For generations, American conservatives have had an uneasy relationship with higher education. Although most recognize the importance of a college degree for employment, many conservatives are convinced that college campuses are indoctrination mills, designed to convert impressionable students into lifelong supporters of the Democratic Party. Republican concerns about higher education have become so serious, that the party delegates specifically address the issue in their 2012 platform:
“Ideological bias is deeply entrenched within the current university system. Whatever the solution in private institutions may be, in state institutions the trustees have a responsibility to the public to ensure that their enormous investment is not abused for political indoctrination. We call on state officials to ensure that our public colleges and universities be places of learning and the exchange of ideas, not zones of intellectual intolerance favoring the left.”
Beyond their vague demands for the careful oversight of public colleges and universities, conservatives actively work to counter the influence of liberal academia, promoting right-leaning institutions like Liberty University and Hillsdale College. For impressionable youths already drawn into academia’s web, the right creates alternative centers of learning like Prager University. This website, created by nationally syndicated radio talk show host Dennis Prager, offers five minute courses designed to “undo the intellectual and moral damage” done by a traditional college education.
As fellow conservatives who study the politics of higher education, we recognize elements of truth to the conservative critique. Virtually every study of higher education finds that college professors, regardless of their field, lean left. Furthermore, even those few professors who do identify as Republicans tend to hold views well to the left of Republican voters. Anecdotally, we know that some faculty use their classrooms to promote an ideological agenda. However, judging from the strong language included in the GOP platform, it seems clear that many conservatives overstate the problem. Whatever the long-term effects of a college education, there is little evidence that it has a dramatic effect on most students’ political beliefs. For example, the authors of The Still Divided Academy provide evidence that over time students’ views are remarkably stable. Additionally, relatively few conservatives feel victimized by their status as a political minority.
Yet even if liberal professors do not oppress conservative students, professorial ideological imbalance causes problems. While conservative students benefit from hearing alternative worldviews, liberal students at many institutions are rarely exposed to ideas challenging their core beliefs. Furthermore, without a critical mass of conservative faculty to challenge their liberal colleagues, social scientific research is inherently skewed to support leftist policy positions.
We argue that, rather than abandon American colleges and universities to the Left, conservatives need to “infiltrate” higher education, joining the faculty and thus reinvigorating higher education. In our recent article for the American Political Science Association's journal PS: Political Science and Politics, we synthesize more than a decade of research on politics in academe to provide conservatives with a roadmap for success. While conservatives in academe often face special challenges, with hard work, caution, and humility many can prosper in universities seemingly closed to the right.
For conservatives bold enough to consider academe, it’s important to select a field that is relatively tolerant of dissent. Obviously, fields like chemistry and engineering are less hostile to conservatives than sociology or women’s studies. Our own political science is a field already accustomed to political disagreement, with a solid seventh of political scientists leaning right. Whereas political scientists sometimes delve into ideologically charged debates, its practitioners often pride themselves on examining controversies like Congressional voting patterns, voter turnout, and judicial decision making that transcend the traditional liberal-conservative divide.
Conservatives who aspire to work in academia must recognize that, to succeed in academia, they must be intellectually rigorous, particularly since many peer reviewers will lean left. To guard against the onslaught of criticism that may follow work contradicting liberal orthodoxy, conservative scholars must do excellent research rooted in facts, and devoid of extraneous political commentary.
Furthermore, conservative academics must be both resilient and good-natured. Academic life is full of setbacks. Articles submitted to top journals are generally rejected, notwithstanding their political content. Just as women in business ought not blame every problem on sexism, and African Americans should resist the instinct to see every slight as racist, so conservatives must not play the victim, blaming every setback on politics. The ability to work diligently and happily, despite the normal travails of academic life, will ensure that conservatives don’t give up when the road to tenure seems bumpy.
Finally, if conservatives are to "infiltrate" academe they should leverage the power of the free market, moving from colleges or universities that prove inhospitable to political dissent. While some institutions will not tolerate right-leaning faculty, many others welcome a fresh perspective.
With boldness, persistence and patience, conservatives can make inroads into academia rather than simply abandoning higher education.
We think this is a battle worth fighting.