Passing On the Right: Conservative Professors in the Progressive University
The campus turmoil of 2015 has exposed the American academy to a level of public scrutiny it hasn’t experienced since at least the “canon wars” of the late 1980s, and possibly since the anarchic New Left revolts of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The current eruptions, like those that preceded them, have radiated outward into the body politic, with leftists following the campus crusaders’ lead on issues from free speech to sexual harassment to identity politics, and conservatives—sensing, understandably, that another American institution is slipping even further from their grasp—escalating their scorched-earth rhetorical campaign against the Ivory Tower.
Into this firestorm step two right-of-center political scientists, Jon Shields of Claremont McKenna College and Joshua Dunn of the University of Colorado, with a book that is unlikely to win them any close allies on either side, but which probably offers the most balanced and constructive portrait of academic political culture to date.
Passing on the Right is based on 153 interviews with conservative professors in humanities and social sciences departments—literature, history, sociology, philosophy, political science, and economics. The authors excluded the “studies” fields—gender studies, Middle Eastern studies, race and ethnic studies, and so on—disciplines dominated by “activist-scholars” that they identify as “no-go zones,” not just for conservatives, but for mainstream liberals as well.
Nonetheless, right-of-center professors were hard to find. “The percentage of self-identified conservatives” they write in the introduction, “ranges between 5% and 17% in the social sciences and between 4% and 8% in the humanities.” Those conservatives that they could find were heavily concentrated in economics and political science departments, and were particularly scarce at elite institutions. “We identified only two conservatives at Princeton and two at Yale,” they explain at the website Heterodox Academy. “We found a single conservative at Dartmouth, and one at Brown as well. At Cornell we identified no conservatives in the fields we examined. We also identified no conservatives at Columbia.” The most important contribution of this book is its emphasis on the degree to which conservative scholars are numerically isolated. Despite (or perhaps because of) its almost religious reverence for racial and sexual diversity, the academy has allowed political diversity in certain quarters to wither to the point of vanishing.
And why, a thousand liberals ask, should we care? After all, according to Shields and Dunn, the political imbalance is not primarily a product of bias. A handful of faculty members in the study said they had been professionally penalized for their beliefs, but those accounts are naturally difficult to corroborate. Of course, academics, like all human beings, are tribal, and the empirical evidence does suggest that there is some bias in hiring (according to one study, humanities and social sciences professors would be significantly less likely to hire an job applicant who is a member of the NRA). But such in-group preferences are probably present in every industry with a dominant political ideology, and they can’t come close to explaining the angle of the tower’s leftward tilt.
The reason that political homogeneity matters in the academy—indeed, the reason that it arguably matters more there than in other professions—goes back to the Enlightenment tradition that birthed the very disciplines under discussion in this book. In his 1993 work, Kindly Inquisitors, Jonathan Rauch argued that the most important legacy of the Enlightenment is the invention of what he calls “liberal science”—the idea that knowledge can only be created through a competitive and decentralized process in which ideas and theories are continuously challenged, falsified, and refined. An academic class in thrall to a political orthodoxy will naturally be less likely to challenge ideas that fall within this orthodoxy, and more likely to reject, wholesale, ideas that fall outside it.
That’s why one of the most disturbing sections of the book was the story of the American Sociological Association’s decision, made under intense political pressure, to effectively bury the research of Mark Regnerus, a sociologist who suggested that children raised by gay parents experienced worse outcomes along some dimensions than children raised by straight parents. And that’s why Neil Gross—himself a sociologist studying diversity in the academy—missed the point when he told Inside Higher Education that he disagreed with Dunn and Shields because he hasn’t “seen any evidence that conservatives make for better theorists or methodologists.” The contention is not that conservatives are superior scholars; it is that broadening the range of ideas fed into the knowledge-creation engine would increase its power overall. (Of course, some academics argue that the range of political views represented in the academy is already plenty broad—after all, in some departments, standard liberals are regularly challenged by a strong Marxist contingent).
Despite this rather grim state of affairs, Passing the Right actually manages to be one of the most optimistic books on American higher education by conservative authors in recent memory. In addition to embittered, fearful, or “closeted” scholars, Shields and Dunn interview many professors who express a deep satisfaction with their careers at the university and a profound sense of belonging inside its halls. “As many of the examples in the book attest,” they write in the conclusion, “conservatives can survive and even thrive in the liberal university.” The book makes a point of criticizing the academy’s flame-throwing critics, like David Horowitz (author of The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America) and Roger Kimball (author of Tenured Radicals), cautioning that overheated rhetoric about academic intolerance “does not encourage young conservatives to consider a career in academia.”
For this positive (or, if you like, naive) framing, Shields and Dunn are already taking heat from the right. Writing in Minding the Campus, John S. Rosenberg characterized the authors as Pollyannas. And in National Review, Frederick M. Hess described their argument (expressed in an op-ed before the book’s release) as “a truly remarkable and disheartening case of Stockholm syndrome.” “When it comes to race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual preference,” Hess writes, “it’s regarded as outrageous to even hint that the victim ‘should just get over it’ or that she ‘doesn’t have it so bad.'” So how can Shields and Dunn say exactly that to stigmatized conservative professors? Why don’t they instead issue a Dinesh D’Souza-style call to arms?
There are points in the book where Hess’s critique feels valid—where the gravity of the situation being described is strangely at odds with Shields and Dunn’s upbeat tone. But one plausible answer to Hess is that conservatism, at its best, is not just a set of substantive positions—that it’s also a disposition favoring personal responsibility over grievance politics, and incremental reform over revolutionary upheaval.
So as tempting as it may be for outnumbered campus conservatives to adopt the language of the Left, present themselves as another persecuted minority group, and appeal to the authorities for protection, they would probably be better suited to go the route that Shields and Dunn hint at: nudge right-of-center faculty to be more open about their views; make shrewd alliances with their open-minded liberal colleagues; encourage young scholarly-minded conservatives to take the Ph.D. plunge (starting in those fields and departments where they are still welcome); reinvigorate fields like literature and philosophy with conservative ideas; build rival centers of power within the academy (the Federalist Society, the Hoover Institution, the James Madison Program)—and gradually win back a seat at the table on their own terms.