why, in your words, it is considered provocative to hold "the Bake Sale table directly in front of the Cultural Center for the purpose of provoking and upsetting primarily students, staff, and faculty of color." The Bake Sale was held to generate discussion on an important unsettled social issue, which it did. Why would you assume faculty, students and staff of color are so fragile that their facing a difference of opinion would be "upsetting"? In our view limiting free speech to designated spaces only is to deny free speech. You may disagree -- your website could lead one to conclude that you wish to limit speech on campus so as make "marginalized" students feel comfortable, to make them feel safe from intellectual attack. We don't think any students are that intellectually fragile. A dialogue on this issue could be exciting to say the least. It is the provocative and unsettling speech that is most in need of protection, on both sides, and maybe we could come to agreement that unfettered dialogue is the most efficient means to achieving the truth.

You will not be surprised to learn that the dialogue never occurred, and not because we did not try. Until respect and openness to ideas is practiced on both sides, blue-collar campus conservatives like me will remain misfits.

Stephen Charles is an associate professor of economics and writes under a pseudonym for this piece so as not to alienate himself further from his colleagues.

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