The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Conservatives charge that universities are hotbeds of liberalism. They’re wrong.

Liberals dominate the faculties at most universities. But conservatives control the true centers of power.

Recent events at Harvard demonstrate that universities aren’t the bastions of liberalism that conservatives lament them to be. (Lisa Poole/AP)
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The American academy is hopelessly biased against conservatives. Or so argues Arthur C. Brooks, president of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, in a recent New York Times column. Professors who don’t hold “mainstream [liberal] political views” are “treated as outsiders” — conservatives, Brooks notes, “constitute less than 10 percent of faculty in the social sciences and the humanities.”

The charge that the academy is riddled with liberals and radicals is not new. William F. Buckley, in his 1951 book “God and Man at Yale,” accused faculty at his alma mater of being hopelessly biased in favor of liberalism and secularism. He proclaimed that their true mission was not education, but to indoctrinate young men “to be atheistic socialists.”

That’s the perception. Here’s the reality: higher education actually skews conservative. While it is true that large numbers of professors — particularly in the arts and humanities — identify politically as liberal or radical, it is emphatically not the case that institutions of higher education themselves are radical or even necessarily especially liberal.

In fact, thanks to the power of regents, trustees, alumni, donors and — at public institutions — state governments, some of the most powerful voices in campus politics are politically conservative. This has profound implications for campus speech — students and faculty who find themselves targeted on Fox News for their activism or research cannot necessarily rely upon their institutions for protection.

This rightward lean was recently on display at Harvard, where administrators stripped Chelsea Manning of a visiting fellowship and overturned the decision by its history department to offer Michelle Jones, a prize-winning scholar of the American prison system who had spent 20 years in prison for the murder of her son, admission to its PhD program.

Harvard dean rescinds Chelsea Manning’s visiting fellow invitation, calling it a ‘mistake’

As the Harvard situation shows, the conservative tilt of universities’ governing structures actually makes them risk averse and more likely to penalize someone for behavior that outrages conservatives than that which upsets liberals. While students may rally against conservative speakers on campuses, conservative faculty have greater protection because liberal displeasure less often translates into action.

Buckley recognized the hidden power of these governing structures in “God and Man.” Yale University, he wrote, “is morally and constitutionally responsible to the trustees of Yale, who are in turn responsible to the alumni.” Dismissing academic freedom as essentially a myth used by left-wing faculty to avoid facing the consequences of their views, Buckley’s proposed solution to balance the radical turn of the Yale faculty was alumni pressure.

Buckley believed that by exposing the radical views of faculty to the court of alumni opinion — which, he wrote, was reasonable and conservative — the university would be forced to take action. Yale administrators would face the prospect of seeing alumni financial support wither and, rather than “knock on the door of some politician with hand outstretched” and turn Yale into a public institution, would accede to the reasonable demands of its right-thinking alumni. The values Yale taught students would be theirs — free-market, small-government, God-fearing values.

Buckley was never able to transform Yale or the other Ivy League schools along the lines of his preferred vision. But Buckley’s blueprint for concerted alumni pressure to effect change at colleges and universities would prove influential, especially at state universities, where voters had a voice in university politics alongside alumni and donors.

Nine years after Buckley wrote “God and Man,” the University of Illinois became embroiled in its own bitter controversy over academic freedom. In 1960, Leo Koch, a contract professor in the biology department, was fired from his teaching position because he wrote a letter to the student-run Daily Illini in which he endorsed, in principle, premarital sexual relations.

The university sacked Koch after the school’s parental association called him unfit to teach in a classroom. Local conservatives went further and accused Koch of being part of a communist-inspired plot to undermine the morals of Illinois students — a still-potent charge less than a decade after the height of McCarthyism.

The faculty widely opposed Koch’s firing, and spoke out forcefully on his behalf. The American Association of University Professors and the American Civil Liberties Union rushed to Koch’s defense, calling his termination a gross violation of academic freedom.

University administrators defended Koch’s dismissal, arguing that his continued affiliation with the school would be “detrimental to the standing of the university in the eyes of many people in the state of Illinois.” In other words, if Koch were retained, the university could face political trouble from conservative voters and their representatives in the state legislature, as well as lose the support of alumni.

The double standard for conservative professors was revealed four years later, when a member of the classics faculty named Revilo Oliver — a founding member of the John Birch Society — sparked outrage after he published an essay that accused the late President Kennedy of being an agent of the international communist conspiracy. (Coincidentally, Oliver was a former friend of Buckley and an occasional contributor to National Review in the mid-1950s).

Administrators condemned Oliver’s article but opted to retain him on faculty. Neither alumni nor Illinois conservatives labeled Oliver a danger to students in the classroom or an agent of a broader conspiracy, as they had with Koch.

And while prominent Illinois liberals affiliated with the university expressed disgust with Oliver’s views, they did not call for his head. The local chapter of the AAUP defended Oliver’s right to publish the article on the principle of academic freedom, which, they said, applied to faculty across the political spectrum. This commitment to and broad conception of academic freedom made liberals much more reluctant to target conservative faculty for their political speech than vice-versa.

As waves of unrest hit campuses during the height of the Vietnam War, canny conservative politicians understood that running against radical faculty and students could be a political winner, and that universities as institutions were vulnerable to political pressure. In 1966, Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California, propelled to victory in part by riding a wave of voter backlash against the “unruly” UC-Berkeley campus and the “soft” stance against student activism taken by faculty and administrators.

Reagan did not have the power to intervene directly in the administration of the university, but he used other tools to ratchet up pressure. He fired the university’s president, heaped invective on faculty for its liberal and radical leanings — to the point of singling out individual departments as “hotbeds” of left-wing activity — and proposed budget cuts and tuition increases. His militant use of police power against student and community activists is cited to this day by conservatives as the “right way” to deal with campus protest.

Reagan, like Buckley before him, understood that public and alumni disdain for the supposed “radicalism” of Berkeley’s students and faculty could be weaponized, and that campus institutions would ultimately defer to pressure in order to retain state political and financial support.

It’s a lesson that universities have learned well — ironically, given the plummeting levels of state support for higher education since Reagan’s day. But as the recent decisions at Harvard demonstrate, even elite private universities have been careful to tread lightly, lest they trigger conservative outrage and jeopardize relationships with alumni, parents and the federal government.

Rather than being hopelessly biased against conservatives, the modern American academy has learned to be sensitive to the perils of conservative outrage, which empowers conservatives to shape the ideological climate on campuses. While stories about protests against conservative speakers on campus ricochet through the conservative echo chamber, given the reticence of university administrations to resist the conservative outrage machine, it is actually liberals on many campuses who face the most peril for expressing their views.