Senate vote to bar support from the NSF has many scholars wondering whether their discipline needs a new strategy. Also being debated: Was an exception to the ban a win for research or a loss on principle?
North Dakota State U. wins $1.2 million grant for a sex education program, then -- after legislators protest -- says it might be illegal to use the money. Faculty accuse administrators of sacrificing academic freedom.
Steve Gunderson has plenty of friends, including the Senate's leading critic of for-profit colleges. But the new head of the sector's trade group isn't afraid to pick a fight -- even with one of his members.
Given this narrative, conservatives in the academe should be miserable. But my own research shows that we are not. Let me tell you why.
I should first mention that, contrary to the prevailing wisdom, conservative faculty are just as happy as their liberal counterparts, if not more so. In fact, in 2014, two-thirds of conservative faculty on a nationwide survey responded “Definitely yes,” the most positive on a five-point scale, to the question “If you were to begin your career again, would you still want to be a college professor?” Nationally, an average of 58 percent of all faculty members said they would, while 56 percent of liberal faculty responded in such a positive way -- 10 points lower than right-leaning faculty.
Interestingly, tenure does not play a role in levels of satisfaction, either. Tenured and nontenured conservative faculty members are both highly satisfied, at 65 percent and 61 percent respectively. The numbers look different for faculty members who identify as liberal: of those, 62 percent of tenured faculty would remain a professor compared to only 49 percent of those who aren’t tenured -- a nontrivial difference.
That asks a question: Why are conservatives not miserable?
I think social-identification theory plays a huge role here. The theory argues, in its simplest form, that groups such as families, classes and teams are sources of esteem and pride, and that can lead to a sense of belonging in a complex and often divisive world. Scores of experimental works have shown that being in a small, particular in-group feels quite different and more personally meaningful when one compares oneself to the larger, other dominant out-group. Thus, it is wholly reasonable to think that conservative faculty members see themselves as minorities in opposition to a growing and more powerful liberal majority. Being part of this smaller and nondominant group helps shape career goals and personal outlooks, and it informs a worldview that may lead to quite a bit of personal happiness and comfort for any faculty members with an us vs. them perspective. Ironically, this feeling of being part of a small group can be empowering, given the right circumstances.
In fact, this in-group and out-group structure was certainly empowering for me personally. Even before tenure, I relished being in the ideological minority at Sarah Lawrence College. As a moderate, I stood out like a sore thumb relative to many of my fellow faculty members. In the campus popularity contest, I was a noncontender. My lack of outwardly left-leaning political leanings meant that I was not in competition for the hearts and minds of so many varied constituencies on the campus. I was not included in many of the informal social gatherings and meetings, but rather than being offended at not being invited, I relished the flexibility that being “unpopular” gave me in my schedule.
While that exclusion might upset some people, I found that being in this position gave me the freedom to teach political history and social movements in a balanced, multifocal way. I could talk about the enduring positive and negative impacts, for instance, that the Reagan-Thatcher era has had on the socioeconomic and political climate that exists today without heavy scrutiny or protest, since everyone already knew I was “different.”
Moreover, not being part of the campus “power elite” gave me the chance to really think about where I was intellectually situated within the larger academic community. I realized that viewpoint diversity is increasingly absent on college campuses and, despite pushback from faculty members and students, I took great comfort in seeing it as a personal and professional mission to present my students with a greater variety of ideas and frameworks for thinking about the world. Conflicts about ideas, as well as debates over the merits of various philosophies and approaches to problem solving, should be the bedrock of a college experience. It is how we progress as a civilization.
Accordingly, I taught my classes with the desire to correct this troubling intellectual imbalance in mind. To my surprise, swimming against the current and being part of the out-group made my teaching and work with students an unexpected joy. For instance, seeing a freshman’s eyes light up when he discovers a new way of looking at a public policy issue, or listening to three seniors debate farm subsidies from a multitude of political viewpoints -- those are the intrinsic benefits of teaching with ideological diversity at the forefront.
Thanks to social media and the ease of staying connected, I know that many other conservative-leaning academics feel the same way, and many of them have similar stories to my own.
This feeling that our teaching is instrumental in bringing balance back to campuses may explain why there are ideological differences in satisfaction based on tenure between conservative and liberal professors. For those professors who feel they are in an ideological minority, and therefore see their teaching as an important part of diversifying the campus pedagogy, the pretenure “publish or perish” paradigm is not the singular goal.
The idea of balance may also help explain why survey work reveals that conservative faculty members place far more emphasis on teaching relative to research, while liberal-identifying faculty members prioritize the latter. Although circumstantial, the survey work does lend credence to the idea that conservative faculty members may be reacting to the progressive echo chambers and increasingly prevalent liberal bubbles on their campuses, and therefore they view teaching, rather than publishing research, as a more important part of their mission as faculty.
While the data and narrative I’ve presented here are certainly not conclusive, it certainly is the case that I and my conservative colleagues are far more professionally fulfilled than many accounts would suggest. Samuel Adams wrote, “It does not take a majority to prevail, but rather an irate, tireless minority, keen on setting brushfires of freedom in the minds of men.” Being an increasingly small minority has lit such a fire under many of us.
Samuel J. Abrams is a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.
America’s universities are home, more than any place else in our country, to the enterprise of science. That has been an important and proud role for our great universities, and it has produced wonderful discoveries. Besides providing technical progress, science gives our society its headlights, warning us of oncoming hazards. As the pace of change accelerates, we need those headlights brighter than ever. So when a threat looms over the enterprise of science, the universities that are its home need to help address the threat.
The threat is simple. The fossil fuel industry has adopted and powered up infrastructure and methods originally built by the tobacco industry and others to attack and deny science. That effort has coalesced into a large, adaptive and well-camouflaged apparatus that aspires to mimic and rival legitimate science. The science that universities support now has an unprecedented and unprincipled new adversary.
The science-denial machinery is an industrial-strength adversary, and it has big advantages over real science. First, it does not need to win its disputes with real science; it just needs to create a public illusion of a dispute. Then industry’s political forces can be put into play to stop any efforts to address whatever problem science had disclosed, since now it is “disputed science.” Hence the infamous phrase from the tobacco-era science denial operation -- “Doubt is our product.”
Second, the science-denial operatives don’t waste much time in peer-reviewed forums. They head straight to Fox News and talk radio, to committee hearings and editorial pages. Their work is, at its heart, PR dressed up as science but not actual science. So they go directly to their audience -- and the more uninformed the audience, the better.
Our universities and other organizations engaged in the enterprise of science struggle for funding. Not so for the science-denial forces. You may think maintaining this complex science-denial apparatus sounds like a lot of effort. So consider the stakes for the fossil fuel industry. The International Monetary Fund -- made up of smart people, with no apparent conflict of interest -- has calculated the subsidy fossil fuels receive in the United States to be $700 billion annually. That subsidy is mostly what economists call “externalities” -- costs the public has to bear from the product’s harm that should be, under market theory, in the price of the product. These $700-billion-per-year stakes mean that the funding available to the science-denial enterprise is virtually unlimited.
And it’s your adversary. Those of you who either are scientists, or value and want to defend scientists, should beware. You have a powerful, invasive new alien in your ecosystem: it is a rival assuredly, a mimic at best, and an outright predator at worst. Make no mistake: in every dispute that this denial machinery manufactures with real science, it is determined to see real science fail. That is its purpose.
Given the connections between the fossil fuel industry and the new administration, we can’t count on government any longer to resist this predator. Regrettably, that science denial machinery is now probably hardwired into the incoming administration, as shown by the appointment of the fossil-fuel-funded climate denier Myron Ebell to lead the transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency. This considerably increases the denial machinery’s threat to the enterprise of legitimate science. The hand of industry now works not just behind the science-denial front groups but in the halls of political power.
That makes it all the more important for entities outside government -- notably universities as well as other scientific organizations -- to join together and step up a common defense. It is neither fair nor strategically sensible for universities and scientific associations to expect individual scientists to defend our nation against the science-denial apparatus. Individual scientists are ordinarily not trained in the dark arts of calculated misinformation. Individual scientists are ordinarily not equipped to deal with attacks and harassment on multiple fronts. Individual scientists don’t often have squadrons of spin doctors and public relations experts at their disposal. And they have no institutions devoted to ferreting out the falsehoods or conflicts of interest behind their antagonists.
Individual scientists are trained in the pursuit of truth through the tested methods of science. The science-denial machinery has truth as its enemy, and propaganda and obfuscation -- even outright falsity -- as its method. So the enterprise of science generally, and universities specifically, will need a common strategy to resist this potent and encroaching adversary.
In the Senate, I see the work of this apparatus, and its associated political operation, every day. Do not underestimate its power and ambition. Again, make no mistake: in every dispute that this denial machinery manufactures with real science, it is determined to see real science fail.
Sheldon Whitehouse is a United States senator, a Democrat, representing Rhode Island.