Friday, November 16, 2012

Indoctrination at Research Universities?

Are young people susceptible to new ideas?  I'm not so sure.  In my 22 years teaching undergraduates, I've met some dogmatic Bayesians who were not eager to update their view of the world.  Hopefully somebody is at the margin!  Given that liberal faculty are the majority on many campuses not named UC Berkeley, do Conservatives have a legitimate fear of powerful treatment effects?  You do recall that I blogged about this hypothesis in 2010 in this classic post about Yale Law School?

In this recent blog post, Peter Wood revisits the issue of the fundamental asymmetry of ideology in U.S universities.  He points out that at FSU that a donation of funds to create a Koch Chair in Political Economy almost caused a riot while at UCLA recent small grants to encourage the faculty to introduce "sustainability" into their course material has been celebrated.

What do I think?  If Mr. Koch wants to give a chair in "free market environmentalism" to UCLA --- I would be thrilled.  Scholars who are "for hire" will quickly face ridicule from their peers.  Active scholars can self police themselves through the rigorous peer review process for academic papers.    A scholar who held a "Koch Chair" might expect to give some after dinner remarks at meetings of "fat cats" but that sounds like fun!  Such a scholar might write provocative blog posts and editorials but isn't that good?  What happened to the competition of ideas?   If such a scholar tried to publish a provocative idea with minimal evidence in a serious outlet, it will be rejected during peer review.

Turning to UCLA's small grants for nudging sustainability forward; here is a direct quote from Peter Wood's blog;

"UCLA has found a novel way to improve the politicization of its curriculum. UCLA Today, the faculty and staff newspaper, reports that the university's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and the Sustainability Committee have teamed up to help faculty members across the university figure out ways to slip sustainability messages into their classes, regardless of the actual subjects they are teaching.  Participating faculty members get a two-hour workshop and a $1,200 grant to turn their courses into vehicles of sustaina-ganda."

This quote is funny but  it is over the top.   If Peter Wood did his homework (and looked at my record and what Magali Delmas works on), he would know that there is "ideological balance" at UCLA's Institute of the Environment.  We are a center of free market environmentalism.

The small grants program is really a "Sunstein and Thaler style" nudge to get older faculty to take a new look at their lecture notes. When I think back to the classes I took in College, there weren't many synergies between them.  The broad theme of "sustainability" does cross many disciplines.  To UCLA's credit, we are thinking about how to improve  our product.  As we raise our tuition, we owe it to the students to think through whether we can produce a better undergraduate experience.  

As a tenured member of the UCLA Institute of the Environment (and as a proud 1993 graduate of the University of Chicago's Ph.D program), I can solemnly swear that we do not have a "politicized curriculum". I do worry that many young people have strange naive negative views of free market competitive capitalism (as they happily use their laptop computer and login to Facebook and drink their Starbucks coffee)  but this means that they need to learn more about what their life would have been like under alternative societal rules such as those introduced by Mao and Stalin.   Our students often do believe in benevolent, productive government.  On that score, I hope they are right but we need to take a sober look at the evidence.