Posted: November 11, 2016
or a long while, conservatives have been in the business of lamenting the hammerlock that liberalism has on the American academy. Although William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale (1951) was the progenitor of much contemporary criticism, it’s only over the past quarter-century or so that this conservative pastime has spawned a veritable cottage industry. Books, articles, essays, websites, and blogs abound with criticism of the intellectual homogeneity across institutions of higher learning. Organizations have been founded to go beyond merely observing liberal biases and the suppression of countercultural, conservative ideas; their mission is to fight back—intellectually and legally—against the injustices perpetrated against students and faculty alike by the one-party state that is the American university.
Now, Jon A. Shields and Joshua M. Dunn, Sr., have produced an empirical study of the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of conservative professors within this dominantly progressive academy. As political scientists, at Claremont McKenna College and the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, respectively, Shields and Dunn are interested in what the data show. For example, they report that self-identified Marxists—a seemingly quaint category—still outnumber self-identified Republicans in social science fields. Furthermore, the Left-Right ideological imbalance extends well back into the middle part of the 20th century, or further. Today, sociologists report they would rather hire a Communist than a Republican. Evangelicals and members of the National Rifle Association fare even worse.
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The authors’ purpose is to illuminate the “hidden world” of conservative professors, and to show that, at least in some ways, things are not as bad as critics are inclined to believe. Their approach involves what an anthropologist might call “thick description.” That is, they seek to bring to sight not simply the aggregate and abstract behaviors, successes, and failures of academic conservatives, but the full context in which they operate. Their methodology relies on interviews and surveys of 153 conservative professors (I was one of them) in various social science and humanities disciplines, at 84 institutions. They then intersperse their own findings with other empirical studies of academic culture.
Finding enough subjects wasn’t easy. As the authors note, they had no ability to raise the dead, and living conservatives in the disciplines under examination are scarce. Indeed, in some of the most politicized and fashionable fields—such as gender and cultural studies—none can be found. So the authors sought out subjects who enjoyed some public prominence that suggested they were intellectual conservatives or libertarians. They culled their initial sample from “right-wing journals and academic membership lists with distinct ideational profiles.” The interviewees were particularly active scholars—far more so than the average professor. They were therefore “engaged in a wider community of conversation than their less accomplished peers—one that transcends the particular universities they call home.” And so the authors claim their sample, undoubtedly a subset of a larger whole, is particularly worthy of attention: they “tend to be members of an elite conservative professoriate.” And yet, the authors also report that they decided to protect the identities of their subjects “because so many of them insisted on it.”
Ironically, many of these conservatives came to their conservatism as students within the progressive academy. This often happened through their contacts with their own professors or other students, though the university exposed precious few of them to anything like social or cultural conservatism. Often, their breaks with the progressive intellectual consensus on one issue—anti-Communism, affirmative action, statism—led them to reexamine other long-held views. In the end, conservative academics can’t help having divided loyalties: the institution that throws so many professional obstacles in their way is also the institution that formed them.
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Furthermore, many conservatives feel more at home in the academy than in the more populist Republican Party, though the authors claim the views of conservative professors closely track those of rank-and-file Republicans. The authors didn’t find many academic Tea Partiers, but they did find subjects who showed sympathy for candidate Obama in 2008—largely because he projected the cool, deliberate sense of an intellectual, something to which the professors could immediately relate. For these conservatives, political candidates who are perceived to go with their “gut” and not do their “homework” aren’t worthy of support. In the academy—even on the Right—expertise and intellect are often elevated above all.
This finding might point to the fact that there are even fewer conservatives in the academy—especially political conservatives, who have good reason to doubt the value of expertise—than the authors suggest. Or perhaps their sample is skewed, or perhaps the rejection of anti-establishment conservatism by conservative academics simply reflects their relative comfort and security within a fundamentally aristocratic, establishment institution.
As the authors note, because academic liberals don’t meet many conservatives, they tend to associate conservatism only with its populist expressions. Like their conservative colleagues, they don’t have a favorable impression of populism, but unlike those colleagues, they assume it’s all conservatism has to offer. For anyone who’s spent some time at a contemporary college, it’s not hard to discern that the campus Left has no reality check. As John Stuart Mill said, “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.” The absence of conservatives within the progressive academy is therefore not just a problem for conservatives; it’s a problem for honest liberals.
The liberal sense that conservatives are populist know-nothings—along with various other comfortable, unchallenged progressive assumptions—means that conservatives have to run a gauntlet, from hiring through promotion and tenure, to publication opportunities for conservative research. And even after they’re fully ensconced in their positions, it would seem they simply can’t get away with things—or build things—in quite the same way liberals can. Conservatives labor under what liberals might call systemic discrimination and glass ceilings.
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But in the authors’ telling, those conservatives who do manage to swim upstream aren’t too hard done by. Disciplinary pressures, at least in some fields, can depoliticize the academy. Furthermore, some forms of conservatism—especially those that lean toward the libertarian—are far more acceptable than others, such as social or cultural conservatism. Another of the authors’ findings will ring true to many: social conservatives are more tolerant of libertarians than the other way around.
And conservatives often engage in coping strategies—like practicing good, old-fashioned civility. Some, presumably with tenure, enjoy the fun that goes along with being a gadfly. In many fields, conservatives can and do remain closeted, especially prior to tenure. A junior political scientist reported avoiding any research “that touches on salient political issues.” Easy enough for a political scientist, but one wonders about other fields.
Even tenure doesn’t breed courage or energy, two qualities in short supply across academia. A go-along-to-get-along attitude often persists even among secure conservatives. Many of them tend to avoid “stigma symbols”—very few would adorn their vehicles with a “Don’t Tread On Me” bumper sticker in a Stanford faculty parking lot. They don’t get to live out their identities quite like their liberal colleagues.
The author’s research supports the notion that economics is the most balanced of the social science disciplines, for methodological and philosophical reasons. It’s the closest to a hard science, which means it has limited moral ambitions. But economists largely accept market dynamics, which tend to undercut cultural conservatism and in effect ally many self-identified conservative or libertarian economists with progressives. The authors suggest, too, that belief in markets does not impede professional advancement in the way that belief in social or cultural conservatism does.
Shields and Dunn see cultural conservatives as “the defenders of an intellectual tradition with roots in important thinkers from the ancient world (Aristotle) to the Enlightenment (Hume and Burke).” These people seem to have no natural home in the progressive academy. Jobs for them either don’t exist or, if they do, they end up at less prestigious colleges than their scholarly records would predict. In fact, the authors conclude, “[c]onservatives are least welcome in fields where they are most needed.” And tellingly, conservatives of any sort are especially scarce at liberal arts colleges, where the transmission of an intellectual tradition might be particularly important.
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Fortunately for America, its students are remarkably resistant to intellectual engagement. Shields and Dunn report there’s little evidence that students become deeply indoctrinated in leftist ideology. But the absence of conservative professors does mean that most of them miss out on potentially important correctives to the popular, and populist, culture. And at least some of them miss out on a less tendentious, less impoverished account of the human experience. Academic progressivism is a religion of many taboos. Most students, for example, are unlikely to be exposed to certain research concerning the socio-economic importance of family structure or sexual difference.
Attentive readers will take more than a few issues with this interesting book. Most immediately, the authors’ nomenclature seems off. They insist, without explanation, on calling conservatives “right-wing,” even as they try to minimize the term’s impact: “Although the term ‘right-wing’ sometimes implies ‘far-right,’ we use it as simply a synonym for conservatism throughout the book.” Why? Of the many conservative academics I know, none of them, to my knowledge, chooses to refer to himself as a “right-winger.” Perhaps the authors’ choice of this descriptor, suggesting the faux precision of a linear spectrum, was an effort to conjure truthiness in the minds of fellow political scientists, or potential publishers. But it seems to violate the attention to self-understanding that must go along with thick description.
For everything the authors give to conservative critics of the academy, they seem to take something away. To the extent their thick description leads them to a generalizable conclusion, it’s that “the right-wing critique of the university is overdrawn” and that the academy is “far more tolerant than right-wing critics” imagine. But one wonders how meaningful such statements can be in light of the methodology employed.
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Conservative professors do exist, and the ones the authors found seem to flourish, albeit sometimes in niches of their own making. But the authors came up with only 153 professors (there are more than a million post-secondary teachers in the United States), many of whom apparently wished to remain anonymous, and they faced challenges doing even that. Their subjects are people who have arrived, or were well on their way. And, whatever the individual successes their subjects enjoy—which include just being left alone—one can’t help coming away with the impression that, for the most part, the authors interviewed contented solitary walkers, whose ability to have any kind of effect on institutional culture or programming is highly circumscribed. I’d wager I’m not alone in attesting to the fact that the purported tolerance of the academy almost never extends to a faculty meeting where someone proposes a challenge to progressive orthodoxy, especially anything that smacks of cultural conservatism. Cultural conservatives—those the authors suggest are particularly needed in many fields—seem only slightly more common than dodo birds.
But Shields and Dunn offer us much to ponder. If conservatives are steered, or steer themselves, away from academic careers, the imbalance in the progressive academy will continue, with grave consequences for liberalism as well as conservatism, and for the social sciences and humanities themselves. These fields are already facing challenges that threaten their health, if not existence, in terms of declining student enrollments and command over the allocation of resources, both public and private. And such challenges are in no small way related to the intransigent, dismissive, and ultimately uninformed refusal of these fields to better reflect—or at least take seriously—the political and moral orientations of society as a whole.