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Education and business: there's a difference

The ivory tower flings open its gates again this week. Students at UNC Charlotte and elsewhere are flocking to classes rested and refreshed from the Christmas break to face the challenges of new courses. Members of the faculty have prepared their syllabi, made their course plans and are more or less ready to face the oncoming tide of young people, who are more or less eager for new knowledge. The struggle to open the minds and feed the intellects of America's best and brightest begins again.

Much is made in the rightwing media of the liberal bias of academia. Dark mutterings abound about plots to keep conservatives out of the classroom, and the so-called "liberal agenda" for controlling the minds of America's youth through classroom propaganda. When conservatives find themselves in a minority in academia, they immediately look for a way to cast themselves as victims. But there's no plot or conspiracy.

It's true that professors in public universities like UNC Charlotte are predominantly -- but not exclusively -- liberal in their beliefs. During the 2004 election, Kerry-Edwards stickers vastly outnumbered Bush-Cheney logos on the fenders of faculty cars. There's a very good reason for this, but it has nothing to do with rightwing fantasies of "liberal plots." The free market so beloved by conservatives is simply operating to regulate the supply and demand of labor in the most efficient and profitable way. You'd think they'd be happy.

True universities value independent thinking and research; they are not places where dogma and predigested beliefs are handed down from teacher to pupil. Rational thought and enquiry are more highly prized than uncritically accepted doctrine.

This ethos of free-thinking enquiry, combined with rather modest pay compared to other professions with similar educational requirements, means that certain types of people are attracted to places of higher learning more than others. In a similar way, the business world, an arena dominated by the pursuit of profit and personal status, is predominantly conservative in its politics. Yet you don't hear liberals whining about a conservative plot by business leaders to exclude Democrats from positions of executive wealth and power! The employment market naturally attracts different types of people to different jobs and professions.

The contrast between academia and business is most evident in the realm of promotion and salaries. When I was promoted to the highest academic rank of full professor 10 years ago, I received not one extra dollar. What I got instead was a small silver cup modeled on a design by Thomas Jefferson that has become one of my most treasured possessions. Promotion in my world isn't about financial reward, but about the recognition that teaching, research and community service have reached a high standard. I can't imagine many folks in the hierarchical worlds of banking and business working happily in such a system where salary plays such a minor role in status and seniority.

Pay is lower in academia because market forces recognize that financial reward is not the main motivator for academics. Professors place more value on ideas, and the freedom of intellectual enquiry without the constraints of corporate strictures. The quest for knowledge for its own sake often brings its own reward.

At the College of Architecture, we are hiring new faculty, and we'll be looking for intelligent individuals who have open minds, proven talent in design, an appetite for hard work, a desire to improve the status-quo, and a willingness to respect the beliefs and opinions of others. As a predominantly white male faculty, we'll be eager to find excellent professionals who more accurately represent the diversity of America and bring fresh insights to our curriculum. Architecture is still largely a white male-dominated profession (although that's slowly changing) and women and minority students benefit academically from role models they can relate to positively. In addition to these professional and educational goals, we have to remember that we are also public servants. As such, we have a responsibility to reach out to people of all backgrounds in the Carolinas' fast-changing demographic mix.

Charlotte can be a hard sell as a place to live and work to the kinds of people we're looking for. They are not necessarily impressed by our multitude of churches, our flashy but mediocre new buildings, or our contempt for history so evident in our lack of old structures. They're more interested in the state of our arts, music, contemporary architecture and the quality of urban life.

I'll back our college every time in head-to-head rivalries with other schools of architecture, but Charlotte as a city is competing with more attractive and mature places across the US. My colleagues and I will be working long hours, but we'll be selling our city, not asking a candidate's political affiliation. There is no liberal litmus test. But it's likely the people who fill our positions will be liberals. And that, too, is part of the beauty of the free market; intelligent free thinkers are able to go where they choose.

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