'Passing on the Right'

New book-length study details realties of being a conservative professor in the overwhelmingly progressive humanities and social sciences. While many see bias and periodic slights, many are also succeeding.

March 30, 2016

Is being a conservative professor so challenging that many of them remain politically “closeted” until they gain tenure? Yes and no, according to a new book-length study of right-leaning humanities and social science professors. The closeted part -- that’s true: about one-third of professors choose not to disclose their right-of-center economic or social views, or both, until they’ve secured a promotion to associate professor. But overall, notions of conservative professors being ostracized among their peers and generally miserable seem exaggerated, according to the study -- at least in some disciplines.

In fact, there are plenty of conservative scholars who -- while periodically annoyed at their colleagues -- are successful and happy in academe. What’s more, the book says, attacks on the liberal university from Republican politicians only perpetuate the problem of political homogeneity. Perhaps most significantly, the book discusses the pros and cons of a kind of affirmative action for conservative professors (spoiler: most subjects vaguely like the idea but don’t support it as policy).

Passing on the Right: Conservative Professors in the Progressive University (Oxford University Press) was written by Jon A. Shields, an associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, and Joshua M. Dunn Sr., an associate professor of political science and director of the Center for the Study of Government and the Individual at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. The authors relied on a “snowball,” or peer referral-based method of recruiting subjects for what may be the largest-scale study of conservative professors ever. Their method yielded 153 eventual interviewees on 84 campuses -- each of whom researchers met with face-to-face.

Beyond the difficulties of identifying these professors (one respondent compared it to “raising the dead”) and finding time to visit them, Shields and Dunn had to determine how to define conservative -- no easy feat. Did it mean politically conservative, or socially, and was it synonymous with Republican? Would libertarians be included? In the end, they left it up to their subjects: those who self-identified as conservative were classified that way.

The researchers also limited their study to six fields in the humanities and social sciences -- economics, political science, sociology, history, philosophy and literature. They did so based on the belief that politics impact work in those fields more than objective or practical fields including the natural sciences, math, technology, engineering and professional studies. (According to existing research cited by Shields and Dunn, less than 10 percent of social scientists and humanities professors identify as Republicans.)

The interviews and supplementary survey on which the book is based yielded findings that are not only interesting, but vital to understanding the environments in which college students learn -- and in which their own political identities are shaped.

Or, as Shields put it in an interview, “Prior research on the university has always focused on liberals. It has asked questions like, ‘How liberal is the university?’ or ‘Why is the university so liberal?’ or ‘Is academia becoming more liberal?’ Yet conservative professors are interesting, and so misunderstood by liberals and conservatives alike. They provide a revealing window into the progressive university and American conservatism.”

Uncloseted or “out” conservative professors, for example, tend to challenge their colleagues' prejudices (perceived or real) by practicing what the book describes as “conspicuous civility,” temperance and broad-mindedness, though a few tend to be defiant or combative. Others minimize conflict by avoiding liberal colleagues or disciplines they view at particularly politicized, such as sociology or literature. “When conservative professors venture into such spiritualized academic terrain,” the book says, “they often report mistreatment in small and large ways for their intellectual profanity.”

Safe Havens and ‘No-Go’ Zones

Conservative professors in political science and economics -- who generally have more like-minded peers in their departments than do their colleagues elsewhere -- tend to report fewer problems. Dunn said in a interview that he was particularly struck by questions from some fellow political scientists about whether the ideological divide between liberal and progressive academics was truly problematic -- even when professors in other disciplines on their campuses described the environment in that way. In some cases, Dunn said, methodological partisanship among political economists (think qualitative versus quantitative) was seen as a bigger issue.

As for economics, the book says, “many on the libertarian right found an especially welcoming intellectual home” there. “Economics, in fact, is the only social science discipline with anything approaching a rough partisan balance between Democrats and Republicans.” The authors attribute the development, in part, to economics forefather Adam Smith, a conservative thinker, and regulatory experiments in the 1960s and 1970s that revived appreciation for traditional market views.

By contrast, they say, other fields that time liberalized at the hands of “activist-scholars. … Thus we can tell something like a tale of two conservatives: as the academy become more receptive to the interests and concerns of the libertarians, it grew less friendly to traditionalists. These political currents in academia roughly mirrored -- and perhaps contributed to -- shifts in American public opinion, which liberalized on many social issues, but on few economic ones.”

What Kind of Conservative Are You?

Beyond discipline, professors’ specific views -- that is, what kind of conservative they were -- seemed to influence their experiences. Fiscal conservatives tended to report much more welcoming work environments than cultural conservatives, who reported more isolation and ridicule. Such treatment is most acute in sociology, according to the study, leading the authors to suggest that vocal cultural conservatives (ironically) “may be wise to stay out of the one discipline devoted to the study of culture.” That observation underscores “a more general and troubling truth: conservatives are least welcome in fields where they are most needed.”

The study sample included a large portion of social or cultural conservatives. About two-thirds believed that abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. A smaller majority (55 percent) oppose or strongly oppose same-sex marriage. About half of professors interviewed were self-identified Christians, many of them Roman Catholics, and attend church regularly.

One-third of the sample said they were libertarians, and they tended to be far more liberal on social questions (such as those on abortion and gay marriage) than even most Americans. They’re also less religious than nonlibertarian professors. About 49 percent of the sample said they were “strong Republicans.” Twenty-seven percent were Republican or Republican leaning, 5 percent were independents and 12 percent were libertarian. While some professors expressed concerns about the “radicalism” of the Tea Party, and Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky in particular, the interviews sufficiently predate the current political cycle for any substantive comment on presidential candidates such as Donald Trump or Ted Cruz.

While some professors reported stable political identities, 60 percent said they’d become more conservative over time, from identities ranging from New Deal liberalism to communism. Some of those transitions happened at college, including but not only in economics courses -- suggesting that political conversions can happen in both political directions on campus, despite common critiques of the liberal university.

Now professors themselves, some 22 percent of interviewees have discouraged conservative or libertarian undergraduates from pursuing academic careers due to concerns about political bias in higher education (63 percent have always encouraged students and 15 percent said the issue has never come up). Whether right or wrong in terms of a mentoring perspective, specific challenges come with being an “open” conservative, at least anecdotally.

Facing Bias

A historian at an elite research university, for example, said he was initially denied tenure on account of his political views. He discovered that a colleague had in a letter referred to him as an “appalling Eurocentric conservative” for suggesting to students that North Korea should be blamed for the Korean War. Another extremely productive sociologist was voted down for tenure by his colleagues and dean, only to have the vote reversed by a provost -- due in part to some liberal colleagues who cried foul at the process. One such colleague reportedly told the sociologist in question, “Your religion, your politics, entered into the discussion for tenure and basically a lot of extraneous things were not relevant to [your] performance were questioned.” That professor and others with similar experiences said they initially -- and perhaps naïvely -- thought that their research, teaching and service records would speak for themselves come tenure time, and that writing occasional essays for conservative publications or otherwise “showing” their views wouldn’t matter.

Beyond tenure, professors cited bias elsewhere, including in publishing. Some complained it would be impossible to get a paper with a conservative slant published in a top journal. One historian shared, for example, that he commonly says, “If I’d known the depth of politicization of academia, I might have gone in a different direction, but I didn’t know.”

Affirmative Action for Conservative Professors?

The book ends with a discussion on whether there should be affirmative action for conservative professors, which was the topic of a controversial 2012 op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor (penned by a liberal professor, no less). Indeed, some campuses have made attempts at increasing political diversity, such as the move by the notoriously liberal University of Colorado at Boulder to create a visiting position in conservative thought and policy.

Shields and Dunn’s discussion draws heavily on comments from interviewees who complained that their campuses were intensely focused on racial and gender diversity but ignored intellectual diversity. As one female literature professor put it, “There’s all this talk of tolerance and diversity in academia being this place for honest debate, [but] it’s exactly the opposite. It’s tolerance of all things but conservatives and Christians.”

Despite those complaints (and consistent with some professors’ positions against affirmative action of any kind), few interviewees supported the idea of affirmative action for their ilk as official policy. Some 60 percent of interviewees said ideology is irrelevant in hiring decisions, compared to 31 percent who moderately favored considerations of conservative or libertarian ideology in hiring; some 9 percent favored it strongly.

One opposed sociologist said, “The only way that we should ever bring up affirmative action for conservatives is the reductio ad absurdum of the diversity rationale, but not as a serious proposal. It’s a fucking nightmare kind of scenario, a cure worse than the disease.”

A few interviewees disagreed. Another sociologist at a research university said, “What we do for a profession is a communal effort, [and] if we don’t have diversity and we get group thinking, we don’t find the truth.”

Passing on the Right doesn’t advocate for or against such action, but it suggests several ways to increase pluralism -- starting with making all kinds of thinkers welcome on campuses.

A Marketplace of Ideas

“Liberal professors and the administrators of universities should make it clear that they welcome conservative perspectives,” the book says. “Often they do just the opposite. When universities retract invitations to conservative speakers, it simply reinforces the distorted right-wing view of academia. They need to stop such callowness.”

Disciplinary associations also should emphasize their support for political diversity in various ways, the book says. Departments might also “broaden their hiring by targeting subfields that are neglected and comparatively popular among conservatives, such as the study of religion, business, the military, ancient history, natural law and the American founding.”

Perhaps most importantly, professors themselves can “cultivate a measure of distrust in their own reasoning and impartiality,” Shields and Dunn say. “To be sure, some confidence in rationality is essential to the professional vocation. But when professors’ faith in their rational minds is not tempered by what psychologists have called our righteous minds, it will always be difficult to see much point to political pluralism in academia.”

Shields and Dunn also are critical throughout the book of facile, right-wing shots at academia as self-indulgent, liberal wastelands. They offer some final advice to conservatives outside higher education, asking them not to “overstate the intolerance inside its walls” for fear of perpetuating the phenomenon.

“Complaining about professorial radicalism may be one of the few sources of common identity in a rent Republican coalition, but it certainly does not encourage young conservatives to consider a career in academia,” the book says. “Yes -- conservatives are correct to some degree, they are widely stigmatized in academia, especially those on the cultural right. That stigmatization is unfair. But as the many examples in this book attest, conservatives can survive and even thrive in the liberal university.”

Why does all this matter? The authors argue that it’s important to critically examine the state of conservative professors because the evidence suggests that they may “fit better in the university than they suppose.” Furthermore, they say, it’s more helpful and more accurate to describe the teaching “problem” posed by an overwhelming leftist professoriate as a “missed opportunity” than “indoctrination.”

“The university is one of the few institutions that could better prepare students for lives as citizens by exposing them to civil and respectful debates,” reads Passing on the Right. “But that sort of example is hard to provide with so few conservatives about. Their absence also limits the exposure of all students to important perspectives. And it deprives conservative student activists of mentors who might deepen their politics and direct them away from the populistic tactics that are increasing popular in large universities.”

Dunn, in an interview, doubled down on that rationale, saying the university “should be a place where students can see deliberative overtures modeled by faulty members -- tolerance, respect, civility -- even when there are strong disagreements. If you have political homogeneity, it is less likely students will see that.”

Research is also at risk, Dunn said, in that confirmation bias -- or the tendency to search out and agree with views to which one already is predisposed -- can only increase. “There’s a cost to scholarship.”

Some 60 percent of respondents were at research universities (just 4 percent were at community colleges, and 18 and 19 percent were at master’s and bachelor’s institutions, respectively). Passing on the Right doesn’t suggest that conservative professors at one kind of institution are better off than others, but Dunn said he had some sense -- at least anecdotally -- that liberal arts colleges were particularly difficult environments. Conservatives tended to be more easily identified in the South, he said. For reference, 25 percent of respondents were political scientists, the biggest share. Just 9 percent were sociologists. The overwhelming majority of respondents were tenured, and 53 percent were full professors.

‘Stockholm Syndrome’ or Reframing the Problem?

Passing on the Right comes out Thursday, but it’s already got people talking -- not all positively. Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote in the National Review that the book’s authors had apparently fallen ill with Stockholm syndrome, based on their recent op-ed in The Washington Post.

“Shields and Dunn have clearly stumbled onto a winning formula … for how to succeed in the academy by becoming every progressive professor’s favorite conservative,” Hess wrote. “They will be widely cited by leftist pundits and by academics eager to dismiss concerns about ideological bias. And Shields and Dunn know it. Their op-ed touts their ‘gratitude to the progressive scholars who mentored us -- as dissertation advisers, letter writers, morale boosters and book reviewers’ and offers thanks for ‘mak[ing] it possible for conservatives like us to succeed in academia.’ Indeed, Shields and Dunn even call for unilateral disarmament on the right, urging conservatives to ‘de-escalate their rhetorical war against the progressive university.’”

Neil Gross, Charles A. Dana Professor of Sociology at Colby College, has written about politics in academe and is mentioned in Passing on the Right’s discussion of affirmative action. He said it’s “an interesting study on an important topic,” since social scientists “don’t know nearly as much as we should about academicians -- conservative or otherwise.” But Gross said he disagreed with the book’s premise that social science would “be automatically improved if we added more conservative voices to the mix. … I just haven’t seen any evidence that conservatives make for better theorists or methodologists.”

The “real weaknesses” in social science today, Gross added, have to more to do with the lack of a “theoretical vision and a faddishness when it comes to research methodology.”

Regarding the academic reception Passing on the Right has received thus far, Shields said, “It would be a healthy thing for liberal academics to own up to the problems created by political homogeneity. Yet I sometimes get the sense that when the politics of the university is criticized, they form something like the academic equivalent of the thin blue line.”

Amy J. Binder, associate professor of sociology at the University of California at San Diego, recently presented on a panel on campus conservatism alongside Gross and Shields, and shared parts of her own research on politically conservative students. She said via email that she appreciated Passing on the Right because it paralleled her work in that it attempted to “get beneath the generalized, homogenized critiques lodged by right-leaning pundits and politicians about the bad treatment conservatives receive on campus.” Rather than taking those criticisms at face value, “the authors talked directly to conservative faculty, who told them about a range of experiences.” 

Binder said she was particularly struck by the finding that many conservative professors feel distant from the modern Republican party — much more so than cable news or talk radio might let on. “When liberal faculty are asked to conjure what a conservative faculty members might be like as a colleague and if they would vote to hire one, I think liberals’ minds go to partisan Republican politics, with which they agree about virtually nothing socially or politically,” she said. “But if liberal professors had more consistent contact with conservative colleagues — which would happen if universities hired more conservative faculty — they would come to understand that ‘conservatism’ and Trump (or [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell or Cruz or [Wisconsin Governor] Scott Walker) are not the same thing. Liberals could learn a lot from this.”

The authors' finding that a number of professors converted to conservatism at college echoes some of Binder's subjects' experiences, she added, in that campuses "did not indoctrinate them to becoming liberal, they actually provided space to explore their conservative beliefs in a more sustained way."

Mark Bauerlein, a vocally conservative professor of English at Emory University who once served as a visiting scholar in conservative thought at Boulder, was more complimentary of the book, saying via email that while he wasn’t sure if it broke new ground or not, “it does nicely shift the problem away from open hostility toward conservatives (which isn't that common) and toward the skew of the humanities and social science curriculum toward identity politics and other progressivist orientations.” (Bauerlein was an interviewee for the book.)

Relatedly, Bauerlein said he was opposed to affirmative action based on political orientation for reasons similar to his opposition to race-based affirmative action. What’s needed, however, he said, “is a liberal arts curriculum that isn't so biased against conservative ideas. Not one that espouses conservative ideas, but that presents them simply as part of the range of intelligent opinion.” That means, for instance, reading [Friedrich] Hayek and [Milton] Friedman on social justice as well as [Paulo] Freire and [John] Rawls, or [T. S.] Eliot and Roger Scruton on high culture, as well as the many academic critics who regard high culture as a spurious notion.”

Overall, Bauerlein said he agreed with Shields and Dunn that while conservatives “sometimes have a hard time of it, if they hunker down and do their work well, they're unlikely to be penalized at promotion time. … Yes, there are the occasional irritations that come with being a minority figure, but those can usually be shrugged off.”


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