Citing that Democrats outnumber Republicans 12:1 in faculty positions at the University of North Carolina, Senate Majority leader Phil Berger suggests that Republican job candidates are discriminated against when they apply for university positions unless they “toe the line from the left.” However, it seems likely that there may be other, more objective explanations for the imbalance of party affiliation.
In 17 years of experience with hiring faculty at the School of Medicine at UNC-Chapel Hill, I have never heard political affiliation mentioned in any job search. There is certainly no place for information about it on the application form. I have never heard any member of a search committee ask a candidate about political preference, and I have never heard of it coming up in any of the many interviews that job candidates go through. I have never heard party affiliation or political leaning raised in the final committee deliberations that determine which candidate is selected.
So if we are not actively searching for Democrats among job applicants, why is the ratio of party affiliation so lopsided?
One reason is the anti-science attitude adopted by many rank and file Republicans and supported by some Republican leaders. For example, a Pew Research Survey in 2013 found that only 43 percent of Republicans believe that humans have evolved over time. During the recent Republican primary season, only Jeb Bush could be found to have ever made a statement expressing belief in the theory of evolution. Several of the candidates were on record stating that they did not accept evolutionary theory.
How should scientists react to this? The theory of evolution is the central organizing principle of modern biology. If Republican leaders don’t believe it is true, how can scientists support them? Further, public funds in NC are directed at “voucher” schools that teach that the theory of evolution is false. How can we join the party that apportions funds in this way?
More relevant is Republican positions on climate science. Most of the faculty have no information yet about the new “N.C. Policy Collaboratory” at UNC-CH or candidates to lead it, but presumably the university would choose an individual who supports climate science. Admittedly climate science is complicated. Most of us in the biomedical sciences don’t go into the primary data. However, we respect the conclusions of the overwhelming majority of scientists who are developing and testing climate models.
A recent joint report issued by the National Academy of Science in the U.S. and Royal Society in the U.K. clearly expressed the scientific consensus about the causes and dangers of global warning and emphasized the role of carbon emissions. Most scientists cannot imagine that National Academy of Science or Royal Society members would participate in a conspiracy to manipulate data and conclusions. It is also apparent to anyone who follows the issue that many of the statements claiming that climate science is a hoax are compromised by economic self-interest related to companies and individuals who profit from fossil fuels.
The life of the university depends on rational discourse. If people want to debate women’s reproductive issues or the integrity of elections, interested university faculty in the relevant areas would welcome these discussions. But how should we react when partisan legislation on these issues is justified by catch phrases like “protecting women’s health” and “massive voter fraud” and passed without any serious discussion? In several recent cases, the courts have found that the stated rationales for the partisan legislation in these areas were fictitious. Of course, the faculty are of the opinion that issues should be debated on merits rather than on rationale manufactured to appeal to a political base.
Will there be consequences due to the fact that so many of us in the university community are Democrats? Of course, we hope not, but the University of North Carolina system has already seen a competent and respected president who was a Democrat forced out so a Republican could be installed. Looking at what’s happening at other Republican-controlled states like Wisconsin, there is reason for concern that state funding to the university could be cut even more deeply. The sad part is that this will happen only at public schools. The private colleges and universities will continue to prosper via endowments and high tuitions, their faculty will remain heavily Democratic and the wealthy will continue to send their children there.
William Snider, M.D., is a professor in the Department of Neurology at UNC-Chapel Hill.