The Invisible Conservative: Right-Wing Professors in the American Academy

(Review of Passing on the Right: Conservative Professors in the Progressive University by John A. Shields and Joshua M. Dunn Sr.)

This short book surveys the experiences of right-wing social science and humanities professors in the US university system. Conservative scorn for the American academy and its leftward biases has been a fixture of American politics at least since the 1950s. Currently, it’s as relevant as ever. Republican presidential hopeful Marco Rubio earlier this year referred to liberal arts colleges as left-wing “indoctrination camps.” That is not a fringe viewpoint.

The political Right’s anti-intellectualism has invited an understandable backlash from liberal academics, providing reliable fodder for the Left’s self-identification as a truth seeking movement fighting against “brain dead Conservativism.” This feedback loop leads to polarization: conservatives are excluded from academic discourse, and in turn become more exasperated with the leftward culture of the university system.

John A. Shields, a professor at Claremont McKenna College, and Joshua M. Dunn Sr., a professor at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, engage with this debate in two important ways. First, they document the experiences of 153 right-leaning professors in the social sciences and humanities (spoiler: they find conservatives getting less than a fair shake). Second, rather than rail against the academy from the outside—the preferred response of GOP politicians and one that reinforces stigma against conservative academics—they propose a strategy of engagement.

Shields and Dunn focus on three ways right-leaning academics are marginalized. The first is the process of awarding tenure. Over the course of their interviews, they find a heavy degree of perceived discrimination. Many academics were afraid to “come out” as conservatives lest they be denied tenure. One interviewee hid his political views for years:

“I started feeling like a whore, which is what you feel like when you’re lying to people all the time. I do try to avoid the conversations, I do try to change the subject ... it is dangerous even to think a conservative thought when I’m on campus, because it might come out of my mouth.”

In fact, a full 46 percent of political science professors interviewed for this book claimed to have concealed their political views prior to receiving tenure.

The same perceived bias works against conservatives during the publishing process. (The reader should keep in mind, however, that Shields and Dunn managed to get this book published with Oxford University Press.) Even if a work expressing conservative or right-wing ideas does get published, it is likely to be cited less often than its quality would indicate. Most academics are on the Left and thus less likely to cite right-wing publications.

What do the authors find to be the most significant explanation for this dearth of right-wing voices? Self exclusion. Few conservative undergraduate students are interested in pursuing professorships. Of course, some liberals attribute that to the “conservative mind” and its inherent mental deficiencies or moral failings. Academics get paid to think objectively and rigorously. Conservatives pursue careers elsewhere because they’re incapable of doing either.

The authors rightly raise issue with that caricature, pointing to the fact that a large number of academic positions in STEM fields are held by conservatives. Plus, anyone who has followed Russell Kirk, Niall Ferguson, Sam Huntington, Yuval Levin, or any other conservative scholar from the past century (Limbaugh and Beck don’t count) would have a hard time categorizing them as “mentally deficient.” As the authors point out, the liberal assumption that conservatives lack brain power stems largely from their relative absence from the academy.

Much space is devoted to accounting for nuance in the experiences of right-leaning academics. For example, libertarians report feeling much more comfortable in academic life than do cultural conservatives and neoconservatives. Moreover, the economics field is commonly viewed as a bastion of right-wing thought. And it is, at least relative to the other social sciences.

The authors cite a 2008 study which found professors of economics to be equally split between supporting Republican, Democrat, and Independent positions. By contrast, the same study found 72 sociology professors identifying as Democrat, compared to only three identifying as Republican.

The consequence of this anti-conservative bias is a university system that is cloistered and intellectually homogenous. Professors tend to bounce liberal assumptions off each other rather than engage with diverse and contradictory ideas. We are often left with narratives that are too simple and lack rigor. In the words of Shields and Dunn:

“Many disciplines neglect topics or provide suspect answers to questions that complicate the progressive narrative. Sometimes academics do so by telling the story of the left in either a triumphant way or in a way that leaves no room for conservative contributions to human progress.”

The authors’ arguments are well-laid and lucidly expressed. Some of the personal accounts make for excellent reading. There are shortcomings, too. The sample size is small. And because the data measures conservative professors’ perceptions about the academy, rather than objective conditions, it must be taken with a grain of salt. Shields and Dunn deliver a trenchant study that raises important questions about bias and homogeneity in the university system. The quantitative foundations are lacking, however.

This book also received a lot of criticism from conservatives who believe that Shields and Dunn downplay the extent of discrimination, even to the point of apologizing for it. These critics are mistaken. However, their claims aren’t entirely groundless. The authors place too much emphasis on the intellectual freedom that right-leaning professors enjoy after attaining tenure, while devoting relatively little to the negative experiences of assistant professors and graduate students.

Moreover, the book’s promotion raised ire among the authors’ fellow conservatives, as it appeared they were taking pains to present their findings in a manner that liberals would find palatable. This is due largely to an op-ed Shields and Dunn published in the Washington Post titled “Forget what the right says: Academia isn’t so bad for conservative professors.” The article (and the title in particular, which the authors claim was written not by themselves but by their editor) provoked a furious rebuttal from National Review writer Frederick Hess. Hess accused them of having “Stockholm Syndrome” toward their liberal colleagues.

The controversy surrounding Passing on the Right proves that outcome was worth the endeavor of its authors. Whether readers love or hate it, Shields and Dunn have succeeded in drawing attention to the lack of intellectual diversity in the American university system.

Joseph Larsen

26 May 2016 14:50