Yesterday I read about Amy Bishop, the academic who opened fire on her colleagues during a department meeting, killing three. The media consensus at the time circled around "having been recently denied tenure" as a motive. Today, Glenn Beck blames the radical ideology he most fears, misunderstands, and mistakenly assumes has overrun American universities for this horrifying event.
I've been an academic for 25 years, and I am here to tell you universities are not the hot-beds of liberal thinking and radical ideology so many think they are. All my degrees are in the humanities; all my jobs have been in departments of "liberal" arts. Even in departments claiming to teach critical thinking, to promote openness to new ideas, and to practice the religion of liberality, gender and class hierarchies are fixed, closely guarded and quite conservative.
Being denied tenure is no true motive for violence, and Ms. Bishop was a demonstrably troubled person who committed earlier crimes free of the pressures of the tenure process. But, both guesses at motive illustrate how deeply misunderstood higher education and those who teach there are within the larger culture. Academe is not an easy place to exist if one is a woman, or a person of color or gay. The myth of the cushy, politically-correct, hyper-liberal academic grows out of work produced by a small minority of institutions. Even within these institutions, publishing and pumping out literary theorists of the post-modern set, women are a minority; power is maintained by a small, well-connected and largely white/male population.
We dream of department citizenship and believe in universities grounded in democratic notions of fair play. But we do not live in such a place.