Swimming Against the Current

Samuel J. Abrams’s research demonstrates that, far from being a beleaguered and miserable minority, conservative professors are, in fact, quite happy in the academy.

January 9, 2017
 
 
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Given the well-known ideological imbalance of professors on our nation’s college and university campuses, quite a bit has been written about how conservative faculty members are a “beleaguered minority,” the rare “campus unicorns” and even “a minority [which] is being systematically repressed in America’s elite institutions.” Those claims have been bolstered by research that has revealed that some faculty members overtly discriminate against others based on their political dispositions and that many professors are “forced into passing” to hide any ideological leanings that could have serious professional and social consequences.

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.

Bio

Samuel J. Abrams is a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

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