Jon A. Shields and Joshua M. Dunn Jr. are the authors of Passing on the Right: Conservative Professors in The Progressive University, a new book from Oxford University Press on what life is like for conservatives in the academy. They draw a striking analogy between being conservative in a progressive institution and what it used to be like to be gay in the US and sometimes still is – often being afraid to reveal your true identity; pretending to assimilate through jokes and other cultural ways of fitting in that are at odds with your true beliefs; looking for others who provide sparse clues that they share your identity and building what almost amounts to a hidden subculture. I asked them a series of questions about their book via email.
HF — While not wanting to minimize the difficulties that conservative professors face in the academy, you also suggest that the right-wing critique of the academy is “overdrawn.” So what explains the low numbers of conservatives in many fields of the social sciences?
JAS & JMD — There is little evidence to support the widespread assumption that conservatives are underrepresented in academia because they prefer to make more money than liberals or that they’re especially close-minded. And, in fact, conservatives are well represented in many areas of the natural sciences and in economics.
Thus, the better question is this: Why are conservatives so poorly represented in much of the social sciences and humanities? There is no simple answer to this question. But we do know that conservatives have a much higher propensity to major in the hard sciences as undergraduates. In fact, politics is among the best predictors of undergraduate major choice. Conservatives steer clear of humanistic fields as undergraduates partly because they feel uncomfortable in those classes. A climate survey at the University of Colorado found that conservatives were far more likely to feel intimidated in the classroom because of their political views. And even a study of conservative activists on campus found that they tended to avoid these same fields, despite their strong interest in political and social issues. Liberals, meanwhile, feel more drawn to the social sciences and humanities because they speak to their deeper moral and political sensibilities.
HF — You argue that conservative professors often don’t feel fully at home in an academy where they have to “pass” as liberals to get on well with their colleagues. What does “passing” involve?
JAS & JMD — Some closeted conservatives feel the need to practice rank dishonesty. But most just stay quiet, which is often easy to do since most professors assume their fellow colleagues are progressives. So, unless they do something to signal their conservatism — like publish or say something that reflects a conservative perspective or wear a bow tie or cross — it’s not that hard to “pass” as a liberal in academia. Sometimes passing gets more complicated. In some cases, for example, spouses with strong conservative views are kept out of sight, lest they raise suspicions. But, as a rule, most closeted conservatives are simply hiding in plain sight.
HF — You also find that most conservative professors feel alienated from political conservatism, which has become increasingly populist. What would your research findings suggest about how conservative university professors view the rise of Donald Trump?
JAS & JMD — Since they dislike tea party candidates like Michele Bachmann, good money says that they are horrified by Trump’s rise. And, of course, Trump is the very sort of populist candidate conservative political scientists have warned us about for decades. James Ceaser’s “Presidential Selection,” for example, makes this point well. Thus, Trump’s success seems to vindicate conservative criticisms of our political order.
HF — What do you think that the university misses out on, because it doesn’t have a properly diverse set of political views and perspectives to draw upon?
JAS & JMD — Many areas of the social sciences struggle to converge on the best approximation of the truth because they are so politically homogenous. Not all areas, of course. Demography, for example, probably doesn’t need to be studied by a political diverse group of scholars. But research areas with great political salience — race, gender, religion, conservatism, communism — benefit from diversity. This is partly because of the enduring power of confirmation bias. That is, we all have a strong tendency to accept findings and theories that fit our preexisting views.
It is also the case that our politics shapes the sort of questions we ask and the theories we find most plausible. This is not simply because of some partisan tribalism — it is because liberal and conservative thinkers tend to be drawn on different intellectual currents from the Enlightenment. Thus, conservative minds are often more informed by thinkers such as Hume, Burke and Smith, while progressive minds are more often shaped by Rousseau and Marx. Thus, political diversity is often a form of intellectual diversity.
Teaching would benefit from a more diverse professoriate as well. In this polarized age, the university is one of the few institutions that could model civil and reasonable discussion — but that example is hard to provide with so few conservatives around. And while there is little evidence to support the contention that students are routinely indoctrinated by progressive professors, there are good reasons to suspect that students are not generally exposed to center-right perspectives. That’s a problem lots of liberal students seem to recognize.
HF — You mention in passing that nearly all conservative professors are male and white. This doesn’t really reflect conservativism in general (where there are many women) — there are furthermore many African Americans with conservative perspectives on, e.g., family structure. So why is the academic variety of conservatism so strongly associated with a particular ethnicity and gender?
JAS & JMD — That’s a great question. Because there are so few African Americans in academia, we were not terribly surprised that more didn’t turn up in our sample. Women are a different story, of course. Some of the conservative women in our study complained that they are especially mistreated by other female professors and graduate students. So, if conservative women are made to feel out of the sisterhood, they may find academia tougher going than conservative men. But we really don’t know why there isn’t more political diversity among female professors.