Conservatives in the Academy

By Jeremy Rabkin

Passing On The Right: Conservative Professors In The Progressive University by Jon A. Shields and Joshua M. Dunn Sr. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

This is a calm, sensible book. It can be read with appreciation by readers of quite different political leanings. In other words, it’s from the era before November 2016.

Both authors are political scientists of conservative leanings. Both have tenure. One lesson of their book is that people who fit that description are rare—but not as rare as political conservatives or Republicans teaching history, literature, or sociology in colleges or universities.

The book starts with accounts of several recent surveys conducted by other researchers. They all confirm that self-identified Republicans or “conservatives” are relatively scarce in departments devoted to the social sciences or the humanities—less than 10 percent of professors in these fields, overall. Among sociologists, self-identified “Marxists” outnumber “conservatives” by about two to one.

Shields and Dunn offer a closer look at how conservative professors regard their situation. After repeated appeals for names, they compiled a list of some 150 self-identified conservative professors at eighty-four colleges and universities, then used questionnaires and in-person interviews to assess attitudes and experiences. Half of their respondents were in economics or political science (about equally divided), and the others were in history, literature, philosophy, or sociology (the last at 9 percent of their sample).

In broad terms, the results are not surprising. Economists have the most collegial relations with colleagues—that is, their relationships are the least partisan or the least characterized by political tension. In sociology departments, Shields and Dunn conclude (from what respondents told them), “Outspoken cultural conservatives . . . confront a life of isolation and persecution.” Cultural conservatives “may be wise to stay out of the one discipline that is most singularly devoted to the study of culture.”

One limitation of this study is that it does not try to correlate responses with the type of institutions from which they were drawn. Among the institutions represented in the sample are a number of schools—like Hillsdale College in Michigan or the University of Dallas (a private, Catholic school)—that consciously position themselves as conservative institutions. Readers are not told what proportion of the “conservative professor” sample teaches at institutions of this kind. We get a hint of this from a table showing that 63 percent of the faculty members included in the sample were in departments with “two or more” conservative professors in addition to the respondent. That fact indicates the sample is skewed toward those nontypical schools that have been welcoming to conservatives.

So, for example, only one-third of respondents told Shield and Dunn they had concealed their political views before getting tenure. A more representative sample would probably have found more such concealment. Those most “in the closet” (the term the authors use) would likely be disinclined to participate in a research project of this kind in the first place. That may explain why fewer than 10 percent of the sample here were assistant professors on the tenure track.

Uncertainties about the sample make it hard to assess other findings, too. Toward the end of the book, the authors discuss the possibility of using some sort of hiring preference or special recruitment efforts to improve ideological diversity on campuses. They report that 60 percent of their sample of conservative professors reject the idea, holding that “ideology is irrelevant to hiring decisions.” On the other hand, 40 percent “strongly” or “moderately” favor ideological preferences. Such results would mean much more if the authors told us how many of those rejecting ideological diversity preferences were already at institutions with a lot of conservative representation.

Still, the book contains interesting findings about what conservative professors think or who they are. About a third are libertarians and about half are practicing Christians (more Catholics than evangelicals). National security hawks are relatively rare. On the whole, to judge by responses to parallel polling questions on policy issues, the professors tend to be more conservative than Republican voters generally, but their policy preferences are broadly congruent with Republicans outside the academy.

The authors urge moderation on all sides. They warn conservatives outside the university “not to overstate the intolerance inside its walls.” They claim to have documented “many examples in this book” indicating that “conservatives can survive and even thrive in the liberal university.” At the same time, they warn that “complaining about professorial intolerance . . . certainly does not encourage young conservatives to consider a career in academia.”

But the authors don’t airbrush the effects of bias. They offer an entire chapter on “consequences of a progressive professoriate” with representative (and, to my mind, quite telling) examples of the way progressives miss crucial elements of the periods or issues they study. According to Shields and Dunn, most historians of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s fail to notice the religious motivations of the movement’s leaders and many of its participants. Meanwhile, studies of abortion policy fail to note that many Western European countries place greater restraints on abortion than does the United States, a blind spot that prevents them from appreciating the benefits of creating policies by legislative compromise rather than judicial fiat. Studies of affirmative action ignore the harm done to minority students by placement in programs for which they are not adequately prepared, thus turning the whole debate about affirmative action into a zero-sum battle between different racial groups.

I think Shields and Dunn make a persuasive case that mainstream scholarship would be improved by greater engagement with the work of conservative scholars—and that the tiny proportion of conservatives in most academic debates is therefore a loss to scholarship. One might think that colleges and universities would be improved in other ways if they were not so relentlessly tilted toward the left. Focusing on a subset of professors, this book has little to say about students and the attitudes of the general public. But there are, of course, alarming trends among students and the larger public. Among students, there have been marked enrollment declines in literature and other humanities programs. Among the population at large, there seems to be a sharp decline in readiness to trust the claims of academic experts. These trends may well be related, at least in part, to the perception that professors in the social sciences and the humanities are overwhelmingly on the political left, are rarely exposed to any sort of serious challenge to their thinking, and so are often smug and dogmatic about their views.

Shields and Dunn have kept their focus on conservative professors. They have not tried to analyze the rest of America. But the optimism of the authors—and of many of the professors they report on—is not easy to maintain if one looks at the larger trends. Particularly now.

Most academics seem to view the Trump administration with moralistic outrage or hysterical anxiety. Outside the academy, Trump loyalists seem to take for granted that academics are hostile partisans, not worth a moment’s attention. Conservative academics might be inclined to rebuke the former and entice the latter. As Shields and Dunn report, most self-avowed conservatives in their sample were wary of populist rhetoric—a suspicion held not only by libertarians but also by many cultural or religious conservatives. Such people might have a lot to contribute to national debates just now. Unfortunately, as Shields and Dunn document, few of them are in academic positions, and many of those who do hold such positions are in hiding.

Jeremy Rabkin is professor of law at the Antonin Scalia Law School of George Mason University. Before coming to GMU in 2007, he taught for many years in the Department of Government at Cornell University.